Editorial 1/Odds in favour
Editorial 2/Heritage control
Slip sliding away
Letters to the Editor

It was not unexpected that the prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, would disavow the statement made by the Union sports minister, Mr Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, that the Indian government was contemplating legalizing betting on cricket matches. With the police and the media still plumbing the depths to which the game has fallen, the present mood of anger and suspicion makes this an inopportune moment to consider a move that will arouse further controversy. However, the fact remains that allowing and regulating gambling on cricket matches would be the best means to curb the enormous multibillion rupee industry of underground betting. In return, this would greatly reduce the incentives to fix matches and bribe players.

There are three sound reasons why gambling on cricket — or any sport for that matter — should be legalized. First, in the same way attempts to prohibit the drinking of alcohol always fail, gambling cannot be eradicated by a government ban. All that the stamp of illegality does is drive the industry into the hands of criminals. In turn, the involvement of that tribe brings in concomitant practices like extortion, bribery and the like. Legal gambling companies like Ladbrokes in the United Kingdom never fix matches simply because the loss of a licence that would follow a scandal is too great a disincentive. There will always be some illegal gambling. But any person would prefer to place his bets with noncriminals. Bringing it out in the open helps reduce illegal gambling to a cottage industry. Second, legalization allows officialdom to regulate the bets. Limits can be placed on the size of bets. Cricket players, as happens in some sports, can be disallowed from betting against their own team. If they try to skirt the rules, they would at least leave a paper trail that would make investigations easier to carry out. Third, the amount of money that goes into gambling on cricket in India is enormous. Conservative estimates put it at Rs 100 billion. Others put the figure at ten times that. This is essentially an industry. Rather than being allowed to fester on the underside of society it should be cleaned up, injected with regulations, and converted into a government revenue source and a pastime for grandmothers. State and central governments earn millions of rupees in revenue each year from taxes on gambling. There are two main obstructions to legal gambling in India. One is a mindset that somehow gambling that is out of sight is nonexistent. This is both foolish and hypocritical. No one objects to lottery booths even though they are little more than state run gambling dens. The other is the romantic belief cricket is too gentlemanly a sport to be tainted by bookies. This is also nonsense. An official investigation into the spreading cricket scandal seems imminent. The question of legalizing gambling should be part of the brief.    

Every now and then Calcutta’s municipal authorities make a gesture to their idea of history. The heritage conservancy committee of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation has recently approved the draft heritage bill waiting for consideration since last August. The bill, when enforced, will facilitate better “control” of heritage buildings by raising civic awareness — particularly owners’ awareness — of their historical and architectural value. It will also promote the preservation and restoration of heritage property “without detracting from its original aesthetics”. The state government’s attitude to the city’s cultural past usually oscillates between wrongheaded chauvinism and the most shocking callousness, not excluding downright silliness. Calcutta will be reborn as Kolkata and a hermetically sealed “time capsule” will bury tokens of the city’s history for posterity, while invaluable archives rot away in utter neglect. Hence, this new endeavour to change civic attitudes, aesthetics and appearances, although relatively reassuring, raises questions of practice and principle.

First, enforcing the restoration of buildings most often multiple-owned as offices and shops, and sometimes illegally occupied by squatters, would involve complicated and protracted litigation that could make the implementation process nightmarishly difficult and expensive. It is to the CMC’s credit that the draft provides owners with a sop in granting them transferable property development rights, by which an owner losing floor area because of restoration can gain it while making a new construction. Second, in keeping with the Left Front government’s centralizing tendencies, the draft secures the state’s monopoly over the city’s heritage. The CMC remains the institution that will sanction and oversee every heritage project. Although the draft is modelled on the Mumbai and Hyderabad heritage acts, and the CMC had availed itself of the expertise of Mr John Raw of London Heritage, it refuses to allow the degree of privatization that all three cities have adopted in their impressively successful conservation projects. Calcutta has recently experienced a spurt of heritage activism, mostly initiated by nongovernmental organizations, who have assisted the government in preparing the draft. But the CMC remains unrelenting in the mounting pressure on it to privatize urban restoration, perhaps unwilling to lose revenue as most listed buildings are located in prime areas of the city. Most of these buildings are colonial. Hence consulting experts advise that the materials and expertise needed to restore them could be best brought over from the United Kingdom. The government will thus have to be open to foreign as well as private collaboration for this potentially laudable project not to become yet another one of those blinkered raids on history.    

