Editorial / Rites of reserved leadership
Names that spell quality
People / Syed Mahmud Ali
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

A political party driven by the charisma and whims of a leader is something of a contradiction in terms. A political party ideally and in its origins is a society of equals taking decisions, launching campaigns and implementing policies through discussion amongst the members. An example of this was the Indian National Congress before it came under the spell of Indira Gandhi. During the national movement, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was the undisputed leader of the Congress. But the party was not always run according to his wishes. If that had been the case, the revolt led by Subhas Chandra Bose would not have occurred. Neither would the Partition of India in 1947. There was debate within the Congress as well as shows of dissent and defiance. Often Gandhi had his way, sometimes he did not. This trend held after independence when Jawaharlal Nehru was the Congress’s number one leader. He had the respect and support of most Congressmen but the latter, especially powerful leaders like Vallabbhai Patel, K. Kamaraj, B.C. Roy and others, were not Nehru’s creatures. They all had their independent power bases and spheres of influence which were independent of Nehru. This situation changed dramatically when Indira Gandhi held the reins of power within the Congress.

Indira Gandhi’s path to power lay through the destruction of the Congress organization and the marginalization of the old leaders who were labelled the Syndicate. Once ensconced as Congress’s numero uno, Indira Gandhi made everything and everybody in the Congress subservient to her. The inevitable fallout was sycophancy. Her immediate circle told her what she wanted to hear. She ran the party and the government through her trusted lieutenants whose power and influence flowed from their proximity to her. This state of affairs was fortified by the tremendous popular following that Indira Gandhi enjoyed between 1970 and 1973. The result of this centralization was the complete breakdown of the Congress network and organization. If Dev Kanto Barooah’s claim that India is Indira was a grotesque exaggeration, the fact that Indira was the Congress was undeniable. This dependence of the Congress on one personality has become the normal state of things. The party fell back on Rajiv Gandhi and after a brief and reluctant reliance on Mr P.V. Narasimha Rao, it chose Rajiv Gandhi’s widow as its leader. Now things have come to such a pass that Ms Sonia Gandhi’s smile has become the party’s laughter, and her frown its disapproval.

But the support and confidence that Ms Gandhi commands is not without parallels in other political parties. In Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is nothing without Ms J. Jayalalitha; in West Bengal, the influence of Trinamool Congress will be down to zero without Ms Mamata Banerjee; in Bihar it is difficult to think of the Rashtriya Janata Dal without Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav and in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party without Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav. The only party which seems to be free from the powerful leader syndrome is the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Those who argued that Mr Jyoti Basu was indispensable have been proved wrong. His retirement did not affect the party organization and his successor is probably doing better. This situation in the CPI(M) grows out of its organizational strength. The Bharatiya Janata party also has a strong organization but it is uncertain if it can retain its popularity without Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the helm.

There is no easy sociological explanation for this trend. One thing cannot be disputed: the trend is evidence of a peculiar immaturity. It is an attitude which cannot separate institutions from individuals. It is a throwback to the culture of the court. The importance attached to individuals also suggests that notions of equality and democracy are yet to take strong root in India’s society and polity. Reliance on individuals also serves as a convenient alibi for institutional and societal failures. Unfortunate the political party which allows its leader to become more important than the party itself.


The landscape of Indian scholarship is littered with the bodies of failed institutions, of initiatives well begun but quickly destroyed by party politics or individual aggrandizement. Among the few exceptions to this dreary tale of nepotism and failure are the places known as “Delhi School” and “Teen Murti”.

The Delhi School of Economics was begun by V.K.R.V. Rao in 1949. Rao did brilliant early work as an economist in Cambridge, but his Indian career was marked by the building of institutions. The Delhi School was the first of his creations, and unquestionably the best.

It was lucky in its timing, and its location — Delhi in the Fifties, the capital of a new nation-state on the move, eager to change, grow, develop. Politicians were then respectful of economists, whose techniques of planning were presumed to bring about the prosperous and just society. Thus commenced a vigorous traffic of ideas and personnel between the university and the secretariat, a traffic that humanized politics and legitimized scholarship.

The “golden age” of the Delhi School was the Sixties, when the economists on its faculty included such names as Sukhamoy Chakravarty, K.N. Raj, Amit Bhaduri, Pranab Bardhan, Jagdish Bhagwati, Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri, Dharma Kumar and Amartya Sen. Some were Marxists, some liberals, some precocious free marketeers. In their methodological orientation, they spanned the spectrum from mathematical modelling to fieldwork. They worked on such varied topics as international trade, agrarian reform, social choice, planning, fiscal policy, and economic history.

