Editorial / Needs of the time
Mustard seeds
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / NEEDS OF THE TIME 
 
 
 
 
When Ms Sushma Swaraj takes upon herself the business of keeping the nation entertained, it is time for alarm. The basilisk eye of Hindutva prudery and the dangerous illogic of swadeshi pseudo-economics have now, it seems, fixed their gaze on the film industry. The information and broadcasting minister has extended her nurturing thoughts to the risky business of making films. She was the master of revels at a recent global convention, in Mumbai, on the entertainment sector, organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. The Ficci secretary-general has even called her a “can-do” minister, and it is this image of determined and empowered purposiveness that ought to strike a chill.

The first incongruity in the situation is the prominence given to the information and broadcasting ministry at a convention the tenor of whose concern was primarily economic. Its purpose was to review the state of the cinematic art in properly industrialized terms and to devise strategies of corporatization which would give it stability and respectability in the eyes of lawful investors. This would, of course, involve reviewing the current policy on entertainment tax, and therefore require a kind of open-mindedness from the Central and state governments. But the problems of the film industry and their solutions, inasmuch as they require the initial intervention of the state, ought to be the legitimate concern of the finance ministry. The information and broadcasting ministry’s fingers should be nowhere near this particular pie. Amitabh Bachchan and Subhash Ghai have both converged on the notion of corporatization as the only means of redemption for the film industry, and the Industrial Development Bank of India has very sensibly decided to start the salvaging work. But the existence of Ms Swaraj’s ministry should be redundant to the functioning of either these individuals or this financing body. And this is what is particularly bizarre about her ministry’s growing officiousness.

It is perhaps time for Ms Swaraj to acknowledge that a liberalizing state could, and ought to, do without her ministry. The principles behind liberalization or disinvestment logically imply a corresponding bureaucratic streamlining that should render ministries like hers quite useless. Almost all functioning democracies, with thriving entertainment industries, have done away with the notion of an information and broadcasting ministry. Ms Swaraj must be canny enough to understand this. But her reaction is to get furiously busy and create a range of preposterous functions for her ministry that would keep up the impression of necessary bustle. This meddling also takes for granted its own indispensability in matters gravely national. And the range of such matters is extensive. In this, the most perceptible tendency is to conflate the language of progressive and pathbreaking reforms with an insidious and thoroughly regressive nationalism based on the most invented of traditions. Ms Swaraj is therefore a “reformer” in more senses than is good for the nation, and the sole point of her ministry seems to be to justify these dubious energies. It is also significant that her reforming vision of New Indian Cinema goes straight to the Constitution, with the possible placing of the film industry in the concurrent list.

In this case, too, she has assured her Mumbai audience that she is “responding to the needs of the times”. By taking cinema under her wings she sees herself as a champion of modernity. But Ms Swaraj’s views and actions on a whole range of contemporary issues — censorship, fashion, the foreign media — should have alerted most of her Mumbai audience (or at least those who have managed not to have been arm-twisted into assorted bigotries by the local Shiv Sena) to the dubiousness of her promised nurture. The implications are drastic. The government should stay out of films after initiating the necessary fiscal reforms. And before meddling with the fabric of Indian modernity, the information and broadcasting ministry should seriously wonder if it — that is, the ministry, and not modernity — ought to exist at all.

   

 
 
MUSTARD SEEDS 
 
 
BY AMIT CHAUDHURI
 
 
Someone I know and love, a relative of mine, has changed newspapers again. He’s a staunch CPI(M) loyalist; and he got tired of fuming each morning at The Statesman’s (the paper he’d subscribed to for several decades) cavils and harangues at the Left Front government. One day, he changed to The Telegraph. He spent the next few months like an unhappy schoolboy who’s been transferred to a different class, and can’t get over his life in the old one. Then, quietly, like someone going back to a guilty habit, he reverted to The Statesman. This unhappy, restless to-and-froing between an old verity that had betrayed him and occasional forays into the unrecognizable new terrain of The Telegraph continued for about a year, till we heard there was a temporary respite; a new paper had appeared on the horizon; and six months ago, he became a subscriber to The Times of India. Then, quite undramatically and without ceremony, he dropped all three newspapers; only two Bengali-language papers, one, the Party organ, and the other, a powerful but unofficial advocate of the Party, now come to his house.

