Editorial/ Basking in the cheers
The point of the party
The Telegraph/ Diary
Letters to the editor

The official leg of the Indian prime minister’s visit to the United States has started with the address to the US congress. What the visit was meant to accomplish is anyone’s guess. With US presidential elections coming up, nothing substantial was expected to materialize. However, since he had to address the United Nations millennium summit to neutralize Mr Pervez Musharraf, there was some sense in converting the visit into an official one, so as to extend the euphoria following Mr Bill Clinton’s visit. Arguably, the present government’s foreign policy is extremely US-centric and the prime minister’s office and ministry of external affairs were not going to let the opportunity pass. The Silicon Valley leg was dropped because of health reasons. So one has the millennium summit, addresses to business gatherings, the Asia Society speech and now, a speech to the US congress.

The refrain is a familiar one that cuts across all these. Don’t equate India with Pakistan. Since India is committed to nuclear disarmament, there is no reason to presume that south Asia is a cauldron. Two of the world’s largest democracies have a lot in common, including the desire to combat cross-border terrorism. But the refrain that transcends these is about India’s potential as an economic powerhouse. On an average, India has grown at 6.5 percent in the last 10 years, one of the highest rates of growth in the world. In the next 10 years, the intention is to double per capita income, implying an annual average growth rate of nine per cent. This also represents an opportunity for US business. Nonresident enterprise has contributed to growth of the American economy, including information technology. IT is a sector where there is enormous scope for cooperation, since India is in the process of opening up. But large sections of the world are deprived and the development/developing dichotomy shouldn’t increase. There needs to be a global dialogue on development and New Delhi can be the venue for the first summit.

There are thus implicit references to reforming the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and most important, the UN and the security council. There are also implicit references to removing constraints on access to dual use technology, in place since 1974 and not since 1998, as is commonly perceived to be the case. It is no coincidence that the US congress has passed a resolution urging that the remaining 1998 sanctions be lifted. These are minor ones. The major ones are the 1974 embargoes and these cannot be lifted until some progress has been made on the comprehensive test ban treaty. The overall message is that although there might be disagreements on nuclear disarmament and Kashmir, economic relationships can prosper. This message is no different from what India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the US has argued over the last two years. To drive this message home, there has to be a credible package of domestic economic reforms, so as to attract US business. Despite internal problems with the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee has tried to push the commitment to reform. This remains a vague promise unless something concrete is brandished. Mr Vajpayee has harped on infrastructure sectors like power and telecommunications and insurance and banking, apart from mentioning disinvestment in the oil sector. Given the withdrawal of some high profile foreign investors, power sector reforms will not be that easy to sell. Hence several announcements on opening up of telecom before the visit. Banking and insurance are old hats.

Perhaps a new selling point will be disinvestment in the oil sector. This has a new catalyst because of hikes in global oil prices and a resultant increase in the oil pool deficit. The inevitable hike in oil prices, which await the prime minister’s return, can naturally be linked with broader issues of oil sector reform. The visit on its own is not that important, despite the 21 cheers the congress gave the prime minister. What is important is the economic thrust and this is a success of Indian foreign policy that can’t be denied.    

When the Canadian diplomat, Arnold Smith, was appointed first secretary-general of the commonwealth amidst fears that the organization would founder on the wreckage of empire and the jagged rocks of ethnic and ideological conflict, a wise old owl in the British foreign and commonwealth office told me that no one need fear any longer for its survival. “If there’s one thing that the bureaucracy does well”, he said, “it’s to perpetuate its own life”.

Reading about the United Nations millennium bash — which was clearly Kofi Annan’s show — I was reminded of that observation. The impression projected was of a dynamic rebirth at a crucial juncture of history. Yet, September 2000 is no more significant than January 1992 when, too, an attempt was made to re-invent the world body. Or October 1995 when 178 national representatives addressed the general assembly’s 50th birthday celebrations. But the world needs a symbol, and the vast bureaucracy of the UN — which dazzlingly dwarfs the modest secretariat in London’s Marlborough House — must justify its existence.