The country’s oldest political party faces a siege within. Two years after she took over the helm of the Congress, Sonia Gandhi faces a series of brush-fire rebellions which will, unless they are stamped out, undermine her authority and create new centres of power. Unlike the revolt by Sharad Pawar last May, what she faces is not a frontal assault but a war within. The entire organizational model of the party is built around an all-powerful high command which can enforce its will, impose unity on warring factions and keep it at the centrestage of national politics. This has not been the case in the latter half of the Nineties and may never become so in the absence of resolute action.

The last decade has seen a huge reversal of Congress’s fortunes. It began in 1990 with a rival coalition in power and its collapse should have been the prelude to a revival of the fortunes of India’s premier party. This never really took place. The P.V. Narasimha Rao regime came to power on a vote share that was nearly three per cent smaller than that in 1989 when Rajiv Gandhi led the party to its rout.

By the end of the five-year Rao administration, the Bharatiya Janata Party displaced its adversary from the perch as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha, a distinction it has retained in the last three general elections. Next May, it will be five years since the Congress was ousted from office at the Centre. Over this period various formulae have been tried out. A shrunken party extended support to a secular coalition from the outside; it has twice changed its own leader. It has also thrice pulled down governments and twice precipitated general elections.

Even in social terms, there has been a churning. A south Indian made it to the top, so did a member of the Mandal classes. For the first time in the post-1947 period, a Roman Catholic, though one married into the Gandhi- Nehru family, has headed the party. None of this has worked wonders.

The amazing persistence of its support base, though shrunken, may give reason for hope. It is also a counsel for not a little despair. In those states where it has stayed abreast of popular aspirations, reached out to newly assertive social segments, and broad-based its own profile, the Congress has enormous staying power. This is as true of Karnataka as of Madhya Pradesh. But in large parts of the country, especially in the two most populous states of the Hindi belt, it is not a major player any more, only a balancing force. This March the assembly polls saw its second successive defeat in Haryana; last October it lost the second election in a row in Andhra Pradesh. In the past, the green revolution states of the northwest and the Deccan plateau in the south were a major source of strength.

As more key regions slip out of its grasp for not just five but even ten-year-long spells, this reduces the clout of the national leadership with its state units. This relationship was the fulcrum of the Congress in the Nehru period, though there were strong centralizing tendencies even then. Indira Gandhi twice demolished the regional leaderships, in the aftermath of two splits in the party in 1969 and 1978.

While in power, the party could browbeat any aspiring regional satrap as Narasimha Rao did Sharad Pawar. Once out of power, the old pattern of conflict reemerged, but with a difference: it is the central node that is feebler, the powerful state chapters that are stronger. In his speech to the Confederation of Indian Industry last year, a few weeks before his exit from the party, Pawar harked back to the Nehru era as a time when both national and state leaders respected and coexisted with each other. His message, which had significance beyond his own ambition and plans, fell on deaf ears.

Interestingly, the three major breakaway groups in the coastal states that tore apart the parent party are all moving towards working closely with it. G.K. Moopanar’s Tamil Maanila Congress now shares power with it in Pondicherry. In Mumbai, the Nationalist Congress Party and its post-poll ally engage in a tug of war, but as of now, continue to cohabit the mantralaya. And now two years after she called the Congress the B team of the Marxists, Mamata Banerjee has initiated talks with her former colleagues.

