Editorial /No good men
Mirrors of modernity
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL /NO GOOD MEN 
 
 
 
 
There is something rotten in a democracy that has no respect for its own parliament. The performance of the legislators in the current session of the Lok Sabha is ample proof that representatives of the people in India have little or no respect for the codes of behaviour that are absolutely essential to hold together a democracy. The record of the just-concluded winter session of the Lok Sabha speaks for itself: there were 25 days on which Parliament met and there were 11 days of disruption. A number of important matters which were to be discussed could not be put on the table because the opposition parties had brought proceedings to a standstill. This is not the first time that such a thing has happened. Indian politicians have a tendency to transform Parliament, at the drop of a hat, from a forum for discussion and debate into a platform for showing protest. This not only lowers the dignity of Parliament but also hinders the task of law-making and governance which are Parliament’s principal functions. It is convenient to argue that the job of the opposition is to oppose the government of the day. At one level, this is the most banal of statements. What is really at issue is the mode of registering protest. In India, the done thing is to show protest by obstructing the process of governance. This not only stops important pieces of legislation from being discussed and passed, but is also a major drain on the exchequer. It would appear that members of parliament are not accountable for wastage.

It is touching to see the prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, a veteran of many parliamentary battles, ticking off Ms Sonia Gandhi as if she were an errant school girl, for her lack of parliamentary decorum. Without condoning Ms Gandhi’s late arrival in the Lok Sabha on the last day of the winter session, any objective observer would have to concede that Mr Vajpayee’s self-righteous anger is baseless. Mr Vajpayee may not have ever arrived late for a sitting of the Lok Sabha, but he and his party have never been shy of stalling proceedings in Parliament to voice their protest on a matter. When it was in opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party behaved in exactly the same manner as the parties in opposition now. Since Mr Vajpayee was complicit in those acts of obstructionism as leader of the BJP, he has no moral ground to be holier-than-thou. The fact that all political parties and, therefore, their leaders have all been tarnished by the same brush of obstructionism is a pointer to the fragility of democratic norms in India.

The idea of a code of conduct for parliamentarians has been mooted more than once. This idea sidesteps a very important question. How can members of the political class who habitually disregard democratic norms sit together and draw up a code aimed at restraining their own behaviour? The existence of a code of conduct does not ensure that the code will be adhered to or be implemented. A ruling given by the speaker of the house should be respected and a call to order emanating from the speaker’s chair should be enough to calm members. These are standard and universal norms of behaviour inside any parliament; they do not need to be put down in a behaviour manual for MPs. Yet unruly behaviour on the floor of the house and utter contempt for the speaker have become familiar features within the Lok Sabha.

No code of conduct can replace an absence of self-respect. The moral points to certain links between democracy and culture. These links have never been built within the Indian polity. Indian politics made a jump from mass mobilization against British rule to a Westminster style of governance. The former, every now and again, intrudes into the domain of the latter and disrupts it. The solution lies in veterans like Mr Vajpayee educating new MPs in their parties about parliamentary decorum. Teaching would enlighten those who are new to democratic praxis and would also make the teachers less smug.

   

 
 
MIRRORS OF MODERNITY 
 
 
BY AMIT CHAUDHURI
 
 
Early last week, Jyotindra Jain, director of the Crafts Museum at New Delhi, gave a quite enthralling lecture at the art gallery in the Oxford bookshop. The subject was Kalighat painting, supplemented and illustrated by slides of pictures in Jain’s book on the same subject.

The aim of the lecture was to show us how the paintings of the Kalighat patuas were embedded, artistically and psychologically, in the popular culture and history of the time; how the profane and the contemporary elements of urban existence — an existence whose provenance lay in colonial contact and capitalism — entered the space of paintings, whose function would otherwise have been the straightforward retelling of mythological narratives about Hindu gods and goddesses. The paintings, then, reflect, embody, and opportunely exploit the birth of urban modernity in 19th-century Calcutta with which its own birth is concordant.

