Editorial 1
Editorial 2
Waiting for Clinton
Letters to the editor


Water runs cold

There are moments in the everyday chronicle of a nation that are unforgettably and irredeemably shameful. The departure from Varanasi of Ms Deepa Mehta, director of the yet unmade film, Water, with her troop is one such moment. The phenomenon being witnessed by the nation is that of a frank clampdown on creative expression, both symptom and consequence of aberrations which are slowly gathering strength in the democracy. Two things have made this possible. One, though not necessarily the more decisive, is the failure of the intelligentsia and of the believers in democracy to stem this rot, because the signs of the rot have been evident in a series of incidents over the last decade. The other, more decisive and infinitely more alarming, is the quiet but not inconsistent connivance of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the dominant party in the ruling National Democratic Alliance, with the virulent branches of the sangh parivar in the latter’s ignorant and fanatical efforts to “protect” what they believe to be Hinduism.

The Water fiasco has been instructive. It has exploded the BJP’s carefully nurtured myth that it deplores the overactivity of its sangh parivar siblings, and if some of them get away with obstruction, arson and a few things more, that is because of the gentler sin of omission rather than commission. Ms Mehta did everything. She protested, talked, took instruction, compromised, dropped lines, read out her script to local pundits in the hope of being approved. The Union government cleared the excised script and allowed her to resume shooting. That she should have had to get her script passed by politicians and bureaucrats after shooting had begun was humiliation enough. It is clear that BJP leaders thought she deserved it, since she had wanted to show the condition of Hindu widows in Varanasi. Truth, or even the possibility of a little truth-telling through fiction, must be unnerving for Hindutva-mongers.

And Hindutva is the deep bond between the BJP and its sangh parivar brothers that came to the surface. The Centre approved, and the state government promised to allow shooting if the law and order situation could be kept under control. All that was left to do was to create the image of a popular protest, never mind how many people were actually engaged in doing the shouting, burning of effigies, immolation threats and a suicide attempt, bomb threats and other destructive activity. The Centre, after having graciously granted permission to Ms Mehta to continue shooting, quietly sat back and watched as the state government mouthed reassuring lies and the police looked away. The BJP in New Delhi is either shamelessly hypocritical or so completely ineffectual that it can do nothing, either about the state government in Uttar Pradesh or about the fanatics of the Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Kashi Sanskriti Raksha Sangharsh Samiti. The district administration did what it was meant to do all the time, put out a 14 day ban order which was sure to drive the film crew out. Only, in the end all this has nothing to do with truth or the portrayal of it. It has to do with repression, pure and simple, the repression of difference.    



The Union information technology minister, Mr Pramod Mahajan, has spoken of the need to take infotech to the masses. While the phrase has a nice ring, the government needs to avoid digital socialism. Governments have a role in ensuring information technology is available to the most remote village and to the poorest class. But it cannot be done by forcing capital and infrastructure to go there. Instead the state should concentrate on removing obstacles in the way of the private sector providing, say, net based services to everyone. It is unclear whether Mr Mahajan understands this distinction. He frets that the infotech industry is centred in the south and the west. This is the result of different state policies. Eastern India has only its own attitude to blame for falling behind in the silicon race. The centre should not attempt to redress this imbalance. If internet penetration in India is one tenth of one per cent, the government should look at its own infrastructure policies. Telecommunications, for example, is governed by nonsensical ideas that cellular phones are luxury items and should be priced as such. This socialized telecom policy strangles the use of cellular systems to broaden internet use in the country. The government also needs to introduce laws ensuring electronic property rights, preventing fraud and preserving contracts. In other words, the government needs to provide an atmosphere in which the private sector can breathe free.

There are already scattered examples of infotech’s ability to empower marginal groups. Farmers are using the internet to determine prices for their products in far off cities. This has undercut the price information monopoly that middlemen used to exploit farmers. Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have set up village internet kiosks. The government’s key role has been to put its official records on the internet. Villagers can now download land records, revenue maps and the like from cyberspace. What used to take weeks and many bribes is now available for five rupees and 20 seconds at a keyboard. This is only the beginning. Mr Mahajan should also keep in mind that infotech empowerment is next to impossible for those who cannot read or write. The first act of infotech for the masses should begin not on the monitor but in the mind. The second step is to recognize that information empowerment is possible only if the government surrenders its tight control on information.    

Never before has as much fuss been made about a visiting head of state as in the case of Bill Clinton and that, too, weeks before his arrival. A mix of suspense, drama, circus and hype has been used to hog the headlines almost every day. Yet, all this would not have done the trick if world events had not taken a sharper turn than any thinktank bargained for. It is the collapse of the Soviet Union, the virtual demise of the nonaligned movement, the far more conspicuous presence of United States multinationals everywhere and the big strides made by information technologies in the Silicon Valley which have conspired to surround the American chief executive with a new halo of authority.

