Editorial 1/Bill of arrival
Editorial 2/Old accord
No holiday from reality
Letters to the Editor

United States presidential visits to south Asia have so far been once in a generation events. When Mr Bill Clinton comes to India for five days in March he will be only the third US president to ever visit India, and the first to do so in 22 years. There will be a tendency to disparage this presidential visit. Even by US presidential standards, Mr Clinton is diplomatically promiscuous. During his seven years in office, he has toured every region of the world and visited even dots on the map like Rwanda. The US election campaign is in full steam, giving Mr Clinton only one last summer to pass laws and set policy. Mr Clinton is not a lame duck, but his feet are starting to drag. Mr Clinton had wanted to visit India earlier. In 1997, Washington had begun setting the wheels in motion for an official tour. But India’s decision to hold nuclear tests in May 1998 brought all this to a halt. It has taken almost two years for the atomic dust to settle. Even now, it is believed Mr Clinton had to personally insist on the visit because officials felt India and the US were still too far apart regarding the comprehensive test ban treaty.

High level, high profile visits are not about policy minutiae. That is left to ministers and diplomats lower down the ladder. Summits are about communicating images to the public, informing them of larger shifts and trends in bilateral relations. The significance of Mr Clinton’s visit is that he will be the first US president to come to India after the end of the Cold War and since India began the process of liberalizing its economy. Indo-US relations were long racked by serious differences over the Cold War. Washington found it hard to take seriously a country with an economy so isolated and sluggish. Today India is seen in a different light — a world force in information technology, source of the US’s most dynamic immigrants, an economy growing by seven per cent a year and the world’s largest democracy in an era when this is taken more seriously than before. It is probably true to say the nuclear tests helped draw the US’s attention to India, but the continuing squabbling over nuclear issues is a reminder that the two countries have only the most rudimentary of security relationships. This is underlined by the likelihood that Mr Clinton will make a stopover in Pakistan on the way to India. India is still seen in terms of its potential by Washington. But that is a major improvement over the standing it had in the past. Mr Clinton’s visit will put a presidential seal on a process that is slowly but surely changing the Indo-US equation — and help ensure his successors continue along the same path.    

The anti-Laloo Prasad Yadav front is in place again. For a while it looked as though the Janata Dal (United) and the Samata Party would end up bitter rivals instead of allies in the Bihar assembly elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party might be having mixed feelings on the matter. Its two partners’ bickering over seat sharing in Bihar might have cost the National Democratic Alliance dear, but allies divided among themselves are rather an advantage for the largest partner in a coalition. And the long drawn out, often acerbic, drama over Bihar has actually followed all the rules of a newborn coalition trying to gauge how far into the waters it can go. The problems of asserting or holding on to discrete party identities within a large coalition surface most obviously before seat sharing agreements are finalized. One of the earliest and most successful coalitions in the country, the Left Front in West Bengal, experienced similar tensions in its early stages. What ultimately welds such a coalition together is a clear understanding of long term mutual interest. From that point of view, the Left Front has managed to hold its own for a long time.

A society as divided as India’s will invariably breed a divided polity. The fragmentation evident in political formations is a sign not of growing anarchy but of expanding democracy. A successful coalition tries to hold together the representatives of a host of different, sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory, forces. It has to achieve equilibrium over time, and must acquire a few scars and a few losses on the way. The deadlock over Bihar between the Janata Dal (U) and the Samata Party is one such scar. For both these parties, Bihar is as important electorally as it is to the BJP, if not more so. Besides, the prospect of an electoral battle so close to home brought out old political rivalries and dislikes, competitiveness for the chief ministerial candidacy, the grabbing for vote banks, in a most unpleasant way. Both sides were pushing hard to see how much they could get for themselves before showing the world and perhaps a hopeful Mr Yadav that they were on the same side after all. It is no use lamenting that in spite of so many stints of coalition rule at the Centre and in the states, coalition culture, in which all partners accept from the beginning that the percentage of their importance will be measured on a comparative scale, is nowhere to be seen. Vying for importance within the coalition is inevitable. Seat shares have much to do with the percentage of seats won in the previous elections, with ground presence, organization and personal clout of leaders. Added to the specific demands of regional politics are now the complications imported from New Delhi. The falling out and the joining up of the anti-Rashtriya Janata Dal forces are just stages in the development of a coalition culture.    