This is not to dismiss the UN as irrelevant. Its usefulness is that of a parliament which, as E.M. Forster noted, “is often sneered at because it is a talking shop”. Forster believed in it precisely because it talked shop, because some speakers made a nuisance of themselves, and because if it did not publicize criticism, there were bound to be hushed up scandals. Undoubtedly, many minor disputes are dissolved through discussion on the floor of the general assembly or in the ante-rooms. Additionally, there is the sound service of many specialized agencies and, more and more lately, of peacekeeping operations.

What the UN is not and never can be is world government in embryo. How long that original hope survived I cannot tell, but even in 1945 Albert Einstein was quite adamant that the secret of the atom bomb should not be shared with the UN. He was prepared to divulge it only to a world government founded by what were the superpowers of the day — the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union. By deduction, he did not expect a world order to emerge out of a UN that cannot, by definition, exceed the sum total of the irreducible minimum that its members represent. Periodic attempts at finding a more positive raison d’être reflect the urges, not of the general assembly, but of the Big Five, representing the winning hand at the end of World War II.

In the circumstances, it would be folly to pin much hope on either the eight-page Millennium Declaration or the Security Council’s pledge to make the UN more effective “in addressing conflict at all stages from prevention to settlement to post-conflict peace-building”. Conflict resolution is certainly high on the list of priorities, but the end product must always disappoint because there is no unanimity of expectation. What Germany wants is not what Tuvalu wants. If the world could agree on what the UN should be and how it should conduct itself, there would be no reason at all for a UN.

Flushed with the success of Operation Desert Storm, George Bush made a bold bid to reshape the UN to serve the US’s purposes in a unipolar world. Unsurprisingly, John Major supported the initiative by calling the first ever Security Council — Britain was chairman that month — summit, and, surprisingly, François Mitterand supported it with the offer of a division of French troops as a permanent global force. P.V. Narasimha Rao, who attended the summit (India was then a non-permanent member of the Security Council) demurred. He felt that military action would infringe on the sovereignty of individual members unless it enjoyed general assembly sanction. For the same reason he firmly opposed intrusive action in defence of human rights.

The plan petered out not because India and China resisted it but because the existing charter could not allow the UN to act quickly and decisively in defence of what the Americans called good governance, democracy, human rights and the free market — all subjective matters that could easily have been used to extend and consolidate Pax Americana. Though the founding fathers did predict the need to revise and adjust the charter, which could not be called “a final or a perfect instrument”, as Harry Truman put it — this was too much the sole superpower’s agenda to win universal approval. No one could forget either that the US had treated the UN with scant respect during the Cold War years. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “theatre of the absurd” and exercised what Gerald Ford called the “tyranny of the majority”. It was “an inconsequential talk shop, the more so because the talk is usually directed against the US”.

No such complaint was voiced in the Fifties when the West and its allies dominated the general assembly. Objections were heard only after 1960, the year of decolonization, when 17 new members and a major resolution against colonialism turned the tide. Two-thirds of the 152 members were then “new or underdeveloped nations”, meaning they were Asian or African. Western dismissiveness of the world body after that was not without racial overtones. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s UN representative, was not the only high-powered American to think that the yardstick of a country’s political morality was whether or not it voted with the US at the UN. That arrogant presumptuousness dies hard. For all Bill Clinton’s fine rhetoric at the millennium summit, the US is still interested in the UN only to the extent that the world body serves American global aims.

It followed its own independent course in Somalia and Bosnia, disregarded the general assembly on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and still balks at the discipline of the Convention on the Law of the Sea which came into effect in 1994. Perhaps the most blatant example of American insistence on being more equal than others was evident in its attitude to the international criminal court.

When Clinton referred to the “UN structure of finances”, therefore, he cannot have forgotten that his country owes $1.7 billion. His strong advocacy of peacekeeping overlooked American ambivalence. The authors of the call on the wealthy to cancel the official debts of the poorest countries seem to have forgotten that the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit’s plea for aid to the tune of 0.7 per cent of the gross domestic product of the rich countries is nowhere near realization.

It might be unfair to single out the US. Every five-minute address to the millennium summit was just as self-serving, with Vladimir Putin taking advantage of the opportunity to campaign against “militarization of outer space”. The UN has always been up for grabs. That becomes an affront only when a junket such as the world witnessed last week pretends to more than exists. The UN is a hard rialto where demands, expectations, contributions and lobbying must be balanced to yield some benefit that can be called universal. Yes, the money and power of the rich do sustain the hopes of the poor.