Jain tells us, for instance, how gossip and scandal, as a sort of “low” form of history, are incorporated as subject-matter by the patuas. There are hilarious scenes from babu life which depict the babu as an ineffectual male, dominated and even physically abused by his wife or mistress. (Surprisingly, these representations of the babu as a neutered male are not too far from the British colonialist construction of the effeminate bhadralok.)

The series of paintings about the seduction of Elokeshi, wife of Nabin, an employee at a printing press, by the head priest at Tarakeshwar, a bearded, ardent, pot-bellied specimen of unreconstructed 19th-century manhood, is not unrelated to this subject; the series culminates with pictures of Elokeshi’s subsequent murder by her jealous husband, and, finally, of the trial of Nabin and the head priest. This incursion of scandal and gossip — the kind of thing that would belong to the more prurient among our tabloids and magazines — is not, after all, unknown to the stylized and remote universe of the imagination. Dante’s Inferno provides an early and illustrious example of such an incursion; being part an epic account of hell and part a dubious tabloid populated with the feuds and jealousies of the time.

But the Kalighat painting refers not only to contemporary events and figures, but to other forms of art that were at the time in the ascendant — like proscenium theatre, for example — and it’s in the uncovering of these references that the heart of Jain’s argument lies. The Elokeshi affair was, indeed, the subject of 20 or so plays at the time, and the Kalighat paintings on this subject (and, as we see, on other ones) are obviously, then, also a homage to contemporary theatre. Certain scenes are borrowed straight from the stage; and it is interesting that a figure in a certain painting, bent low before the feet of another figure, asking for forgiveness, should, instead of directing her attention to the feet, be giving us the benefit of a frontal view of her face, as if she were appraising her audience.

Jain cites other examples of the interface between the paintings and theatre, too numerous to cite here; the most notable among these is the pleated curtains of the proscenium theatre which form the border of many of the Kalighat paintings, as if the scene depicted in them were a scene from a play. Jain points out with some relish how even the saris that some of the female figures wear are made to resemble theatre curtains. Moreover, in another gesture towards theatre, the faces of well-known actresses on the stage were used, not infrequently, by the patuas for the women in their paintings.

Proscenium theatre and babu society aren’t the only urban discourses that the paintings refer to. The patuas didn’t hesitate to borrow images and motifs from the urban ephemera of the time — labels, postcards, and photographs. Moreover, many of the painters, Jain claims, were potters and artisans, or collaborated with potters; the shading of the Kalighat paintings, he argues effectively, is less an acknowledgement of the chiaroscuro of Western painting than it is intended to suggest the rounded surfaces of the clay figures that the patuas were also, otherwise, engaged in producing, or painting.

Finally, the paintings are often implicitly located in the bazaars of Kalighat where the patuas sat. Jain showed us a painting of Shiva and Parvati taking Ganesh out on a family outing, looking rather like a lower-middle-class family in Marxist Bengal, a listless Shiva carrying the small, elephant-headed child in his arms, using the damru as a rattle to placate his son. The cosmopolitan world of colonial Calcutta, too, is everywhere in these paintings; in one of them, the god, Kartik, wears the Westernized buckled shoes that were then in fashion.

Listening to Jain’s lecture, I felt with renewed force something I’ve felt before: that the inheritors of the Kalighat patuas are the craftsmen and artisans who transform the Durga Puja from a harvest festival into a creative exploration, and occasionally an outrageous comment, on urban reality. As the scandals of Calcutta, the embarrassments of middle-class life, and a vivacious degree of cosmopolitanism marked the world of Kalighat painting, our contemporary scandals and public events — the death of Princess Diana in an automobile accident; Satyajit Ray receiving the Oscar; the so-called “plague” in India in the mid-Nineties; a scene from Kaun Banega Crorepati? or Titanic — form the subject-matter of the men from Chandannagar who do the lighting for the Pujas. These are our patuas, though their medium is at once brighter and more evanescent than the Kalighat pat ever was; like the pats, these lights are part social comment and part parody. Again, as in Kalighat, the proximity of the sacred seems to actuate, rather than impede, these artists’ (for they are artists) embracing of the profane elements of contemporary urban culture.

