Editorial / Need to know
Levelling of Presidency
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / NEED TO KNOW 
 
 
 
 
Information is power. Nobody understood this better than Indira Gandhi. She made her ministerial debut in the department of information and broadcasting and realized the importance of managing and packaging the distribution of information. Indira Gandhi was the first prime minister who left her own imprint on how information was to be packaged and how the media was to be managed. This was, of course, before the Emergency, which closed all news save the official version. Mandarins like P.N. Haksar used the media, on the prime minister’s behalf, with extraordinary skill. One mode that was used in the early Seventies was to have a coterie of favourite journalists who had exclusive access to the prime minister’s office and the information that emanated from it. The making of this coterie was not based on personal whims but on what image Indira Gandhi wanted to project of herself. Manipulating the media, as Indira Gandhi was to discover, can be a double-edged sword. One unpleasant fallout of her mode of information management was that it restricted the prime minister’s own access to the media and public opinion. When she needed the media, those outside the charmed circle refused to be compliant to her wishes. Her favourites only told her what they thought she would like to hear. This isolated her from public opinion and may have contributed in no small measure to the disaster called the Emergency.

The cautionary tale embedded in Indira Gandhi’s handling of information and the media was not taken seriously by subsequent prime ministers. The pattern of playing favourites and restricted access was carried out with variations. But none of them mastered the art of information management to the level of Indira Gandhi and her mandarins. This history is worth recollecting to put in perspective the mini cause célèbre created by Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s musings. What the prime minister wrote during his holiday at Kumarakom was released selectively to some newspapers in the capital and in the regions. It is not possible to discern any apparent rationale in the manner the newspapers were chosen. It is clear though that it was decided from the beginning that access to the prime minister’s writings would be restricted, only a chosen few would be gifted with this offering. It is not unreasonable to conclude that since Mr Vajpayee wanted his musings to be published, he wanted them to be read, and read by as many Indians as possible. Restricted access obviously defeated this purpose. There is a more profound question that can be posed to the prime minister and his officials. If the prime minister was saying something important about his beliefs and was clarifying a confusion, why make holiday musings the purveyor of such a significant statement? The lines between private and public, formal and informal, which inevitably get blurred in a genre like holiday musings can only add to the confusion in the reception of the musings.

In a democracy, the channels of communication should be free of disturbing crackle. Given the work that the prime minister has to do, nobody grudges the fact that the prime minister’s access to the media and vice versa are mediated. It is imperative therefore that the person entrusted with the responsibility of mediating should be neutral and preferably a professional who commands the respect of the media. India, under the leadership of Mr Vajpayee, is swiftly and irrevocably moving into a more globalized world. Transparency and information are this world’s buzzwords. It follows that there should be transparency of information in India. Information has to be managed but not in the manner it was done when India was closed and insular. The handling of information has to move towards being less restricted. The playing of favourites is the hallmark of a feudal court. It sits uneasily in a democratic polity that is driven by a free economy. India in the last 10 years has broken away from the days of Indira Gandhi. Mr Vajpayee should take the leadership to break free from the ways set up by her in managing information and deployment of power.

   

 
 
LEVELLING OF PRESIDENCY 
 
 
BY RUDRANGSHU MUKHERJEE
 
 
The idea that Presidency College, Calcutta should be an autonomous institution with a deemed university status has had a prolonged gestation. Yet it refuses to be born.

The idea was first mooted, if memory serves right, in an unsigned article in the Presidency College Magazine of 1972. The article was written, it can now be revealed, by Dipak Banerjee, who was a professor of economics in the College. The timing of the article was deliberate. The College had just emerged out of the turmoil and violence it had witnessed since 1966. The all-India political ambience had then seemed to be conducive to the pursuit of excellence in higher education. Indira Gandhi was still in her leftist phase and under the skilful management of men like P.N.Haksar, she was recruiting left intellectuals to the service of her state. In higher education, the executor of this policy was S. Nurul Hasan.

The University Grants Commission had been made more powerful and richer and it was doling out largesse to those seen to be deserving. Presidency College had then appeared to the UGC to be a good cause to support and it showed its goodwill by setting up a Centre for Economic Studies, attached to the economics department which boasted then of having the best faculty for undergraduate teaching in the country. The UGC’s generosity had, however, a tag tied to it. It said if Presidency College was to develop and receive more support from the UGC, then it had to become an autonomous institution and enjoy a degree awarding status.