Dawa Tsering, Bhutan’s former and long-serving foreign minister, told the New York Times during the 50th birthday ceremonies that “the big nations of the world could do without the UN. But without the UN, Bhutan would have no voice”. It did not matter that his speech was 171st in a list of 178, and that the hall was nearly empty by then. “Bhutan today exists on the razor’s edge,” he said. “Our culture is at risk. We could disappear. The speech is serious”. It had to be made to record that Bhutan, with few resources, is. That paradox suggests that Annan’s glittering party might have had a point after all. The UN cannot do without the major powers. But it is the small countries that cannot do without the UN.    


Playing ball

n So you thought the Alimuddin Street boys could only think of doom and how to hold on to Jyoti Basu’s dhoti? Wrong. A senior politburo member of the CPI(M) proves that such unworthy thoughts are far removed from leftist minds so far. Unusually pally with the press of late, Biman Bose took time off a rather serious news conference at the party office to talk gushingly about his unflinching love for bidi and football. Cutting short the press meet, Bose, in an untypical detour that caught unsuspecting scribes offguard, went on telling his audience how he had carried at least 10 varieties of bidi with him when he had gone abroad a few years ago. “Although I have now cut down on smoking bidi, I hardly forget to collect them,” Bose added amid laughter. A jovial Bose also recounted how he had broken a leg while playing football. “In those days, football was my only pastime,” he chuckled. Marxists still play football. But Biman is obviously a changed man, more changed after he failed to become state unit secretary. “Bimanda never allows petty things to bore him and that is why he is smiling all the time” was how a comrade explained Bose’s demeanour. Others believe this is Bose’s way of keeping the press handy in the runup to the assembly polls. Whichever way you look at it, humour in dhoti and kurta is always a welcome break.

With malice towards one alone

No dearth of humour in this either, but the colour is black. This is a clash of titans — columnist with a self-acclaimed weakness for the fairer sex, Khushwant Singh, and stiff upper lip bureaucrat, K Natwar Singh. Khushwant lit the fire with his malice towards Singh in his famous column. Singh responded, saying, “Each time I see Khushwant on TV, I start thinking that Darwin’s theory of evolution is still incomplete.” Natwar hit the ceiling when the columnist described him as “nit wit Singh”. Khushwant has been named “prince of porn” in return, which he must be revelling in. But according to Natwar, the porn prince suffers from an inferiority complex that dates back decades. “After all, he could never win mohalla elections while I got elected to the Lok Sabha twice,” Natwar quipped. Khushwant apparently has charged Singh with having “used him” to get elected as president of the elite watering hole, Delhi Gymkhana club. But Natwar argues, “I have been member of the gym since 1953 and was elected president unopposed.” Natwar, now member of the Congress working committee, has written a virulently anti-Khushwant piece and plans to dispatch it to scores of newspapers and magazines that subscribe to Khushwant’s column. Just in case somebody agrees to publish it, should it be named “Fifth column”?

Cut the cop to size

This was a really smart cop, the one who booked the Uttar Pradesh Congress chief, Salman Khurshid, for allegedly talking on his cellphone while driving. The violator of rules was fined Rs 1,000. Salman’s pleas for mercy were overruled by an unrelenting man in uniform. The problem was that this St Stephens-Cambridge product, former Union minister and would be (in all probability) chief minister, would not, overcome as he was by a strange humility, flaunt his credentials before a cop. Divine intervention came in the form of two students from Zakir Hussain college, which incidentally is named after our victim’s illustrious grandpa. The students spotted a pleading gentleman, identified him and then took the cop to a secluded corner to give him lessons in basic civics. His identity revealed, Khurshid was bailed out by his saviours, but not without being warned against driving with his phone glued to his ears. Not all policemen fear gods.

A kind of hush

Whom can Mamata Banerjee blame when the Rajdhani Express from Calcutta manages to reach New Delhi six hours late and that too with the rail mantri on board? Banerjee missed a crucial meeting with CEO N Chandrababu Naidu scheduled at 12.30 last Thursday. No conspiracy theory would serve as an explanation this time. So for once the high pitched didi was as quiet as a mouse.

