Editorial / The wonder of it
Of the poor, for the rich
Profile / Hrithik Roshan
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / THE WONDER OF IT 
 
 
 
 
A week, it has been famously remarked, is a long time in politics. A month, it follows, offers a basis to form a judgment about a chief minister. This cannot be an evaluation of his successes and failures, but one month is adequate to get an idea of a chief minister’s attitudes and the priorities he is setting himself. From this perspective, one should not have any hesitation in putting an “alpha plus query” on the report card of Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s first month as the West Bengal chief minister. The query could be removed if it had not been for the fact that there is more to attitudes and priorities in the job of a chief minister. But first the reasons for the award of a clear alpha. From his first public pronouncements as chief minister, Mr Bhattacharjee has struck the right note. In his very first interview, he said that his principal problem was industrialization. He thus demarcated his chief area of concern. The fruits of this attitude are already evident. There is a new spring in the footsteps of industrialists and corporate chiefs. They see in Mr Bhattacharjee someone who means business, someone who is quick to respond to their problems and someone who does not hesitate to act. Witness, the solution to the Haldia Petrochemicals Limited imbroglio. Mr Bhattacharjee took the initiative and, through dialogue, has arrived at a formula which might rejuvenate a unit that threatened to fall sick as soon as it was born.

Mr Bhattacharjee has been quick to recognize that one reason why capital is West Bengal-shy is the complete lack of work culture. This is an accumulated erosion in which irresponsible trade unionism came to be overlaid on inherent laziness. This state of mind afflicts government employees across the board in West Bengal. As a result, decisions do not get taken and files keep moving in circles. Corruption and political patronage have aided and abetted this process. Investors have thus moved to states where work gets done and gets done quicker. From day one as chief minister, Mr Bhattacharjee has attacked this laziness and the mentality of obstructionism. He removed bureaucrats under the shadow of suspicion and enforced punctuality in government offices. Words like “accountability’’ and “performance’’, previously never heard in the shabby corridors of the Writers’ Buildings, are now being used as criteria for evaluating members of the sprawling babu raj of West Bengal. Mr Bhattacharjee has also made his intentions clear to senior mandarins and police officers. There is obviously a new spirit in the air and it emanates directly from the chief minister.

Mr Bhattacharjee’s behaviour has been marked by a certain charm which nobody thought he possessed. He has used this charm to disarm his erstwhile critics. But he has enhanced this charm by his honesty, straightforwardness and his humility. For all this, Mr Bhattacharjee deserves to be applauded. The Telegraph has never minced words in its criticism of some of Mr Bhattacharjee’s statements and actions. It is now time to give credit where it is eminently deserved.

Obstacles to Mr Bhattacharjee’s plans for a new West Bengal have by no means been removed. He owes allegiance to a party which is hidebound in dogma and one which knows of no other rhetoric save an anti-capitalist one. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has vested interests which it will try to preserve against the wishes of the chief minister. The apparatchiki has not yet sounded its last post. Mr Bhattacharjee must be aware that his path cannot be smooth. He has to change the economic face of West Bengal and win an election too. For the latter, he needs the party organization. It remains to be seen how he withstands the pressure to turn populist. For the nonce, he seems to have broken free and is busy trying to give substance to the promise embedded in Mr Jyoti Basu’s last years in office. The stakes are high since they involve the future of West Bengal. The query on the report card will be taken off once it is clear that the glimmer of hope now visible is not a false dawn.

   

 
 
OF THE POOR, FOR THE RICH 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
On the eve of the Bangladesh war, a British photographer suggested that instead of sending troops to what was then East Pakistan, India should despatch a fleet of Calcutta minibuses. Today, perhaps, a supplementary swarm of scooters would help to compound damage, though, as Wednesday’s tragedy at Gariahat confirmed, minibuses remain lethal enough.

There are two yardsticks for judging a city’s transport system. Is it adequate? Is it comfortable? Calcutta fails abysmally on both counts. All public services — trains, postal, airlines and nationalized banks — are collapsing throughout the country. The reason is simple if unbelievable. India is not a country for the poor. It is a country of the poor, but only for the rich.

West Bengal has the worst of all worlds. Neither profitable investment in services from which people benefit, nor the caring socialist management that today prompts the poor of Russia and Mongolia to yearn for the security of communist autarky. Our United and Left Fronts have created little and dismantled much. One of their worst acts of vandalism is to drive a popular tram service into virtual extinction.

