Editorial/Retire with grace
Civilized under duress
Letters to the Editor

Old soldiers never die, they fade away. Politicians, West Bengal’s chief minister, Mr Jyoti Basu, triumphantly declared, never retire. Presumably, they only grow senile and lose their marbles. But jokes apart, Mr Basu has inadvertently put his finger on one of the most serious problems facing the world of politics in India. The fact that politicians do not retire in India has transformed the country’s political arena into something akin to a geriatric ward. This hardly ever produces the best results. Mr Basu’s own plight is a revealing one. He turned 86 this July. On his own admission, his health is no longer what it used to be. He tires easily; he is unable to attend office full time and sheer age has brought down his concentration span. He has expressed his desire to retire more than once. But his party and other political compulsions keep Mr Basu on the chief minister’s chair. What is worse, his party has extracted a commitment from him that he will lead the campaign in the next assembly elections. From these some immediate conclusions follow: West Bengal has a reluctant chief minister; West Bengal has a chief minister whose mind, because of age and health, no longer has the sharp edge it had when Mr Basu was at his prime. His long tenure must be frustrating the ambitions of those within the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who have their eyes on the chief ministership. It is not just a case for saying that if Mr Basu wants to retire he should be allowed to do so, there is a case for saying something more. Politicians should have a retirement age since change is always better than stagnation.

Politics is no longer something that some people pursue as a pastime. It is no longer the hobby of amateurs with leisure and resources to spare. Politics is now a vocation which some people choose as a career option. The reasons for such a choice vary from individual to individual: ideology, the desire to do something good for society, the quest for limelight and celebrity status and, last but not the least, the lure of power. This professionalization of politics has been all for the good. It has brought serious committed people to politics, though these gains have at times been offset by the shenanigans of the occasional bounder. But the trend towards professionalization should logically encourage the enforcement of a retirement age for politicians. The latter do not agree with this because they want to cling to power and the privileges that power brings. In other words, they are eager to protect their vested interests. This is precisely the reason for arguing in favour of a retirement age. Politicians who have grown grey in the art of the possible develop entrenched interests that act as barriers to change. This creates an atmosphere of complacency which can be shattered with the introduction of an age bar. Such a bar will make for greater efficiency and more transparency.

Apart from encouraging politicians to create and nurture vested interests, the absence of a retirement age makes politicians trade on their goodwill and image rather than on current levels of achievement. Winston Churchill’s second term as prime minister in the Fifties is a good example. For the better part of his years in office, Churchill was not quite up to the job because of his declining health. But he carried on as the figurehead and because his name meant something to Britons. The real task of governance was carried on by Anthony Eden and Rab Butler. Similarly, with Mr Basu. He is the chief minister because of his name and his image. He still means something to the people of West Bengal. Many of his responsibilities have been delegated to his deputy, Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya. This is not how things should be, but this is how they are because society and politicians are not quite willing to accept that politicians deserve to retire and that they should be made to retire. Mr Basu says that his ilk do not retire. True, but he himself, with constant pleas for retiring, is the living proof of the need for a retirement age for politicians.    

Last Sunday the bar and restaurant at Tollygunge Club quite rightly declined to serve a young American musician because he was in shorts. Though Gavriel Heine, who was here to conduct a Calcutta Foundation concert, did not create a scene as publicity-seeking Indian celebrities have done in similar circumstances, he was understandably put out.

For him, shorts were a matter of convenience. He was not trying to make a phoney political or philosophical statement. He felt that educated, well-heeled adults who join an exclusive club should be able to decide for themselves what attire combines comfort with decorum on a hot holiday afternoon. He had to be told that taste and discretion may suffice in societies where a sense of propriety is the strongest determinant of individual behaviour. But not in India. Not when it comes to alien institutions like clubs, constitutions, courts, cantonments or colleges. Written rules are needed to protect them; moreover, those rules must constantly guard against infringement and erosion by those who believe that the purpose of their money, influence and cleverness is to evade what others must obey.