Moreover, does not the pandal itself echo, subliminally, the proscenium? We enter it — seeking darshan — as if entering an auditorium; and Parvati, her family, and the asura appear before us like actors upon a stage gathered at curtain-call. And just as the figures in Kalighat paintings (often inspired, Jain reminds us, by clay figures) are inscribed into urban reality, women made to resemble actresses, Shiva made to look like an itinerant family man in a bazaar, so with the Puja images; one will confront, not infrequently, a Durga whose face is uncannily like Hema Malini’s, or an asura that seems to be the twin of the taxi-driver who took you home yesterday. After the Kargil conflict, some of the asuras came to resemble Nawaz Sharif closely, in a typical Kalighat-type metamorphosis of the sacred into the political.

Finally, the chaos and hurly-burly of the Pujas recreate, almost inadvertently, the ambulant bazaar atmosphere of Kalighat. In his essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”, Walter Benjamin notes how the “amorphous crowd of passers-by, the people in the street”, is imprinted on Baudelaire’s creativity as a “hidden figure”, and how it is also a significant constituent of 19th-century modernity in capitalist Europe. “The crowd — no subject was more entitled,” says Benjamin, “to the attention of nineteenth century writers. It was getting ready to take shape as a public in broad strata who had acquired facility in reading. It became a customer; it wished to find itself portrayed in the contemporary novel, as the patrons did in the paintings of the Middle Ages.” Among the people in this “amorphous crowd” is, Benjamin points out, the flâneur, a typical figure in the urban landscape, the loiterer — often a gentleman of leisure or citified dandy — who plunges into the crowd for no particular reason, except to window-shop, observe and survey the various ephemeral items of urban paraphernalia displayed on pavements and in windows.

If the crowd is the “hidden figure” imprinted upon Baudelaire’s creativity, it is the “hidden figure” in the Kalighat paintings as well; and it is through these paintings we realize that, as in Paris, the flâneur and the crowd are all-important elements in the construction of modernity in 19th-century Calcutta. Flâneurs, in modern, bourgeois India, often operate in families; and the picture of Parvati, Shiva, and Ganesha out on a stroll portrays the sort of family that would loiter in and pass through — part devotee, part aimless, urban flâneur — the long stretch of Kalighat with its bazaar.

Kartik, too, is represented as flâneur and leisured dandy, with his buckled shoes and Prince Albert-style haircut. The crowd is customer; like Benjamin’s novel-readers in 19th-century France, who wanted to read about their own fictionalized incarnations, and like the erstwhile courtly European patrons who would have their likenesses painted by professionals, the customers in the bazaar crowds of 19th-century Calcutta too must have demanded to see themselves in the pat; to see the divine family become as themselves, secularized, itinerant and slightly louche.

The chaos of the Pujas, too, agglomerates us, even at the beginning of the 21st century, into crowds and flâneurs, forcing us to abandon our immobile, traffic-stalled cars and take to the streets, contained and disciplined only by bamboo barricades; it turns entire areas of present-day Calcutta into something like the bazaars of 19th-century Kalighat. This is almost a conscious homage to what the modern metropolis used to be like; for most postmodern cities in the developed world are inimical to the sort of exploration on foot that was once a fundamental part of urban life, and have become suburban enclaves connected to each other by motorways. There are exceptions — for instance, New York, San Francisco, London; the death of Princess Diana witnessed, again, a mapping of London by crowds, on foot, as the hearse made its way out of London.