The three presidencies were the original homes of the Congress in its pre-Gandhian incarnation. Each has politics of a decidedly regional flavour, a fact played on shrewdly by the leaders of the breakaway Congress groups both in the past and in the present day. The key point, however, is that none of these groups is contemplating a return to the party. They are ready to do business with it but will retain their identity and will hammer out the best deal they can.

This leads us to the question of questions: can the Congress contemplate changing its leader if he or she does not deliver on promises or defaults on performance? The past is not a good guide but it does point to an organization where there is an immense concentration of power at the top. Even in the heyday of consensus, M.K. Gandhi made Subhas Chandra Bose resign the presidentship, which the latter had won in a free and fair internal election. But that was in the era before popular mandates and universal suffrage. The reverses in the 1962 elections led Nehru to weed out rivals under the Kamaraj plan. How critical such preemptive moves could be became clear when the staggering losses of the 1967 elections presaged an internal power struggle with regional bosses taking on Indira Gandhi. Similarly, in 1978, the party split was mainly a conflict between her and the southern regional chieftains.

In all this, the Gandhi-Nehru family’s claims to being “national” helped them limit their rivals who were branded “regional” leaders, sometimes not even that. But in the present political climate, regionalism is at a premium and it is the national political entities that must more often than not give way or face the music. Control over the party apparatus serves for little if it cannot win power in key states, let alone the Centre. The regional breakaway groups by contrast have all tasted power at one level if not the other within months of their birth.

All this points to the need for serious rethinking on two key issues within the party: on creating a collective leadership that can accommodate regionalist aspirations both within the party and outside it. It is better that it happened from design rather than in a messy way by default. Unfortunately, the hangover of the Indira and Rajiv eras is too strong. Any expression of opinion is snuffed out as a sign of incipient rebellion. This may help the coterie around the leader but as they fail to deliver the goods, the pressure on her can only mount. The Congress is not the Janata Dal and differences do not lead to sit-ins and lock-outs at the party offices. But the crisis is a serious one. Delay will not only be costly. It may, in political terms, even prove fatal.

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


Clean up time

Sir — Trust Atal Behari Vajpayee to turn pious and shoot down the eminently sane idea of legalized betting (“Vow to clean up, not turn betting legal”, April 17). Gambling is one of man’s original vices and all the government’s holier-than-thou attitude does is drive it underground — the need for subterfuge exacerbating all manner of iniquities. The government has no business dictating how citizens spend, neither is it the keeper of the nation’s morals. Besides, casinos have been allowed in Goa and other places where the government hopes to attract foreign tourists. It would be much better to legalize gambling and restrict government intervention so that it is not rigged or does not become a ploy to fleece the gullible. Only the hysterical would conclude that this was encouraging gambling. Vajpayee need not fear, the only votes he will lose by legalizing gambling are of the few who gain unfairly from the present state of affairs.

Yours faithfully,
M.S. Rao, Calcutta

In the dark, always

Sir — The chief minister of Assam, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, seems to have suddenly become serious about improving the lives of the Assamese (“Job freeze lurks in pact with Delhi”, April 3). Mahanta asserted that he could not ignore the 2.5 crore population for the five lakh employees of the state. This has exposed his ignorance and his vindictive mentality. A chief minister holding the finance portfolio is expected to know that most business establishments and enterprises depend on the salaries of the state employees, with at least another 50 lakh depending directly on these. But almost the entire Rs 858.51 crores meant for development has been wasted without any palpable signs of development.

The demand for hikes in pay and superannuation is the fallout of the participation of the Asom Gana Parishad under Mahanta’s leadership in the United Front government. At that time, the myopic state leaders failed to foresee these demands; now they are failing to convince the Centre and taking out their grudge on the employees.

If Mahanta is serious and honest about developing Assam, he must reduce the size of his ministry first and do away with the cavalcade of cars which follow him when he goes to lay the foundation stones of projects which seldom see the light of day. The state can be effectively administered by 15 ministries under efficient and honest ministers. These ministries can be created by merging some of the existing ones, for instance, the ministry of agriculture with those of irrigation and flood control. This will lead to reduction in number of commissioners, secretaries and consequently, employees.This can inculcate a work ethic among employees, without which no reduction in the number of employees can produce the desired results.