This explains the anxiety in New Delhi, and the hope in Islamabad, over the possibility of a brief stopover in Pakistan by Clinton as if this would make a decisive difference to the balance of power in the subcontinent. This is also the screwed logic behind the unseemly wrangle between the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, both canvassing ardently for the US chief executive’s visit to Bangalore and Hyderabad to give a boost to their plans to turn their capital cities into mini-Silicon Valleys.

There is a touch of comedy as well as an element of pathos in the way the political establishments in New Delhi and Islamabad and the media men in the two capitals hang on every word coming from the president’s aides in the White House, and officials in the state department and the Pentagon. If New Delhi was looking for any endorsement of its policies on issues which most concern the US, it has already had a rude rebuff from Madeleine Albright.

Is the legacy of the Cold War still alive? Is the US any more sensitive to India’s security perceptions than before? Is Washington still keen to engage Pakistan in the hope that the leader of the military coup in that country may yet prevent the mad mullahs from taking over? How far will the US go along with India in fighting the menace of cross-border terrorism? The answers to these and another dozen such questions so far are not such as are likely to please officials in the South Block.

The arrogance of power apart, receiving so heavyweight a guest is no simple operation. It involves complicated questions of security, adequate accommodation, creature comfort and logistics. The aides, advisers, security personnel, newspapermen and television crews accompanying the president will number 1,500 and require the prior booking and a thorough sanitization of three entire five star hotels. Will New Delhi have all the facilities to meet the exacting demands of the overbearing guests? It need not feel too sorry for its inadequacies. The US has enough resources to make up for any deficiencies. How easy it would be if sci-fi techniques ever made it possible to transport the whole White House along with its chief tenant to wherever he intended to go! That would also make him feel more completely at home in the most bizarre of places.

On the substance of the talks between the distinguished guests and their hosts there has been no breakthrough and there will be no big agreements to be signed. Both claim that the two sides understand each other much better now. But this understanding falls far short of resolving any differences on the many tangled issues dividing them. Contrary to US wishes, India is determined to have a credible nuclear deterrent. The US is reluctant to declare Pakistan a rogue state despite its role in promoting export of terrorism. And it wants New Delhi to resume the interrupted dialogue with Pakistan while India contends that it will not do so unless Islamabad first puts an end to all terrorist attacks in Kashmir sponsored by it.

Going by the slow pace of extending the area of agreement in the last few months, the chances of an early and significant narrowing of differences seem pretty slim. Clinton as usual will raise the scare of a nuclear conflict in the region if the present level of tension between the two neighbours continues for long and also try to pressure India into signing the comprehensive test ban treaty. Atal Behari Vajpayee in turn will put a brave face on what he has been told ad nauseam and politely explain the rationale behind the conditions under which alone he could do so.

Whatever the changes in the US’s policy, there is no room for any make believe on the score that the shared commitment to democratic values counts for much in determining US responses to the problems of the post-Cold War era. This has certainly not prevented it from being more sensitive to China’s security perceptions than to India’s or maintaining friendly relations with despotic regimes where they serve its strategic interests.

Nor must New Delhi forget that in the so called global village based on hierarchies of military power, capital resources and technological clout, its bargaining position will always depend on its place in these three pecking orders.

No more than a shred of commonsense will tell it that, as things are, the US matters more to India than India to the US. This crying disparity may hurt the national ego. But essays in vainglory cannot make up for gross inequalities of power.

That is why when the defence minister, George Fernandes, declared the other day that there would be no security related dialogues with the US so long as it persisted with economic sanctions, all that his threat probably did was provoke derisive guffaws in the Pentagon and the state department among the few who cared to notice it.

Did it not occur to the loud-mouthed defence minister to pause for a while and wonder whether his own government had not been rebutting all these months what he had said? Were Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbott only exchanging pleasantries during their unending series of meetings? Did their talks have no bearing on security issues? Why did not the Indian prime minister insist on Nawaz Sharif’s undertaking to disband the many terrorist outfits in his country that were spreading fear and panic in Kashmir before embarking on the much touted bus diplomacy?

It is no secret that during the Cold War, the US, as leader of the free world, had no difficulty in establishing cosy relations with a host of odious dictators. It even engineered coups to oust unfriendly democratic governments like the one headed by Salvador Allende in Chile. But then some members of the non-aligned fraternity, too, had no compunction in consigning their own principles to the garbage bin when they kept quiet or slyly condoned the Soviet military interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia or in accepting Cuba’s credentials as a nonaligned nation. It was a virtual war in which foul play was very often the rule rather than the exception.

The only sensible way of trying to extend the areas of agreement between the US and this country at the March summit will be for the Vajpayee government not to rake up the past or expect the legacy of the Cold War to dissolve into thin air all of a sudden but to approach the problems of building a more meaningful relationship in a spirit free of the least taint of self-righteousness and informed by much greater realism. This calls for much more patience in dealing with a country where the administration is subject to conflicting pressures from a host of powerful lobbies and a clearer realization that, when it comes to the crunch, the US administration will be under great compulsion to go by what advances its strategic interests rather than by what accords with India’s security perceptions.

