Editorial 1\Talking times
Editorial 2\Huff and puff
Dignity sans development
Letters to the Editor

The world is confused about India’s perception of the subcontinent’s security. On the one hand, New Delhi bridles at Mr Bill Clinton’s description of south Asia as “perhaps the most dangerous place in the world”. The Indian president, Mr K.R. Narayanan, lectured his US counterpart on the use of such “alarmist” terminology implicitly saying it would only encourage Pakistan. On the other hand, India repeatedly warns of its increasing impatience with Pakistan’s support for terrorism. Combined with earlier Indian pronouncements about waging “limited war” and last month’s nuclear sabre rattling by Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee and Mr Pervez Musharraf, it is easy to see why the world thinks the subcontinent is a likely site for nuclear war. The truth remains that south Asia is the only place in the world where two nuclear armed countries share a hostile border and whose verbal exchanges consist of abuse.

Traditionally, New Delhi has downplayed tensions because it fears this could lead to international meddling in south Asia. Islamabad takes the opposite stance: ratchet up tensions to scare the world. Both beliefs are obsolete after the nuclear tests. During Kargil the US showed its foremost priority was avoiding the path of nuclear escalation. From this has flowed Mr Clinton’s present mantras that the line of control is sacrosanct, cross border terrorism is overly provocative, and India and Pakistan must start talking. Washington also acknowledges Islamabad is the regional troublemaker. Hence Mr Clinton’s acceptance of New Delhi’s line that dialogue is impossible “unless there is an absence of violence and a respect for the line of control”. Nuclear fears also undergird Mr Clinton’s offer to facilitate Indo-Pakistani bilateral talks. Despite all this evidence of a US policy shift, India continues to tremble at anything vaguely resembling third party mediation or any characterization of Kashmir as a tinderbox. Pakistan is mired in a similarly obsolete view that internationalization must automatically rebound in Islamabad’s favour. This would explain the massacre of Sikh villagers in Kashmir and attacks on Border Security Force posts during Mr Clinton’s visit.

India needs to review its diplomatic policies regarding Kashmir. First, it must accept it is factually correct to call south Asia a military flashpoint. After nuclearization, Kargil and the present violence in Kashmir, this is undeniable. However, the world now perceives Pakistan to be the villain of the play, the source of instability. India can use this to its advantage, but only if it recognizes that the era when plebiscites and self-determination set the agenda are over. Second, it needs to at least offer to hold a dialogue with Mr Musharraf. Despite the failure of Lahore, the treachery shown at Kargil and Kandahar, the nuclear threat means India cannot afford to not talk with Pakistan — at the very least it must discuss nuclear safety measures. India cannot be too demanding in terms of preconditions. As the US president paraphrased in his speech in Parliament, one does not make peace with friends and dialogue does not have to be about friendship. Finally, India can reconsider its paranoia about a third party role in Indo-Pakistani talks. There are many roles well short of mediation that the US can play. Nuclearization means no territory can ever forcibly change hands in the subcontinent again. India’s diplomatic options are much greater these days. It needs to be adventurous and far seeing enough to seize them.    

Once every year West Bengal’s finance minister, Mr Asim Dasgupta has his brief moment of glory. This is when he places the state budget in the Bidhan Sabha. Mr Dasgupta is known neither as a politician nor as a public speaker. Therefore, the budget speech is his time to tie his ideological flag to the mast. All the familiar phrases and clichés are invariably there. Mr Dasgupta has become almost a caricature of himself. Mr Dasgupta’s current favourites are the words “more equal competition and decentralization” and this he claims are this year’s budget’s central theme. They may have been last year’s and the previous year’s for all one knows for here the illusion is more important than the reality. The illusory world of Mr Dasgupta is clear from Mr Dasgupta’s hope that his prescriptions “will unleash further forces of production”. Persons with business enterprises in West Bengal may well wonder at the use of the word “further” in the context of a state which has been starved of capital for the last two decades.

