Editorial / Renouncing the legacy
England’s soul is safe
People / Sophie Rhys-Jones
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / RENOUNCING THE LEGACY 
 
 
 
 
The old socialist Adam in the Congress dies hard. As recent reactions to Ms Katherine Frank’s biography of Indira Gandhi suggest, the latter still has a fatal attraction. It is true that Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao and socialist slogans fetched votes. But Ms Sonia Gandhi is wrong in deducing that a similar unique selling point will fetch votes in the 21st century. It is all very well to point to Mr Tony Blair’s New Labour but the phenomenon called Ms Margaret Thatcher to which New Labour was a reaction is completely missing in India. Excesses of market failure are unlikely to resonate in India, characterized as it still is, by excessive state intervention.

The secular USP has some vestiges of attraction but the left-of-centre posturing on economic issues is a non-starter as well as a non sequitur. The socialist legacy hangs heavy over the Congress. As the first mover, it could have appropriated the reform bandwagon, but has instead allowed this to be appropriated by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The second Ms Gandhi’s obsession with the first has prevented her from recognizing that some of her husband’s initial reformist policies were against those of Indira Gandhi. The Congress president can model her style of dressing on her mother-in-law, but would be better advised to model her economic policies on those of her husband. There is a consensus on the need for reforms among the urban middle class in India and in this segment, good economics is good politics, since anti-reform agenda will not fetch votes. As for the backward classes or Muslim voters, the Congress has lost them on issues that have nothing to do with economics. Nor do rural voters vote on national economic issues.

There are indicators that political developments might force the Congress to slough off its ersatz socialism. In the run up to the forthcoming assembly polls, the Congress has shown a readiness to enter into alliances despite its relative inability to handle alliances, or, alternatively, an unhappy knack of picking wrong partners in Bihar or Tamil Nadu. The proposed alliance in West Bengal has special significance. The prospect of being decimated in West Bengal as the Left Front’s B team was not an attractive option; recognition as Ms Mamata Banerjee’s B team at least contains within it the scent of power. In the process, the Congress has made itself a partner in an anti-left alliance in West Bengal. What happened in Assam is less of a conscious decision on the part of the Congress, since it was reacting to the tie-up between the Asom Gana Parishad and the BJP. But the Congress in Assam has consciously kept away from the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Thus, in three states (Assam, Kerala, West Bengal), the Congress is on an anti-left platform. At one level, this could be sheer political opportunism. Out of power, the Congress faces an identity crisis and hence it is trying to get back into power, even if that means going back on Panchmarhi.

But it is also a window of opportunity. Ms Sonia Gandhi would be well advised to extrapolate her anti-left stance in Assam and West Bengal to economic policies and to occupy the right-of-centre space. In the process, she would, of course, have to jettison the likes of Mr Arjun Singh and Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar. But as she should herself recognize, these gentlemen are either misguided or driven by compulsions that do not have the Congress’s best interests in mind. The pro-reform face of the Congress as exemplified by men like Mr Manmohan Singh is far more acceptable to the Indian citizen. This will reap political dividends by inflicting on the BJP an identity crisis. On economic matters or even attempts at social engineering, the positions of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or Swadeshi Jagaran Manch are identical to those of the left. Ms Gandhi can reclaim the reform agenda and drive the BJP back to its original and natural allies. Such an opportunity has now opened up. It is up to the Congress and Ms Gandhi to decide whether it will grab the opportunity, or sink into oblivion.

   

 
 
ENGLAND’S SOUL IS SAFE 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
As I write this in a restored and converted 19th-century farmhouse, with Regency paper and period furniture, and only the pasture and paddocks of deepest Cheshire stretching beyond russet beech hedges outside french windows, I am struck again by how wrong arch-conservatives are in fearing for England’s soul. My host thunders behind the bar of his panelled den, with its framed Private Eye covers and a large picture of Lords autographed by Test cricketers, that true integration will remain elusive so long as the British are slaves to political correctness and positive discrimination.

No, I am not the guest of some crusty squire haunted by the fear that the “Anglo-Saxon identity may one day be submerged in an ethnic majority sea”, as Sir Ludovic Kennedy, the writer and commentator, puts it. My host is Amin Marfani, a Pakistani businessman who was born in Rajkot, Kathiawar, but whose father switched from Congress to the Muslim League in 1939 and migrated to Pakistan after independence. Amin himself came to Salford in Lancashire in 1953 and when I met him shortly afterwards, shared a scruffy little flat with two other Pakistanis in one of adjoining Manchester’s less salubrious districts.

