Editorial / Setting an agenda
Down to the essentials
People / Bharat Shah
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

The responsibilities of office are the best eliminators of extreme political and ideological views. Twenty fours years in power have weeded out from within the Communist Party of India (Marxist) pretensions of advancing a revolution. Two years of being at the head of a coalition government have tempered the communal and religious stridency that was once the identifying mark of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Gradually but surely governance has taken precedence over ideology. Some of the mellowing may very well be the product of a conjunctural expediency: maintaining a fragile coalition involves keeping alliance partners happy which in turn inevitably leads to a shift in ideological gears and orientation. But beyond expediency there is also the influence of personality which moulded contemporary history. Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, despite his long association with the sangh parivar, has never really fancied himself as a great champion of the fanatical fringe of Hindutva. His leadership of the BJP has left a definite imprint on its ideological orientation. Mr Vajpayee’s re-orientation of his party’s agenda to suit the needs of good governance has been carried out with very little fanfare and has therefore been relatively friction-free. But the absence of hype should not take away from the rate of success. It would be unrealistic to expect Mr Vajpayee to fulfil the secularist’s dream. He has limits within which he has to work and a constituency he has to nurture. It would be foolhardy on his part to ignore either. What is remarkable is the amount of modulation Mr Vajpayee has been able to introduce to what was previously a very screeching articulation.

It is clear to anybody who has been watching the workings of the National Democratic Alliance that its deliberations and decisions are free from the influence of Nagpur, the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Mr Vajpayee’s emphasis on economic reforms, their necessity and their irrevocable nature has served to push to the sidelines not only the demand to make India a Hindu rashtra but also the thrust towards swadeshi. Under Mr Vajpayee’s leadership, the NDA has set its own agenda instead of being mere agents of Nagpur. Even within the BJP, Mr Vajpayee has successfully marginalized those who appeared to be too ideologically driven. Ms Uma Bharti, now in the sports department, no longer trumpets Hindutva. Mr K.N. Govindacharya has been rendered politically impotent and officeless; if reports are to be believed, he wants to retreat to his base to lick his wounds. The unkindest cut of all has been reserved for the gung-ho campaigners of a Ram mandir in Ayodhya. Mr Vajpayee has made it very clear that his government is not going to stand by and fiddle if an attempt is made to build a temple in violation of the court’s directives. If the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is keen to force the issue it will have to do so by embarrassing a BJP prime minister.

These successes are testaments of Mr Vajpayee’s political skill. It is significant that Mr Vajpayee has ruffled very few feathers. This is not only because of his low-key and non-abrasive mode of functioning but also because he has always kept at the forefront issues relating to governance and development. This sense of priority has blunted the edge of a lot of criticism. But these successes are not without problems for Mr Vajpayee. The unfolding of political events suggests that while Mr Vajpayee’s popularity is soaring that of the BJP may be plummeting. The prime minister may have to face the criticism from within his party that the decline in BJP’s popularity is a fallout of the toning down of Hindutva which was the BJP’s identifiable birthmark. Mr Vajpayee will have to muster all his skills to fight off that kind of opposition. Under Mr Vajpayee, and with the complete disarray of the Congress, the BJP at the head of a coalition has emerged as the natural party of governance. The phrase, “at the head of the coalition”, may be crucial. To keep the coalition, Mr Vajpayee is indispensable as are the priorities he has put forward to the BJP, to the NDA and to the nation and in that order.


Not so long ago the prime minister declared that his government intended to reduce the size of government departments and offices by 10 per cent. This is a most laudable decision, which must be welcomed by everyone. The sad fact is, however, that every prime minister has made similar declarations and the results of these brave declarations have all been the same; the size of the bureaucracy has gone on increasing. In the early Fifties there were some 15 secretaries to the government of India; in 1995 there were over 70 who had that rank. These figures may be out by a few more or less, but the fact they illustrate holds good, nonetheless.