The UGC’s proposal was not without rationale. It was seeking to reduce the load on the University of Calcutta which had become unwieldy and too centralized. The very size of Calcutta University was suffocating the pursuit of excellence and the advancement of learning. Getting Presidency College outside the jurisdiction of Calcutta University would be good for both institutions.

Moreover, the argument was that in terms of infrastructure and quality of faculty, Presidency College was already in a position to acquire the status of a deemed university. Whatever lacunae there were could be overcome with support from the UGC. The College had a long tradition of excellence in teaching; classroom lectures were then buttressed by tutorials in virtually all departments. Most of the departments had at least one person who was not only an outstanding teacher but also a renowned scholar (some departments like physics and economics had more than one such person): A.K. Raychaudhuri in physics, Mihir Chaudhuri in chemistry, Mihir Rakshit in economics, Arun Kumar Das Gupta in English, Ashin Das Gupta in history, Atin Gun in statistics and so on.

Nobody had any manner of doubt that the various departments would be able to take on, without any decline in standards, the additional burdens that a deemed university status would entail. The faculty was overwhelmingly in favour of such a move because it felt that by being autonomous, the College would be able to preserve the excellence which was its rightful legacy. In fact, the article in the College Magazine was written with the intention of egging on the UGC committee and the concerned authorities to grant autonomy to Presidency College.

From the Seventies, the UGC has not wavered in its evaluation of Presidency College. Successive visiting committees have made the same recommendation: the College should be given autonomy. But this recommendation has moved from file to file in the state and the Central education departments for over 25 years. The UGC is not to blame for this.

The two principal stumbling blocks have been the West Bengal government and the University of Calcutta. The latter has an obvious vested interest in keeping Presidency College within its power. It would reduce the influence of Calcutta University if Presidency College ran its own undergraduate and post-graduate courses and offered its own degrees. Such degrees and courses — the chances were in the Seventies — would be valued more than what the University was offering. Without an intake from Presidency, the University ran the risk of losing some of its best students. The reluctance of the state education department was roughly based on similar premises. Presidency College as an autonomous body or a deemed university would not be directly and technically under the control of the Writers’ Buildings or the Department of Public Instruction or some other government department.

The nature of the state government’s objections changed as did its attitude towards Presidency College as the Left Front government came to be ensconced in power. These had disastrous consequences for the College and altered the entire context of the proposal to grant it autonomy. The Left Front government viewed Presidency College as an elitist institution. In the name of egalitarianism, it began a systematic policy of bringing down the standard of the College. Apart from control over funds — as a government college, it is completely government funded — the Left Front government had one other unique weapon to destroy Presidency.

The West Bengal government enjoys the power to transfer teachers in its education service. From the late Seventies, it began to transfer lecturers to and from Presidency College. Some of the best faculty members were transferred out and many who had previously never taught an honours class were brought into the College. The best teachers left and joined other institutions. This lowered the standards of teaching; tutorials disappeared. In the history department, for example, things came to such a pass that the head of the department had to request ex-students of the College to come and help out with the teaching. He pleaded that he did not have enough teachers as the government was not filling up vacant posts and some of those who were being transferred to the College were just not good enough.

There were good reasons to suspect that the entire transfer operations were being masterminded from the headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Alimuddin Street. It was playing favourites and building up its support base among the teachers. After all, a posting in Presidency had hidden perquisites like better access to the burgeoning private tuition market. Teachers in the College became more concerned with currying favours with the powers that be in Alimuddin Street than with their teaching duties. Many of them remember they have a salaries to collect, they forget they have duties to perform.

The comrades, it was very clear, had no intentions of preserving Presidency College as a centre for excellence in higher education. They wanted it to become like any other college in West Bengal. One glaring instance of this attitude was the closure of the Centre for Economic Studies in the economics department. It closed down because the state government refused to support it. This was despite the fact that Asim Das Gupta, the finance minister of West Bengal, is an alumnus of the College. The story, with minor variations, is true for all the departments. Starved of funds, the library and laboratories have languished.

