Editorial / Folly of the mahatma
Unofficial emissaries
People / Keith Vaz
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

In India there is no better testimonial than a quote from Mohandas Karam- chand Gandhi. It is arguably the last word in piety. But the Karnataka minister of state, Mr T. John, may have unwittingly earned for himself a rather dubious distinction. When he said that the earthquake in Gujarat was divine retribution for the attacks on Christian missionaries there, he perhaps did not know that he was merely echoing Gandhi. In 1934, when an earthquake devastated north Bihar, Gandhi had described the calamity as a “divine chastisement for our sins”. The earthquake, he said, was “nemesis for the sin of untouchability”. Mr John may have lost his job, but he may derive some satisfaction from the company he gets from the father of the nation. That satisfaction may, however, be short-lived if Mr John cares to read the sharp rejoinder that Gandhi’s statement brought forth from Rabindranath Tagore. The poet criticized Gandhi for implying that God, when he punished sinners, was unable to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent and had therefore unleashed an earthquake which was indiscriminate in its destruction. He added that by making such pronouncements Gandhi was strengthening the forces of unreason in society by encouraging the belief that cosmic phenomena had something to do with the fate of human beings. Gandhi did not take kindly to the retort and refused to be moved from the position he had articulated.

One would have thought that this celebrated exchange between India’s two icons had become part of the archive till Mr John’s statement resurrected it to show that it had not lost all contemporary relevance. The arguments that Tagore made against Gandhi are as important today as they were in their own time. There exist perfectly valid explanations for the occurrence of earthquakes. The fact that earthquakes cannot be predicted does not diminish the strength of those explanations. In Tagore’s words, “physical catastrophies have their inevitable and exclusive origin in certain combination of physical facts.” To deny this and to assert that calamities are ways in which God expresses displeasure are to pander to the unscientific view of phenomena that makes men and women rush to astrologers and wear stones and gems. Even for the believer, Mr John’s statement, like Gandhi’s, is demeaning for divinity since divine power is made to punish millions for the sins of a few. Neither Gandhi’s god nor Jesus Christ — Mr John’s saviour — is known for his vengeful attitude.

As a Christian, Mr John is angry about the attacks on Christian missionaries. His feelings are shared by many people, including innumerable non-Christians. But the attackers, whoever they might have been, were fanatics. It is easy to imagine such people not accepting any scientific principles and explanations. Such fanatics are indeed the harbingers of unreason in Indian society. Mr John has only fortified their position as he himself has articulated the most unreasonable of propositions. This is the irony of Mr John’s statement: his thought process is exactly the same as of those whom he wants to oppose. Mr John would have no answer if one of the fanatics were to argue that the earthquake is divine chastisement for allowing Christian missionaries in Gujarat in the first place. It would only result in a shouting match and perhaps to violence, the ultimate triumph of unreason.

Tagore was not a man of science, but he could see the profound error involved in ascribing divine intentions to natural phenomena. Reason is spastic in India. Illiteracy and the lack of adequate education have left the majority of the people in a world dominated by fears and superstitions. This has made them victims of various kinds of non-economic and spiritual exploitation. As a public servant, it was Mr John’s duty to fight against such forces. Instead, he chose, through his ridiculous utterances, to strengthen them. The fact that through a quirk of history he had Gandhi on his side does not take away from the seriousness of his offence and the inappropriateness of Gandhi’s remarks.


What is said about one country in another (and how) both reflect perceptions and shapes them. And so, one might expect a certain frisson in Britain with the government reeling under the impact of four Indians, and India itself reeling under the impact of a tragic earthquake. The absence of any significantly adverse reaction could be at least partly due to India being seen now as “one of the world’s fastest-growing markets” (Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph) to which the Hindujas “offered a connection”.

This concern with money was clear even in the case of the mysterious Shymamaji Krishnavarma whom I mentioned a fortnight ago. Richard Symonds, author of Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause? had some answers when we met at the Corpus Christi high table. Krishnavarma was an undergraduate and lecturer at Balliol, assistant to the Boden professor of Sanskrit, and founder of the annual Herbert Spencer lecture. Oxford talked of returning his money when he espoused militant nationalism but quietly shelved the idea and appointed a Herbert Spencer lecturer of its own choice.

