In his hands
Russian vision
Guns of Sierra Leone
Letters to the Editor

 
 
IN HIS HANDS 
 
 
 
 
An individual is never more important than the historical process with which his name is associated. But he may be a symbol of the process. Thus the name of Mr Manmohan Singh is inextricably linked to the process of opening up of the Indian economy and of dismantling the socialist scaffolding. It was under his stewardship of the finance ministry that the first and many of the crucial decisions were taken. Liberalization was his blueprint. Even those who are critics of Mr Singh for not hastening the reform process do not deny him the credit for having kicked off the whole thing. Thus eyebrows are bound to be raised when the Congress, Mr Singh’s own party, forms a committee, without Mr Singh, to review its economic policy. There is the immediate suspicion that the Congress is considering deviating from the path of reforms. This suspicion is grounded on two things. First, the uneasiness of many Congress leaders with economic reforms. These leaders still advocate the Nehruvian brand of socialism and they believe that the Congress’s electoral debacles were caused by the reforms that Mr Singh initiated as these were anti-poor. The second reason for the suspicion is the presence in the committee of important Congressmen who are known for their open hostility to economic reforms. It is well known that men like Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar, Mr Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, Mr Arjun Singh and Mr A.K.Antony — all of whom are present in the committee — have been trying to bring back socialism to the Congress ideology and rhetoric.

There can be no doubt that the Congress today finds itself in a political corner. From India’s number one political party it has been reduced to one of the many voices in the political arena. There has been no proper analysis within the party of the reasons that led to this remarkable decline. On the contrary, the reforms — and inter alia, Mr Singh — have been made scapegoats. The situation has been compounded by the president of the Congress who does not know her own mind or at any rate does not speak it. The review committee is a kind of surrender to a pressure group which wants to take back the Congress to its pre-reform economic agenda. In many ways, this is a suicidal effort: it opens up the possibility for the Bharatiya Janata Party to run away with the Congress’s sails. By reaffirming its commitment to economic reforms, the Congress can politically score over the BJP by claiming that the ruling party is only implementing policies that the Congress started. To turn anti-reforms at the present juncture will be courting the antediluvian. Nobody in the Congress knows the Indian economy better than Mr Singh. Economic affairs should be left solely in his hands. Leaders peddling populism can take the party backwards, not forward.    


 
 
RUSSIAN VISION 
 
 
 
 
Mr Boris Yeltsin may receive future praise for appointing a successor, Mr Vladimir Putin, who gives every indication of being as sober minded as Mr Yeltsin was vodka influenced. Mr Putin made his first state of the nation address to both houses of the Russian parliament this weekend. The new Russian leader gave a blunt speech describing the nightmarish condition of his nation. He was also clear the Russian state was the cause of his country’s failures. And that the market would have to be Russia’s saviour. “An inefficient state is the main reason for our long and deep crisis. I am absolutely convinced of this,’’ he said. His recipe for rebuilding Russia would have pleased any classical liberal: “Less administration, more entrepreneurial freedom, freedom to produce, to trade, to invest.’’ He blamed a combination of high taxes, whimsical bureaucrats and criminals for obstructing economic growth.

Mr Putin expressed no nostalgia for or interest in the Soviet era. But he also repudiated a part of Mr Yeltsin’s legacy. Mr Yeltsin held Russia together by handing over huge swathes of authority to regional and local governments. The result was administrative chaos. The 89 regional satraps refused to acknowledge federal authority — even to the point of ignoring the national judiciary. Mr Putin is determinedly trying to push through legislation to curb this authority. The regions have fought back but have already signalled a willingness to compromise. Mr Putin’s strongest statement regarding Russian unity is his perseverance with the war in Chechnya. The other rivals to the authority of Moscow are the so called “oligarchs” — half criminal businessmen who dominate much of the economy and the media. It is doubtful the president will take on the oligarchs, but he has signalled his displeasure with them. Western critics have been wary of Mr Putin’s tough guy streak — his attacks on regional autonomy, attempts to censor the internet and crackdown on oligarch controlled media. Mr Putin seems to be a liberal authoritarianism, a Peter the Great type, who will push reforms from above. This may not be too bad a thing for Russia. Russia, as Mr Putin acknowledges, is still heading southward on every front. While there are limits to Mr Putin’s mix of an open economy and a repressive state, Russia’s decrepitude is such that it will be some time before the contradiction starts to jam the works. Mr Putin is no demagogue. He blames Russia’s ills on no one but itself. He also says democracy must be the eventual, if gradual, goal of a “strong and sure” Russia. Perhaps most important is that Mr Putin seems determined to implement what he says. As soon as he completed his speech, he waded into the assembled legislators to persuade them to pass pending laws on reforms.    


