Editorial/ Soldiers in track suits
Private lives, public deeds
The Telegraph/ Diary
Letters to the editor

The Olympic Games are imbued with military images and symbols. Greek mythology is, of course, at the root of this. The marathon, in many ways the centre piece of track and field events, is named after the battle of Marathon; the news of the battle was carried by a runner over a very long distance. Shades of ancient battles are visible in such events as throwing the javelin and the discus. One assumes that the test of running short distances very fast harks back to a period when men needed to cultivate this skill to avoid arrows, stones and other projectiles on the battlefield. The military ambience is evident in many of the rituals as well. Events for men and women are segregated. Teams, like armies, are organized as nations. Winners stand like soldiers while their national flag is unfurled and their national anthem played by a brass band. A military tattoo is what comes to mind as one watches the opening march past. It is not surprising that one Adolf Hitler was enamoured by the pomp and splendour of the Berlin Olympics in 1936. It is also perhaps in the fitness of things that the United States and the former Soviet Union — two superpowers — have dominated the Olympics in the recent past. It is also significant that the erstwhile German Democratic Republic is the nation that has the best ever record in terms of medal tally. Military might and regimental discipline seem to be closely related to success in the Olympic games.

It is always said that sports helps to nurture the spirit of competition. There is an element of truth in this. But the way the Olympic games are organized would suggest that at the core of it lies a spirit of conflict rather than of competition. The very idea of organizing a sporting event in which nations, rather than teams or individuals, compete is enough to breed unhealthy jingoism. The emphasis on nations tend to perpetuate the myth that only amateurs can participate in the Olympics. The fact of the matter is that most athletes who take part in the games are maintained on state subsidies. The athlete earns his fame on the taxpayer’s money. To call him an amateur is the same as arguing that a bureaucrat is not a professional because he is paid from the state exchequer. The Olympic Games acquire, through popular enthusiasm and media hype, some of the characteristics of gladiatorial combat. It is telling that the Sydney Olympics, in an exhibition of anachronism, have put an image of the Roman Colosseum on the new Olympic medals. “War minus the shooting’’ — George Orwell’s description of sports, comes immediately to mind.

There exists a lot of glib talk about the tradition of the Olympic Games. It is conveniently forgotten that this is a new and invented tradition. Between AD 396, when the last Olympic Games of classical times were held, and 1896, when a Frenchman, Baron de Coubertin, reinvented the games, the so called tradition was non-existent. The modern Olympic Games, like all reinvented traditions, carried some of the relics of the original one. Thus the presence still of the javelin, the hammer, the discus and the decathlon. Thus the refusal to admit modern ball games like one day cricket. There is an unwillingness — again this is common to traditions that have been refurbished — to admit change, to recognize that many of the rituals and practices have become outmoded and ridiculous. The quasi-sacred air that surrounded the classical Olympics has now become polluted by drugs and the steps taken by the authorities to stop drug abuse. The very prevalence of drug-testing confirms that the amateur status of sportsmen and the ambience of goodwill associated with the Olympics are things of a mythical past. Olympic games are a part of modern life but another attribute of modernity, critical consciousness, has not been adequately directed to the frenzy that grips nations every four years. There is a case for bringing to an end national rivalry in the name of sports.    

Commentators have wondered, with unfailing regularity, about the fact that we seem to be obsessed with the public activities of our political leaders, while in many other countries the obsession is with what their leaders do in private. Are the Bharatiya Janata Party politicos holding secret talks with Congress netas in Uttar Pradesh? Swarms of journalists will hang around the places where they are supposed to meet, flunkies will be suborned to drop a hint or two — it’s not so much because of the predilection of the reporters and their news editors as the assessment by both of what their readers want.

But elsewhere in the world it’s another story. Is the president dropping his pants before a young woman working in his office? The press secretary is besieged, the girl’s house or apartment is surrounded by television cameras and photographers, and here again, it’s not that the journalists are sex-crazy, or their news editors; it’s just that they jointly think that this is what their readers and viewers want. And so it goes.