Bofors is irrelevant in Britain where many believe that the disliked, though competent, Peter Mandelson was ousted by an internal coup that exploited the Hinduja connection. His adversary, Alastair Campbell, was described by his biographer, Peter Osborne, as “the second most powerful man in Britain” whose “official title is special adviser and chief press secretary to the prime minister” but who “wields far more power and influence than cabinet ministers”. Similarly, it is entirely possible that the Hindujas themselves were victims of an internal coup against Rajiv Gandhi, with hordes of unscrupulous operators scrambling aboard Vishwanath Pratap Singh’s opportunistic bandwagon.

All the more reason, therefore, to go beyond procedural improprieties to the heart of the matter. Tony Blair’s close friend bestirred himself on Srichand Hinduja’s account. The home office granted Gopichand Hinduja a passport in eight months and Srichand in six months when the average waiting time is 19 months. Stephen Byers, the trade and industry secretary, met the Hindujas or talked to them no less than six times. Patricia Hewitt, the e-commerce minister, accepted their hospitality in Mumbai and London. The bald and beaming Keith Vaz, Britain’s minister of state for Europe, promised to sign letters to Blair and Mandelson that the Hindujas drafted. Blair first said that Vaz had made “inquiries” on behalf of the Hindujas, then changed it to “representations”. Why?

The million pounds that the Hindujas gave to the Millennium Dome cannot be the only reason. It would not explain Sir Edward Heath, the former Conservative prime minister, becoming trustee of a Hinduja charitable foundation and endorsing Gopichand’s passport application. Nor can it explain William Hague allowing the Hindujas to host a party in his honour at their corporate headquarters seven years after a Conservative government refused naturalization papers to both brothers.

India opened up to the world during those seven crucial years (1991-98), loosening exchange control, welcoming investment, and allowing more imports. The four Indian players — Vaz and the three Hinduja brothers who sought British passports — may have done great deeds in Britain, and I am prepared to believe that the white establishment’s obsessive political correctness played some part in their elevation. But as important were their links with what Britain saw as a dynamic new land of opportunity.

India has been many things to Britain over the ages, but its capacity to absorb British merchandise — from motorcars to marmalade — has always been a prime attraction. My generation was brought up on the story, true or false, of the muslin weavers’ thumbs being chopped off. It was many years before I discovered that Dorman Long, written in relief on the iron girders in our garage, was the name of a British steel company. Around the time that I made that discovery — it was in Manchester in the early Fifties — my landlady identified the garment I had worn for the Lord Mayor’s reception as a “dooty”. Her father and brother had been mill managers, and she remembered that they manufactured only thick and coarse “dooties”. What she did not know was that it was Lancashire’s retort to khadi.

There were thousands of such examples but no one in Britain then talked of India as a market because it was a captive market. There were no competitors and entry was by imperial right. Even American missionaries were discouraged, which is why they turned to China instead and established firm links that subsequently became political. Now, a galaxy of expediently apolitical NRIs of no particular distinction trade on the demand for an entrée into the Indian market.

If Rabindranath Tagore’s stock at home shot up after he won the Nobel Prize, it is only to be expected that a Lord Bagri or Lord Parekh should also enjoy fame in India after being seen to hobnob with Britain’s great and good. Their value to Blair lies in the Indian doors they can supposedly open; they have acquired that reputation because Indians think they have access to Blair. One contact neatly supplements the other.

Vaz was nine when his parents brought him to Britain, his mother is active in local government in the Midlands, his wife has written a book of advice for Asian visitors, and he is the second Indian to hold ministerial office here — Satyendra Prasanna Sinha, the first Baron Sinha of Raipur, undersecretary of state for India in 1919, was the forgotten first. Vaz has been accused of using bullying tactics in local affairs, taking donations, trading land for cash over a complex in his constituency that was billed as Europe’s largest multi-faith centre, and peddling influence for the Hindujas even after becoming a minister of the Crown.