Fixing the end result

Evidently, those populating the saffron party are not without a sense of humour. At a recent cabinet meeting which started discussing matchfixing, Pramod Mahajan pitched in, saying, “Two positive things have emerged from the whole episode. The nation got to know that there is an actor with the name of Kishan Kumar and two, that we have a sports minister with the name Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa.” Frankly speaking, we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Footnote/ Man with a mission

The worrying head of the BJP, Bangaru Laxman, is upset at the way Muslims are deserting the party’s West Bengal unit in droves. Laxman made his worries plain when a three member BJP delegation from the city met him in New Delhi last week. Laxman is a man of action. He announced that he would personally undertake a tour around the Muslim dominated areas of the city during his forthcoming maiden visit to Calcutta on September 23. Party sources say Laxman has taken strong exception to the decision of the Muslim leader, Badsha Alam, to cross over to the Trinamool. The party president has apparently entrusted the sensitive task of wooing back Muslims who have switched loyalties to other parties to state unit vice-president, Muzaffar Khan. This man has also been directed to approach Muslim families in the state and enquire about their reservations about the saffron party. Laxman’s move, however, has not been taken to kindly by the other brothers of the sangh parivar. Some RSS and VHP leaders have allegedly decided to stay away from the Laxman meet in the city. So much for starters.    


Band equality

Sir — Stephanie Dawn Sweeney’s article in “etc” (“Boy, O, Boy!”, Sept 15) has looked into that unsettling development in popular music: the emergence of the “boy-band”. The vulgarity with which these bands “create” and conduct their “image” is all the more irritating because of the quality of their music. Their compositions can at best be described as kitsch and musically certainly not half as gifted as their counterparts from the Sixties and the Seventies — the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Yet, television is heedless of this deficiency and one cannot switch on a music channel without seeing one of these in action.
Yours faithfully,
Soumya Banerjee, via email

Unfair to the sex

Sir — G. Hasnain Kaif gives a poorly thought out argument in his letter (“Law and the wilds of society”, Aug 21). He states that it is against the self-respect and dignity of divorced women to accept maintenance from their former husbands. They should instead, he suggests, live on the charity meant for destitutes and widows. This, evidently, is not against the “self-respect and dignity” of divorced women, who, Kaif hints, are no better than destitutes.

In Islamic law there is a provision whereby the kin of a person killed can demand compensation from the killer. If the latter pays it, he is exempted from punishment. Does not accepting compensation from the murderer of a dear one violate the dignity of the wronged?

Kaif presents a hypothetical picture. Is there any guarantee that Muslim social organizations or relatives of the divorced woman will help her? Also, there cannot be two laws regarding divorce — one which allows a Muslim to walk away from a marriage unhindered and another which forces a man to pay compensation to his divorced wife. Kaif also glorifies polygamy and hints that marriage with a polygamist is the safest option for divorced women. Shouldn’t Kaif spare a thought for a woman who might be reluctant to enter another marriage?

Yours faithfully,
T. Singh, Jamshedpur

Sir — Arundhati Ray’s article, “I know why the caged bird sings” (Sept 3), on the efforts of the psychologist, Ratnabali Roy, to reunite mental patients with their families is thought provoking. It is painful to learn that of the 20 million people requiring operative mental healthcare in India, about 80 per cent are women. Which means women with mental problems are more disadvantaged than men with similar problems. Roy’s mission will require government support and her commitment will bear fruit only if we become more aware of the needs of the mentally ill.

Yours faithfully,
Nirmalendu Chakraborty, Cooch Behar

Sir —The editorial, “Lawless sex” (Aug 24), is right in noting that “legalization and bestowing industry status” on prostitution are not the same issue. There is no denying that economic reasons are responsible for the continuation of one of the world’s oldest professions. The apathy of governments has made the situation worse. Prostitution under economic compulsions should be deemed legal. But to accept it as an industry is a different matter and would make it subject to industrial law. The issue is to ameliorate the economic condition of these women which has forced them into this profession.

Yours faithfully,
Govinda Bakshi, Budge Budge

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