We don’t have the aggressive, intrusive paparazzi; but we have, or at least the newspapers and television news channels have, contacts, maintained sometimes at considerable expense and trouble, for that little hint, that Inside Story. Often it’s fairly apparent, but identities are kept carefully concealed. You never know who the Deep Throat in the office is.

Some decades ago discussions in the then cabinet of the state government were being regularly reported in a particular newspaper. After a few weeks of this, the chief minister brought this to the notice of the cabinet and to the officers present at the meeting, and emphasised the need to respect the confidentiality of discussions, while the decisions would be and indeed were communicated to the press as soon as the meeting was over. The next day the same newspaper dutifully carried the chief minister’s comments to his colleagues and officers. Deep Throat was clearly not impressed by his appeal.

So what is it, then, that makes for this difference in what the public want by way of news ? There have been many theories; some have pointed, not without smugness, at India’s natural sense of propriety in such matters, others have maintained that it all has to do with what sort of pressure is brought on the editor to carry one story or the other, and there never is pressure to carry such stories because every politician has similar skeletons in his cupboard. Perhaps both are partially true, and there may be other equally plausible explanations.

What does seem fairly obvious, though, is that it has to do with the degree of affluence in a given society. A society in need is a society desperately looking for ways in which it can improve its quality of life; politicians promise that they will do just that, usher in a better life for all. Not vast riches, but a good, worry-free, or at least relatively worry-free existence. They promise to make radical changes. To do things, to make things happen that will change things, bring in some degree of prosperity. Consequently, people tend to hang on to whatever these political leaders say or do once they are in office, or are in the legislature. That is what is of concern, of interest, because that may, just may, bring in changes which will affect them directly. In an affluent society there is a more or less universally accepted belief that conditions can be altered, if at all, only marginally. The general affluence will continue. There will of course be the poor, but their numbers will inevitably dwindle; there will be the sick and the old, but there will be enough to give them some sort of care. The difference promised by politicians may be in the level and nature of care, not in the provision of care itself. In any event, the changes will come irrespective of whether or not the political leaders make an effort, because there is an inherent logic, it is felt, in the good life that it must get better, unless some economic disaster occurs.

So the machinery of the state grinds on; everyone knows it does, and that’s how things logically improve. If a newer and better model of a garbage truck is introduced, the politician would not have invented it. He would have nodded briefly in approval at some meeting to a carefully drafted proposal prepared by officials. If the machinery is slow, the officials are blamed; if something positive results then they quickly claim the credit.

And life in the affluent societies goes on, placidly, with nothing to interest people unless it is a story of a public figure dropping his pants before a nubile young secretary, or a politician discovered in bed with a man, or a boy. Suddenly the tenor of life becomes electric; newspapers sell thousands of copies, television news bulletins clock up record viewerships.

In a poor society the one obsession is – “Will he really bring in the good life ?” Some political leaders cleverly adopt an uncomprehending idiot’s character, assuming that the masses will relate to such a figure more easily. Laloo Yadav is an example of this. But they fascinate because of the belief that they can do things, they can change things. And when they don’t, there is general unrest, anger and violence, as some other political leader seeks to secure the faith of the society in need. It is natural, then, that private affairs or liaisons are impatiently brushed aside. Not corruption, because corruption, the appropriation of public funds is seen as betrayal. Girl friends, mistresses and boy friends, if any, arouse no interest.

They still remain political leaders who do, who change things. And they wait. With that patience that is one of our most enduring characteristics, they wait, till it is apparent that this leader will not or cannot do anything for them; and then the anger spills over.

To be fair, everywhere people will look to the political leader who acts, who actually changes things, and then will have little time for anything else. An example is Margaret Thatcher. She did things, such as they were. But what people looked at her for was action — with eagerness, or loathing — but they looked at her for action. The fascination was for what she did in public, not what she did in bed.

It will be reasonable to assume that we will continue with our unceasing interest in politician-watching; watching what they do and say, hoping that something will happen as a consequence, something that will lead eventually to the good life, or a better quality of life. Employment, reasonable housing, paved roads, water, power, good seeds and fertilizer for farmers, schools, medical clinics — who knows? But it is for these that one watches these creatures, because there is, deep within all of us, a conviction, or perhaps a hope, that they can actually do something to improve the quality of life.