During the Pujas, the crowd is both loiterer and customer; as it moves towards the pandal, it pauses at stalls selling fast food, soft drinks, balloons. The crowd wishes to pay obeisance to the deity, but it also wishes to consume its own image and its concerns — the films it is familiar with; the reports in the newspapers it reads — in what it sees around it. Thus the Durgas who still look like Hema Malini, the asura who resembles Nawaz Sharif, the stories in lights about Princess Diana and Satyajit Ray. And we relive the illusion, as the crowds in the bazaar did, of inhabiting an extraordinary city.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

The icewoman cometh

Once she had tasted blood, she’d be on the prowl. But as the Ayodhya fever subsided, this cardinal truth about the Congress president slipped out of the BJP mind, only to return as quickly. It was however, the Union home minister, LK Advani, who faced the brunt. The Lok Sabha speaker, GMC Balayogi, had called a meeting of the leaders of the main political parties to resolve the stalemate over the women’s reservation bill. The moment Advani — who, incidentally, was given the responsibility of evolving a consensus among parties on the issue — tried to introduce a new formula envisaged by the Election Commission, asking political parties to amend their constitutions to allow a 33 per cent quota for women, Sonia Gandhi cut in.

With an iciness that almost frosted the house’s interior, madam asked the home minister not to look for lame excuses. She reminded the BJP, as a teacher would a truant child, that it claimed to be committed to the bill. So had the Congress and the left parties, the TDP and others. When the majority is in favour of the bill — and that’s quite a rare phenomenon — why is the BJP dragging its feet on the issue? asked a curt Sonia. Madam also pointed out that the Congress had already turned down the EC’s suggestion. So why the repetition? Didn’t madam know that Sharad Yadav’s fear for the bal kati had jumped the political spectrum?

What’s in store

Evidently, the tale in Chhattisgarh does not end with the bloodied nose of a chief minister. The situation is likely to get more thrilling. Probably that is why the incumbent chief minister, Ajit Jogi, is on the lookout for a safe seat to contest the assembly elections. The BJP and a section of the Congress led by the infamous Shukla brothers are equally keen to get him defeated. Its a cat and mouse game, and Jogi (although one can’t be sure which one of the two he is) is keeping his detractors guessing. Jogi, in fact, has an ace up his sleeve. In the end he might contest from a seat that will be vacated by a BJP MLA. There are five disgruntled BJP legislators who are in touch with the Congress chief minister. In exchange for the seat, Jogi is likely to make a no less generous gift. There are several commissions which need ministerial-level chairmen to kick off developmental work in the new state. There are other things being developed there. Jogi has apparently sought state-of-the-art technology to detect the presence of diamonds and the exercise seems to have paid off. It’s a treasure trove, isn’t it?

Playing on a new pitch

Its a different ball game now for the fallen hero, Mohammed Azharuddin, and one likely to be murkier. The former captain seems to have made up his mind to join politics and seek justice. The other day he made a rare appearance at an iftar hosted by Sayed Salauddin Owaisi, the firebrand MP from Majlis Itehadul Muslameen. Owaisi, who has now been, for some time, trying to woo the cricketer into politics, is reported to have said that Azhar is a victim of conspiracy to malign a member of the minority community. The Hyderabadi star seems to have already bought that line of thinking. Remember, his retort about his being “victimized” the last time he was nailed and his subsequent apology? Anyway, Azhar seems to have got in him all that it takes to make a successful politician — he is famous, rich and tainted. There are many from his home state crying out that if LK Advani can claim to get vindicated from the demolition charge after getting elected to the Lok Sabha, can’t Azhar manage a favourable verdict on his matchfixing charge? Sure, but ask the people first.

From sir with love

There could be little doubt that the Union minister for communications, Ram Vilas Paswan, is a generous man. Just as he is dogged about making the lives of telecommunications employees comfortable, he makes it a point to reply to thousands of letters he gets each week, probably mostly from his beneficiaries in the department of telecommunications. At times, it leads to ridiculous situations such as this one. The other day, someone invited the minister to his son’s wedding. The minister replied in chaste Hindi which when translated stands as, “Your plea has been forwarded for necessary action”.