His anguish is understandable. It is the anguish of one who identifies too closely with the fortunes of a party, and cannot bear to see it unfairly (as he perceives it) criticized from every quarter. His predicament is somewhat like (if not in scale, then in its degree of insolubility) that of the woman in the Buddhist fable: carrying her dead child, she went to the Buddha and asked him to resurrect it to life. The Buddha said he would do so, if she would first get him some mustard seeds from a house where a death had not occurred. Unsurprisingly, she could find no such house, nor the mustard seeds. In a working democracy, praise for a ruling party, especially in the press, is almost as rare as those mustard seeds.

This is as it should be. There is an odd idea in India, among ruling parties and their politicians (and West Bengal is no exception), that they should be approached with reverence, respect, or, at the least, empathy and understanding. It is a feudal idea, and is apposite to pre-modern political systems, where the ruler was the government, the state, and to challenge or undermine the ruler was, in consequence, to undermine the state. It gathered force in democratic India primarily under the tutelage of Indira Gandhi, who cultivated the notion that the Congress, the Nehru family in particular, and, most powerfully and specifically, she herself, were identical with the nation, and that to denigrate her was, in effect, to make an anti-national statement. This simple and ruthless, and potentially dangerous, equation found its simple and ruthless expression in the words of her now largely forgotten ventriloquist’s dummy, D.K. Barooah: “India is Indira; Indira is India.”

Political parties are far more compromised today, after a “low, dishonest decade” endemic with makeshift alliances, than Indira Gandhi ever was, but this has not prevented parties in power — witness the BJP-NDA alliance during Pokhran, Kargil, and after the Tehelka tapes — from deliberately confusing party with government and state, and reinterpreting every threat, imagined or real, to the life of the ruling party as a threat to the life of the government and the nation. But the nature of democracy is such that too close an identification between ruling party and government is not unduly encouraged; a party is elected to government for a limited period of time, and, even as it rules, it is also on trial; this is the difficult paradox on which democracy thrives. Notwithstanding my relative’s unhappiness, no political party should expect praise and approbation once it begins to govern; if it does, its members should join some other, more pleasant profession. Anything but constant, stringent criticism from the electorate and, in particular, the press, constitutes an unnatural state of affairs in a democracy.

Indeed, our ruling politicians have it easy in comparison to their Western counterparts, who must parry uncomfortable and humiliating questions on television from interviewers, and debate and defend their policies and achievements, statistic by statistic; and resign when there is the hint of a scandal or a slur. Here, newspapers attend to, and question, policy infrequently; what it calls “politics”, and what absorbs it, are the machinations and manoeuvrings between party and party, the game of survival. Thus, I have hardly seen the fascist Bal Thackeray dealt with, despite the outrageous transgressiveness of his speeches and actions, unsparingly in a head to head interview. In West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, one of the most upright chief ministers this country has had (such uprightness, remarkable in our society, would be a minimum requirement in many others), has, however, been allowed to take himself far too seriously; in two decades, one can’t remember having seen him smile.

In this regard, it’s notable that one of the most potent democratic tools, the political cartoon, has altogether disappeared from the two principal newspapers in Calcutta. There was a time when the great Malayali novelist, O.V. Vijayan, also a political cartoonist, drew his idiosyncratic caricatures for The Statesman; as did Unny. But Vijayan is old and ailing now; I have no idea where Unny is; and I can’t remember when The Telegraph last had its own cartoonist. There is a degree of solemnity in our newspapers, and the element of lampooning and mockery that is proper to a democratic press seems to be absent from the two major English-language dailies in Bengal. No wonder egos magnify so easily in this climate, and sensitivities have a toughness in inverse proportion to that magnitude.

Growing up in Bombay, encountering R.K. Laxman in The Times of India each morning, I had a sense of how the political cartoon succinctly condenses and clarifies complex political realities. For instance, two things happened with Rajiv Gandhi’s ascension towards power. The first was the continuance of dynastic rule; the second was the advent of “baba log”, notoriously pampered children of the upper middle class, into national politics. Laxman adeptly conflated both these events into a single image whenever he caricatured Rajiv. Firstly, he always made Rajiv a head shorter than Indira Gandhi, as if he were perpetually on the verge of growing up and emerging from her shadow. Secondly, he dressed him in capacious half-pants, to suggest he was Indian politics’ first schoolboy. It was also a witty comment on that geriatric but evergreen misnomer, the Youth Congress.