Meanwhile a department of sociology had been added on to the Delhi School. Its first professor, M.N. Srinivas, was to recruit or train a community of outstanding scholars who included Andre Beteille, M.S.A. Rao, J.P.S. Uberoi, E.A. Ramaswamy, A.M. Shah, Veena Das and B.S. Baviskar. Again, what stood out was the range of the work and its generally high quality. Caste, religion, ritual, kinship, co-operatives, workers, riots: these vital aspects of our society were written about with rigour and understanding.

In the Delhi School of the Sixties and Seventies there was an intellectual self-confidence almost unique in the history of the Indian academy. Professors and students alike thought that they were as good as any in the world. But then the decline set in. Sen and Bhagwati led the exodus of economists, seeking out better paying jobs overseas. Within sociology, the brilliant crop reared by Srinivas was unable to reproduce successors of comparable quality. Admittedly, there is good work still being done. The department of economics is probably still the best in the country. But one must say with reluctant honesty that the Delhi School’s finest days lie behind it.

In any case, by the Seventies an alternative centre of intellectual stimulation had come up in Teen Murti House. Once the residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian army, this was later the home of our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. After Nehru died, however, the house was converted into a museum, and a library built on the grounds.

The founder-director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library was the historian and civil servant, B.R. Nanda. Known for his lives of Gokhale and Gandhi, Nanda was also a superb administrator who helped create India’s first proper historical library. As a biographer himself, he knew the worth of rescuing, preserving and cataloguing primary source material. Under his direction collections were acquired of books, private papers, institutional records, oral testimonies, and photographs. Sets of newspapers in different languages were put on microfilm. The focus was on the 19th and 20th centuries, the period for which records were most abundant, but also a period of intense and productive historical debate.

In 1980 Nanda was succeeded by Ravinder Kumar. Kumar was a historian of wide interests and subtle sensibilities, the author of a fine study of western India in the 19th century and pioneer in the study of social protest. Now as director of Teen Murti, he started a fellows’ programme, offering extended sabbaticals from university life to historians, sociologists, and political scientists. He began a seminar series,where scholars from within and outside India presented papers for the critical scrutiny of their peers. And he capaciously opened out the facilities to anyone who wished to host a conference or screen a film.

Historians and political scientists came to Teen Murti for much the same reason as economists and sociologists flocked to the Delhi School: to read, learn, discuss, debate, argue. In its pomp, circa 1985 to 1995, Teen Murti was the intellectual epicentre of Delhi and, perhaps by extension, of India as a whole. Faculty and students from the Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru universities, separated by ideology and by miles of cityscape, cheerfully came together at Teen Murti — “neutral” ground equidistant from both. The presentations were rich, the discussions contentious. The themes discussed included subaltern studies, the Mandal commission, federalism, religious violence and a hundred other topics of importance.

Much of what made Teen Murti was the handiwork of Ravinder Kumar. In at least three respects Kumar was, as Indian historians go, quite unusual. First, he had a long-standing interest in what other disciplines (such as anthropology and literature) could contribute to historical research. Second, he was a liberal at a time when most of his colleagues were Marxists; unlike them, he was open to new ideas and competing perspectives, and an early promoter of women’s history and environmental history. Third, he took a keen and wholly non-paternalistic interest in the young.

Ravinder Kumar retired in 1997, turning thereafter to the editing of Nehru’s Selected Works and the writing of a book on the making of modern India. When he died earlier this month that latter project remained incomplete. We mourn his passing, yet let us also celebrate what he accomplished: the books and essays he wrote himself, the books and essays written by scholars whom he had encouraged.

The Delhi School and Teen Murti were made by men who were worldclass scholars themselves. Crucially, their quality of mind was matched by quality of character. They combined talent with selflessness, intellectual vision with public generosity. These were democrats in a feudal and hierarchical society, who stimulated, nurtured and (when required) even followed the young. These were patriots who devoted their lives to building institutions of which older and more prosperous nations would have been proud.

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Blast Past

Syed Mahmud Ali is a fastidious dresser, a proper old-style English gent in some ways. “He likes three-piece suits with braces,” recalls a former colleague.” “‘Only your bowler hat is missing,’ we would tell him.”

In the last few days, he has been “on leave” from Bush House, the BBC’s imposing World Service headquarters in the Aldwych, London, after his removal as head of the Bengali service.