It was done with calculated vindictiveness and utter disregard for public welfare. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) first made it almost impossible for the owners to run the company; the government then swooped on only the undertaking. The corporate entity was left untouched (a tactic that the Centre followed later to acquire another sterling company, Indian Copper) to evade paying the compensation that B.C. Roy had guaranteed. In 32 years, trams have been reduced to a ramshackle parody of what they once were. The plea that they are doomed because they are old-fashioned and cause congestion would carry conviction in cities that move with the times.

It raises a hollow laugh in our teeming urban slum. Bangkok boasts a sparkling new aerial railway that is fast and smart; Singapore long ago replaced trams with an abundance of air-conditioned double-deckers and a streamlined metro; Tokyo has one of the world’s most extensive and glittering underground railways. Other cities in Europe and America abolished trams when wealth generation enabled everybody to drive a car. Calcutta demoted itself to the minibus as the pride of a transport service that is grossly inadequate and acutely uncomfortable.

Lack of comfort can sometimes be an inadvertent result of overcrowding. Not here. Our buses are built for discomfort. Poor springs, steep steps, hard narrow seats, little leg room, low roofs and too few rails to cling to inflict the maximum punishment. Operational style matches shoddy construction. The driver’s only interest is in getting there as quickly as possible; the conductor’s in packing in as many people as he can. They conspire to weave in and out of other vehicles, using bulk as a battering ram, belching diesel fumes and stopping with a shudder of brakes wherever and whenever a fare might be picked up. When a passenger who has paid up and is, therefore, no longer of any interest wishes to alight, they merely slow down. Since that is often at busy intersections or the middle of a road, it is a miracle that more people are not mown to a bloody death. Deprivation hones the instinct for survival.

Yet, Calcutta needs this menace. It would be even worse off without the recklessness of minibuses and scooters, just as children cannot do without the death-trap cycle-cages in which so many go to school. Authority exploits helplessness to condemn us to what must be the world’s worst transport system.

We were told when minibuses first appeared that standing would not be allowed. They would not stop between terminals. They catered supposedly to the bhadralok who did not own a car, could not afford taxis and had previously boarded only first class trams. After all, the British considerately created the Intermediate class on trains for Indians of birth and education but no money. Finally — and no one grudged this then — minibuses would charge a little more for these privileges.

Only the higher fare survives. The promises were illusion. Standing soon became the norm, encouraged as much by unsatisfied demand as by the operators’ determination to maximize takings. More and more seats were crammed into the same constricted space for the same purpose which also explained why it became routine to stop not only at many scheduled stops but at any and every place between. Again, this last was not regarded as an unmitigated nuisance because buses that did not have to stop en route respected no route. As scooters do today, they darted into side lanes and hurtled through winding alleys to escape the discipline of traffic lights.

The blame lies squarely on the administration. Adequate alternative means of transport would spare millions of commuters the peril of minibuses and scooters. The latter provide some relief but their driving is as reckless and they are as much a traffic hazard. Being small and easily manoeuvred, they cut corners alarmingly. Burning buses and beating up errant drivers will solve nothing until the government is forced to attend to the travelling public’s desperate plight.

The most pressing need is to extend the Metro, though sadly deteriorated in only a little over a decade. An extension from Kalighat station to Ballygunge and beyond to the Kasba connector and the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass is an obvious first step while other branches are considered. Suburban railway lines need many more and faster trains as in Mumbai. The so-called circular railway might at last serve some purpose if it were linked into a truly circular line through busier areas, again with more and faster trains. There is scope for water transport by dredging and widening Tolly’s nullah and joining it to the now-choked waterways by the VIP Road.

These may be big and expensive projects, but Japanese donors and international institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank might be interested. They must be sure though that contracts would go only to reputable engineering firms of proven integrity and competence, not contractors who donate to the party kitty or earn ministerial patronage in other ways.

Meanwhile, the state government can improve and increase its own buses and impose a higher standard on more private licensees. Enforcement is always the problem of course. Despite what traffic chiefs might plead, mishaps like Wednesday’s death would not occur if policemen on the road made some effort to regulate swarming pedestrians and speeding buses. But neither offers the same scope for gain as, say, an overloaded Matador. The constable can get away with it because he knows that everyone along the promotion chain all the way up to the bosses in the Writers’ Buildings is impelled by only the profit motive. Fitness certificates would not have been such a farce otherwise.

The public services might not have been quite so derelict if people of consequence had used them. But in our highly stratified society nobody of rank, nobody with money or influence, ever steps into a bus, tram, suburban train or even the Metro. Driven out by the Constitution, caste has found a myriad other manifestations. The flight of talent is another major hindrance. Development is even more for the future than the present, but whom will the future belong to if the sons of all those who have made it to the ranks of the middle and upper middle classes build their nests in New York and Silicon Valley?