The other illusion is that of an “alternative economic policy and new economic reforms”: he sees his budget as the pacesetter of this project. The setting out of this policy is predictably placed in the context of a tirade against liberalization and globalization. Mr Dasgupta sees liberalization to be driven by the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. There is also, he says, a concerted effort to undermine the common man, his value system and his politics. The word “conspiracy” hovers over the opening paragraph of Mr Dasgupta’s speech. It is difficult suppressing a yawn while reading all this not because one doubts Mr Dasgupta’s sincerity but because such statements have been the stock-in-trade of ideologues of a particular orientation. They refuse to accept that they, in the name of the people, have consistently shortchanged the common man. Similarly with Mr Dasgupta. All his highfalutin stuff is a camouflage for populism. He describes his budget as one that will generate employment. This concern for the unemployed is a sure sign that assembly elections are around the corner. Mr Dasgupta knows this time no seat, including his own, is safe for the left.    

The repercussions of the Bihar results will be felt far beyond its borders. The immediate fall-out of the setbacks suffered by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance has been the postponement of the panchayat elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Last year, it was the strong showing in Bihar that helped make up the deficit in seats in India’s most populous province. But Laloo Prasad Yadav has spoilt the victory parties planned by his rivals.

This is not the first time he has put a spoke in the wheels of Hindutva’s chariot. In 1990, he did so by arresting the incarnation of outspoken, unapologetic revival, L.K. Advani. Ten years on, he took on a very different combination that included some of those who were by his side in that historic encounter between Mandal and kamandal. But the bid of the saffron-led forces failed to breach the bastion of the only Hindi speaking state that has never had a chief minister of saffron orientation.

The post-poll survey conducted by the Centre for Developing Societies and New Delhi Television throws light on the processes that shaped the verdict. Despite non-performance and the absence of any serious or sustained efforts to improve Bihar in economic terms, Yadav won the day. True, his party slipped compared to last time, when he won a clear majority even without his allies. The key was in one simple achievement: giving the poor a sense of dignity.

Half the respondents in the survey felt that the sense of dignity of the worse off sections had either increased or remained the same. Given the highly feudal social set-up especially in the northern and central regions of the state, this proved to be decisive. After his poll victory in 1995, Yadav had told a senior Hindi journalist that the media always got Bihar wrong because they only spoke to people who were “respectably dressed”. Everyone else, he claimed had stood by his side.

Even allowing for some exaggeration, there was a kernel of truth in his assertion. This time round, the BJP gave over one in two tickets in general seats to upper caste candidates. As many as 28 Bhumihars were allocated seats. For all the tall talk of social engineering, the sense of victory among the savarna Hindus was so palpable that it actually consolidated the votes of all those opposed to it behind Yadav. While the allies like Ram Vilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar helped break many lower class voters away from their arch-rival in last year’s Lok Sabha polls, they were unable to repeat their performance.

In fact, behind the inter-party jostling and personality clashes that marked the entire campaign of the National Democratic Alliance, there were deep social cleavages in its ranks and support base. These were not evident in the general elections but the stakes at the state level were always much higher. The conflicts were deeper and more insuperable. There were as many as 88 seats where there was more than one candidate in the fray on behalf of the alliance parties. Each of the social groups that loom large in each of the three major constituent parties hoped to be the strongest. In the process, the BJP gained more than either partner but it still fell way behind its target.

As a whole, the alliance-led parties had won in 199 of the 324 assembly segments in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls. They slipped badly from this pedestal in a matter of months. After going from strength to strength in three successive general elections, its strategists had to yield second place to Yadav’s combination. Not even the governor, Vinod Chandra Pande’s innovative if indefensible reading of constitutional convention could undo the damage.

There is a deeper message in all this. Mandal as a platform as distinct from a policy plank has come to stay in India’s two most populous states. Since neither its proponents nor its adversaries have made development or the lack of it a decisive electoral issue, to point to shortcomings on this score cannot shed light on events.

Unlike in western or southern India, the political assertion of the Mandal and Dalit communities is a forerunner rather than a successor to movements for social reform. And more significantly, the upper castes, far from withdrawing from the political arena are trying every weapon in their armoury. Even the NDA eventually was unable to turn the clock back and install a forward class chief minister. The social churning is clear to any observer but is still being resisted by those who stand to lose from it.