He has moved up rung by rung since then. Each abode has not only been a little bigger but also a little further removed from the city centre. Now, Amin is not only in another geographical county (his village finds mention in the Domesday Book) but also in another country of the spirit. With the Audis in his garage and the horses that are brought in when his grandchildren visit, silver gleaming on the sideboard, daffodils ablaze around the conservatory, and hay harvested from his own fields, he is gentry.

In 1958 he married a Derbyshire girl, whom I knew better at the time than I did him, and who today bridges many huge cultural chasms. Maureen Marfani became a Muslim, speaks fluent Urdu, habitually wears salwar, kameez and dupatta, and runs a welfare centre for the many South Asians who need counselling, legal help or support in domestic and official difficulties. She performs a vital role for the large number of Pakistanis and Indians — language problems prevent them from catering to Bangladeshis — in the Greater Manchester area.

I mention the Marfanis in some detail because of the controversy started by two Tory members of parliament, John Townend and Christopher Gill, who took their cue from William Hague to complain that foreigners were overrunning the British Isles. It could have had dangerous overtones, and still might with last Saturday’s march by the fascist National Front in London’s East End warning of future friction.

What has been dubbed Sophiegate has actually come as a boon to race relations. Otherwise, the British media, driven by its insatiable appetite for scandal and sensation, might have blown up sky-high the supposed Indian origin of the foot and mouth disease that is devastating the countryside and the possible connection between the tuberculosis outbreak in Leicester and the fact that ethnic South Asian voters outnumber white Britons there.

Happily, the Countess of Wessex’s indiscretions prevented the newspapers from using either disease to add fuel to the race fire after Townend said that a referendum should have ascertained in the Fifties whether the British wanted a “multiracial society”. Having declared that if Enoch Powell were alive today, he would have been acclaimed as prime minister because of his race views, Townend went on to note smugly that “the speech went down like a bomb in my constituency”. I am sure it did, for the theory of cultural dilution is plausible, even appealing, and one to which, as a disinterested outsider, I was tempted to subscribe. I knew exactly what Gill meant when he corroborated that “if you pour enough water on a double scotch, it ceases to taste like whisky”.

Overcome by a sudden craving for scotch egg in the City of London during an earlier visit more than a decade ago, I discovered that none of the pubs and cafes in that sanctum of business and finance ran to anything so ordinarily British. Pub counters flaunted samosas, sandwich bars offered kebab, and the cafes served curry. It was a culinary variant of the complaint, voiced by Townend and Gill, that a white Briton often finds that he is one of a kind in a railway compartment whose other occupants are Asian or Afro-Caribbean.

But that impression is misleading. For with the curries and the kebabs, the City’s eating places also served rollmop herring and pickled gherkin, a variety of wurst, sauerkraut, pizza and a range of French cheeses, to say nothing of unEnglish confections of whipped cream and swirling chocolate set with cherries and strawberries. My hunt also took me past several small Chinese restaurants that did take-aways or quick business lunches. Loud and clear, the message was that the cuisine of the subcontinent is not Britain’s first invasion since 1066.

All those other delicacies that the British palate accepts as ordinary also came from across the English Channel. As for good English food, I recall Somerset Maugham saying that if you want to eat well in England you must eat three breakfasts a day. And a British journalist wrote that English puddings — steamed, custards, spotted dick — survive only in India. We went to lunch in Oxford’s oldest pub, a warren of dark low-ceilinged rooms off the Turl where you are likely to bang your head on the beams, and the specialities of the day were lasagne and chicken tikka. Food, like language, regenerates itself with regular infusions from abroad.

The only — but only — difference between past and present is that while earlier absorption (of words, wine and victuals) was mainly from other white European countries, today’s imports are overwhelmingly from Third World nations over which Britain once held sway. That is galling enough for some people. What is infinitely worse is that the cultural baggage has come on the backs and in the train of coloured immigrants. As an eminent neuro-physician whose Jewish grandfather fled Lithuania to settle down in Leeds told me, “We could get lost!” In proof, his uncle, an Indian Civil Service mandarin and member of the viceroy’s executive council, managed to conceal his Jewishness in India’s class and race conscious European ghetto.

Another difference that my medical friend did not mention was that Jews could laugh at themselves. Television looked in the Fifties for an Indian similarly to break down barriers by telling Indian jokes onstage, but the man who won the prize turned out to be a Briton in disguise. Now, there are nightly variety programmes in which young Asian Britons ridicule “Indian people”. The performance annoys and amuses me but also assures me that the community has achieved a breakthrough.