Contrary to what is said in the Ecclesiastes, all is not vanity and vexation of spirit. Nonetheless, there is plenty of both in political life to bug the public. When the president, K.R. Narayanan, in his speech in the central hall of Parliament to mark the 50th anniversary of the republic made barbed remarks against tinkering with the Constitution, his accusing finger was obviously pointed at the government’s plan to have the basic law reviewed in the light of the political instability that has plagued the country for long.

The president’s blistering remarks did burn holes in some of the media commentaries they provoked. The government, however, kept its cool and Shanta Kumar, a Union minister, even managed to turn the bite in the words of the head of state into a nod of approval through a sleight of hand. The president had asked “whether it is the Constitution which has failed us or it is we who have failed the Constitution”. Shanta Kumar, with tongue in cheek, said that the best way to resolve this conundrum was for a body of experts to have a searching look at its working in the light of recent experience.

Whether it was discreet for the head of state to question in public the propriety of a government proposal may be a moot question. All the same, it is pertinent to bear in mind that the first citizen of the republic does not forfeit, because of his high office, the right to have his own views on matters of national concern and even air them except where he is obliged to be the government’s mouthpiece or act on its advice. Even when a decision or a bill is sent to him for his consent, he is not expected to suspend his own judgment. Where the decision is hasty or wrong in his opinion, he has the authority to send it back for reconsideration. In the case of his speech he was expressing his views on a matter where the government’s thinking had not yet congealed into a firm policy decision.

Anyway, the expense of spirit in this case has not been a waste. The president’s words have had a chastening effect on the government, forcing it to give up any idea it might have had of a change in the basic structure of the Constitution. M.N. Venkatachaliah, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court, who is to head an 11 member commission to review the working of the present system in the last 50 years and examine what changes would make the basic law help the country to respond to new challenges with greater celerity, has indeed accepted his assignment only on the condition that the parliamentary system would remain inviolable.

Many who questioned the president’s propriety in raking up a controversy on a major constitutional issue forget in a huff that some of them used to scoff not long ago at several former heads of state for having turned themselves into rubber stamps. Quite a few had no compunction even in trying to persuade Zail Singh to dismiss Rajiv Gandhi while he still had the backing of a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha. Many of those now favouring a changeover to a presidential system accused Indira Gandhi precisely of harbouring a similar design which in the mid-Seventies they saw as a prelude to the establishment of a dictatorship. One wonders whether the passage of time had made them wiser or more reckless.

There was a lot of confusion in the public mind over the issue because the leading partner in the coalition government, the Bharatiya Janata Party itself, was not quite sure where the journey on which it had embarked would lead. Thanks to the president’s intervention, the party has had second thoughts on the subject and has a better appreciation of the limits within which the commission would have to work.

There is no question of its sponsoring any change in the basic structure of the system which, by and large, had stood the test of time and would, in any case be impossible to carry out in the light of an unequivocal judgement by a full Supreme Court bench long ago. Even the proposal mooted for some time by BJP luminaries that no government should be forced to resign during the fixed tenure of the Lok Sabha if those voting against it, though in a majority, are in no position to provide a viable alternative, would mean disruption of the central structure of the Constitution. It would in effect legitimise minority rule.

Letting a regime which cannot get the necessary parliamentary approval for its legislative agenda stay put in office would make a farce of the very concept of parliamentary democracy. Some commentators chiding India for having missed the bus in which several east Asian states have managed to get comfortable seats and forged far ahead of it in the journey along the road to affluence are too clever by half.

They hasten to put the entire blame for the country’s lagging behind its more enterprising neighbours on the permit-licence raj, forgetting such inhibiting factors as the prevailing climate of public opinion in the aftermath of liberation, the vast differences of scale and of regional, communal and ethnic diversities and, above all, the way the logic of a democratic system skews political and economic life in a poor society.

