Absurd drama
General failing
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Letters to the Editor

 
 
ABSURD DRAMA 
 
 
 
 
There exists a common assumption, even among those who should know better, that a rule which has been in operation for some time is ipso facto a valid one. Such an assumption seems to be behind the Election Commission’s recent efforts to take the Communist Party of India (Marxist) off the list of national parties. The commission’s argument is that since 1968 it has been following a particular definition of a national party. According to this definition, a party to be national has to have one member of parliament for every 25 Lok Sabha members from at least four states. The EC has worked on this principle and, what is more, the CPI(M) has also accepted this principle in the past. The EC does not see any reason to deviate from this accepted definition. It has worked in the past and therefore it should work now. This seems to be the logic of the EC and following this it has issued a letter to the CPI(M) asking why it should not be stripped of the national party status. The problem is that a hallow of a 30 year old tradition cannot hide a number of anomalies present in the EC’s definition and practice in this regard. By the criteria laid down by the EC, the CPI(M) can lose the status of a national party but the Communist Party of India can retain it. Nothing could be more ridiculous than this. The CPI is a political spent force. It exists as a parasite of the CPI(M). The CPI does not rule in a single state, the number of MPs it has in the Lok Sabha is less than the number of CPI(M) legislators and what is most important is that many of its candidates win elections because they have the support of the CPI(M). The EC seems to think that despite this its position on the CPI(M) is a valid one.

Common sense suggests that if a definition harbours an absurdity, the definition should be jettisoned. The facts of the matter are simple: the CPI(M) is the third largest party in Parliament. It also holds power in three states. To take away the label of national status from such a party is risible. If the existing definition does not permit such a label then it is time the definition was changed. This is an occasion also to review the use and validity of a concept like the national party. India is a country rich in regional diversity. Indeed, it could be argued that regions make the Indian nation. In such a situation clinging on to a concept like national party or to an outmoded definition of the concept may not bring credit to an august body like the EC. Concepts and categories must match existing political realities, they cannot exist in the abstract. The EC has a responsibility to stop itself from appearing ridiculous.    


 
 
GENERAL FAILING 
 
 
 
 
After some reports Pakistan had cut its defence expenditure, a closer look at the budget announced by Mr Pervez Musharraf’s regime revealed this to be little more than a sleight of accounting. The fall in defence spending from Rs 143.4 billion to Rs 133.5 billion for the 2000-01 financial year was a consequence of military pension spending being transferred to a civilian head. To be fair, Islamabad did not hide the number juggling. The Pakistani finance minister, Mr Shaukat Aziz, readily admitted the defence budget had been increased by over 10 per cent, a jump of 7.5 per cent in real terms. As far as Mr Musharraf is concerned he has fulfilled his promise to not significantly raise Pakistan’s defence budget. The money he has doled out to his fellow officers is moderate compared to the recent 29 per cent hike in India’s defence budget. It would be too much to expect Pakistan to have slashed money for guns during a military regime, after India’s defence hike and given the present state of bilateral tensions.

What is interesting about the budget is that it is further evidence of a rollback pattern in the behaviour of Pakistan’s self styled chief executive officer. Mr Musharraf knows what ails his country and publicly prescribes the necessary medicine. However, when it comes to making his people swallow bitter pills, Mr Musharraf’s military mettle quickly deserts him. He has backed down on reforming Pakistan’s arbitrary blasphemy laws. He has not moved forward on plans to decentralize authority or bring corrupt officials to book. Shiite versus Shia communal violence continues unabated. And for all his many confrontations with Pakistan’s traders, few believe he will be able to seriously tax Pakistan’s huge black market economy. The defence budget increase will not help his cause with the traders. Mr Musharraf recently held a press conference to dispel claims he was unable to take tough decisions. However, this did not stop the United States state department from noting Mr Musharraf’s tendency to “announce bold reforms, only to backtrack later when opposition surfaces.” The chief executive officer has found that painful decisions are much harder if a ruler lacks the political legitimacy to carry out radical change. This automatically raises the question of what benefit Pakistan gets from having a military regime. Mr Musharraf has ranted repeatedly against the gross corruption and inept governance of his civilian predecessors. His complaints have been on the button. But it is increasingly difficult to see why his regime, especially in terms of administration and economic policy, should be seen as an improvement. As far as the common Pakistani is concerned, a regime fettered by illegitimacy is in the end no better than one fettered by ineptitude. Results are what count, and Mr Musharraf has very few to boast of.    


