Editorial 1\Putin his place
Editorial 2\United in terror
Patriotism is not enough
Letters to the Editor

Mr Vladimir Putin’s first round winning of the Russian presidential elections marks the official end of Mr Boris Yeltsin’s reign. There was little doubt about the results. Parliamentary elections three months ago had shown that the political winds were blowing strongly in Mr Putin’s favour. Mr Putin’s real strength lay in his control of the presidency. The Russian polity concentrates near dictatorial powers in the hands of the president. And Mr Putin used them to good effect. Most television channels ignored his opponents, including the only serious challenger, the communist leader, Mr Gennady Zyuganov. Helped by the present increase in world oil prices, Mr Putin was able to pay off months of unpaid government salaries and offer various populist sops. His strongest card was the Chechnya war. Though the Russian military campaign against the rebel province is slowing down, Russians were impressed to see a leader who could set policy goals and work to accomplish them.

Mr Putin’s campaign managers projected him as strong and silent. As acting president he made so few speeches and policy statements that there is considerable debate as to what he believes in. There is no doubt he supports the economic reforms initiated by Mr Yeltsin. He has said foreign investors will not be disappointed with the economic programme he is expected to announce soon. It is believed Mr Putin prefers a German model of state driven capitalism where government, business and labour elites jointly guide economic policy. Having lived in Germany when he was a spy, Mr Putin would be familiar with this system. Additionally, this would superficially mimic the mutant capitalism that already exists in Russia. The only problem is that in Russia, the elites dominating the economy are mafia groups, manipulative businessmen called the “oligarchs” and Kremlin schemers. The links between them and the Russian masses are tenuous. Russian civil society is in tatters, its populace so distrustful of politics that Mr Putin was worried low voter turnout would force a second round of polling. In part to counter the present elites, the new president’s first priority will be to shore up the Russian state itself. At present the government is too weak to even collect taxes.

If Mr Putin can slow down or even reverse the continuing decline of Russia he will do both his country and the world a favour. Russia retains a huge nuclear arsenal and straddles an important part of the Eurasian land mass. Its weakness has been helpful to no one. Even the West is wearying of spending tens of billions to stave off a Russian financial collapse. Mr Putin is a nationalist, but one who speaks of making Russia a modern nation in the Western model. He prides himself on logical thinking and pragmatism. He has said cabinet ministers will be chosen on the basis of merit, not ideology. The contrast to the boozy incoherence and impulsiveness of Mr Yeltsin could not be greater. Though Mr Putin has defended free speech and democracy, there are questions as to whether he will rule with as light a hand as Mr Yeltsin. A Russian president has the potential to be an autark. It is to be seen whether Mr Putin’s economic concerns are matched by a faith in liberal politics.    

Insurgency in the Northeast continues to be a hopeless saga of inconsistencies and contradictions. Recent developments point in bewilderingly different directions, some of which may signal a change in the Centre’s usually inertia-ridden modus operandi. It has recently considered extending its peace talks in Nagaland to a hitherto-ignored insurgent outfit, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang). The Centre has also asked the state government to be a party to this new phase of talks, thus mobilizing a tripartite mode of negotiation. This integrated approach is welcome from a strategic point of view. In this fractious region, simply focusing on a single branch of a terrorist organization inevitably motivates the other branches to make the overall situation even more unmanageable. The earlier ceasefire agreement with the Isak-Muivah faction of the NSCN had reached an impasse, which this new initiative might resolve. The Khaplang and the Isak-Muivah factions have been engaged in internecine warfare since 1988, disrupting the ceasefire and the unity of the earlier Naga movement. The Centre’s latest all-encompassing approach, if not followed by the usual procrastinations, might well be a step in the right direction.

However, the same integrated approach seems to be lacking in the Centre’s handling of insurgency in neighbouring Assam. The home ministry has recently announced the suspension of operations against the Bodo Liberation Tigers in order to create an environment conducive to finding a solution to the problem of Bodo autonomy. Yet, the Centre’s overtures leave out the other, more militant, faction of the Bodoland movement, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. This is particularly unfortunate, since all the Bodo groups have recently come together to form the Bodoland Parliamentary Party, strengthening their struggle for statehood through greater unity. Addressing these factions together, instead of adopting a piecemeal approach, would have assured a unified solution. This is all the more urgent in Assam since the chief minister, Mr Prafulla Mahanta, has now inaugurated a new era of hopelessness by officially giving up peace initiatives with the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom, because of what he believes to be its apparently irremediable backing by the Inter-Services Intelligence. Hence, progress and regress remain frustratingly intertwined in the Northeast.    