It is interesting that the only reference to race that I have seen in this entire affair was by him. “I don’t like this underlying hint of ‘Should an Indian get a passport?’” Vaz declared. “I am proud of my links with the Asian community and will continue to do what I can to help them.” It was a master stroke. The British might bubble with suppressed racist resentment but anyone who now utters so much as a word against Vaz will at once be hanged, drawn and quartered for colour prejudice. “I am a leading member, if not the leading member, of the Asian community in this country,” he boasts. “All kinds of people ask me for support.”

“Keith is a prominent Asian MP, they (the Hindujas) are prominent people from the Asian community,” Blair echoes, also playing the Asian card. “I cannot see anything wrong in him making representations on (behalf) of other members of the Asian community.” But this apparent genuflection to multiculturalism does not impress fractious immigrants who would shed no tears if Vaz or the Hindujas came a cropper. Being Britain’s eighth wealthiest citizens, according to the Sunday Times, with a fortune of two billion pounds, does not endear Srichand and Gopichand to jat-bhais slaving away behind shop counters and on factory floors. They also know that Blair’s real purpose is to reinforce economic bridges with India.

Unofficial emissaries are common enough. Atal Bihari Vajpayee sent R.K. Mishra to Nawaz Sharif. Murli Deora met George W. Bush Jr. Dhirubhai Ambani and his sons talked to Bill Clinton in Mumbai. History tells us that Benjamin Disraeli used Monty Corry to negotiate the four million pound loan from Lionel de Rothschild that enabled Britain to buy half the shares in the Suez canal.

Vaz and the Hindujas perform similar functions. British dignitaries attend the parties they throw for important Indian visitors because India again seems poised to become the land where the pagoda tree waits to be shaken. It would be unfortunate if the minor upheaval of Mandelson’s eclipse or the catastrophe in Gujarat is allowed to affect that robust assessment.



Finger pie

Anyone needs a passport?” joked Keith Vaz as he began his address to the distinguished gathering at India House on Republic Day. He had just spent 15 minutes being accosted by journalists outside the building and was showing signs of wear and tear. In aggressive mode he had told BBC’s Newsnight presenter, Jeremy Vine, “You are not yet Jeremy Vine QC [Queen’s Counsel]” referring to the enquiry committee headed by Sir Anthony Hammond QC which will be looking into the whole question of the granting of passports to the Hinduja brothers and the roles played by ministers like Peter Mandelson and Keith Vaz among others.

Vaz is fighting to survive the Hinduja-passport scandal which has already cost Mandelson his job and sent him to the political wilderness. The tabloids have declared a full-fledged war on him calling him “Vaseline” and carrying a front-page lead “Vaz Must Go”. But 45-year-old Vaz, Minister for Europe, is determined not to go in a hurry, never mind that the Hinduja affair is not the only one dogging him at the moment. He is also being investigated for irregular practices in his constituency of Leicester East by Elizabeth Filkin, the parliamentary commissioner for standards.

Together with fellow-Goan wife, Maria Fernandes, an immigration lawyer, whom he married after he became an MP, the Vazs are a political family. While mum, Merlyn — a major influence on Keith’s life — is a councillor in Leicester, his sister Valerie, has been trying for a parliamentary ticket for several years. They are doing all they can to fight back.

Vaz’s love for Labour started when he was a practicing solicitor and worked for the London boroughs of Richmond-upon-Thames and then the Borough of Islington. He took the plunge in 1983 and stood as the parliamentary candidate for Richmond and Barnes. This was a strong Tory seat and he lost. He then wisely moved his constituency to Leicester — home to a large Gujarati community — and began building a base there. In 1987, in the middle of a thumping Thatcher and Conservative win, Vaz became the first Asian MP to be elected to the Commons after Indian independence. It was a historic win. By the next general election, which swept John Major to power, Vaz had increased his position to a 11,316 seat majority from a paltry count of 1,924. Leicester East was now a safe seat. With the Labour swing in 1997, Vaz was in a firm position and won with a huge majority of 18,422 seats.