 
 
GUNS OF SIERRA LEONE 
 
 
BY J.N. DIXIT
 
 
The predicament faced by the Indian contingent of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone has generated concern in India. India is perhaps one of the few countries which has been a participant in UN peacekeeping operations off and on continuously over the last 55 years of the existence of the UN. Indian military contingents have functioned as UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, in Gaza, in Cyprus and in Korea in the Fifties and the Sixties, and more recently, we have been involved in peacekeeping operations of the UN in Cambodia, Somalia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Haiti and lastly, in Sierra Leone.

The 21 Indian soldiers who were taken hostage by the anti-government Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone were released because of the mediation by Liberia in the last week of June, after nearly five weeks of detention. Another 245 Indian soldiers remain surrounded by cadres of this same group. Instead of being engaged in maintaining peace, the UN peacekeeping force, especially the Indian contingent, is in a confrontationist predicament with one of the parties engaged in the year long civil war in Sierra Leone.

The UN security council got involved in the Sierra Leone crisis from October 22, when the security council in its 4,054th meeting decided to establish a UN mission in Sierra Leone to send its military personnel there. It is also well known that, apart from internal civil strife, west African countries like Liberia and Nigeria are involved in the domestic political imbroglio of Sierra Leone. The UN peacekeeping force is commanded by an Indian general. So India has a special role to play in developments in that country, developments which at present are not very palatable.

Some historical background and analysis of the current developments would be relevant. Sierra Leone has been enmeshed in a violent civil war since 1999. The duly constituted government of Sierra Leone faced violent opposition from a group calling itself the Revolutionary United Front. The levels of violence reached such a threshold that the Sierra Leone government asked for assistance from west African states.

The economic community of west African states led by Nigeria tried to bring the conflict to an end but did not succeed. Consequently, the political situation was brought to the notice of the UN security council under chapter 6 of the UN charter which relates to the pacific settlements of disputes in a situation where the dispute is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security in that region.

The crisis was initially sought to be managed by a west African peacekeeping force. But it did not succeed because of the partisan and political affinities of the countries involved in the Sierra Leone crisis. Consequently, the security council took a decision to send a multinational UN peacekeeping force. A little over 13,000 troops from nearly 32 countries stand deployed under the command of the Indian general, Major General Vijay Jaitley.

This contingent of the UN troops has units from a number of African countries, from the Asian countries mentioned above and from the United Kingdom. Indian forces constitute a major component of these UN troops, accounting for a little over one-fifth of the total forces deployed. India has sent nearly 2,500 personnel for this peacekeeping operation. It was the UN secretary-general who desired an Indian to be in overall command of the operation.

It was also the considered assessment of the UN secretariat that Indian troops should constitute a major portion of the UN peacekeeping contingent. This was because of India’s long and successful record of peacekeeping operations under the UN umbrella and, more importantly, because of India’s credibility as an impartial entity whenever it has been deployed by the UN for peacekeeping in different parts of the world.

Unlike most previous occasions when India sent troops for peacekeeping operations, our troops and its commander have been subjected to controversy and physical pressures in Sierra Leone due to the following reasons. First and foremost, both Sierra Leone authorities and the rebel RUF have resiled from the commitments which they gave regarding conditions under which the UN peacekeeping force was to operate. The Sierra Leone government’s arrest of the leader of the RUF, Foday Sankoh, has put the fat in the fire.

As mentioned in the beginning, 245 Indian soldiers remain surrounded by RUF rebels at Kailahum. While 21 Indian soldiers taken hostage have been disarmed, the larger contingent of the 245 Indian soldiers are in the predicament of a tenuous stand-off with the rebels. The rebels have demanded the release of their leader and their cadres in the custody of the Sierra Leone authorities as a condition for lifting the siege against the larger Indian military contingent.