The absurdity of the underlying arithmetic is simply devastating. This year’s Union budget has proposed as an economic measure a reduction in food and fertilizer subsidies by something close to Rs 3,000 crore. The finance minister has been bravely backed by the prime minister.

A fierce debate on the issue nonetheless continues to rage in both houses of Parliament. The entire opposition is solidly against what is being described as an “anti-people” measure; the partners of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the National Democratic Alliance are equally disenchanted. And within the BJP itself, if market gossip is to be lent any credence, there is a clear cleavage of views over the suggestion to cut down subsidies. It is without question a most sensitive political issue. The finance minister’s plea, namely, that the proposed reductions would still leave untouched close to Rs 23,000 crores worth of other subsidies on food and fertilizers, has cut no ice.

Life would not be worth living if the budget proposals are not allowed to go through, say the minions of the finance minister; life would not be worth living if the proposals are not scrapped, in the view of those who are against the proposals. The ongoing debate has reached fierce proportions, casting doubt on the notion that consensus is the essence of political economy. Textbook concepts stressing the deviation from efficiency the subsidies are responsible for are neither here nor there though.

The manner in which the free market buffs discuss the imperative necessity of rolling back inefficiency from the system betrays an almost total lack of awareness of the budgetary compulsions in a parliamentary democratic system. To argue, for instance, that the bulk of the food subsidy is on account of the high cost of production and waste and corruption in the Food Corporation of India is to forget the ground reality of the existence of a very strong sugarcane lobby in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Similarly, to make the point that the fertilizer subsidy is a bonanza for dishonest distributors and big farmers, breaks no new ground: most of the trade and farming interests benefiting from the subsidies, about everybody knows, wield immense political clout. To ignore this harsh political datum while making an economic prescription is naivete par excellence.

Even so, consider the irony underlying the situation. The suggestion in the budget to roll back subsidies to the extent of barely Rs 3,000 crore encounters fierce opposition. In contrast, the proposal to raise defence expenditure by Rs 14,000 crore over last year’s outlay receives near-unanimous approval from the members of Parliament. This too is a crucial aspect of the ground reality. Conventional arithmetic goes haywire in case the password is national security. No MP is around who will dare to chip in that the food and fertilizer subsidies be saved by shaving off a sum of Rs 3,000 crore from the additional outlay proposed for defence for 2000-2001. Defence is inviolable. Any suggestion to economize on defence expenditure, or to reduce the extent of increase in such expenditure, is regarded as akin to an anti-patriotic act; the person airing the views regarding economizing on defence is a dangerous creature. He is an enemy of the country, and deserves to be locked up, unless sent to the gallows.

The debate on the budget, therefore, proceeds along predictably wrong lines. Basic issues are not allowed to rear their heads. In this country of nearly one billion people, close to 40 per cent is condemned to abysmal poverty. State government plans, which mostly consist of poverty-alleviation programmes, cannot be completed for lack of funds.

This keeps happening year after year. And yet, no MP or political party will have the temerity to draw attention to the glaring fact that, were the defence budget reduced by as little as five per cent, some resources could then be additionally available for universal literacy or potable water or women’s and children’s nutrition schemes. National priorities, however, cannot be tampered with. National defence, as a concept, is inviolable. To argue that defence is after all to protect people who constitute the nation, and in case these people die of pestilence and malnutrition because of the dearth of public funds to back up welfare programmes, defence expenditure will be rendered bereft of all rationale, will cut no ice at all.

Perhaps those who air rigid views on the inviolability of defence expenditure do not deserve to overly criticized. Their conservative attitude is, by now, an integral part of the national ethos. Let the heavens collapse; even so, no detailed probing of the defence budget is to be permitted and, therefore, the legitimacy to spend more on defence than before will not come up for discussion in public fora. Others abide the question; only defence outlay is free.