His sin was to give an indiscreet interview to a Bangladeshi newspaper in which he called Sheikh Hasina, the country’s Prime Minister, a liar. It is being said that he got more than a little carried away during the interview. He is reported to have bragged that he himself arrested Bangladesh’s first Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed on the orders of Khondokar Moshtaq, who had installed himself as President after soldiers loyal to him killed Mujib.

BBC bosses decided that this was not the sort of behaviour expected of a head of department. Although he will not return to the Bengali department, the management is sympathetically considering his request to be found another job within World Service. He is a supposed to be a dab hand at administration.

Judging by the amount of dirt that has been dished out on Mahmud Ali, it is a surprise that the BBC is being so accommodating. Indeed, the real question is not why he was removed as head of Bengali but why a man with his record was given such a key job in the first place.

There are mutterings that he was a sort of bosses’ nark but this is not backed up by evidence. The BBC says Mahmud Ali was appointed to be head of Bengali despite his military background which was known to his superiors.


Did they know that as an army captain he had been at Dhaka Radio Station when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family were killed on August 15, 1975?

If the BBC did know, it seems astounding that Mahmud Ali was appointed to head Bengali, leap-frogging several other qualified candidates in the process. And if the BBC did not, why is it that he is being promised another job?

At a personal level, there is little criticism of the 5’1” former Pakistan army officer who fought against India. “Very nice, charming”, “easy to talk to” and “knows etiquette” are opinions offered by those who know him. In any group of colleagues, there are bound to be jealousies. “Not that popular” and “shrewd” are about the most serious comments made against him.

Academically, there is little doubt he has intellectual pretensions. “I only read serious books,” he would say. “I don’t read fiction.”

The 10 or so people in the BBC’s Bengali section, a mixture of Bengalis from Bangladesh and from West Bengal, are close in the way only Bengalis can be. The distinction between professional and social life becomes blurred.

After hours, the BBC club in the basement of Bush House provides a relaxing atmosphere for staff. Men with a roving eye can always amuse themselves by making a pass at English secretaries in short skirts.

“No, he is not that way,” remarks one source. “He loves his wife and children.”

Mahmud Ali does appear to be devoted to his wife, Salina, who was previously married to another army officer. He and his wife do not have any children of their own but, from all account, he has been a good father to Sunera and Adil, a daughter and a son from Salina’s first marriage. Sunera’s recent wedding in Dhaka was a cause for a family celebration.

From his teenage years, Mahmud Ali was cut out to be different. Now in his early fifties, he was one of 10 youths picked out from a large pool to be army cadets. The training took place in Chittagong. After the war of liberation, he made a smooth transition from the Pakistan to the Bangladesh army, and served under two generals, Zia-ur Rahman and Ershad. He stood down with the rank of major, dabbled briefly with two English language newspapers — his English is judged to be better than his less than perfect Bengali — and finally secured a modest army scholarship to travel to King’s College, London to do first an MA and then a PhD in War Studies. Later, he even wrote a book on insurgency in south Asia. When the scholarship money was stopped, his wife spoke to the Bengali service at the BBC and managed to get her husband a little freelance work. Having got his foot in the door, Mahmud Ali proved adept at being taken on as a producer, impressed Peter Mangold, the head of the service, edged out possible rivals and was eventually given charge of the Bengali service.

Since the Bengali service has a daily audience of over seven million in Bangladesh — it is relayed on Radio Bangladesh’s FM transmitter — the BBC has become a player in the domestic politics of the country. The government’s control of the media gives the BBC’s Bengali service an exaggerated importance in Bangladesh, especially in the run-up to June’s election.

There is no evidence that Mahmud Ali was anti-Awami League or that he had got into bed with the opposition BNP. The important aspects of his army career can be picked out from the interview he gave in London to Masuda Bhatty, a freelance Bangladeshi journalist in London. People are puzzled as to why Mamhud Ali revealed so much damaging information about himself.

The probable explanation is he did not think of the consequences. Masuda Bhatty went through the BBC press office to secure her interview with Mahmud Ali.

Initially, the interview was intended for Pratham Alo, a paper in Bangladesh whose editor is said to be friendly with Mahmud Ali. But when Pratham Alo sat on the interview, Masuda offered it to a rival publication, Janakantha, which published the piece on February 21.

It seems Sheikh Hasina has nursed a deep grievance against Mahmud Ali, with whom she cancelled a interview during her London visit in 1999. Among Bangladeshis conspiracy theories abound. According to one, Sheikh Hasina was outraged because Mahmud Ali had asked a correspondent in India to investigate documents questioning the parentage of Sheikh Mujib’s father.