Rashtrapati Bhavan highlights this vital difference between European and Indian mores. Jawaharlal Nehru told the Constituent Assembly that like the British monarch, India’s president would also enjoy unbridled theoretical power but would, in practice, act only on the advice of his ministers. Spelling this out would demean the highest office in the land. Dignity demanded convention instead of regulation. After all, no one tried to tie down George VI. Indira Gandhi, with a sharper understanding of Indian permissiveness, changed all that, circumscribing presidents with a list of do’s and don’ts. Even then, her son and Zail Singh could not agree on what the Constitution meant when it said that the prime minister and cabinet held office at the president’s “pleasure”. The word has an altogether different connotation in translation.

Nehru idealistically expected other Indians to be as civilized as he was. A realist like Lee Kuan Yew took it for granted that only fines, jail and the lash would force Singaporeans to adopt any social graces. There can be no doubt as to which society is today more orderly, more mindful of civic obligations and closer to the Western ethic. One can sneer – and with some justification — that fear is the constraint that stops Singaporeans from defecating in public places. But that only heightens the contrast with India, underlining the anarchy that surfaces when fear is absent.

Those Western customs that are thought necessary or desirable must, therefore, be enforced under pain of punishment. The permanent imposition of Section 144 in the well of the house might, for instance, prevent legislators from assaulting the speaker. Another law could fine those who tear out microphones. Attorney-generals and law ministers must be forbidden to squabble. It should be impressed on columnists that it is criminal to purloin documents of state. All this has to be driven home with Singaporean methods. Assumptions of, and appeals to, decency are of no avail when a community of players, as opposed to the other thing, gloats on shortcuts and loopholes as symbols of achievement.

Sometimes even rules are no deterrent. Ian Stephens writes that he was “given to understand” — nothing more explicit, mind you — before he became editor of The Statesman in 1942 that editorial policy “wasn’t a board matter but essentially the editor’s business”. That was convention à la Nehru. It did not have to be set down in black and white in order to be respected. But when the paper changed hands in 1962, an elaborate set of formal rules was drawn up and a board of trustees specially constituted to guard those selfsame rights. Even that protective bulwark did not long survive the departure of the last British editor and the assumption of active and ingenious Indian ownership.

The plight of many Indian clubs, relics of the British raj, illustrates this conflict between natural urge and imported value. During all the years that I belonged to the National Liberal Club in London, I never once knew a contested committee election. Dexterous behind-the-scenes negotiations by the secretary always ensured that there were only as many candidates as vacancies. Contrast that with goings-on at the Calcutta Club, with which the National Liberal has reciprocal relations — the anonymous circulars, court intervention and suspension for misbehaviour. Bengalis have only three institutions left, an appellant for votes once told me, the High Court, the Kalibari and the Calcutta Club.

It would be unthinkable for familiar silver and artefacts to disappear from the Cosmos Club in Washington as from the Calcutta Club with no one turning a hair. The Bengal Club has not fared much better. I failed to even interest any club official a few years ago when two unique and priceless objects vanished – the receptionist’s desk with a little brass plate saying it had belonged to Thomas Babington Macaulay and an antique map of Calcutta that showed the club and which, too, had a plate with the name of the British member who had presented it. Others tell me of rare books sold by weight, silver carted away and distinctive panelling ripped out. Perhaps a club by-law should expel members who steal and committee members who turn a blind eye to such despoliation.

We have all heard of Metro commuters forcing a passenger who threw his ticket on the ground to pick it up and deposit it in the bin. Postal clerks used to scold customers who licked stamps and envelopes. Earlier, I remember voluntary wardens directing pedestrians to use only zebra crossings. All that lies in the past. Of course, standards have fallen worldwide since Queen Victoria’s surprised comment that railway tickets were an aspersion on the passenger’s integrity. But in India, it is not only a question of dishonesty. A difficulty with understatement, unspoken agreements and voluntary discipline blends with the boastful belief that there is merit in flouting established codes.