 
 
HOME AND THE WORLD 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
Why not be blunt about it, our prime minister has cut an extremely sorry figure while reacting to M.K. Karunanidhi’s proposal for a Czechoslovakia-type solution to the Sri Lanka problem. To suggest that the Tamil Nadu chief minister’s views are “personal” is, to say the least, bizarre. The prime minister is obviously in a desperate bid to adopt a stance which, according to his view, will provide his government a face-saving formula to tackle the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam threat. The Tigers, whether one likes it or not, have travelled a long, hard distance since 1983, when the civil war started in Sri Lanka.

During this period, they had been spurned by the international community. There was a time when India thought it could establish its overlordship in Sri Lanka by taking advantage of the ongoing tussle between the Colombo regime and the Tamils clamouring for an honourable settlement that would grant them a kind of quasi-sovereign status. Now that they have travelled a long victorious road all by themselves, no doubt they are going to pitch their demands higher. Some kind of a devolutionary arrangement will no longer satisfy them; they are now in search of honourable, full-scale sovereignty.

On the battlefront, they have got the Sri Lankan army and navy completely cornered, which is why the Sri Lankan president has sought a last-minute assistance from the government of India. This show of initiative on her part is however likely to make her unpopular even amongst the local Sinhalese. They, as much as the LTTE, have memories of the misadventure Indian army personnel were involved in in the wake of the agreement signed by Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister of India and the then Sri Lankan president, J. Jayawardene, in 1987. That was a sorry episode. Rajiv Gandhi’s dream of establishing Indian dominance in south Asia was soon shattered. The India-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 was instrumental for more harm than good to the causes of both India and Sri Lanka.

The world at large may immensely dislike the technology of terror the LTTE has evolved in the island and its neighbourhood. There is also intense universal distaste for the mode of recruitment and training of suicide bombers. The international community is, however, unlikely to poke its head so as to bring the LTTE round to civil behaviour. By now the LTTE has learnt that it has to fight its own battle and choose its own modalities, howsoever disagreeable they might appear to be. The Colombo regime must have also reached the conclusion that the LTTE at this stage is nearly unstoppable, which is why there was an outburst of desperate last minute appeal to India and others to bail it out.

Even if New Delhi were to reject the once-beaten-twice-shy formula, it can hardly ignore the shift in ground conditions that has taken place in the course of the past decade in the country’s domestic circumstances. The Constitution drafted in 1949 had assigned the task of shepherding the nation’s foreign affairs exclusively to the care of the government at the Centre. Such was also the understanding for foreign trade. But the Constitution is not a magic wand. Even if it be a written one, it has to give precedence to the realities that emerge over time. In the name of conserving the unity and integrity of the nation, those who have enjoyed formal power in New Delhi over the years have done things which have rendered the supposedly federal structure far more wobbly than it was in the beginning.

The Constitution had aimed at a patchwork of arrangements, whereby the federating states will willingly agree to set aside foreign affairs to the care of the Centre. Jawaharlal Nehru — who was the foreign minister, besides being the prime minister, throughout his tenure — had set up a tradition which has continued till recently. This has been so even when the prime minister was not formally in charge of external relations. The prime minister has worked out the major features of foreign policy in minute detail and the nation has gone along, despite occasional convulsions such as over the MacMahon Line or the line of control in Kashmir.

But political dynamics asserts itself. Domestic developments of diverse kinds have cast their shadow over the formation of foreign policy. No Tamil party can hope to survive if it is not careful, at least ambivalent, in expressing its views about the LTTE; two of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s close allies in the Tamil Nadu government are even more vocal in the declaration of their accord with the LTTE’s hopes and aspirations. An aura of romanticism attaches to the notion of an independent, sovereign Tamil entity which Indian Tamils cannot detach themselves from. It is therefore futile on the part of the prime minister to imagine that the Tamil Nadu point of view about a prospective Sri Lanka settlement can be ignored. Whatever the Constitution might say, the pressure of domestic politics will force the prime minister to redesign his Sri Lanka policy.