One might well ask why this happens, not once but — like the lady from Spain who was exceedingly sick on a train — again and again and again. The obvious answer is, of course, political patronage and cronyism. Whatever the orders in force, there will be notes recorded in files reading “PM desires that these posts be cleared.” Or “Minister desires that the proposal at ‘X’ (for some extra posts) be approved. Secretary (expenditure) has seen.” And, at the end of the year, when it is discovered that the number of posts has in fact increased, appropriate alarm will be expressed by the right people, from the prime minister down. And so the charade will continue.

But let us, for the moment, assume the government does act in good faith and does try to contain the proliferation of posts. What this translates into is the financial adviser in a ministry — really the pro-consul, the controller of expenditure — rejecting all proposals made for extra posts. You will conclude that this is very appropriate and you will be wrong. Consider this: the ministry of information and broadcasting spends large amounts setting up television transmitters to take Doordarshan’s signal to remote parts of the country. Each transmitter needs a few men to man it, and to tend to any fault that may develop. But when these posts are sought the financial pro-consul dismisses the proposal.

The result is that personnel from existing transmitters are sent “on tour” to man these new ones; the result of that is that the existing transmitter is badly run and maintained, and so is the new one. And that’s not all. The cumulative result is an almighty administrative mess. These parties going on tour to new transmitters means the travel budget has to be increased, and that the financial pro-consul promptly rejects in an almost Pavlovian reaction. Consequently the people who go on tour to the new transmitters don’t get their travel allowances for months — and, finally, refuse to go till their dues are cleared.

This happens on a larger scale for television and radio stations; there are a number of brand new stations which are under lock and key, their equipment degenerating and rusting for lack of use, because there simply aren’t enough people to man them. And this is obviously no economy at all; what you gain on the swings you lose on the roundabouts.The plain, short answer to this is to assess the activity in question, not the posts being sought, and then take a very carefully considered decision on whether the activity is warranted, the consequences of its stoppage, and everything else that may be relevant to deciding whether the activity should be stopped or not.

Do we need a transmitter at place X? If a transmitter isn’t set up there what will happen? Will the local MP defect? Or will there be a riot? Once these questions have been answered and the answers are such that they can be faced, then one can decide not to set up a transmitter there. No transmitter, no people needed to man it.

Having said this one must add that the Geethakrishnan committee on economy of expenditure is an eloquent example of how not to do this. One has great regard for Geethakrishnan, a former and distinguished expenditure secretary, who relished saying no, but what he is doing is no different from mowing a lawn. He has, for example said, that the films division should be abolished, since different ministries and offices could make documentary films if they wanted to without there being a central agency to do this. Really? There is a fantasy among officers of several ministries that they are all Satyajit Rays manqué, all experts on preparing and editing scripts, even ordering the kind of shots they want — but does this fantasy deserve to be nurtured? And is the expense of making films by different ministries and offices, at different costs, going to be less than having it done by an agency which has specialized in this very complicated work for decades?

It is different when you decide to hive off radio and television into a corporation, but there, again, the idea needs to be followed through to its logical conclusion. If Prasar Bharati is going to be a financial millstone round the government’s neck, then it needs to be asked if such a corporation should be kept or made entirely private, with the government retaining a small stake in it. The answer is not to abolish it and declare that every ministry can set up radio and television stations if it wants to, which is what the decision to abolish the films division is, in essence.

Surely what he needs to look at are more fundamental issues; are there activities that the government should not be involved with at all? What about the tourist lodges and hotels being run by various state governments? What about bus services, airlines, what about the numerous public sector units spawned by different ministries and state governments in the last 30 odd years? Can these not be sold off, and the security that the staff had under governments built into the price agreed? To argue that one unit or the other is making a profit is to miss the point completely.

This is not about making money; it is about stopping the expenditure on staff the state can well do without. If it means getting rid of units which are making money, so be it; the touchstone must be always the same — is the activity of that unit essential to the government? If it’s not, then it must go — not because it’s making money or not making money, but because the personnel involved are superfluous to the government.

This will need steadfast determination; the populist ragings of political leaders and their parties must be foreseen and, to the extent possible, contained, or withstood firmly. The decisions must be enforced; “rollbacks” like the one on fuel prices must be rejected. The political turmoil that this may bring about has to be weathered, and eventually, after some years, the benefits of cutting down on government expenditure will begin to emerge.