In London, the Bangladeshi High Commissioner met Greg Dyke, the BBC’s director general, and asked for Mahmud Ali’s head on a platter. After a “comprehensive internal inquiry” under Elizabeth Wright, head of Asia and Pacific, it was deemed that Mahmud Ali’s “conduct during the interview amounted to a failure of editorial judgment that compromises effective stewardship of the Bengali section”. It was also felt that “his comments in the interview were not those expected of a section head of a BBC World Service language section”. The BBC might have been indebted to Ali because he pulled off a huge coup by getting the service several hours on the Dhaka FM channel on Radio Bangladesh. But when the Bangladesh deputy foreign minister Abul Hasan Chowdhury made some noises to the British government that BBC might lose the contract, Bush House quickly went in to damage control mode.

There was a time when BBC was reluctant to put non-whites in charge of departments at BBC World Service. Although the BBC now claims it instituted disciplinary procedures without any pressure from the Bangladesh government, it is clear that Mahmud Ali has caused severe embarrassment to his employers. With the Bangladesh government now saying that they want Ali’s extradition so that he can be put on trial, a few more episodes seem likely in this soap opera.

Why the BBC made an ex-Pakistan and ex-Bangladesh military man head of its Bengali service is one story unlikely to feature on the Bengali service.



Calling names

It’s a sad thing that politicians never retire. They could then turn into fulltime writers of thrillers. No, there is no reason to be feel disappointed by PV Narasimha Rao’s go at churning out an insider’s view. There are others who show much more promise. Take Subramanian Swamy for example. His theory that Sonia Gandhi had a role to play in her husband’s assassination, presented in his missive to the PM, only shows the breadth of his imagination. Madam would probably agree. Ever since she became Congress president, the lady has apparently been accosted by Swamy as many as nine times during which the political maverick reportedly gave her as many theories on the assassination. In the first, Swamy seemingly named a controversial godman, who, it was alleged, sought help from Khalistanis, Mossad and finally the LTTE to eliminate the late prime minister. On the last occasion, Swamy presented her with a book on his, quite obviously, favourite subject — the assassination. Swamy apparently wanted Sonia to remove Arjun Singh from her coterie as he, our man suspected, had some involvement in the murder. Madam, it seems, has taken Swamy’s latest theory (the 10th, if we know how to count) in her stride. What has reportedly surprised her is the seriousness with which the PM has bought Swamy’s theories. Was he not Vajpayee’s chief tormentor only months ago? Probably. But why should that make AB forget his present irritant, one that called him gaddar or traitor less than a few months ago?

Making most of the deal

Pawar play? The Madav Godbole committee has recommended a judicial probe into the Enron deal. Since the Congress signed the deal, the party president is in a fix whether she should take on the Maratha strongman, Sharad Pawar. The Nationalist Congress Party chief was the state’s Congress chief minister when the agreement was signed and sealed. However, Pawar’s detractors have apparently been advising madam that there will be no harm done if the former Congresswallah is “fixed”. In fact, there will be plenty to gain since that would also put the saffronhood in a fix. Jaswant Singh had counter-guaranteed the Enron deal during the 13 day rule of the BJP. A judicial probe would therefore also expose the BJP and the Shiv Sena. Madam reportedly is in two minds over the issue. The judicial inquiry for one would surely derail the NCP-Congress government in Maharashtra. For a beleaguered Congress, clutching on to the last bits of straw, that would be too much of a price to pay. Pawar’s men also sense trouble. That is probably why they are working overtime to make madam’s Mumbai visit a runaway success. God help those who help themselves.

Games are what we play

Suresh Kalmadi is one who doesn’t believe in all work and no play. But the president of the Indian Olympic Association is a troubled man these days. He has been running from pillar to post to get the Afro-Asian Games on, but the Union sports ministry, headed by the firebrand saffron minister, Uma Bharti, appears to be unrelenting. Kalmadi has tried to get around the sticky wicket by offering to make madam the chairperson of the reception committee of the games. But Bharti seems to be in no mood for this kind of game. She is insisting that the event be deferred. An exasperated Kalmadi then approached the prime minister, who lent him a sympathetic ear but added smilingly that women needed deft handling. Which means Vajpayee knows how to deal with the three ladies lining up against him?