It was now time for him, as everyone thought, to be made minister. As an opposition MP he had a front bench appointment as shadow junior environment minister from 1992-97. But that didn’t happen initially, much to everyone’s surprise. Vaz was made parliamentary private secretary to the Attorney General and Solicitor General in 1997. Later, his boss, Lord Irvine, was to say that “Keith Vaz was the biggest networker I have ever met.”

To those who know him, Vaz is the epitome of the networking politician. He has played the community card when it suited him and distanced himself when he didn’t want to be lobbied on Kashmir, curry or visas.

“Kashmir, Kashmir, Kashmir,” he had once said in exasperation as an opposition MP, “As a British MP I want to look after the interests of my constituents — education, housing, schools. All I get is Kashmir.” Genuine grievance, anyone would say. But then, when Vaz had clearly set himself up as an Asian MP, he couldn’t possibly wish away either visa-seeking curry chefs or Kashmir.

He was after all, Keith Vaz, the voice of Asians. He had stood outside the Bank of England in 1992 after the disastrous closing of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) which left thousands of Asian investors penniless. He campaigned tirelessly for the victims of the BCCI and became the Co-ordinator of the BCCI Parliamentary group.

But all the while there were allegations of corruption — that he had accepted money from businessmen in Leicester, that he and his mother had tried to get rid of the leader of the local Leicester council, that he had accepted money from a city lawyer and not declared it, and that he had tried to rig the election for the parliamentary candidate for Southall in favour of his sister, Valerie Vaz. All allegations that Vaz furiously denied and put down to political rivalry and jealousy.

Elizabeth Filkin, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, is now investigating allegations that Vaz requested “campaign contributions” from local businessmen in return for exerting influence on planning applications. The central allegation revolves around a controversial plan for Europe’s biggest multi-faith centre, with places of worship for three religions, on seven and a half acres of council-owned land at Hamilton, near Leicester East. In 1998 the land was sold to the three applicants — the Dawoodi Bohra Jamaat, the Ramgarhia Sikh Temple and the Swaminarayan Hindu Mission — at half the market value. Jaffer Kapasi of the Dawoodi Bohra Jamaat says Vaz asked him to make payments to his campaign, a claim the MP denies.

The minister says he took money from Indian businessmen for his campaign but he has clearly listed them in his Member’s Interest Book. Among those who contributed to Vaz’s election fund were Usha Mittal, wife of Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate and head of ISPAT. Others were Lord Swraj Paul (at one time very close to Vaz. In fact Vaz’s son is called Luke Swraj Vaz, after the steel magnate turned peer), G.K. Noon, and Ranjit Mathrani (both millionaires from the food industry). In fact in 1997, Vaz’s campaign fund was so cash-rich it surprised many observers.

Over the past three years, Vaz moved from his close association with Lord Paul (arch rival of the Hindujas) to the Hinduja camp. He was seen at all their receptions at their offices in Haymarket and at a Diwali bash at Alexander Palace attended by Tony and Cherie Blair. It was Vaz who is said to have introduced Mandelson to the Hindujas. S.P. Hinduja has said that he had asked Vaz for advice on what protection they would get as British citizens if they were prosecuted in India. Hinduja also admitted writing to Tony Blair that he should have an Asian minister in his cabinet. The obvious choice was Keith Vaz.

As minister for Europe, Vaz passionately defended Labour’s position on the Euro and fought Euro-sceptics on the right and in the media. In fact he was speaking about Britain’s interests in Europe at a cosy lunch in Prague when his pager told him that Mandelson had quit over the Hinduja-passport affair and that he may soon be facing the music as well. Vaz has admitted that he wrote a series of letters on behalf of the Hindujas and their passport application to Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. Tony Blair has said he sees nothing wrong with that.