Moreover, the quiet elegance of the Marfanis suggests that South Asians too can get lost. One son has married an ethnic Chinese girl from Malaysia, another’s wife is as English as peaches and cream. They are a joint family in spirit though they live at some distance from each other. Whatever ethnic hairs the official forms might split, the only label I can put on them is British. They have not been hobbled by the crutch of positive discrimination.

For, as Amin rightly says, gestures like replicating every official notice in Urdu, Gujarati, Bengali and other South Asian languages only delay assimilation for the less fortunate. Such concession is pointless since the immigrant men who handle business affairs have enough English already. While multilingualism encourages Asian wives not to learn English, it is also a constant reminder to the native British that there are ignorant foreigners in their midst who must be handled with extreme sensitivity. There could be no more certain recipe to prevent integration.

   

 
 
PEOPLE / SOPHIE RHYS-JONES 
 
 
 
 

Sheikh Roll

On the face of it, 36-year-old Sophie Rhys Jones — better known as the Countess of Wessex — who until very recently ran a PR company called R-JH with a business partner, Murray Harkin, fell victim to a sort of Tehelka.com entrapment. A News of the World reporter, a Pakistani by the name of Mazher Mahmood, who likes dressing up as a sheikh, offered her PR firm a lot of money to represent a group of investors in Dubai.

Not surprisingly she agreed. The British upper classes have always been willing to accept large amounts of cash from rich Arabs whom they privately despise. The relationship has flourished because the Arabs, especially the undemocratic ruling families in the Gulf, have convinced themselves that the British are their friends. Sophie told the fake sheikh, “In your own country when people find we’re working for you, the chances are you’ll get people interested: ‘Oh gosh, they’ve employed the Countess of Wessex’s PR company.’”

The title of Countess had come her way when Prince Edward, the Queen’s youngest son, and Sophie Rhys-Jones, a public relations girl, were married two years ago. The Queen, of course, made a serious error of judgment by bestowing a silly title on the couple: the Count and Countess of Wessex. There is no such place in Britain. This is the same woman who vengefully stripped Diana of her HRH title when she and Charles were divorced.

Just as Mrs Gandhi once spoilt Sanjay, so also the Queen has been excessively indulgent with her youngest son. This might be the mother in her trying to compensate for the failings of the Duke of Edinburgh, who has apparently been an unsympathetic father to all his three boys. No wonder poor Edward, who could not tough it out like Prince Philip in the Royal Marines, has had to shake off the reputation of being gay.

Today, in the wake of what are being called “the Sophiegate Tapes” — indiscretions by Sophie in the secretly recorded interview — more and more people are wondering whether there is room in modern Britain for royalty.

As for Sophie, she is a nice enough girl, quite pretty with the attractive complexion with which English blondes are blessed. Her father had worked for a tyre company as a director; her mother was a secretary. Sophie grew up in “Homestead Farmhouse”, a four-bedroom 17th century thatched farmhouse, which is still her parents’ home.

She was educated at the Kent College for Girls in Pembury and left with six GCSEs and two A levels. Sophie left school at age 16 and enrolled in a 2-year secretarial course at the West Kent College of Further Education in Tornbridge. She did not go to university. It is to her credit that she set up her own PR company, and it was while she was doing some fundraising on behalf of a charity that she met Prince Edward. And when she married Edward, the girl whose first job was as a waitress at a pub called The Halfway House, had come a long way.

It could be argued that in taking him on as her husband, she married beneath herself. He sneaked into Cambridge with poor A levels but had shown enough courage to quit the Royal Marines because he did not want a brainless life in the military. Having decided he had a flair for the arts, he managed to get a job with composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Really Useful Company. But Edward was not really very useful to Andrew.

Seven years ago, Edward, who styled himself “Edward Windsor” on his business card, set up an independent television company called Ardent. He takes a hefty salary from the company but Ardent itself has accumulated a sizable deficit. Although Edward, now 37, initially vowed he would not exploit his position as the Queen’s son, he has fallen back on making mediocre TV documentaries on various royal subjects.

One project, for example, is on royal gardens, including those of the Sultan of Brunei, whom Edward met while undertaking an official visit to Brunei on behalf of the British government funded by the taxpayer. The Sultan, who likes paying tips to his chamchas, “invested” £250,000 in Ardent. This is the kind of deal which has given rise to criticism that Edward has been abusing his position to drum up business for his failing TV company.

Sophie’s PR outfit, of which she has been chairman, has been more of a success. But she, too, has used her “royal hat” to give at least the impression to potential clients that the Countess of Wessex could open doors for them. Frankly, if she could not, there was no reason why clients, such as the mythical group of Dubai investors conjured up by the News of the World, should come to her company.