Parallel to this tense drama was the unwarranted controversy created by the UN secretary-general and west African governments about the Indian peacekeeping force. The secretary-general made statements which were obliquely critical of the manner in which General Jaitley was performing his duties and conducting operations. The heads of state and government of west African countries, in a resolution adopted by the ECOWAS asserted that the Indian commander, not being familiar with west African conditions, had mismanaged the operations and that he should be replaced by a commander from the west African region. Even more important, this resolution suggested that the mutlinational peacekeeping force should be replaced by a regional west African peacekeeping force.

The secretary-general has made amends for his initial criticism in the face of strong protests from the Indian government and military establishment. But the combined opposition of west African governments continues. A special delegation led by the director general, military operations, of the Indian army, Lieutenant General N.C. Vij, and consisting of representatives of our defence and foreign ministries, is now in Sierra Leone and is proceeding to New York to get Indian military personnel out of their present predicament.

The discussions have been inconclusive so far though the UN has demanded their unconditional release and restoration of the freedom of movement to the peacekeeping force. The stand of the west African governments is patently irrational because it was their failure to manage a regional crisis which resulted in their accepting the presence of a multinational UN peacekeeping force. It is also clear that the UN secretariat did not clearly define the terms of reference of the Sierra Leone peacekeeping operations. Neither did it seek guarantees that the disputing parties in Sierra Leone would abide by the obligations which they undertook to ensure the smooth operation of the UN peacekeeping force.

Major General Jaitley has acted with consummate tact and restraint despite the Indian forces being in danger. He has sufficient coercive force at his command to take corrective action against the RUF. But he has chosen the more rational path of negotiations. It is the responsibility of the UN secretary-general to ensure that the regional forces of west Africa do not question the credibility, the impartiality, understanding, and motivations of the Indian commander of the peacekeeping force.

The manner in which the UN resolves the impasse in Sierra Leone would be a litmus test for the advisability and practicability of UN peacekeeping operations to manage internal conflict situations of member states. Besides, despite India’s longstanding commitment to be a participant in UN peacekeeping operations, our Sierra Leone experience should make us pause to reexamine the criteria and conditions under which India should participate in UN peacekeeping operations in future, especially when no tangible interest of India is affected by the situations into which India is invited.

The author is former foreign secretary of India    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Not male gaze alone

Sir — Going by the article, “Agony and ecstasy” (July 9), it appears that sportswomen not being able to take off their T-shirts in public while celebrating their triumph is a big “disadvantage” for them. This is certainly a bizarre way of equating sportswomen with their male counterparts. Surely, when a sportsman exposes his bare chest in front of the audience, and it is thought of as sexy and cute, who else is responding but the women in the “audience”? This is a psycho-social aspect of spectator sports that cannot be ignored. Apparently, we are to consider taking off clothes in public a way of treating people as desexualized individuals. Then why consider the issue within the paradigm of sports alone? Surely instances of this seeming disadvantage are strewn everywhere around us. What about a woman taking off her clothes in films or on stage? When a human being takes off his or her clothes, it is not possible to ignore the sex he or she belongs to. The individual becomes the object of a specific kind of gaze. This is true for both sexes. Why cry foul over a non-issue?

Yours faithfully,
Saswati Das Gupta, via email

Sold on the idea

Sir — The Centre’s decision to close down six loss-making public sector units must be lauded (“Six sick units on way to morgue”, June 21). The government, which is prioritizing divestment in the industrial sector now, has done well to agree with the Board for Financial and Industrial Reconstruction that it is impractical to incur further losses by continuing to run these sick units.

That there was no other option but to privatize Air India, which ran into huge losses — that of about Rs 1,000 crore — indicates that divestment is here to stay. Much of the plodding on of the bleeding PSUs must be attributed to the malfunctioning of the BIFR. It is a matter of shame that more than half of the centrally financed PSUs have been identified as “sick”. The Steel Authority of India Limited, once a large profitmaking unit, runs at huge losses today, the loss being Rs 1,573 crore in 1998-99, and Rs 2,450 crore in 1999-2000. SAIL’s Alloy Steels Plant and Indian Iron and Steel Company in West Bengal, Salem Steel Plant in Tamil Nadu, and the Visvesvaraya Iron and Steel Company in Karnataka, as well as a few other small plants should be immediately privatized or shut down, according to the suggestion of the consultancy firm, Mckinsey and Company.