G.K. Noon, who donated £5,000 to Vaz’s campaign said he understood Vaz’s dilemma. “He is Britain’s only Asian minister, as such it is not surprising that influential members of the community have turned to him for help and advice.” But it is Asian members of Vaz’s Leicester constituency who have issued the charges of corruption against him. The complaints to Filkin’s commission have come from Mustafa Kamal, a Labour councillor from Leicester East. Within days of making his complaint he was asked by the Leicester Labour Party office to substantiate his claims or face disciplinary action and has complained of threats. Elizabeth Filkin reprimanded the officials in Keith Vaz’s office for interfering with the Commission, again something that did not reflect the Asian minister in good light.

For with elections coming up in three months time, it could cost him a lifetime’s hard work if the voters smell sleaze. It would also cut short a brilliant career with more to look forward to in the corridors of power at Westminster.



Hard to keep the muck out

Sourav Ganguly must be smarting from the unfairness of it all. The West Bengal government had recommended his name for the Republic Day honours list. The idea of awarding him a Padma Shri had the approval of the home minister as well, who is supposed to be a fan. The usual police enquiries and most other formalities around the award had also been completed at this end.

But the whole thing was shot down by the PMO, quite at the last moment. The PMO reportedly invoked the matchfixing scandal as their reason. The taint has somehow spread to even those who have managed to emerge unscathed from it. Apparently, another spanner has been thrown in the works by the Punjab and Haryana lobby, with mega-names like IS Bindra and Kapil Dev in it. Scandals obviously cast long shadows.

After the calamity

The Gujarat earthquake seems to have galvanized politicians into paroxysms of generosity. The deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha had issued a press release appealing to all members to donate one day’s salary. Two hours later, the speaker of the Lok Sabha, GMC Balayogi, and the Rajya Sabha chairman, Krishna Kant, held a meeting in which it was decided that all MPs should donate a month’s salary and ten lakhs from their development fund. Then Najma Heptullah declared that she has given a crore from her fund. But her press release also claimed that she had written to the chairman and speaker to have the rules regarding the MPs’ funds changed in order to facilitate the donations.

This left most baffled, particularly when the next day, Chaitanya Prasad, the information officer in charge of parliamentary affairs from the Press Information Bureau, declared in< i>his/i> press release that Pramod Mahajan, the parliamentary affairs minister, also wants the rules of the MPs development fund amended. Mahajan wants to donate his entire allotment of two crores to Gujarat. Sonia Gandhi, who was one of the first people to rush to Gujarat, called a meeting of senior leaders, and got in touch with all the chief ministers of the Congress-ruled state, to remind them of what was expected of them in such a crisis. Maharashtra, Delhi, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Karnataka were the first to respond to her plea. She also cancelled all her meetings, postponed the CWC and exhorted her colleagues to set a worthy example by not politicizing the calamity.

There goes the third front

The proposed third front is in the doldrums after the former defence minister and Samajwadi Party leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, ruled out his participation in any CPI(M)-sponsored front in the near future. The other day, Yadav, on a day’s visit to this city, made it clear that his party would not share a platform with the leftists, particularly the CPI(M). He is supposed to have told party colleagues that the CPI(M) had given him a rough time, quite publicly, for proposing Jyoti Basu’s name as the future prime minister. Yadav also refused to call on Basu at his Salt Lake residence or the CPI(M) party office. This is a conspicuous departure from his usual behaviour.

Worried CPI(M) leaders have reportedly requested him, indirectly, to meet Basu before he left the city. But this has not worked. Party leaders have therefore advised Basu not to mention the third front too much during his election campaigning. It is expected that Basu will start campaigning by the middle of the month. With Mulayam backing out of the third front idea, there will be little left of it now. So Basu had better not build it up too much.

Stop him from coming in

State Congress leaders seem to be feeling increasingly sure that the West Bengal Congress MLA, Sougata Roy, is building what are beginning to look like bridges with the Trinamool Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee. And neither party is too happy about this. Roy, quite eager to get re-elected from his Alipore assembly constituency, had to bank on Sultan Ahmed, the Congress MLA turned Trinamool minority cell chief, to get an appointment with Banerjee.

Ahmed reportedly took Roy to Banerjee’s Kalighat home a little after midnight, but Trinamool leaders remain resentful of his induction into their party. Party workers in south Calcutta are planning to put up an independent candidate if Roy is chosen as the party nominee from the Alipore constituency. Observers also feel that Mamata Banerjee will go through a tough time choosing her party nominees for the imminent assembly elections.