Cutting down on staff is not as easy as it looks, and the sooner the prime minister realizes that the better. He must see that the price will be heavy and he alone will have to pay it. At the crucial moment his colleagues will counsel compromise, or discreetly look the other way. Is he prepared for this? One can only hope that he is — since he did make the statement on cutting down the size of the bureaucracy.

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting    


Colour money

Bharat Shah does not like losing. Some years ago, an auction of Michael Jackson’s personal memorabilia was going on in Mumbai. The city’s glitterati had hot-footed it to the event. And there were many businessmen and industrialists who were itching to take home the Michael Jackson autographed pillow cover on sale. Shah breezed into the auction hall, outbid everyone present and left as suddenly as he had appeared.

His friends say it is futile to bid when he is around. Recently, he outbid everyone yet again to take home the limited edition “Lata Mangeshkar” perfume. Bharat Shah has always liked living king-size. But that was then.

In the aftermath of his arrest for his connections with the Mumbai underworld, Bharat “Moneybags” Shah’s Midas touch seems to have disappeared. He has been reduced to feigning illness to escape staying in the police lock-up for a day. Even in the lock-up where he is now lodged, he has tried in vain to get preferential treatment. The only concession made has been home-cooked tiffin which his son dutifully brings everyday.

A far cry from his days in Swapnalok, his posh apartment on Napean Sea Road which has a huge swimming pool built inside the compound. BMWs, Mercedes’ and several other fancy cars usually jostle for space in his garage.

A Palanpuri Jain, his family could be easily called the first family of India’s diamond industry with operations spread across the globe.

B. Vijaykumar & Company, where Shah and his brother Vijay were partners once, operates in Thailand, Belgium and Israel. In 1981, the company received an award from Israel for generating the country’s maximum exports.

In 1994, the King of Belgium made Bharat Shah a Knight of the Order. Shah flew to Antwerp with his entourage in a chartered plane to receive the award. The Shahs have a huge bungalow in Antwerp which is said to be bigger than the King’s Palace itself. Over the years, it has become a tourist attraction of sorts. Their diamond polishing unit in Bangkok is the biggest and most modern in the world, with 1,200 employees.

Clearly it wasn’t the lure of money which attracted Shah to Bollywood. His friends say the interest in Hindi films was something he had nurtured since his time as a gawky-eyed teenager. He is said to have borrowed money from his father when in his teens to invest in a Rajendra Kumar, Raj Kumar and Meena Kumari starrer called Dil Ek Mandir.

The teenage hobby soon became an obsession. Diamonds remained his bread and butter but the jam increasingly came from the movies. So much so that by the time 2000 drew to a close, Bharat bhai was bank-rolling 60 per cent of all Bollywood flicks. At any given point of time, Shah used to have investments to the tune of Rs 100 crores in the industry. Quite the big daddy of Bollywood.

Industry insiders say that anyone who got into trouble in Bollywood, headed straight for a darshan of the portly Shah. Shah helped Shah Rukh Khan purchase his grand bungalow in Bandstand at a reported Rs 13 crore. Khan returned the favour by acting in his films. Shah has also invested in Khan’s SRK World and a portal, catchuslive.com, a broadband site floated by Wizcraft. He is a bit of a philanthropist as well and has donated large amounts to charity.

But somewhere along the way, the glamour of tinsel-world went to his head. Always a bit of a showman, his lifestyle became more and more ostentatious. For his daughter’s marriage in 1989, he constructed a replica of a Rajasthani palace at Wankhede stadium. Shashi Kapoor later shot some scenes for Ajooba there. Social organisations mounted a crescendo of protest but he stuck to his guns.

The Vallabhai stadium was taken over next for his son’s wedding. This wedding outdid his daughter’s in opulence. Later, when son Rasesh became a father, granddad Shah made a room for his grandson, with diamonds spread on the floor and a transparent floor covering them.

He might have been on his way to becoming the Shah of Bollywood but trouble was brewing on the home front. A year ago, Bharat Shah fell out with his younger brother Vijay. The brother had objected to his business dealings in Bollywood and his association with unsavoury elements. Vijay had no objections as long as his elder brother’s activities were restricted to investment and financing. But Vijay protested when Bharat began to mingle freely with directors, actors, actresses and producers.