Everything is linked in a vicious cycle. The rich do not care for they do not use public transport. Investment in the future does not seem a compelling need since India does not offer opportunities enough for the best of the next generation to stay back. Buses and trams are only for the permanently poor, and a child’s death confirms that the worst is good enough for them.

   

 
 
PROFILE / HRITHIK ROSHAN 
 
 
BY SUZANNE KHAN
 
 

Well Bride

Even as Birmingham bhangra boy Sukhbir played DJ at the Hrithik-Suzanne “very private” Bangalore wedding, Bollywood’s irrepressible tongues were wagging naughtily.

The rumour that gained the most currency around the time Hrithik, complete with turmeric smeared forehead, posed happily with father-in-law Sanjay Khan, was the Kareena Kapoor one. Apparently Hrithik was getting too close for comfort with his co-star and to scotch “any further developments” the marriage was quickly finalised.

For Suzanne Khan, youngest daughter of Sanjay and Zarine Khan, her waiting-in-the-wings days are over. “From being just another pretty kid of star parents she has now become India’s most envied and possibly most insecure bride,” says a Mumbai film journalist.

An interior designer by profession, Suzanne did an associate arts degree course at Brooks College, Los Angeles, before returning to Mumbai where she joined mother Zarine Khan’s interior design unit. She says that while Hrithik and she were “childhood friends” they never really got to know each other till she returned from the States in 1996 and they ran into each other on several occasions.

Hrithik puts it slightly differently. Apparently the first time he saw her after she returned from the US was across a traffic light. It was a meeting that would put any Mills & Boon novel to shame. Hrithik Roshan looked out of the window to see Suzanne Khan. They had instant eye-lock. Soon they were hopelessly in love. “They looked at each other and evidently liked what they saw,” reveals Zarine Khan, Suzanne’s mother. Excessive shades of Kaho Na Pyaar Hai make Suzanne’s version more credible.

Hrithik then was not the hunk that he is today. He was a lanky, unsure, stammering youth not quite clear about where life was taking him. Later, being in love meant that Suzanne sat with Hrithik while he went through some 30,000 proposals he received on Valentine’s Day this year. “The writers of those cards all said how much they loved him and how they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with him. It was so cute and both Hrithik and I replied to the fan mail together,” said Suzanne.

Insisting that she is not threatened by his hordes of female fans, Suzanne says that Hrithik remains the “same old sweet Bholunath she fell in love with.” Her take on Bollywood’s most saleable hunk is that “he is too naive for this world and people do take advantage of that.”

Though not a visible part of Hrithik’s Kaho Na Pyaar Hai success, Suzanne was extensively involved in the film’s post-production work. She was also largely responsible for deciding Hrithik’s wardrobe in the film. Even now, she keeps herself busy running errands for Hrithik “because he is so busy”.

Like Hrithik Roshan, Suzanne also works hard at projecting the too-good-to be-for-real image. She says: “I’m asked if I worry about Hrithik changing with the kind of adulation he gets but we discuss that too. I don’t think he’s the kind of person who would change, it’s not in him, he’s too sensitive.”

It almost seems that Suzanne is trying to convince herself. “We’re both spiritual and believe in the same things which is why we are such friends first of all. As a person, I do not have any great ambitions or expectations of life. I take life as it comes and don’t get too pressurised by things. If I get something fine, if I don’t that’s okay too and no regrets.”

The sweetness must get hard to swallow at times.In fact, the couple now go out of their way to portray an image of togetherness. “I can’t think of a single quality that I don’t like in Suzanne because her best qualities are also her worst,” says Hrithik.

“She might say anything but the fact remains that it was the chemistry he shares with his co-stars that really upset her. Why do you think the wedding date was selected with such finality? Despite the fact that marrying at this stage in his career isn’t the best move Hrithik has made because unlike both Shah Rukh and Aamir who were already married when they had their superhits, Hrithik’s single status was part of his magnetic draw. He was after all, one of the very few unmarried Bollywood men... in that sense he was a true pin-up boy. I think that [the quick marriage] had something to do with Suzanne giving him a deadline of sorts. She was probably worried by all the rumours linking him with so many co-stars. Because remember Bollywood gossip is very rarely a case of smoke without fire,” said a Bollywood insider.