In another brilliantly prescient image, Laxman, in the days that led to Ayodhya, would, again and again, draw leading BJP politicians like Vajpayee and Advani as characters in a Bollywood mythological, or an epic teleserial, dressed in costume, riding chariots, carrying bows and arrows. This is perhaps the first instance of a modern commentator seeing the BJP for what it really is; not as the mistaken torch-bearer of an ancient tradition, but an aggressive variant of a particularly virulent type of modern Indian kitsch. These caricatures also point towards the more “serious” academic studies that, recently, esta- blish a connection between cultural natio- nalism and teleserials like the Ramayana.

In part one of the Art of Bengal exhibition at the CIMA Art Gallery, which covered the evolution of popular and “high” art in Bengal from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, it became quickly clear how humour and irreverence, through the drawing and the caricature, was fundamental to our awakening as a democratic nation. The Kalighat patuas, their antennae preternaturally attuned to contemporary scandal and foible, are precursors of many things modern, among them the political cartoon in India; and Gaganendranath Tagore’s viscous and exaggerated lines are at their sui generis best when they lampoon the corrupt, well-to-do babu. But in part two of the exhibition, which displays the first quarter-century of post-independence art in Bengal, all is “high art” and “high seriousness”, and those persuasive instances of popular drawing, of the cartoon, and of satire, are mysteriously, and disappointingly, absent. Is this an inadvertent but significant oversight on the part of the curators of this otherwise excellent exhibition? Or is it that the sorrows of our democracy gradually so deepened that our capacity for self-criticism and laughter, without our noticing it, unobtrusively disappeared?

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Take a breather

The Tehelka twister having passed, is it time again for another batch of musings? Possibly. Soulful bhajans from singer Anup Jalota slated for Ram Navami at 7, Race Course Road, the prime minister’s residence, might be for starters and then our man might again ceremonially withdraw from the rough and tumble of political life to reflect in solitude. AB Vajpayee was, in fact, preparing for a hectic schedule at Chitrakoot on Ram Navami — where he would have rubbed shoulders with the locals on the auspicious day — before the Tehelka cloud burst. Now it is for Jalota’s melodies to set the mood for another bout of creative writing. As before, Vajpayee is expected to be surrounded by near and dear ones (which incidentally still includes Ranjan Bhattacharya and Brajesh Mishra) when Jalota works his magic. The Jalota concert is being seen by the PM household as a sign of “normalcy” being restored in Raisina Hills. All the PM’s men are quite definite that the Tehelka fatigue has set in and the opposition has tired itself out on the issue. The exit of Mamata Banerjee from the NDA has apparently been compensated for by the bad blood created between the Congress and the left. “There is no possibility of an alternative government as the Congress-left will never come close. Since nobody wants elections, the Vajpayee raj will continue”, is how a top BJP leader sees it. After such knowledge, what bliss!

Who’s in and who’s out

The PMO isn’t as badly constructed as most houses in Bhuj. But post-Tehelka, cracks have appeared here as well. The restructuring might see the invincible Nandubabu moving out of the precincts — at least, that is what most bureaucrats of the capital think. But who will replace this all powerful secretary handling matters economic in the PMO? The Delhi grapevine has it that one of the three secretaries in the finance ministry might cross over from the North Block to the South Block. The effects haven’t turned out to be very far reaching then?

Private agency at work

Tehelka hasn’t been so easy on journalists and businessmen. In New Delhi’s Shastri Bhawan, that houses at least a dozen ministries and departments, security arrangements have been handed over to private agencies. These people are so stringent that even cellphones are not allowed for the fear of the spycam or that someone may switch on the cell and the conversation could get recorded elsewhere. A senior minister even refused to speak to a group of journalists which included a representative of tehelka.com. Despite all the security, some other private agency has been at work. The other day, a Maruti car that belonged to a female journalist apparently got nicked from the high security zone while the private guards were still looking for the spycam. Probably they had strict orders to concentrate only on some belongings of scribes and ignore the rest.

Storming the capital

There are lesser players in the PMO as well. Surendhra Kulkarni for example, whose playing field seems to have shrunk even further, following the departure of troublemaker Mamata Banerjee from the NDA. This low-profile PMO had once been rated highly after his deft handling of didi. Now his detractors, who call him “Mamata Kulkarni”, are definite that he has served his calling. Its time for him to move over.

One man likely to move over to the PMO is the lieutenant governor of Delhi, Vijay Kapoor. A senior bureaucrat, Umesh Sahgal, is tipped to take over from Kapoor. There’s a catch however. Until recently, Sahgal was Sheila Dixit’s chief secretary. Can he be Delhi’s LG?