The country’s record of economic progress has been indifferent, if not poor, in the past decade. But our reputation both as one of the highest-spending countries on defence, as well as one of the most corrupt too, has soared during these years. There are simpleminded academics who, going about ponderously informing would-be listeners that corruption is an evil associated with the size of governmental operations: downsize the government, downsize the budget, including the defence budget, and you will be automatically downsizing corruption. Professional patriots will be scandalized by irresponsible comments of this nature: treason, treason, treason; throw out these anti-national elements in the Arabian Sea or the Bay of Bengal or, better still, the Indian Ocean.

There should be, some of the honest academicians may feel, massive mobilization of ordinary men and women against the obsession with defence outlay. No such thing has happened. In the early days of independence, political leaders and cadres belonging to the left parties used to campaign vigorously against bloated defence budgets which hampered expansions in public outlay for social services, including education, potable water supply and essential nutrition.

The trauma of 1962 taught the left a few important political lessons. They are now among the quickest lot to join the patriotic bandwagon everytime a warlike situation arises. It is a heart-wrenching statement to make, but some elements belonging to the left during last year’s clash at and around Kargil would put to shame, on a man to man basis, the worst Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh jingoes.

In the circumstances, it is not easy to set afloat a proposition to the effect that the formidable lobby for higher and higher defence expenditure receives its sustenance from higher and higher quantums of graft associated with such outlays. The left is no part of the government, it is therefore left out of the stigma of corruption. Such cannot be said of the other constituents of the defence lobby. Bofors and those German submarines, it is altogether conceivable, were only the tip of an iceberg:defence contracts are presumably a great begetter of hard cash which enhances the material wellbeing of machine politicians and army hacks alike, as well as their cronies.

These are unwholesome tales to hawk around. But for how much longer are we going to delude ourselves? Army personnel are a part of the nation. If the nation as a whole, from top to bottom, reeks of corruption, those belonging to the defence services, Kargil notwithstanding, cannot be beyond the pale of illicit acts and activities. Rather, it ought to be a part of the national agenda to analyse whether Kargil has provided a cover to groups of people to indulge in misdeeds they would otherwise have stayed away from. After all, few Caesar’s wives are left in the system. Corruption is a fast spreading malaise. Politicians are being handed stiff prison sentences by the judiciary for committing criminal misdeeds. Can there be a worse social tragedy when judges themselves have, in several instances, been found to be wanting in probity.

It is a confusing, mixed-up tale, Pokhran II and Kargil and the to-be-or-not-to-be stance over the signing of the nuclear test ban treaty, add up to a non-morality tale. That apart, why not be candid, our leaders and officials are spitting images of their Pakistani counterparts, in their daily perambulations, including in the matter of corruption. Surely this is the message Bill Clinton has left behind.    


The same ball game

Sir — The Indian sports establishment, barring the high profile cricket lobby, looks like a box of crabs. Everytime one tries to get away, the rest pulls it down. One could blame the rules, the inefficiency of the authorities, the ignorance of sportsmen. But it all amounts to the same thing. So after Bhaichung Bhutia failed to escape to greener pastures, we have Sujata Kar and Alpana Seal missing a chance of a lifetime (“Golden goal missed in bungle”, March 27). Those in the establishment suffering from acute myopia should be reminded that Kar and Seal, had they the opportunity to play in the German league, would not only have changed their “lives and livelihood”, but could also have brought home, for free, the expertise and professionalism that we try to hire from foreign professionals working either as trainers or, now more commonly, as soccer players in local clubs. By forcing them to miss the bus, Indian sports authorities have once again condemned themselves to reliving the history they forget so easily.

Yours faithfully,
Ajay Samanta, Calcutta

Shifting foundations

Sir — The editorial, “Taking a constitutional” (Feb 5), is right in asserting that the Indian Constitution “did not spring fully armed like Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus”, but it is the document’s very flexibility that has caused problems. Jawaharlal Nehru argued for its adaptability to historical change: “we are passing through a very swift period of transition, what we may do today may not be wholly capable tomorrow”. Scholars, however, traditionally described the Indian Constitution as “rigid”. There are two reasons for this. One, the process of amending was deemed cumbersome. Two, matters that should have been left to ordinary legislation have been included in the Constitution and hence no changes can be made without amending it. The first has been proved to be false while the second is very much a drawback; take Article 224 which concerns the appointment of additional and acting judges.