There might be some truth to this disgruntled comment because even as recently as a few months ago, when asked about his plans for marriage during an interview Hrithik said: “I am in a serious relationship. There is no hiding it. Eventually, marriage is in the offing, but not in the near future.”

Whether there was a real deadline or not is debatable, but what isn’t is the fact that Suzanne would have to be extra-terrestrial if she remained unaffected by his hysterical women fans. Added to which is the fact that these women are pretty vocal about their anti-Suzanne feelings. According to another Bollywood writer: “For those scores of gushing girls who consider Hrithik their own private fantasy, the presence of Suzanne Khan in his life, is an issue they seem to have a major problem dealing with!”

As if on cue, as soon as news of the wedding was made public, outspoken NRI fans angrily posted objections on the Net-based babesandhunks message board:

By Amber:

“YOU DON’T BELONG WITH SUZANNE, YOU DESERVE SOMEONE GOOD LOOKING LIKE ME!!!”

Another admirer wrote wonkily:

“dear hrithick, do not lisen to the other people. but you and sukkie do not macth u n preethiy zinta macth. p.s. lisen to me”

All the speculation about possible discord in the future might be wrong though and it could be happily ever after for Suzanne and Hrithik. Except that Bollywood, and those frenzied women, aren’t quite ready to lose this pumped-up piece of machismo.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Moral of the story

If you thought you had heard the last on the Ayodhya madness in Parliament, you are deluding yourself. The katha continues. The debate seems to have been occasion for, as in the case of many other discoveries, a new political hotline to be laid between Calcutta and Hyderabad. The Trinamool Congress chief, Mamata Banerjee, was reportedly in constant touch (sometimes as frequently as five times a day) with the cyberchief of the Telugu Desam Party, N Chandrababu Naidu. Reason: Mamata wanted Naidu to force the prime minister to retract his remarks on Ayodhya. One doesn’t know if Chandrababu was forceful enough for Vajpayee didn’t budge an inch as far his statement was concerned. Never mind, but the incident unearthed another fact — that is, within the NDA, Naidu is the boss. Didi had kept calling Naidu “sir”, much to the consternation of Trinamool MPs. Banerjee had another hotline running during this time and this was with Sultan Ahmad, head of the party’s minority cell, in Calcutta. While Banerjee pleaded with sir, Ahmad pleaded with her, “Didi kuch karo”. Didi obviously couldn’t, neither with sir, nor with sir’s big brother. There is however one difference in the dealings of didi and sir. Each time there’s a crisis in the capital, Naidu exploits it. This time, too, he somehow managed Rs 500 crore aid for his paddy farmers. Didi, who usually gets half a promise, got none this time and may well have lost some Muslim votes as well. Not reason for another drama?

To prove a nagging point

Unable to emerge as the show-stealer of any consequence (there were too many contenders actually), the resident thorn in the BJP’s side, Mamata Banerjee, is busy trying other means to create pressure. When BJP MP, TC Gehlot, attacked Banerjee the other day for neglecting the railways, she shot back, “Why don’t you ask your prime minister to remove me?” She then shot a letter to the parliamentary affairs minister, Pramod Mahajan, expressing her desire to quit. The BJP men are fast learners. The wish remains a wish and the letter is dead. Soon after, Mamata made her appearance at Sonia Gandhi’s iftar bash and made it a point to demonstrate the cosiness that still existed between the leaders. After being patted on the cheeks by madam, the railways minister took upon herself the responsibility of serving refreshments to visiting dignitaries. When cameramen took pictures of Sonia with Muslim diplomats, Mamata ran to be clicked together with them. Scribes got their story, but did the BJP get the message?

Of officers and gentlemen

If you are an efficient officer, keep your bags packed. A move is afoot to transfer the chief of the Delhi police, Ajay Raj Sharma, to Uttar Pradesh as the director general of the state police. Sharma, a UP cadre IPS officer, has done much in his short stint to boost the morale of the cops in the capital. There has been an appreciable drop in crime rates in Delhi in the recent months. It is precisely because of this that he has to be on the move. The UP chief minister, Rajnath Singh, wants this upright and efficient officer sent back to his parent cadre before the state gets going on the busy schedule for the assembly polls. The Union home minister, LK Advani, is himself supposed to be deeply impressed by the policing skills of Sharma. What remains to be seen is whether Advani grants Singh’s request. In other words, whether Advani thinks a safer Delhi is more important than a safer UP.