All the 24 PSUs funded by the West Bengal government are also running huge losses. But the Left Front government is indifferent to this. In fact, there is still some disgruntlement among certain quarters of the state cabinet about privatization. The cut in subsidies on kerosene, public distribution system foodgrains, liquid petroleum gas cylinders and urea has been a fait accompli. Why is it difficult for the majority in the country, especially a certain section of the cabinet, to acknowledge that the policy of divestment is a financial and political reality today?

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

Sir — The government’s decision to sell its holdings in 33 PSUs this year is unfortunate (“33 on the block in selloff flurry”, 24 June). That the Centre has given the nod for the sale of companies like Container Corporation and State Trading Corporation reflects the inefficiency of governments both past and present. With such huge stakes — 40 per cent of the Shipping Corporation, 51 per cent of Hind Insect, and 33 per cent of Hind Organic stakes being sold off — one knows that all is not well with the economic policies of the present government. The very word, “divestment” appears unethical. It is completely opposed to the principles of economic growth. A son who sells his father’s property for bizarre reasons can only be seen as a squanderer.

True, many PSUs are incurring huge losses, to the extent of being a burden on the economy. However, it is ruthless and callous of the government to shirk its responsibility by selling off these units. If this goes on, there will be no further opportunity to better the economy.

The decision of the cabinet committee on divestment to sell off the 14 PSUs should be enough to raise questions about the motives of the government. Malfunctioning has resulted in turning some PSUs into sick entities, while in some others, profitmaking has been prioritized by the government. Only a bad workman quarrels with his tools. Is it not wise to kill the disease rather than throwing away the patient?

Yours faithfully,
Dandeswar Saikia, Assam

Under city lights

Sir — The report, “Court clamp down on para cricket by night” (June 28) was disheartening. If we oppose the light and sound that go with the game on the streets, we might as well go hammer and tongs at the sound that accompanies vehicular movement throughout the night. It disturbs sleep, particularly for those who live close to the busy intersections of the city. With every bit of Calcutta being engulfed by the rapidly expanding concrete jungle, it won’t be long before the city’s residents fight each other for a bit of fresh air, leave alone some greenery.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. For the middle classes, which cannot cough up the exorbitant rates charged by the larger grounds, the street is the only playground for youngsters. Instead of clamping down, we should encourage them to pursue their talents. Who knows if there isn’t a Sourav Ganguly in the making, right there on the streets?

Yours faithfully,
Debapriya Bhadury, Madhyamgram

Sir — If I remember correctly, there is already a law dating back to the British period which prohibits playing games, especially cricket, football and hockey on the streets of Calcutta. In my younger days, we used to ferry bamboo goal posts from our houses to the playground every day because of this ban.

The court has imposed a partial ban on cricket. Other games like football are often violent, hurting passersby, besides disrupting peace. Players have the gall to continue with the game after serious accidents, as if nothing much has happened. The court should have banned all games for all time and imposed strict penalties for violation.

Yours faithfully,
R.H. Putran, Calcutta

Slip shod

Sir — Amit Roy’s article, “Eye on England” (June 18) contains an error. Jaya Bachchan (nee Bhaduri) has been mentioned as the daughter of Tapan Kumar Bhaduri. The name of her father, a journalist and litératteur of great repute, is Tarun Kumar Bhaduri.

Yours faithfully,
Debal Kumar Chakravarty, Calcutta

Sir — In the review by Prakriti Basu, “Not forgetting the rains” (June 16), Anirban Sangeet Sammelan has been mentioned as Anirban Kala Sangam. Also, the review mentions that the second day’s programme, on June 10, started with “another sarod recital” by Deba Prasad Chakroborty. The artist’s recital was on the sitar.

Yours faithfully,
Sachin Basak, Calcutta

Sir — The caption of the picture showing prisoners of the Birsa Munda Central Jail singing on the death centenary of the tribal hero mentions him as a Santhal (“Drummer men”, June 13). But the leader was a Munda.

Yours faithfully,
Ila Dutt, Calcutta

Sir — The Diary item, “Investigation into those little grey cells” (June 10) says the Mossad was set up in 1848. The correct year is 1951. The state of Israel came into being only in 1948.

Yours faithfully,
Nirmal Sarkar, Calcutta

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