The communications ministry committed another faux pas when it dispatched letters to some scribes, who are nominated members of the telephone advisory committee, asking them to organize a crowd for Paswan’s Jan Shakti rally. Telephone employees might as well have done that for their benefactor

.

Footnote/ Taken for granted

Mr Lockhorn is back with a vengeance. The BJP leader, Madan Lal Khurana is feeling slighted again after being sidelined in the allocation of organizational work for the party. In happier times, Khurana was once in charge of organizational affairs of the party in Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. In the latest reshuffle by the new party chief, Bangaru Laxman, Khurana has been burdened with the management of party affairs in Sikkim and West Bengal. The former Delhi chief minister has been hopping mad since then and has been blaming the general secretary, Narendra Modi, for his marginalization. It so happened that a delegation of leaders from Himachal Pradesh came to the capital and on meeting Khurana said that they would be delighted to have him in charge of the state’s affairs instead of Modi. The delegation repeated the same request to Laxman. When Modi realized what was cooking behind him, he dug in his heels making it clear that it was a matter of prestige to be in charge of the three states. He arranged to allot WB and Sikkim to Khurana. When will the devil get his due?    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Stealing attention

Sir — In a poll conducted among children by Time, George W. Bush has been named person of the year (“Bush beats Rowling”, Dec 18). Others who did well were J.K. Rowling, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Elian Gonzalez. Of the five personalities mentioned, three are in national politics and the other two are directly concerned with children’s issues. One is a minor and the other writes children’s books. This awareness about politics among children could be the result of education and awareness. But it could also mean that the media circus that politics generates in the United States is such a powerful force that it holds the attention of children more than, say, children’s literature does.
Yours faithfully,
Sreela Sarkar, Calcutta

Right to know

Sir — Keeping in mind the forthcoming assembly polls, the Election Commission can implement a set of rules to ensure free and fair polls. It can make it compulsory for political parties to inform voters under oath about their plans and policies for the next five years if voted to power. Full information about the candidates must be published or circulated so that voters can compare and contrast the merits and demerits of the contesting candidates in their constituency.

All sitting members of the legislative assembly seeking re-election must inform their voters in writing about the percentage of their attendance in the present assembly, achievements and why voters should choose them for re-election. Political parties should also be asked to publish a valuation of their assets, the number of people on the party’s pay roll, the annual expenditure and source of income of the party. The party in power must list its achievements in the last five years vis-ŕ-vis the promises made during the last elections. The commission should also look after the publication of some crucial details about the ruling party, like crime statistics, industry, bandhs organized by the party, resource mobilization and utilization of funds. All persons to be engaged by the commission should be placed temporarily under its absolute control. The state will have no jurisdiction over such personnel till they are released by the commission. It should also make extensive use of television to inform the electorate about the scientific rigging, booth capturing and impersonation.

Yours faithfully,
Saroj Kumar Mukherjee, Calcutta

Sir — The Election Commission need not feel smug about the recent United States elections. It took little more than a month for the US to get its 42nd president. The commission must impose more stringent restrictions during the elections to reduce the possibility of disorder and unfair play. The assembly elections in 2001 will be the commission’s test.

Yours faithfully,
Sudha Kashyap, Gaya

Famous and insecure

Sir — After the kidnapping of the Kannada filmstar, Raj Kumar, Azim Premji of Wipro, N.R. Narayanamurthy of Infosys and other famous persons have received Z-category security, lest they should be kidnapped for ransom too. Several filmstars have also been given Z-category security. All this will be at the expense of the common people, since the money would be spent from the public exchequer. Those who seek any security that is not given to ordinary citizens must be made to pay for it.

Yours faithfully,
S. Tagore, Secunderabad

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