They never pause and ask whether it is a mere accident that the east Asian states which, despite the recent shock therapy they had to undergo under duress, are still held up as models of development, achieved their so called miracle under authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. Where the founding fathers in India proved unequal to their task was in their failure to think in greater depth about the pressures that adult franchise would release as democratic competition was recast in an increasingly populist mould, deepen communal, caste and ethnic divides and reduce the steering capacity of the state in the face of an avalanche of demands.

But it would be a grave distortion of the truth to concentrate on the debit side of the democratic ledger. Though the country failed to achieve growth rates high enough to make sizeable dents in poverty, invest enough in the development of human resources or evolve a more dynamic family planning policy, it did somehow manage, in the face of terrible odds, to maintain basic democratic freedoms. It is not unrealistic, indeed, to claim that but for the ease with which deprived groups could vent their feelings of frustration and even despair, it would have been impossible to hold the country together.

The main source of worry to those who think in terms of a brighter future for the country is not flaws in the system but sick political and administrative cultures which are responsible for increasing malfunctioning of the democratic institutions, the rampant corruption from top to bottom in every government department, and the vast corpus of discretionary powers in the hands of petty and senior officials as well as politicians which are a permanent inducement to inordinate delays in the disposal of business and the growth of a black money economy.

This country’s trouble all along has been its penchant for seeking cures for all its ills in half-measures which hurt no powerful vested interest and often boil down to taking a holiday from reality. Stability comes not from changes in the basic law but from a government which knows its mind and has not only a secure majority in Parliament but enough popular backing outside the legislative chambers not to let mobs settle complex issues in the street.

What the country has today is an unmanageable multiplicity of parties some of the leaders of which have acquired a stake in instability since governments of shreds of patches alone promise them a share of the spoils of office they could not hope for otherwise. Instability results from increasing fragmentation of polity and fast changing political loyalties, not from any defects in the Constitution.

The difference of tenor in the speeches of the president and the prime minister, cutting out the rhetorical flourishes, was in essence one of emphasis. While the head of state was concerned largely with equality and the empowerment of the poor, the main anxiety of the head of government was how to conjure away the spectre of instability which had been haunting the national scene for many years. In fact, political stability and faster and more equitable growth go together. Only those who feel secure in running the affairs of the country, and have a large enough support base to build up a national consensus on hard decisions, can ensure rapid growth.

Similarly, more rapid growth by itself cannot be of much avail if, in the absence of more equitable policies, mass discontents grow to the point where they become a threat to political stability itself. Whatever the final changes in the Constitution, there is no room for illusion at least on one score. Far from providing the government a holiday from reality, the present exercise is likely to make it more acutely aware of the growing legitimization crisis of which the recent spate of strikes was but one curt reminder.    


In praise of folly

Sir — Atal Behari Vajpayee might scream from the rooftops that the temple will not be allowed to be built in Ayodhya, but he is about the only one in the Bharatiya Janata Party saying so. And screaming out a falsehood, or iterating it often enough will not make it true. And so Uttar Pradesh’s “simple Simon” chief minister, Ram Prakash Gupta, finds he has to “deny” his admission that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad could build the Ram mandir provided it was done lawfully (“When simple Gupta speaks, party squirms”, Jan 30). This to journalists in a press conference, which was later televised. Gupta, by his own admission, “does not know the ways of the world”, but could Vajpayee claim to be as simple-minded? Or should one presume that he has as poor an opinion of the media’s intelligence as he obviously has of Gupta’s. Evidently, he doesn’t care that his own hand-picked chief minister is being made to look ridiculous. In the circumstances, one isn’t sure whom to have pity on, Gupta or the journalists.

Yours faithfully,
H.K. Nanda, Lucknow

A hundred days’ worth

Sir — The Atal Behari Vajpayee Central government has completed hundred days in office. But time is hardly any yardstick for measuring worth. The electorate in the forthcoming assembly elections in Bihar, Orissa, Manipur and Haryana must remember this. The new government has failed to achieve anything after coming into power, and it has made matters worse by the manner in which it handled the hijacking of IC 814.

The failure to check Pakistan sponsored terrorism — especially the repeated attacks on army posts in Kashmir — is proving to be an embarrassment for the NDA government.