The main endeavour on the part of Indian policymakers should be to convince Clinton that, in the post-Cold War era, there is no real clash of interests in south Asia between the two countries and that, accounting as it does for four-fifths of the subcontinent’s population, India’s security and stability are the crucial conditions for durable peace in the region. A beginning can be made in the development of a joint strategy in the fight against export of terrorism.

The global reach of US capital, weaponry, technology, media, pop culture, entertainment, and lifestyles of elite groups is not something that can be conjured away by invoking old ideological shibboleths. Nor is it possible to wish away the malignant side of the high-tech civilization, manifest in the continuing degradation of the environment, the intolerable inequalities of wealth and the emergence of a global casino together with a multiplication of shanties for the poor and ghettoes for those pushed beyond the pale of the new global order.

The only option for those who fail to come to terms with the new order, having given up all hope of getting a square deal, is to remain confined to their ghettoes. Such a choice is not open to a country of over a billion people like India. Adjusting to the changes under way need not, however, mean accepting obscene excesses of wealth and poverty, greed and lechery, cynicism and moral squalor, and lying words and images.    


Image failure

Sir — The news report, “Trinamul siege on police after arrest” (Feb 4), made interesting reading. A few months ago the Trinamool Congress’s Madan Mitra slapped a traffic constable, but nothing was heard of any retaliatory action by the police or of the constable seeking redress. Instead, the police let Mitra,who is only a political nonentity, go lightly. The Calcutta Police turned the other cheek and the Trinamool Congress obligingly slapped it, as is evident from the party’s siege of the Tollygunge Police Station demanding the release of a notorious criminal. In any other state, the repercussions of such an assault would have been appropriately harsh. In West Bengal, the lack of any reaction only underscores the police’s ineptitude. What protection can the ordinary citizen expect from such an impotent and spineless lot, which even fails to protect its own. Instead of worrying that the police force looks too well fed, the home (police) minister would do well to try and redeem its public image. Girth doesn’t matter, worth does.

Yours faithfully,
Buddha Bhattacharya.,
via email

It’s all off the beaten track

Sir — The president, K.R. Narayanan, was right in his caution regarding the dangers of blindly following the path of liberalization in his Republic Day speech. Economic reforms in India have not alleviated poverty, or ensured that people have access to the basic services. Narayanan was also right to remind opponents of the reservations policy that affirmative action was necessary to improve the condition of Dalits. This is the first time an Indian president has broken the tradition of making empty speeches and instead showed concern about the future of the country. And instead of being lauded for his courage, he has been criticized for deviating from the beaten path.

Narayanan’s caution regarding the proposed Constitution review was also apt. The Constitution had been drafted with great care so that it stood the test of time. But criminals and swindlers have managed to enter the legislatures. Criminal procedure codes have not been able to prevent criminals with influence from getting away or politicians from taking bribes. Laws are not implemented. What then is the use of bringing in more laws or changing the existing ones? It is this concern that the president has voiced. There are enough problems facing the country without the government wasting energy on a review.

Yours faithfully,
Som Dutt,

Sir — The prime minister’s suggestion for a constitutional review is worth considering. The parliamentary system might have worked elsewhere but in India it has given politicians an undue sense of their importance without tempering it with nationalism. The presidential system is better for India as it will ensure only persons of stature come to power. The concept of secularism needs rethinking too. Even after 50 years of independence, political parties give tickets for elections on the basis of religion. India has failed to make minorities feel they are Indians first. Also chief ministers and prime ministers should be restricted to two terms only.

Yours faithfully,
S.C. Hada,

Sir — It is not clear if K.R. Narayanan’s stature as president will be diminished because of his expressed opposition to the government’s proposed review of the Constitution (“Constitutionally weak”, Jan 29). But why is so much fuss being made about the review when the Constitution has already been amended 79 times? If the motive is to provide a stable government, it should not be construed to mean stability for the person in power. There are some obvious areas that require improvement. But who is to limit the number of amendments so the original character of the Constitution is not lost?.

Yours faithfully,
K.R. Venkatasubramanianr,

Sir — The president rightly said that economic reforms had failed to reduce poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and unemployment (“President delivers reform warning” Jan 26). The government should remove all imbalance in the reforms process. The president, though only a titular head, has every right to voice concern about the wellbeing of the nation. Though he should not comment on the functioning of a particular government, in this case he has not violated his position. Statistics will bear out the president’s concern. Fifty-three per cent of children under five years are underweight, 46.5 per cent of adults are illiterate, and nearly 40 per cent of the world’s poor lives in India. India is ranked quite low in the human development index calculated by the United Nations development programme. All this is indicative of the inequities in the distribution of the fruits of development in India. It is also clear that successive governments have done nothing to address these problems.