There is a further dilemma which globalization has brought about. Foreign trade is no longer the absolute charge of the Centre. Foreign parties, including foreign transnational corporations, have, with or without encouragement from international financial institutions, exemplified considerable initiative to establish a direct relationship with state governments. The Centre has politely and tactfully left things to develop on their own. It could hardly do otherwise, given its repeated declarations to encourage direct foreign investment in the country.

The Constitution will rest in peace, the government at the Centre will have to accept the new environment in which the country’s external policy has to be framed. New Delhi will also have to worry over the reverse phenomenon, the impact of domestic policy on international relations. One of the essential concerns of domestic policy is to ensure that Inter-Services Intelligence agents from Pakistan are squeezed out. But while doing so, attention needs to be given to certain issues which cannot but have a substantial impact on external relations.

A short example will enlighten what we have in mind. Successive regimes in New Delhi have considered it expedient to annoy the Left Front government in Tripura by encouraging tribal forces to be on the rampage on the slightest of pretexts or even without pretexts. Central Bureau of Intelligence personnel have reportedly been in the lead to mobilize political groups opposed to the Left Front and see to it that they receive direct and indirect assistance from Central agencies. They have achieved some success of late and the Left Front has been ejected from its majority in the territorial council.

But reports are currently afloat that harassment of the Left Front government in Tripura has reached a stage where there is an alliance between the opposition political parties, agents of Pakistan’s ISI and some branches of the Indian Central intelligence bureau who have not been receiving up to date instructions from New Delhi. In the process there has been a certain waywardness in intelligence activities which has frustrated the objectives of the national government.

It is a mixed-up situation and unless the Centre appreciates some of the nuances of the new reality, foreign and domestic relations are in danger of coming to clash with one another, leading to confusion in the formulation of basic issues in both arenas.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Courage of the renegade

Sir — Why should India always be on the defensive when it comes to Pakistan? India is not a dictatorship, it does not sponsor international terrorism, it does not break laws of nuclear nonproliferation. Pakistan does all of these and yet holds its head high in the global fora. Even the world’s sole superpower seems taken in by this cantankerous little country. It is so exceedingly gratified by Pakistan’s pledge to set up a “strategic plans division” (whatever that means) for its nuclear weapons, that it refuses to call a spade a spade, i.e. a terrorist state a terrorist state (“Pak nuclear PR forces Jaswant hand”, June 19). Why does the United States not understand that Pakistan makes such concessions only to wrangle loans and promptly ploughs the money back into more destructive schemes. Pakistan and the US seem to have a relationship of mutual and healthy distrust which prevents each from harming the other. India should recognize this and not set much store by the one country’s threats and the other’s blandishments.

Yours faithfully,
C. Basak, Calcutta

Gone up in smoke

Sir — The health ministry of West Bengal has promised to ban smoking in the state and take stringent measures to rein in errant smokers in public places (“Puff in public gets penalty or prison”, June 7). However, the directive is bound to go the way of other pollution control norms which are announced every year and violated unabashedly.

The Union minister for health, C.P. Thakur, had promised to ban tobacco advertising and promotion at the worldwide campaign against smoking in Bangkok (“Thakur revives toothless talk on tobacco ad ban”, June 1). Yet given the spate of advertisements for tobacco-based items and liquor going up in the print and electronic media, the stand taken by both the Centre and the state governments seems a ploy to hoodwink the public. If this governmental unconcern is a result of globalization, it is better to dismantle the ministries concerned with public health and information.

According to World Health Organization reports, tobacco claims more than six lakh lives each year in India, now home to one fifth of the 1.2 billion tobacco users in the world. With 55,000 children getting addicted to tobacco every year, India has about 240 million tobacco users and accounts for 15 per cent of all tobacco related deaths.