But then bizarre things do happen in Sheila’s Delhi. First, a Congress MLA, Zile Singh Chauhan, slapped his party’s chief whip while the assembly session was in progress. Then early last week, 13 BJP MLAs were caught napping when the Congress managed to push through a unanimous resolution condemning the BJP over Tehelka. The voice vote saw the local BJP becoming party to the motion which appealed to the Election Commission to derecognize the party whose president had been caught accepting bribes. Evil times, you see!

Keep out of the family

The West Bengal BJP is all set to take on Trinamool. Not content with wooing Trinamool MPs, the state BJP is alleged to be sending feelers to no less than didi’s own brothers. Key posts are apparently being offered to them. Mamata has reportedly pulled up her siblings and asked partymen to keep an eye. She probably needs a private eye as well.

Footnote / What a price to pay

Tehelka has set off more vibrations than one can count. The parting of ways of the Trinamool and the BJP in West Bengal is just one of them. Fresh realignments within the state Congress on the occasion of the coming together of the Trinamoolis and the Congresswallahs is another. Kamal Nath and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi are said to have quickly teamed up to keep Pranab Mukherjee and Somen Mitra at bay. Nath immediately scored a major point against the West Bengal state Congress chief when Mukherjee could not skip parliamentary standing committee meetings. For three days, when Bengal Congressmen were involved in hectic consultations, Pranabda was only available after six in the evening. Kamal Nath did not mind at all. He got all the limelight and scored brownie points with 10 Janpath. He made himself as available as possible to the media, whereas Mukherjee came to be looked upon as one who stood aloof and stayed away from his job. A change of guard seems to be in the offing in the state Congress. But is Somen prepared to sacrifice his Sealdah seat for the state Congress chief’s post?    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Off with that dress

Sir — The arrest of film actress, Sonali Bendre, for wearing a dress that is supposed to have hurt the religious sentiments of the people, can only be described as yet another attack on individual choice and freedom (“Dress-down for Bendre”, Mar 28). Given that the dress was offensive, one wonders why it took the government two years to take action against Bendre. Moreover, the government seems to have forgotten one important fact. The state, in a democracy, should adopt a policy of minimalist intervention in the social, cultural and religious lives of its citizens. Even though India has been a democracy and a republic for the last 50 years, its political leaders have been unable to accept this simple truth.
Yours faithfully,
Chandrani Guha, via email

State of failure

Sir — The West Bengal finance minister, Asim Dasgupta, had remarked some time ago that the percentage of people living below poverty line in West Bengal has declined from 52 per cent in 1977 to 26 per cent in 2000. According to an estimate made by the planning commission, the percentage of people below the poverty line in India has declined from 35.97 per cent in 1993-94 to 26.10 per cent in 1999-00. The corresponding figures for West Bengal were 35.66 per cent in 1993-94 and 27.02 per cent in 1999-00.

In other words, the percentage of people living below the poverty line in West Bengal in 1999-00 was 27.02 per cent, which exceeded that of the all India average of 26.10. In 1993-94, West Bengal’s position was marginally better than the all India average. A comparison between the figures released in 1999-00 with those released in 1993-94 will give us an idea of the scenario in some of the other states. States like Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Karnataka all show a great deal of improvement. For example, in Tamil Nadu, the figures have come down from 35.03 per cent to 21.12 per cent.

A comparison with these states reveals the failure of the West Bengal state government. It is disturbing that our leaders often mislead us by quoting facts out of context or by distorting them.

Yours faithfully,
Asok Kumar Dasgupta, via email

Sir — The much talked about infrastructural development in Calcutta and West Bengal seems to have come to nothing. Not only is the government dragging its feet on the construction of the flyovers in the city, but it has failed to lure foreign investors to the state. The construction of the Vidyasagar Setu has taken more than two decades. Let us hope that the Gariahat flyover will not take that long. The government’s initiative on foreign investment seems to be limited to publishing advertisements in newspapers. It should take a few pointers from Maharashtra, Delhi, and Orissa, so that the development of West Bengal becomes a reality.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Statuary results

Sir — After destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas, the taliban has now decided to show off its handiwork to the rest of the world. An official of the taliban has remarked that it took them 20 days to destroy the statues. With this act, the isolation of Afganistan in the international community seems complete.

The sternness of the West towards Afganistan has meant less economic aid. Given its deteriorating economy, an oil embargo would go a long way in exerting pressure on the taliban.

Yours faithfully,
Nita Kumar, Hyderabad

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