It was around this time that the two brothers decided to split. Vijay Shah started managing the business from Antwerp while Bharat Shah retained the India operations.

It was also the time the Shiv Sena-BJP combine went out of power. When the Sena was in power Shah had even bankrolled a production for Smita Thackeray, daughter-in-law of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. There has been some talk that the diamond trader turned film financier was being persecuted because of his proximity to the Shiv Sena. In fact, Shah made a trip to Delhi just before his arrest hoping to pull some political strings to stave off his arrest.

But his problems are just beginning. Enforcement agencies will soon launch parallel investigations into his business dealings. The crime branch in Mumbai has been talking to these agencies. “He is not a saint diamond merchants are projecting him to be. He is a criminal,” says a police official.

Apart from the diamond merchants who called a token one day strike — it cost the industry Rs 200 crore — the only other person who has vociferously defended him is Chhota Shakeel. He has called Bharat Shah a “white aadmi”. But for everyone else, especially for the Mumbai police, there are several shades of grey in between.



From ashes to ashes

The flames of Chhoto Angaria have clearly failed to scotch. It consumed only half the house much in the news over the past week and realized only half of Mamata Banerjee’s designs. The NDA team which landed in Midnapore was a great disappointment for didi, who seemed to squirm at the very sight of it. Heading it was not the Union defence minister and convenor of the NDA, George Fernandes, as she would have liked, but the nondescript BJP MP, Vijay Goel. She had no reason to hide her displeasure. Goel could neither see her at her Kalighat residence nor at the press conference which the NDA team convened at the Calcutta Press Club. She also scoffed at efforts by the state BJP leaders to arrange for a meeting with the new BJP favourite and the Trinamool leader. Despite the enormous collection of bullets and skulls, some of which Goel carried back, Chhoto Angaria also failed to yield much result in New Delhi. The election commissioner, SS Gill, not only discouraged the idea of president’s rule in West Bengal, but he also gave strict orders to his staff to allow Goel into the EC premises only if he came without his precious collection from Chhoto Angaria. The only person who seems to have got something out of the fiasco is Goel himself, BJP MP from Chandni Chowk. Since he came back to the capital, Goel is missing no chance to advertise the crucial role he played in the fact-finding mission, although one still isn’t sure if it were fact or fiction he has found.

Figure of speech

Don’t blame the mountains or the bonfire. The plains and ministerial responsibility seem to be inspiring as much loose talk in the Union sports minister, Uma Bharti. Senior ministers, including the Union home minister, LK Advani, are rather perplexed by her pronouncement from the mount that cricketers involved in matchfixing would be stripped of their Arjuna awards. According to the home minister, there is no such provision. And little chance of one being executed. The players are far from being convicted of the fixing charges. And the gusto with which some of them are going for changes in profession, take our former captain for example, will make it even more difficult to make the charges stick on. Moreover, the awards are given to outstanding sportspersons annually. Unless the tainted cricketers are proved to have fixed matches in the year they got their Arjuna award, the question of snatching it back from them does not arise. They should either think of taking a vow of silence or spend some time with Bharti’s mentor, Advani, who has seldom retracted his statements or claimed to have been framed by journalists.

Don’t spoil his party

The shahi imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmad Bukhari, is thinking big and obviously talking big as well these days. He has convened a meeting of the leaders of the community on February 5 in the capital, in which he hopes to disclose his plans for floating a new “Muslim Party”. The imam for now has flown to west Asia to raise funds for his new outfit. Muslim intellectuals, however, are not too happy with the imam’s idea. They have a point. They believe the move will be counter-productive and detrimental to the interests of the country’s largest minority. The last time the shahi imam tried to have his own party, the “Adam Sena” in 1989-90, the idea failed to take off. But the publicity it generated gave rise to the powerful Bajrang Dal and a number of other fundamentalist outfits. The leaders can rest assured. Other than the suicide dal the rest has been formed by the Hindu right.