Witness how the kisan sangh allied to the dreaded Ranvir Sena — a lawless and violent body of armed men if there ever was one — publicly endorsed Nitish Kumar for chief minister. Or how those who railed against the “jungle raj” turned to the inmates of Beur jail to muster numbers in the house. Or how the ex-socialists who are with the BJP were persuaded to talk of corruption cases against the Yadav couple while allying with those who justify massacres like the one at Bhagalpur in 1989. Since power is to be denied at any cost, the governor also reduced himself to an agent not of the Centre but of the parties ruling in New Delhi.

If a polarization of the electorate worked in the north, in Jharkhand, the absence of any decisive action to create a separate state in the south cost the BJP dear. Not only was it unable to repeat its sweep of last year, it actually won less than half the 81 seats in the region. While Yadav has changed tack on the issue more than once in the last decade, his rivals are not quite as committed to it in heart as they claim to be. The politics is simple enough. A Bihar sans Jharkhand would be one where the clout of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s party will be much reduced.

Further, the hill and plateau areas will probably see the Congress emerge as a strong contender for power, something it has in common with Chhattisgarh. The results are a warning to those who play the card of a separate state: they cannot reap a harvest of votes if they fail to deliver on their promises.

But all that is in the realm of the future. For now, other parties too have to take stock and ask where they go from here. The Congress’s willingness to join the Rabri Devi-led government may mean it is coming to terms with the inevitability of coalitions. In much of north India this translates into a loose working arrangement with the Mandal classes. For the BJP’s allies, the results have signalled a fresh tug of war with their larger partner who is finding the agenda slipping from its control on a range of issues.

But it is for Vajpayee’s party that Bihar is crucial for more reasons than one. The consolidation of an anti-Hindutva social coalition could not have come at a worse time. The unravelling of the patchwork quilt of alliances that make up the NDA has probably begun and Bihar is the weak link in the chain. Only by staying together can the allies remain in power.

The question now is on whose terms they will stay together. And with a rickety regime in power in Lucknow, it appears that the combination is now past its peak in electoral terms. The real question now is whether the Bihar results will signal a regrouping of the third front on the national scene.

The author is an independent researcher and analyst on ecology and political affairs and former fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi    


Muddy waters

Sir — The myth of the Bharatiya Janata Party as a party with national presence has once again been shattered in the assembly elections. And yet it continues in power, thanks to opportunist politicians and mediamen with vested interests who stick with the BJP, and are even all praise for it, not for reasons of ideology, but of power. The supposed allies of the BJP in the National Democratic Alliance are aware that voicing their dissent on policy matters may take away their wands of power. Hence the silence of the likes of the “Dravid Goliath”, M. Karunanidhi regarding the BJP and its alma mater, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Now the BJP is trying to tighten its grip on the throne and prevent the Congress from coming back to power by advocating a review of the Constitution. What is amusing in all this is the prime minister’s feigned innocence regarding the sinister goings on. If the Emergency is the black period of Indian democracy, then the A.B. Vajpayee-led hotchpotch is certainly its murkiest chapter.

Yours faithfully,
Hrita Ganguly, Howrah

Darkling child

Sir — The report, “Boy loses arm in blast” (March 6) says a 10 year old boy, Rabi Das, had to have his arm amputated following a bomb blast in Central Avenue, Calcutta. Given the natural curiosity of children of his age, Rabi had ventured to pick up a polythene packet which was lying in a garbage dump. He had no reason to suspect the packet contained a bomb.

Perhaps the “enlightened ” citizenry will take this as merely an accident and forget the episode altogether. They will forget to ask questions like why in a state wedded to socialism, the ragpicker and his family will be left to fend for themselves, especially when the loss occurred because of the callousness of the administration. It is ironic that the entire police administration can involve itself in the search for a lost briefcase and yet cannot engage themselves with the same dedication in clearing the city of explosives.

Who should pay for the loss suffered by the boy? Why should a little boy have to take up ragpicking when crores of rupees are spent by the government in the name of child welfare?

Yours faithfully,
Dhirendra Chandra Chakraborty, Sodepur

Sir — The report, “Child star flees home in fear of father” (February 25), should throw some light on the world which lives in the shadow of the silver screen. Filmmakers seem to have forgotten it is illegal to employ a child. Incidentally, Priya, just 10 years old, was under tremendous pressure, working three shifts every day. It is surprising that the police have made no efforts to locate Priya’s father in order to arrest him.