The Queen is of the opinion that the minor royals should work for their living. The conflict, exemplified by Edward and Sophie, is that the minor royals are often extremely greedy and ruthlessly exploit their position to make money. In the case of Edward and Sophie, they suffer delusions of grandeur and run a massive mansion in the countryside. In order to pay their bills, they will have to continue to work.

But should the British government fund their overseas trips? The public mood is hostile.

No one has so far said Sophie is not good at her work. She is probably a lot more gifted than her husband. Her opinions are not that outrageous either. But she and the royal family have been embarrassed by the publication of the transcript of what she thought was a private chat with an Arab client.

Some of the wilder speculations — like whether she had called Cherie Blair “horrid, horrid, horrid” or not — have been laid to rest after the publication of the full transcript. Nevertheless, there has been damaging stuff in Sophie’s chitchat. For example, she refers to the Queen as “an old dear”, a euphemism for a frumpy old lady. Disparaging remarks about Prime Minister Tony Blair, Chancellor Gordon Brown and Camilla Parker-Bowles and Prince Charles will be difficult to brush aside. Sophie also displays strong Tory sympathies, when it is the convention for royals to refrain from commenting on politics.

When Harkin, her business partner, was alone with the News of the World team, he admitted there had been rumours about Edward being gay for “years and years”. “There’s no smoke without fire,” he added.

Harkin, himself a homosexual, offered tips on where to pick up rent boys and disclosed: “In India, I gave somebody like two weeks’ pay.”

Sophie, who had been on that trip, has a list of dos and don’ts. But, according to Harkin, on the India trip undertaken for an IT company, “she ended up doing all of them”.

Harkin has now resigned from his PR firm while Sophie has been forced to step down as its chairman. But Sophie will have to make a choice about her own future — and indirectly that of the monarchy. In the long run, though, its days seem numbered.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

In defence of their man

Offence is not the best defence, saffronites quite obviously believe, especially if the man in question is the deposed defence minister himself. In the BJP therefore no one misses a chance to humour dear George. In Fernandes’s former kingdom, Jaswant Singh rules only in name.The king’s men have not been touched. Singh has even assured Georgie that his staff would remain, despite the fear in certain circles of a possible leakage of sensitive information through George’s connections in the ministry. The banished apparently has also been allowed to carry away some of the goodies. The Samata Party chief arrived last week to attend the NDA meeting as its convenor, allegedly riding the car he was given as defence minister. The cuddling doesn’t end here. The prime minister took time off to attend the marriage of the tainted Jaya Jaitly’s daughter with a tainted cricketer. Neither the Kashmiri cuisine nor Madhuri Dixit could have been the reason for the attendance. Again, at the BJP-Samata Party rally held at Kochi recently, LK Advani, who was the last speaker, gave George, who was to have been the second last speaker, the privilege of rounding up the meeting. Although many claim that Advani simply avoided the embarrassment of defending the accused by speaking last, there are others who strongly believe that it was to pep up George. For what? So he doesn’t push the government off the brink?

For your eyes only

Who’s the king? S. Jaipal Reddy, the AICC spokesperson, knew the answer when he strode out of the press briefing mid-way after handing the mike over to the party’s general-secretary, Kamal Nath, to make his point about West Bengal and Assam. He also announced to the press before leaving that he would be available in the media room. What particularly rattled a rather stunned Kamal Nath was the fact that Reddy had no pressing engagement that would have justified his walking out in a huff and into the media room for an off the record briefing. Adding insult to injury, several journalists keen to know the latest on the Kerala front and some TV networks also left with Reddy, reducing Nath’s interaction with the media into a joke. Yet minutes before the unprecedented action, Reddy had acknowledged Kamal Nath, who is a high profile member of the AICC’s media panel, as a senior colleague. Senior, yes, but all-important? No.

Liven up the show

Why do his shows invariably fail to take off? Zee’s Subhash Chandra Goel is once again a terribly disappointed man. His grand dinner for Citizen Clinton turned out to be a flop show as the entire BJP cabinet decided to stay out of it. The PMO stoutly denies charges that the prime minister had adivised ministerial colleagues to stay out of it. But then the PM’s crew hardly needed prompting. Goel burnt his bridges with the sangh parivar when he decided to run the Tehelka tapes across the 15 channels which belong to Zee. If the idea is to buy peace with Vajpayee and his team, Goel should realize that he has a lot more to do than throw lavish dinners or have the fare prepared by chef Neeta Nagraj in order to have the BJP eat of his hands. After all, he has attended the RSS’s Agra camp and tried to project himself as “one of them”, so he should know the lengths one has to go to, to cajole the big brothers of saffronhood.