Footnote / Charming all his rivals

Ajit Jogi, the chief minister of Chhattisgarh and the former AICC mouthpiece, has turned out to be the perfect bearer of the Arjun Singh tradition. He is using all his skills to eliminate his rivals. First, the BJP MLA from the Marwahi assembly constituency, Ram Dayal Uike, resigned to make room for Jogi. Apart from Uike, an entire assortment of BJP MLAs was vying with each other to resign in Jogi’s favour. In this were Tarun Chatterjee from Raipur, the ex-mayor, Lokendra Pratap Yadav from Barode Bazaar and Ratna Mala Devi.

The BJP is now looking for a candidate to pit against him in Chhattisgarh. One Hemwati Porte has been approached by the party. She is the widow of the influential tribal leader, Bhanwar Singh Porte, a former Madhya Pradesh minister. Bhanwar Singh, though traditionally Congress, had been a BJP MP once. But Hemwati Porte has refused and is supporting Jogi. Her husband was Jogi’s schoolmate. The BJP has also approached Bhanwar Singh’s niece, Laxmi Porte. But Laxmi has allegedly been in touch with Jogi and hasn’t yet made up her mind about the whole thing.


Sir — The leader of the Samajwadi Party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, is reportedly miffed at the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (“Mulayam snub to CPM front”, Feb 1). He has made this clear by not calling on the former chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, and by ruling out the participation of his party in a third front led by the CPI(M). Does Yadav still hold a grudge against the politburo for rejecting his idea of Basu as the prime minister of India? But his accusing the CPI(M) of failing to look after the interests of the minorities makes little sense. Could Yadav’s attempt to gain popular mileage out of this be just a way of reinstating himself as one of the major players in national politics?
Yours faithfully,
Rita Puri, via email

Stony sermons

Sir — The United States ambassador to India, Richard Celeste, deserves accolades for having the courage to call a spade a spade (“US in Bengal bandh sermon”, Jan 13). The ambassador was only echoing the views of most Calcuttans when he said that strikes and poor work culture are the main causes behind the low inflow of foreign investment into the state. Punjab, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and other industry-friendly states are attracting foreign investment while Bengal is lagging behind. The lack of innovative thinking and an adherence to backdated policies have led to the downfall of West Bengal. Despite the positive attitude displayed by the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Indian as well as foreign investors are skipping the state on a regular basis.

After decades of bandh politics, workers have been conditioned to consider industrialists as their enemies. As a result, railrokos, demonstrations and rallies have become a pastime for workers. That the former chief minister, Jyoti Basu, did not do anything to stop the closing down of the sick factories also frightened away potential foreign investors. Howrah, Hooghly, Burdwan and South 24 Parganas once had small and medium scale industries but that is now a memory. Public sector undertakings like the Durgapur Steel Plant have been losing revenue for the last few years. These factors are responsible for the situation in West Bengal now.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

Sir — The editorial, “Bandh on the run”(Jan 14), has hit the nail on the head by pointing out that the success of bandhs in West Bengal has a great deal to do with the Bengalis’ love for holidays. While the remarks made by the chief justice of the Calcutta high court, A.K. Mathur, and the US ambassador may have been out of turn, there can be no denying that it is time for some introspection.

The people of West Bengal cannot talk of industrialization and continue lending tacit support to bandhs. They must take the initiative and force all political parties in the state to stop calling bandhs.

Yours faithfully,
P. Chatterjee, Calcutta

China in town

Sir — The visit of the Chinese premier, Li Peng, was a welcome gesture. It might help resolve bilateral tensions between China and India. Although Indian leaders have in the recent past made attempts to build warm ties with the Chinese government, the comments by the defence minister, George Fernandes, a couple of years ago undid all the efforts. The two south Asian giants need to consolidate their bilateral relations. Peng’s visit should be used as leverage for this purpose.
Yours faithfully,
Naren Sen, Howrah

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