Some food for thought

The food czar of India, Jiggs Kalra, has a suggestion that would make things easier for Chokila Iyer. Kalra believes the government needs to tone up diplomacy and the best way to do that is by appointing Indian chefs in all Indian missions abroad and have them popularize Indian food ranging from tandoori chicken, to vada, idli and dosa. His logic is that if the Chinese could do it, so could the Indian. Kalra’s heart however goes out to kebabs and biryani. The latter he feels is much more than an exotic rice delicacy, it is an aphrodisiac. Although Kalra doesn’t seem to be thinking of what it would do to diplomats’ libidos, his other claim, in which he quotes the famous saying that a person who eats biryani never ages, might help in keeping diplomacy green and energetic. That brings us to the recent diplomatic problem — the Indo-Bangla border. Could a meal of kebabs and biryani, eaten together, brighten the situation there? What do you say, Kalra?

Footnote / Leave the connecting door open

No matter how much the Trinamool may try to live down the Ajit Panja embarrassment, it can’t deny the rebel the one brownie point he has scored. That is in pointing out that didi has forgotten her letter to the speaker informing him about her pulling out of the ramshackle alliance at the Centre. This amnesia on Mamata’s part still makes her legally a part of the NDA. Her MPs, when they enter the house, will still have to occupy the treasury benches. Trinamool MPs are also in the dark about their party’s stand on Tehelka on which the Congress, which is now its electoral ally in Bengal, has demanded a JPC probe and legal action against the accused. The Congress has received the support of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and even the AIADMK, with which it has tied up in Tamil Nadu. But Trinamool MPs were found missing from the scene of action. Is the ambiguity intended, which would then make it easy for Mamata to go back to her Rail Bhavan office after she clears the Bengal mess? AB Vajpayee apparently has such a hope. One reason why Nitish Kumar has been given only the additional charge of the railways?    


Of the human bond

Sir — “Mr Bond, fear makes you real” (April 20) makes an interesting point. Pierce Brosnan shows an insight atypical of Hollywood actors. His remarks are sensible and indeed he has given the character of James Bond a minor sense of “humanness” and credibility. This is not to discredit former stars who have acted as Bond. Sean Connery, least of all. But, all the others have tried to be macho and were on the way to forming a Bond stereotype. Brosnan has been successful in stopping this. He not only gives the character a sensitivity that was absent in the others, but also does justice to the licence-to-kill parts of the roles. If Indian actors understood the importance of this balance, it would do them a lot of good.
Yours faithfully,
S. Roy, via email

No judgment

Sir — Subroto Porel, one of the umpires officiating in the final one day international between India and Australia at Margao, was right to admit that the delivery which claimed Sourav Ganguly’s wicket in the match should have been called a “no ball” since it rose well above the batsman’s shoulders (“Out of sorts, for umpires”, April 13). To err is human, but this was a costlier mistake than many, as Ganguly was well-settled and was looking to play one of his trademark long innings.

Porel compounded his mistake by later convening a press conference to say that “even if Francis [Gomes, the other umpire] had called a no-ball, Sourav would have been run out. Ponting hit the stumps immediately after completing the catch and Sourav was well out of his crease then.” This is incorrect. Millions of viewers who saw the Margao one-dayer will confirm that on completing the catch, Ricky Ponting hit the stumps only after Ganguly had grounded his bat and was looking at Porel, expecting the signal for a no ball.

An umpire like Porel, who tries to hide his poor performance behind lame excuses, should be disallowed from officiating in international matches.

Yours faithfully,
Shubhodip P. Chowdhary, Calcutta

Sir — There is no reason to bring the roof down about Sourav Ganguly’s dismissal at Margao. Ganguly is not the first batsman in the history of cricket to have been given out unfairly. Neither is Subroto Porel’s the only instance of an umpire’s wrong decision. Just because Ganguly was able to bring his bat to the ball after a long time, it cannot be said that had it not been for the unfair dismissal, he would have led India to victory.

Yours faithfully,
Sanchita Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir — Subroto Porel has got into the hate-list of most Indian cricketers and cricket-lovers by ending what could have been Sourav Ganguly’s comeback knock. No one expected Porel to shower favours on Ganguly and his team. But is it too much to expect proper judgment from an international-level umpire? In his zeal to prove his neutrality, Porel seems to have forgotten the rules of the game. Deep repentance is the least he could feel.

Yours faithfully,
Alok Chatterjee, Calcutta

Age bar

Sir — Mamata Banerjee has rightly pointed out the need to fix the retirement age for politicians. Politics invariably becomes a lifelong career. The upper limit should be set at 65 years for all those contesting direct elections. Experienced politicians, when needed, can be brought in through the Rajya Sabha.

Yours faithfully,
Subhash C. Agrawal, Dariba

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