The WHO has also clearly specified how much the decision to smoke is influenced by promotion by the tobacco industry. Isn’t it time the Indian government also clamped down on tobacco advertisements as part of its drive against smoking?

Yours faithfully,
Santosh Kumar Sharma, Kharagpur

Sir — Anti-tobacco activities have been heating up over the past few months. Add to these the pledges taken on World No Tobacco Day. Influential bodies of the world have joined hands in their crusade against tobacco. What I don’t quite understand is why has tobacco been singled out as the cause of the worst possible diseases? Are the dangers associated with smoking greater than those that come with the intake of alcohol, charas, ganja and other such drugs? Are cigarettes any less addictive than a bidi or a pouch of gutka?

The other thing that gets completely overshadowed in this fight is the question of alternative employment for those involved in the tobacco industry. As a developing country, should we turn our back on an industry that gives millions their daily bread? We should not forget India is still very much an agricultural country. C.P. Thakur, the Union health minister, has rightly called for a joint effort from the ministries of agriculture, industry and education to tackle the issue of tobacco consumption.

Yours faithfully,
Nidhi Upadhyaya, via email

Sir — Barun S. Mitra is right in noting that the issue of individual choice plays a second fiddle in the hoopla against smoking (“Illiberal smokescreen”, May 28). Yet Mitra should realize that in the global market the keen competition between manufacturers to increase sale, which boils down to more and more fantastic advertisements, often affects individual choice. Clever tobacco manufacturers sponsor football and cricket matches, college festivals and several other events to get close to the consumers.

The media inevitably plays a crucial role in influencing public opinion both for and against smoking. Mass consciousness is thus the only way to prevent people from taking up smoking without infringing on individual liberties.

Yours faithfully,
Govinda Bakshi, Budge Budge

Sir — While smoking has attracted so much attention, it is strange to see the government totally oblivious to the menace of other tobacco products like pan masala. Packed in shiny packets, such products are sold by every shopkeeper on the streets. The manufacturers mint money and the government earns its revenue at the cost of its citizens.

Even school children, because of the easy availability and low price of these products, become addicts. Shouldn’t the government give the matter some consideration?

Yours faithfully,
J.N. Singhi, Calcutta

Crisis island

Sir — The ouster of Fiji’s first ethnic Indian prime minister by a leader of indigenous Fijians has not surprised anybody. A similar drama was enacted in 1987 when General Sitiveni Rabuka seized power and ruled the country for 12 years. The animosity between ethnic Indians and indigenous Fijians is caused by the former’s control of economic power. The tourism industry too is virtually controlled by ethnic Indians, who also own big factories and farms.

The United Nations as well as the Commonwealth should pressurize the head of state, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, to restore democracy as early as possible. Sanctions should be imposed if the advice is not heeded.

Yours faithfully,
Indu Bhusan Bose, Jamshedpur

Sir — It is hard to subscribe to the view that “passion for a separate identity is the Indian emigrants’ bane” (“The ugly Indian”, May 28). It is too much to expect immigrants to shed their cultural identity and integrate fully with the locals. Indian society is perhaps the best example of several communities coexisting with their distinctive characteristics. Why don’t ethnic Fijians themselves come forward for interaction? Anxiety to retain genetic and racial characteristics is common to all human beings.

Yours faithfully,
Anantadeb Banerjee, Tarakeswar

Sir — The Indian government should lodge an official protest with the Fijian government as well as the international bodies against the treatment meted out to the minority ethnic Indians in the island country. If persuasion fails, the UN should not hesitate to lead a military operation to free the hostages and bring back normalcy in the country. The ethnic Fijians must remember that division of the country on ethnic lines will be nothing short of committing political harakiri.

Yours faithfully,
Shabbir Ahmed, Calcutta

Sir — Fiji’s rebel leader, George Speight, may have taken a cue from Indian leaders like Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and others of the National Democratic Alliance. Speight has as much disregard for Mahendra Chaudhry’s foreign birth as these leaders had for Sonia Gandhi’s. It is time to realize that dirty tricks such as these, including ultranationalism, are the prime weapons in the armour of ideologically and intellectually bankrupt politicos.

Yours faithfully,
K. Chaudhuri, Calcutta

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