The health services

The Congress parivar is getting more and more health-conscious. Many young and middle rung party leaders were seen getting themselves examined and having their lipid profile done after the famous dissenter, Jitendra Prasada, slipped into coma. Another band of party leaders is busy arranging havan and pujas to ensure health and happiness. Nowadays, when two Congress leaders meet, the talk no longer centres around how to get into the party’s working committee (probably because that is a foregone conclusion) but where they go for morning walks and how much good that is doing them. Hail thy leader and remain hearty.

Many happy returns

This was heard in the BJP office. George Fernandes was wishing Mamata Banerjee a very happy birthday. The answer from the other end was, “Thank you, same to you”.

Footnote / Two of the same species

Senior officers posted in the Delhi government and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi are a forgetful lot. They do not remember that in India one breed of people is more equal than the rest of the billion. That is why they cannot fathom why, despite their best efforts to implement the apex court’s orders regarding the shifting of polluting industries, only they are being served contempt of court notices. Politicians meanwhile, in spite of holding public demonstrations against the court order, are going scot-free. BJP leader, Madan Lal Khurana, had even tried to convince the lieutenant governor of Delhi, Vijay Kapur, about a go-slow on the relocation drive. It was the urban development minister, Jagmohan, who stalled the move. Now both he and the Delhi Congress chief, Subash Chopra, have been holding rallies against the shifting of units. Such is the duplicity of Delhi politicians that the day the relocation drive was suspended for a month, the chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit, told Sonia Gandhi, “At last, now I can breathe easily”. Never mind if lesser mortals continue to have respiratory problems.    


Honour the healer

Sir —It is difficult to understand the implied criticism in the news report, “Knee-healer on honours shortlist” (Jan 9). The practice of honouring those who have excelled in public life is neither new nor unique. By working wonders with the knee of the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Chittaranjan Ranawat has earned a place for himself in that category. That he has not severed links with India and keeps coming back to the Breach Candy Hospital so that the ordinary citizen can also benefit from his healing touch, makes him the perfect candidate. Ranawat will remind Calcuttans of Bidhan Roy, who never lost touch with the common man.
Yours faithfully,
Renuka Majumder, Calcutta

Model code

Sir — The editorial, “Soul cause” (Jan 9), has rightly pointed out that beauty contests are here to stay. Unfortunately, the moralists do not seem to get that. Why can’t these self-appointed guardians of Indian culture and morality keep their opinions to themselves? The women in our country are not helpless and do not need to be told what is good for them. It is difficult to understand the reluctance of these groups to accept modelling as a profession in its own right. Women who take up modelling do so after giving it enough thought and it is high time we learnt to respect their wishes.

It was shocking to hear the protesters say that these pageants are traps to lure women into the flesh trade. Such offensive statements are only a display of intellectual chauvinism. That this organization has decided to protest all of a sudden despite the fact that the pageant is being held for the last six years says a great deal about their lack of sincerity.

Yours faithfully,
Piya Kar, Calcutta

Sir — The recent protests by the women’s wing of the left affiliated Bhasha o Chetana Samiti against beauty contests and fashion shows do not make much sense. The tantrums of these self-professed protectors of women’s rights have been threatening to infringe upon the individual rights of the women participating in the contests.

It is a fact that beauty contests have become big business in India, especially after the opening up of the economy. But people must have the freedom to choose their way of life. These groups must realize that if someone does not want to see something obscene he should simply close his eyes. Switching off the light accomplishes nothing.

Yours faithfully,
Dhrubajyoti De, via email

Parting shot

Sir — Khushwant Singh is forever having digs at Bengalis (“Another language for beautiful lines”, Jan 8). He is wrong in saying that Bengalis overrate Tagore. It is regrettable that unlike European classics, Tagore is not widely read or understood due to the lack of proper translation. And to call the incident at Dum Dum airport, a demonstration by a handful of people, a possible lynching is a wild distortion.

Singh should really not volunteer misinformation. Recently, he claimed that Indian languages do not distinguish between snow and ice, rat and mouse, yesterday and tomorrow. There was a quick rebuttal from two correspondents who supplied the examples of Tamil and Bengali which have these words. Misinformed comments on Indian languages and writers will always cause him embarrassment.

Yours faithfully,
Pradip Choudhury, Jamshedpur

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