The left, it will have to be admitted, has been hugely successful in its enterprise so far Presidency College is concerned. The College has lost the pre-eminent place it enjoyed from the time of Henry Vivian Derozio in the world of learning and education in West Bengal. Communist rule has indeed been a great leveller. The only problem is that in the quest for equality communists have lowered standards instead of raising them. If there is one thing mediocrity hates it is excellence.

Now one hears, the state government is in favour of the autonomy idea. But the teachers, or at least a large section of them, are against the idea. This is a reversal of the Seventies situation. There is a profound irony in this. The state government is trying to revive the College after having first killed it. The teachers are objecting because they believe autonomy would lead to a pampered group of students and teachers.

The autonomy proposal is thus faced with a paradox. The proposal in principle is unobjectionable but cannot be supported today without major changes in the College. To give Presidency College autonomy and to restore to it the status of a centre of excellence, the process has to begin again. In other words, new faculty has to be recruited and Presidency College has to be brought outside the government education service. Can the West Bengal government afford such a radical move? Giving autonomy to the College as it stands today with its existing faculty and facilities would be to add to the long list of India’s institutions of higher learning where the pursuit of excellence is an alien concept.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Lying exposed

Dr Jain turns Mr Hyde. Unable to bear the shock of being branded an ISI agent — by his political enemies, if JK Jain is to be believed — the BJP’s problem child first walked into Parliament with the family scandal written all over him. Then he armed himself with a legal notice to lunge at the prime minister and his men. One person who watched the goings on from a safe distance was the Union home minister, LK Advani. This also probably gave him a better view. The Jain gang had, for reasons best known to it, omitted Advani’s name from the list of persons who were slapped legal notice for the ISI slur. The home minister noticed the subtle move and is alleged to have prevailed over AB Vajpayee to sack Jain from the party’s national executive. It was Advani’s hunch that Jain and his associates were planning to give an added flavour to the fracas by turning it into an “Advani vs Vajpayee” match. Tough luck. The BJP duo are playing a perfectly synchronized innings and will have nothing that could create a misunderstanding at this stage. But given the fact that Jain is being assisted by gems like Ram Jethmalani and PN Lekhi, could there be any guarantee he won’t have subtler schemes in his bag of tricks?

Choose a different focus

A man obviously thrilled with his job. Or maybe the penchant for publicity got the better of him. The new all-India president of the BJP, Bangaru Laxman, summoned almost the entire crowd of New Delhi’s journalists to his luncheon on the eve of the party’s national executive meeting in the capital. From senior editors to the juniormost reporter who had just got the appointment letter, everyone was sent invitations. Some in fact received not one, but two invitations to the do. But barring those scribes who keep regular tabs on the saffron camp, senior journalists preferred to stay away from the fanfare. So did the prime minister, who was personally invited by Laxman. The message was clear and veteran BJP leaders even took the trouble of conveying it to the president. He had to cool his ardour for publicity. Laxman is reported to have been told to concentrate on meeting the rank and file of the party instead in order to strengthen the organization. This is all the more important because Laxman is still considered a lightweight by ordinary workers of the party. But where did the words of wisdom emanate from? The prime minister’s office?

Still miles to go

Talking about the PMO, NK Singh, the high profile secretary in this nerve centre, is scheduled to retire at the end of the month. But given his usefulness, resourcefulness and his long arm, no one is ready to buy that Nandu Babu is all set to pass into oblivion so soon. There is intense speculation in the corridors of power that the prime minister may after all grant him an extension after January 31, which will allow him to continue with his services to the nation undisturbed. There are also wolves in this lair who believe Singh might corner a key foreign post. But that would not require much hard work on his part since the office is also suspected to have its own plans. One is not sure how this works but apparently, Nandu, out in foreign soil, will allow a senior secretary level IAS officer, who is close to the powers that be, to take his place in the PMO. Whether it be within India or without, friends and foes alike believe it is not time yet for Nandu to walk away into the twilight.

Return to luxury

Some people are bad learners. The Uttar Pradesh Congress chief, Sriprakash Jaiswal, is one of them. The past holds no key for him. Like his predecessor, Salman Khurshid, who was fond of holding court in five star hotels, Jaiswal too has developed a fondness for luxury. He recently held a press meet in a posh hotel in the capital. The UP Congress chief is said to have hired a top PR firm that has been sending young girls to newspaper offices to invite journalists for a tête à tête with Jaiswal. The problem is that the scribes won’t swallow the bait.