The film industry should remember that child actors are often thrown in to the arena by their guardians for money and publicity. This bears no relation with the will of the child. It is heartening that non-governmental organizations like Ankur, which has given shelter to Priya, are coming forward to help.

Yours faithfully,
B. Loknath Rao, Calcutta

Sir — It is deplorable that indiscipline has eaten into the fabric of our nation, resulting in disrespect for senior citizens, neighbours and institutional norms. What is surprising is that the more we tend towards indiscipline, the more norms and regulations we set for ourselves. India possibly has the largest set of rules in the world.

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray has very ably sketched this picture of indiscipline in “Sons against the system” (Feb 5). But while being dismayed by “treading and tripping” children and being fearful of the future, he meticulously reserves his comments about his journalist brethren treading in and tripping over places to focus on politicians or filmstars in the name of “be-at-the-moment” journalism. May I ask what the indisciplined children present on January 26 and 29 have to learn from the press present at the airport during the arrival of the freed hostages from Kandahar?

Yours faithfully,
Pradip K. Chattopadhyay, Serampore

Art and its discontents

Sir — The review, “Radical perspectives” by Sandeep Banerjee (March 3) starts of by saying that “the art of manipulating photographic images to create photomontages is as old as photography itself”. I cannot but disagree, as the statement is factually incorrect. Photography was invented almost simultaneously by Sir John F.W. Herschel and Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre in 1839 and followed up by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1840. More than 80 year later in the Twenties, Man Ray, Christian Schad, Max Ernst started using this medium.

In this connection, it will be pertinent to add that photography was originally used as a “hold on memory” and thus the accent was on capturing moments. The Dadaists, to begin with, used the medium to do just that. For example, installation-like compositions with female nudes were presented to the viewer in photographs, using readymade, off-the-shelf photographic supplies. Present day photo-installation artists have been directly influenced by the work of the Dadaists and enjoy the advantage of superior technology. The “Rayographs” or “Schadographs”, despite their “camera less” innovativeness, did not depart from the original practice. The Dadaists, including Max Ernst worked on a technique of juxtaposing photographic images, similar to a collage; hence the term “photomontage”. Banerjee perhaps failed to notice the technique of photochemical imaging on canvas employed by me and the shift in idiomatic accent.

Finally, I have used the term “photomontages” in the absence of a better phrase, as well as a tribute to the great masters who coined this term and whose work in this field in the early part of the 20th century continues to stimulate me. The term has been used to convey the continuity of that spirit of innovation that began 80 years ago. The similarities, if any, with earlier experiments in this medium begin and end with the employment of the photographic image and not in technical terms. The accent was on the marriage of photography with painting, resulting in a conceptual and idiomatic journey. Banerjee’s slotting of the review under photography and not the visual arts is disquieting.

Yours faithfully,
Abhijit Gupta, Calcutta

Sir — I returned recently from the Adelaide Writers’ Festival to discover a review of my fourth novel in your pages. Although I have never thought it worth my while expending my energy responding to reviews, I feel compelled to do so in this instance, given that the review is disfigured by a personalized vituperation and fuddled thinking which the reviewer and the editor of the reviews page seem to mistake for criticism.

Firstly, the reviewer insists on ascribing to me the opinions expressed, or statements made, by characters in the novel. To distinguish between author and narrator, and the narrator and the characters described in a work of fiction, is a basic tenet taught to all first-year undergraduates; it would seem that the reviewer needs to go back to class in order to refresh her memory as to what literary criticism is all about. Nor does literary criticism have much to do with information about the size of the advance that an author receives (as there have never been any reports about what my advances are, it is both presumptuous and reckless of the reviewer to claim I get large advances).

It is also a wild and baseless fantasy of the reviewer that authors who write about Calcutta get bigger advances than others; but this fantasy is in keeping with the strangely solipsistic tenor of the review. Finally, her contention that the quality of a novel is somehow determined by whether it has been composed on the computer or in longhand (here, again, she presumptuously decides I work on the computer without having the least knowledge of, or interest in, my mode of composition) is yet another embarrassing instance of the way absurd chatter substitutes critical acumen in this piece.

Yours faithfully,
Amit Chaudhuri, Calcutta

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