Perhaps, imperceptibly, all these will eventually come upon us; perhaps, with the passage of the years a better life will envelop most of society. It is then, when we have the leisure, and not quite so much to worry about, that the political leaders’ pants will be taken off, and the curiosities then revealed will fascinate us all.

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting    


In through the back door

In the early Sixties, the indomitable Jawaharlal Nehru got the scare of his life when he suddenly found the insipid opposition pouncing on him for allowing Voice of America to set up a couple of relay transmitters in India to extend its coverage. The permission was withdrawn. Cut to 2000. Nuclear powered Atal Behari Vajpayee has allowed the Australian media tycoon, Kerry Packer, to enter Indian homes through the backdoor. The state owned Doordarshan has sold two hours of its prime evening time on the Metro channel to Packer for riches worth Rs 59 crore. But why worry about cultural invasion if you already have a host of foreign satellite channels beaming into countless Indian homes? When even diehard communists are warming up to the West, why blame Vajpayee alone for changing his lines from the time he was leader of the opposition? Just sit back and enjoy the Packer show from September 11. At least it won’t strain your lachrymal glands, unlike the Doordarshan programmes.

Take another chance

How does it feel to eat one’s own words? Sushma Swaraj, the once loyal BJP leader now gone astray, who is currently on this diet, doesn’t feel too good about it. As has become a habit with her, she doesn’t miss a chance to jump on her former mentors in the BJP for making such a hash of what she thinks was a promising political career. The recent BJP conclave at Nagpur produced one such unmistakeable opportunity and Swaraj fell for it. But unlike the other instances, Swaraj is backtracking at great speed. For one, she is trying to make light of her no-holds-barred onslaught on the Vajpayee government by saying she said what she had to at a meeting that was supposed to be a “secret” get-together of party elders. But with a population of 60 senior members, it is difficult to pass off her trenchant criticism of the handling of the Kashmir affair and the unconditional release of the Latvian pilots involved in the Purulia arms drop case as light banter. So Sushma has changed tack. She now blames her adversaries for leaking news of her loud-mouthedness to the press. But why is she suddenly trying to play the good girl again? Some trace her contriteness to her anxiety of making a last attempt to be in the Vajpayee cabinet. The prime minister is expected to expand his ministry — yes, once again — after his return from the US. Never say die?

Too many demands

It is virtual war in the Kerala Congress. Veteran leader, K Karunakaran is threatening to switch boats unless his son, K Murlidharan, is made chief minister after the state assembly polls next year. Karunakaran also wants his daughter, Prema, to be made minister. This is one guarantee the Left Front has already given to Karunakaran in case he decided to ditch the Congress. And the old man is dangling it in front of his party for blackmail. Congresswallahs are obviously piqued. A.K. Antony, who has already hit the ceiling says, “He is demanding too many concessions and posts”. But the rest is more poignant. “Even the Nehru-Gandhi family members never had so many persons vying for posts at one point of time. In Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, Indira entered politics when he was about to die. Sanjay never held any official post and Rajiv was not made minister in the Indira era. Even now, there is only Sonia while Priyanka is waiting”. But unless there is an Emergency, India can handle only one Nehru-Gandhi at a time.

Showtime once more

The Packer-DD Metro is going places. It seems that the Australian tycoon, who is said to have lost nearly 20 million US dollars in in one of his gambling binges in Las Vegas recently, is all set to give stiff competition to his longtime rival, Rupert Murdoch. The site this time? Prime time Indian viewership. The grapevine is busy with whispers that Packer is coming up with a fitting response to Murdoch owned Star TV’s Kaun Banega Crorepati. After all, the game show hosted by Amitabh Bachchan on Star TV is a runaway success and has made Star TV’s fortune in India for a while to come. Streets are empty of pedestrians, roads free of traffic jams and shops crying out for customers when the show of the millennium is on. So Packer’s media managers are on the prowl, looking for a star host for a much bigger game show in which double the prize money will be offered to the winners. There is one big flaw in the plan, though. Packer’s game show might be bigger, but are his managers likely to get hold of an Indian star bigger than Bachchan? How’s Bachchan junior doing? A senior star with a real following might be better. So one of the names under consideration for hosting Packer’s show is that of the Bollywood hero, Shah Rukh Khan.