Only a suggestion

This bit was heard in the AICC after Sonia Gandhi was authorized, as many had foreseen, to pick the entire Congress working committee: “President’s rule in the Congress.” Was the suggestion greeted by an encore?

Footnote/ Driving home a point

The former chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, is in his new avatar these days. Whenever he is addressing a party programme, he never misses a chance to castigate the Alimuddin Street bosses for the prevailing mess in the party and the administration. The other day Basu, much to the embarrassment of party leaders and the amusement of his listeners, publicly pulled up the management of the party mouthpiece, Ganashakti, for being unable to handle important news. “Remember, ours is a different kind of daily and unlike others, we are the least concerned about the king’s marriage or the queen’s divorce.” The editor, Dipen Ghosh, sat silently on the dais. Biman Bose, in charge of the party’s organizational affairs, looked the other way when the Basu burst out, “Where were my party cadres when the Trinamool Congress forced people to flee their homes in Midnapore one and a half years ago?” Subhas Chakraborty was also not spared when Basu made an oblique reference to him by saying little effort was being made to stem dissension. Basu evidently has regained both his voice and health after retirement.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Old friend, new ties

Sir — If things go as planned, then Jaswant Singh will become the first Indian foreign minister to visit Saudi Arabia in a few days to woo one of the most important leaders of the Arab world (“Jaswant to call on a friend forgotten after Indira era”, Jan 4). This is significant since Pervez Musharraf’s last two visits to that country have been less than successful. New Delhi would be eager to score a few diplomatic points at Islamabad’s expense as well as take off from where Indira Gandhi left off. Ties with Riyadh are important to New Delhi because Pakistan, like other Islamic nations, thrives on the former’s approval. India would be hoping to bring Riyadh round to its point of view on Kashmir.
Yours faithfully,
Neeta Burman, via email

Read that again

Sir — The article, “Reading goals” (Dec 15), by Surendra Munshi concludes with the hope that the aspiration of ending poverty, ignorance and inequality be fulfilled as desired by Jawaharlal Nehru. Unfortunately, Nehru, as the first prime minister of India, cannot escape responsibility for the shocking neglect of elementary education which has, in turn, led to other problems like unemployment. He is also the architect of India’s economic policy which was modelled on that of the former Soviet Union and which laid great emphasis on the growth of heavy industries. Not much importance was given to primary education and the five year plans did not do enough in this regard.

Even if Parliament passes the 83rd constitutional amendment bill and education becomes a fundamental right, the situation will not change unless both the Central and state governments take the initiative to launch primary and adult education programmes. Schools, colleges and community services will have to come forward and organize literacy camps. Students can play a major role in such projects.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjit Kumar Guha Roy, Durgapur

Sir — That half of India’s adult population is illiterate is shocking. What is worse is that this critical situation should exist in a country which is supposed to be ushering in an age of information technology. In spite of the fact that there are a large number of dropouts and enrolment in schools depends on sociological factors like poverty and unemployment, the government has not taken a proactive stand on education.

It is difficult to understand the neglect of successive governments which have never devoted much time to the cause of education in India. Perhaps this is because many politicians in India are uneducated and therefore do not feel the urge to make a commitment in this regard.

Despite the fact that the framers of the Constitution had hoped that the government would ensure free and compulsory education for all children up to the age of 14 within 10 years, not enough has been done to enlighten either children or parents about the importance of education. Few governments in India have tried to implement the directive principles embodied in part IV of our Constitution.

Yours faithfully,
Sujata Khanna, Calcutta

Heady disorder

Sir — While one can understand that the end of one year and the coming of another is cause for celebration, there can be no excuse for the complete breakdown of order. The Calcutta police failed to make proper arrangements on December 31, especially in Park Street and its surrounding areas. There was absolute chaos on the streets and hooliganism was at its worst. Young girls were targeted by eve-teasers and even elderly people were not spared.

The lack of proper traffic and crowd control measures shows the police’s lackadaisical attitude. It has failed to provide extra security on many such occasions.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

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