It is time the electorate in Bihar took a firm decision to elect a government that is not only corruption-free, but also concerned about its needs. Coalition governments are here to stay, and the electorate needs to become politically shrewder. After all, any major upset in the assembly elections in Bihar, Orissa and Haryana might change political equations at the Centre. The choices before the electorate are limited. It must show more maturity for the country to prosper.

Yours faithfully,
Jitesh Sonee, Calcutta

Sir — It would be worth looking back at the “achievements” of the National Democratic Alliance government in its first hundred days in power. People expected new developments of this government when it came to power. But the NDA has not been able to accelerate economic growth in the country, to which could be added its inability to forge a comprehensive foreign policy.

The loopholes in the country’s security structure were revealed to the nation in the Kargil intrusions. Then there was the much criticized import of sugar from Pakistan. Insurgency continues unabated in the Northeast. The Centre is greatly mistaken if it feels these events will fade away from public memory by the next elections. All people want is professionalism and efficiency from those they have elected. It should not be difficult for any government, with the right intentions, to develop this attitude.

Yours faithfully,
Tapas Dutta, Birbhum

Sir — Atal Behari Vajpayee’s accomplishments deserve to be emulated by today’s breed of politicians to preserve the dignity of public life. He is a thoughtful and impartial individual, with a sound political instinct, needed to tackle the knotty problems of the country today. He maintained a dignified silence during the confidence motion drama last year, an incident in which India’s politicians were on their worst behaviour. The Congress tried to politicize Kargil and the Pokhran II tests, but could not prevent Vajpayee from carrying both situations off to his own favour.

Yours faithfully,
Pradip Asopa, Howrah

Giving them a dam

Sir — The report by Tapan Kumar Chattopadhyay (“Frankly they don’t give a dam”, Oct 28), on how large scale development threatens basic human rights and environment, defines a set of important issues around the Sardar Sarovar project.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan will perhaps go down in history as the longest struggle carried out to protect the ecological system. The project also raises the fundamental question of whether it is just to force villagers to sacrifice their land and livelihood for the sake of development. One wonders if the A.B. Vajpayee government will ever fulfil its “promises” of providing relief and rehabilitation to hundreds of thousands of displaced people. But it is also clear that no amount of compensation can match the social and emotional bonding people have with the land on which they are born, live and work.

Meanwhile, following the completion of the Sardar Sarovar project, 200,000 people will be displaced. The Centre’s hollow assurances about rehabilitation is confirmed by two concrete examples. First, 140 displaced families in Gujarat who have returned home after 12 years are dejected by the bleak resettlement prospects doled out to them. Worse still, the Madhya Pradesh government earlier stated that it does not possess enough land for those displaced by the Sarovar project.

Interestingly, in the last 50 years, 3,300 dams have been built displacing about 40 million people in the country. And yet, no rehabilitation policy for the victims has been formulated so far. Thus, it is high time that the Centre publishes a white paper on the efficacy of big dams and also spells out its plans regarding the prevention of ecological damage and property loss.

Yours faithfully,
Santosh Kumar Sharma, Kharagpur

Sir — Environmentalism in India is fast becoming the favourite pastime of publicity-hungry pensioners. A retired bureaucrat, G.C. Saxena, headed the committee that recommended ways of protecting the Taj Mahal (“Shadow on Taj moonlit march to millennium”, Dec 18). Another retired air vice-marshal, Sadanand, was among the campaigners who protested against the Andhra Pradesh government’s decision to upgrade the Rajiv Gandhi airport at Hyderabad (“Airport in noise storm”, Dec 16). These people have nothing to lose. Self-glorification is their only aim, and they don’t mind resorting to misinformation to achieve their aim.

Environmentalism and development are not mutually exclusive. All that is needed is to draw a happy balance between the two. And the job is best left to social scientists and the much-maligned political parties, who after all are the representaives of the people. They have a stake in the future of the country and are sure to protest in case of real danger, or else they will lose votes. An environmentalist in India needs no qualification, training or orientation, only the right connections will do.

Yours faithfully,
Tapan Pal, Howrah

Letters to the Editor should be sent to:
The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
[email protected]

Maintained by Web Development Company