Never far from the madding crowd

Yusuf Bhai, aka Dilip Kumar, is a loner is the Rajya Sabha. He cuts a sorry figure being distinctly uncomfortable sitting there amongst shouting brigades and slinging matches that go on in the upper house and believes these activities are best done by stuntmen. The Congress MP is reported to have got so fed up one day that he went to Sonia Gandhi with the request of being relieved from the position of a party MP. Sonia vetoed his plan and pleaded with him to continue. These days the matinee idol seldom attends the blood and gore sessions. Dilip sahib has a problem, probably one he didn’t think about before taking on the onerous task of being a member of the house. He wants pin-drop silence while making a statement.

Now, that is impossible in the din and bustle that has become the usual affair in the house of elders. What is worse for this man of the silverscreen is that there are no retakes. A dialogue is delivered only once. Or not at all, if you go by the star’s predilections.

Footnote/ Thawing chilled ties

The saffron brigade has hope. Ayodhya notwithstanding, the prime minister’s iftar, party at a five star hotel in the capital turned out to be a grand success considering the huge turnout of the Muslim brethren. It made complete mockery of the boycott call by the shahi imam of the Jama Masjid. But as luck would have it, a faux pas marred the bonhomie. The rozedars were supposed to break their fast exactly at 5.29 pm. But the hotel’s waiters were unaware of this. They started serving sherbet and dates at 5.15 pm when a large number of guests had turned up. Some thought it was time to break the fast. When they realized that it was some 15 minutes before the appointed hour, they began cursing the waiters. Had it been old Hyderabad house, where ruling party iftars are traditionally held, such an untoward incident would not have taken place. There would have been a proper azaan indicating the time to break the fast. Hyderabad house was bypassed this year by the PMO because of last year’s experience. Many guests had left with a running nose, having caught a chill in the open air. The PMO must be having second thoughts now.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Goodbye is not an easy word

Sir — Two star members of the South African cricket team, Jonty Rhodes and Daryll Cullinan, have hung up their boots, the first from tests and the latter from one day internationals (“Rhodes passes the Tests”, Nov 9). This is one more instance of cricketers quitting in their prime. The decisions of Rhodes and Cullinan are especially important in the context of the subcontinent. Here, cricketers cannot conceive of making way for others unless they are actually given the sack by the board, or at least hints to that effect. They are eager to hog the limelight for as long as possible, and a long stint ensures a substantial accumulation of wealth. Is it any wonder then, that the bookies find them easy prey?
Yours faithfully,
Arta Mishra, Cuttack

Shedding blubber

Sir — The prime minister, A.B Vajpayee, has announced a plan to trim the bureaucracy by cutting down its surplus staff by ten per cent (“Vajpayee vows to trim bloated bureaucracy”, Dec17). This decision contradicts the promise made by the National Democratic Alliance in its election manifesto to provide ten million jobs per year in the country. The people of India are beginning to believe in the process of liberalization and globalization which they feel would transform our economy.

The retirement age of government employees has been raised to 60 years, which is hardly practical given the present state of unemployment in our country. Vajpayee has also decided to reduce non productive expenditure to a minimum. He should first downsize his own cabinet and then address the economic problems that India is facing. Eradication of poverty should be top priority since more than 40 per cent of the population still live below the poverty line.

Yours faithfully,
Phani Bhusan Saha, Balurghat

Sir — After the P.V. Narasimha Rao government was voted out of power by the electorate, the country went through a turmoil which lasted till September last year, when the Vajpayee government was voted back to power for the second time. As a result, the process of liberalization which was initiated by the Rao government continued.

However, some problems need to be looked into. The demand for energy has continued to increase rapidly. Continuous deficit in the oil pool account because of the rise of the international price of petroleum products and the continuous fall in the rupee, are a cause for concern. An expansion of power generating capacity would also help.

Yours faithfully
Gautam Dasgupta, via email

Confusion in the harem

Sir — Mukul Kesavan appears to have confused the main point of his article, “Concern and grievances” (Dec 3) by deliberately employing a smokescreen strategy. He writes, “It is legitimate to be committed to a common civil code”, and at the same time, he gives the example of harems maintained by the Saudi princes, which goes to support the case for polygamy. Is this not paradoxical? Is it also not true that progressive thinkers, both Hindu and Muslim, abhor the practice insofar as it shows complete disregard for the feelings of women? Kesavan’s argument to justify one evil by another is not valid. He has denounced K.R. Malkani dogmatically, but has not been able to rebut Malkani’s raison d’etre. Moreover, it is unfortunate that he is unduly dismissive of those Hindus who oppose the common civil code.
Yours faithfully,
R.C. Chakrabarti, Howrah

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