Yours faithfully,
Himadree Bora, Rangia

Sir — Prafulla Kumar Mahanta’s lectures soliciting investment in Assam from outside may be sincere, but they are self-defeating. His connivance with surrendered United Liberation Front of Asom hooligans defeats his fiscal invitation. In Dibrugarh, one police personnel shot dead his wife’s brother in cold blood only a few yards from the main police station. He even carried the dead body in his vehicle in full public view and remains free to this day.

At least two prime plots of land in the heart of the town have been forcefully occupied by the SULFA.

At this rate, Mahanta can easily dispense with the services of the deputy commissioner and superintendent of police. The SULFA commandos can serve these roles. This will not only help the government save money but also prevent the demoralization of the state’s qualified bureaucracy.

Yours faithfully,
Ajit Borthakur, Dibrugarh

Sir — When the Guwahati edition of The Telegraph was launched, the readers of the Northeast felt it would help them cross barriers and reach the rest of the country and vice versa. But when four esteemed men and women of this region were awarded the Padma Shri this year, we saw the picture of Hema Malini in the front page of the paper. As usual, the press has succumbed to celebrity mania. The likes of Hema Malini do not need much publicity. But certainly, the rest of the country needs to know the achievements of the people in this obscure part of India.It is far more difficult for people here to be noticed even when they strive to manage and resolve conflicts in their own humble way. All the four Padma Shri recipients from the region are known for their peace initiatives, often risking their lives in the process. The press must take cognizance of this fact instead of opting for the more popular way out.

Yours faithfully,
K.D. Iralu, Kohima

Visual displeasure

Sir — The allegations by the Nari Rakshak Samiti that some Malayalam channels are showing obscene films is based purely on hearsay and is absolutely baseless (“Women for ban on ‘obscene’ channels”, April 5). Going by the organization’s definition of obscenity, even tennis players, swimmers, and most sari-clad Indian women showing their midriff would be considered as purveyors of pornography, which, they most certainly are not.

Why are these women complaining against something that they can prevent themselves and their children from watching? It is time for shedding these double standards.

Yours faithfully,
Vasan Nair, Calcutta

Sir — Shoma A. Chatterji’s article, “Mixing work and displeasure” (April 5), indicates how sexual harassment at work has come to assume relevance in this country. It is a problem that an increasing number of working women face as they are forced to go out to work in a changing socio-economic environment. Since sexual harassment at work is a global phenomenon today, it should be tackled at a human level. Both men and women ought to work in a spirit of mutual respect towards each other. Attitudinal adjustment is the only way to change such situations.

Yours faithfully,
Govinda Bakshi, Budge Budge

Circumlocution office

Sir — Do you think I can make it to the Guiness Book of World Records? I retired in 1991 as reader in English, Lady Brabourne College, Calcutta, and the then director of public instruction recommended to the then education secretary that my services in colleges other than the government college I had served in should be recognized for the purpose of granting me full pension and other retirement benefits. Of course, part pension was granted in 1995 but no action was taken on the recommendation for full pension. Queries were made, answers were given time without number through the principal, Lady Brabourne College, as and when demanded by the august bureaucrats, whoever happened to be in the chair at the time. Files did not move. When they did move, crucial papers tended to disappear. I was asked to furnish fresh documents and everytime I obliged. In West Bengal there seems to be no accountability on the part of the pension disbursing officer, as I presume there is in the Central government service.

The whole process had started when the education department had been housed in the Writers’ Buildings. The education department shifted to Bikash Bhavan and the queries and answers continued.

Will the final sanction come in the next millennium or in the millennium after that, when the education department is housed in some other bhavan? Or, will it come when I pass on to a world where payment of work and consequent pension benefits are recognized as fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, not dependent on the individual whims of transient bureaucrats?

In 2001 I will turn 70.

Yours faithfully,
Chitra Roy, Calcutta
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