Foreigners sometimes encourage this complex. The travel writer, Paul William Roberts, was outraged because the Bengal Club secretary would not let him dine there (“We have rules. No guests without members”) but would probably not have dared to treat the Athenaeum like a restaurant. Another travel writer, Eric Newby, recorded how brandishing a letter of recommendation from Nehru provoked the Kanpur Club secretary’s chilly retort, “The prime minister is not a member of the Kanpur Club.” That was in 1963. Today, such an introduction might mean free life membership in some clubs but, happily and in spite of other flaws, the two incidents cited earlier indicate that Tollygunge and Bengal are not among them.

We have a choice with everything that the British left behind. Should they be abolished or retained? Should they be allowed to succumb to India? If so, to what extent? And will something of an institution’s character, which makes its retention worthwhile, suffer in the process? If an imported institution – parliament, university or whatever — is useful or affords pleasure to a defined constituency, clients and patrons must use it properly and be worthy of the traditions it enshrines. Given India’s ambience, this makes compulsion unavoidable. Singapore’s Tanglin Club has a sign on the front steps ordering members to switch off their cell phones, and Calcutta Club already stipulates compulsory ankle straps for sandals. Other rules can similarly be imposed.

If a dress code were not enforced, a member or guest would turn up one day in his natural garb of a loin cloth. Others would then take up patriotic cudgels to argue that what was good for Mahatma Gandhi should be good enough for lesser mortals. I can understand Gavriel Heine’s discomfiture. But nothing can be taken for granted in India that is Bharat, not yet quite Bihar.    


Eyeing greener pastures

Sir — Dissent within the Congress is nothing new. Particularly in West Bengal, where party satraps have Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress beckoning to them, Paresh Pal’s sacking won’t make anyone bat an eyelid (“Cong sacks Paresh Pal” August 3). There has already been an exodus from the state Congress to Banerjee’s party. And look what rewards the Trinamool Congress has fetched Subrata Mukherjee. No wonder he has welcomed Pal’s “move”. The Congress high command has sacked Pal for calling a strike last Monday, which was against the party’s decision. Perhaps the bandh was set up by Pal for the fulfilment of his wishes?

Yours faithfully,
Rima Sen, Calcutta

Unsettled score

Sir — As the report, “Court deals proof blow to settlers” (July 16) indicates, problems of immigration is a harsh reality India faces as it gets more prosperous than its neighbours — Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The United States faces a similar problem with a steady influx from Mexico, Canada and its neighbours.

What was politically encouraged in India for short term political gains by the left and the Congress has now snowballed into a national threat. Settlers in the country not only add to the population, but worse, indulge in anti-national activities. The judiciary has ruled firmly that mere possession of ration cards or identity cards issued by the Election Commission does not make a foreign national into an Indian. However, this should not mean we target illegal settlers and herd them across the border. A proper census has to be taken. Illegal foreigners have to be assured of their safety. There should be no fear of blackmail, police harassment or political exploitation. The nation must convince them that they are welcome to work in India. With the right attitude India will make the most of the talent of its immigrant population.

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

Sir — A couple of years ago, a group of people in West Bengal, backed by the left, physically prevented a contingent of the Maharashtra police from deporting a batch of illegal settlers from Bangladesh. The deportation had been ordered by a high court in Maharashtra. The Left Front has also been a critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena-led Maharashtra government’s policy on immigrants from Bangladesh. This is nothing surprising since the left itself encourages immigration from its eastern borders for electoral reasons.

Ration cards can at best be proof of residence at a particular address, not of citizenship. Thus regulations which require ration cards for verification in the course of issuing of passports for example, should be done away with. If ration cards are delinked from citizenship rights, a sizeable section of ration card holders in West Bengal and the Northeast will be found to be illegal settlers.

Yours faithfully,
R.H. Putran, Calcutta

Cattle fair

Sir — Granted that it was poverty which forced Pinky’s mother to sell her off to a 51 year old man (“12 year Pinky ‘sold’ in marriage”, July 24). But what was the police and the panchayat doing? Why wasn’t the “groom” arrested for marrying an underage girl? India might have progressed in science and technology, but its social conditions remain the same. This is primarily because of illiteracy, particularly in rural areas.

Yours faithfully,
Mili Das, Sindri

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