The editorial calls for a “disinterested review of certain key concepts to see if the practices in place answer India’s needs”. But the question is, are frequent amendments the sign of a healthy democracy? From January 26, 1950 to 1981 the Constitution was amended 45 times. Thus there have been as many as 34 amendments in the past two decades. One cannot help asking whether all of them served the national interest. The eminent constitutional expert, D.D. Basu, had warned that if a single party was in a majority at the Centre as well as in a number of state legislatures, there was every possibility of amendments being “used too often either to achieve political purposes or to get rid of judicial decisions which may appear to be unwholesome to the party in power”. Except for special contingencies, like the 35th and 36th amendments to admit Sikkim into the Union, amendments should not be resorted to.

Yours faithfully,
K.R. Venkatasubramanian, Calcutta

Sir — It is surprising that Tushar Kanti Saha in “Going for a change of script” (March 13), carefully brushes aside questions about the constitutional review of Article 44, which categorically says the “state shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India”. It is quite absurd that 18 per cent of the population should fall within the purview of separate laws and prescriptions. If this is allowed Shah Banos will continue to recur in India’s history. This is the right time to do justice to Article 44 and the broader democratic principles it ushers.

Yours faithfully,
Santanu Boral, Calcutta

Sir — Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Such is the state of the Indian democracy that buffoons are replacing luminaries in Parliament. The framers of the Constitution did not prescribe a minimum qualification for parliamentarians, never dreaming that candidates with criminal records would aspire to become members. An amendment to lay down qualifications for legislators has become imperative. If age, educational qualifications and good antecedents are prerequisites for competitive examinations, why should they not be applied to electoral candidates?

Yours faithfully,
S. Jamal Ahmad, Patna

Misgivings and controversy

Sir — I agree with Rudrangshu Mukherjee (“Evil in the city of god”, Feb 13) and Brinda Bose (“ Binding with briars of joys and desires”, Feb 14). But I have a few misgivings which they do not touch upon. Do Mukherjee and Bose seriously believe that there would not have been any backlash by Muslims if the characters in Fire had Muslim names? Or if Water had depicted the plight of oppressed Muslim women? Going by the experience of Bombay, I daresay not. In such an event, who would these gullible liberals lash out at? The producer or the miscreants? Muslims like Hindus, would equally dislike exposure of the evils of their societies, on which, in recent times, not a single film has been made. Hindus will not produce these films for fear of desecrating secularism and Muslims will refrain from doing so for fear of reprisals from maulvis — remember the fiasco that followed the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. This leaves us with just Hindu culture and Hindu sentiments to cast aspersions on. And for this there is ample support from pseudo-intellectuals and the self-righteous media.

This is indeed Deepa Mehta’s sole objective. If those who protest against such social double standards are called vandals, should those who defile Hindu sentiments be called cowards? Should not a responsible media try to diffuse distrust between communities by discouraging controversial subjects from being highlighted? This may be against the grain of our politicians — should it be so with the media too?

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

Sir — Rudrangshu Mukherjee raises the pertinent point that, “The controversy that sections of the sangh parivar created over Water and the way the BJP government reacted to it have torn off the secular and tolerant mask that Vajpayee has been trying to put on.” First, the sangh parivar never fomented controversy over Water. Next, it is strange that the Central government did not thrash out the objectionable portions of the film’s script with those who passed it — especially those that raised a hue and cry in Varanasi. This would not only have been a moral victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, but it would also have stopped Deepa Mehta from washing dirty linen in public. After all her film is nothing but a ploy to market the plight of Hindu widows in the West.

On the one hand, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government claims to be the champion of Hindutva — and on the other, it does not do anything when M.F. Husain paints blasphemous pictures of Hindu deities like Saraswati, Hanuman and Sita. Would anyone insulting Islam be let off in Pakistan?

Yours faithfully,
Monojit Sanyal, Chandernagore

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