Footnote/ Prayers unanswered

A royal snub. That is what didi gave her cabinet colleague and defence minister, George Fernandes, on his whirlwind tour of the trouble-torn areas of Midnapore. Mamata Banerjee was not only not present at the helipad to receive Fernandes, she even declined to accompany him and spent the day gossiping with some of her aides. What ails didi? Trinamool sources say Mamata is upset because she wanted no less than the Union home minister, LK Advani, to visit the disturbed areas. In fact, after coming back to Calcutta she even confided that she might resort to a dharna in front of the PM’s residence after his return. Mamata is all fire and brimstone because of George ruling out the possibility of imposing president’s rule in the state. Fernandes even stopped short of declaring the five south West Bengal districts as disturbed, which she has been demanding for months. Party workers believe there will be an agitation to bring in Advani after the pujas. Detractors feel this is didi’s way of stealing a march on state BJP leaders who were the first to harp on Advani’s presence. Who’ll be blessed with the honours?    


Selling a shine

Sir — The backbreaking labour of nameless, faceless shoeshine boys is being used by a television advertisement to add glamour to a brand of motorcycles. A young man on this shining machine sticks out his expensively shod feet before the face of a young child labourer. The silent boy shines the shoes and the man rides away on his machine of arrogant power. My eight year old son has reacted strongly to this image of young boys shining shoes of adults. He wants to know why adults cannot polish their own shoes.
Yours faithfully,
Anchita Ghatak, Calcutta

Substandard fun

Sir — In the article in “Etc” (“Wanted: innocence”, Sept 1), Arjun Chakraborty writes with elan about the deterioration in the quality of children’s films. The piece compels the reader to read till the end.

Gone are the days when Satyajit Ray made his classic films for children. Sonar Kella, Goopi Gayen Bagha Bayen, Hirak Rajaar Deshe and other such films have left a lasting impression on the minds of everyone who has seen them, whether or not they were adults or children when they watched the film.

They remain as charming as they were 20 years ago; their novelty will never wear off. Nowadays, films are made on completely different lines. The directors are continuously playing to the galleries and they invariably supply the masses with what they seek: huge dollops of sex and violence.

This sorry state of affairs is further complicated by the emergence of the so-called family movies that have made a comeback in recent years. Films like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Hum Saath Saath Hain, although ostensibly family movies, can hardly be considered to be children’s movies. The government should seriously encourage and fund the making of children’s films. Otherwise, this kind of cinema might soon become an extinct category.

Yours faithfully,
Susobhan Sarkar,

Sir — India is one of the largest producers of feature films in the world. But in quality and quantity, it trails far behind countries like Romania, Hungary, Denmark and Mexico.

There is no dearth of talented directors in the country. Directors like Tapan Sinha, Gautam Ghosh and Govind Nihalani have all directed children’s films, but their endeavours require support and opportunites which the government is best equipped to provide. Children’s films should be given more importance than they are.

Yours faithfully,
Bhupen Bose, Calcutta

Sir — Should only the authorities be blamed for the dearth of good films for the young? Are the directors themselves interested?

Yours faithfully,
Poulomi Das, Calcutta

Slow to act

Sir — The interminable indecisiveness that the state government has demonstrated in the implementation of the West Bengal Premises Tenancy Act (1997), despite the fact that the act has already been approved and returned to the state government for implementation by the president, is an indication of the government’s slackness.

The government’s plans of sending the bill to a select committee for a third time is also undesirable. The bill should be enacted immediately. Amendments can be contemplated later. The present attitude of the government is aggravating the crisis.

Yours faithfully,
D.P. Chatterjee, Calcutta

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