Foot tapping numbers

Dial M for muddle. The mystery over the alleged phone tapping seems to be getting murkier. How is it that the Samajwadi Party leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, is so confident of the charges when the PMO is denying the same just as loudly? Is it possible that a bug in the PMO has actually passed on a list containing the names of all those spied upon? The funny part is that the alleged list is supposed to contain the names of two of the most beautiful women in the country — Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit. What’s the link? The fly on the wall tells us that it has got to do with a high government functionary’s apparent fondness for Bollywood beauties. So are there just two women behind this man’s undoing or more?

From Fashion Street

Apparently, Ritu Beri’s FTV clippings will force Sushma Swaraj to rethink her concepts of Indian womanhood. But before Beri makes her models bare and dare, shouldn’t she think of the prospects of being exiled by the moral policeman?

Footnote / Spare the rod here

Some more policing here. The BJP central leadership reportedly has taken strong exception to reports of recent overtures of the Union minister of state for communication, Tapan Sikdar, to some West Bengal Congress legislators. Despite Sikdar’s repeated announcements to the press about his success, not one Congress MLA has so far crossed over to the saffron brigade. His claims about enticing the Trinamoolis have also fallen flat. Instead, the Trinamool didi as turned the tables on him by winning over the former BJP president from Midnapore, Manoranjan Dutta, as the candidate for the Midnapore Lok Sabha byelection. Sikdar’s detractors naturally have no qualms about training their guns on him now. They are planning to fax the party president, Jana Krishnamurthi, complaining about Sikdar. There are also plans to demand that Sikdar’s man, Asim Ghosh, who is president of the state BJP unit, be removed. Sushma Swaraj, appointed the party’s chairperson for the assembly elections in Bengal, will be arriving here next week to take stock of the situation. But there is little scope that her policing will succeed here.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Homemaker’s world

Sir — Ekta Kapoor may have won the hearts of middle class viewers with serials like Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi but she has failed to win over young audiences (“Queen of soaps scores with ‘K’s”, April 12). By choosing family-oriented plots and concentrating more on homemakers, she has inadvertently alienated the young college-going student or the working woman. Even though Kapoor claims that many of her serials portray characters who are more than just housewives or mothers, they are notable exceptions. By creating female characters who are stereotypes and who bear very little resemblance to the modern Indian woman, she is also encouraging other script writers and producers to do the same.
Yours faithfully,
Sutapa Mukherjee, via email

West and East

Sir — It is hardly surprising that the United States has refused to adhere to the provisions of the Kyoto protocol and has thereby invited criticism from the Chinese authorities (“US makes China go green”, Mar 31). According to the US, the lowering of the consumption of fossil fuels will slow down industrial growth and reduce employment opportunities in the country. Moreover, it has also pointed out that there is no onus on the developing countries to do the same.

However, according to the provisions of the Kyoto protocol, it is up to the developed and industrialized nations to take the initiative to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and other gases which cause global warming. Since the US considers itself a world leader, it should have taken accepted this responsibility.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

Sir — The recent collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a US spy plane cannot be dismissed lightly (“US meets China halfway with double sorry”, April 12). That the crisis has now been resolved with the US expressing regret over the incident and China reciprocating by freeing the crew of the US spy plane is good news.

But by initially refusing to take responsibility for the collision, the US has once again shown how arrogant it can be towards other nations. This incident has demonstrated the fragility of relations between the two countries, which had only recently been revived after the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy by a US plane on a Nato mission in Belgrade in May 1999.

Had the situation been reversed and if a spy plane belonging to any other country were to encroach on American airspace, we know what would have happened. It would have been shot down. The Chinese authorities only detained the crew of the American plane.

Yours faithfully
Charles Chowna, Calcutta

Sir — It is difficult to understand why the Chinese authorities refused to release the 24-member crew of the American spy plane that had crashed into a Chinese fighter jet about 13 days ago. Even if the Chinese claim that the American plane had violated its airspace and landed without authorization in Hainan were true, there could hardly have been any justification for the detention. The US has made the right move by sending a letter of apology to the Chinese authorities. Otherwise the crisis could well have escalated.

The unwillingness to compromise displayed by both sides is shocking and disconcerting. In their desire to outdo one another, they have considerably damaged bilateral relations.

Yours faithfully,
Neeta Sen, via email

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