Editorial / Beyond personal attacks
A secret and imagined hunger
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

The Sphinx is supposed to have an inscrutable smile. Ms Sonia Gandhi’s inscrutability goes beyond that. There is very little in her appearance and her behaviour which offers clues to what is actually going on in her mind. Thus her outburst in the Lok Sabha on Friday surprised not only Mr L.K. Advani who was at the receiving end but almost everybody else. Its effect was the greater because it was so uncharacteristic. Ms Gandhi’s wrath was directed at the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the Bharatiya Janata Party. But the prime minister had left the House after his speech to wrap up the session. Mr Vajpayee in his speech had expressed his displeasure at two things. First, that the proceedings in Parliament had been brought to a standstill by the Congress. And second, at the various allegations of corruption that had been brought against him in the slogans shouted during the disruptions. He was angry that aspersions had been cast on his integrity. He went on to say that in his years as member of the Lok Sabha he had never heard such personalized attacks. Ms Gandhi could not officially reply to all this because according to parliamentary protocol, the prime minister’s speech was followed by the singing of Vande Mataram and Parliament was adjourned. Her outburst had to be heard by the home minister, Mr Advani, during the conventional exchange of courtesies that follow the adjournment. What Ms Gandhi said cannot be faulted on content.

Mr Vajpayee was slightly economical with the truth when he said that personal attacks on a leader’s integrity had not been made before in Parliament. Ms Gandhi was right to point out that Rajiv Gandhi was the victim of a similar smear campaign within and without Parliament. Indeed, such a campaign pursues Rajiv Gandhi beyond the grave. Mr Vajpayee’s colleagues in the BJP were among those who had joined heartily in calling Rajiv Gandhi a thief even though such an epithet had no basis in fact. Congress members of parliament were doing to Mr Vajpayee exactly what their BJP counterparts had done to Rajiv Gandhi when he was prime minister. Mr Vajpayee is mistaken if he thinks he has some moral high ground to stand on so far as this issue is concerned. Mr Vajpayee and most of the politicians belonging to his generation and his school of oratory and rhetoric do not hesitate to make personal jibes. Issues give way to personalities and personal attacks bring forth applause from the masses. Mr Vajpayee and those of his ilk thrive in this ambience. Congressmen have merely hoisted him with his own petard. If this displeases Mr Vajpayee then he should take the lead in changing the level and the idiom of political debate in India. That he is not inclined to do this is suggested by the tone of vindictiveness that underlay his speech.

That the level and idiom of political debate refuse to leave the realm of the personal is clear from Ms Gandhi’s references to “my husband” and “my mother-in-law”. Ms Gandhi has been long enough in politics to realize that politically what is important in the attacks against Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi is the fact that both were Congress prime ministers and party presidents. Her relationship with them is irrelevant in this context. One would like to believe that she would react with similar vehemence even if the two individuals were not related to her by marriage. The entire exchange between Ms Gandhi and Mr Vajpayee — significantly neither of them took the name of the other in their mutual attacks — is informed by a certain immaturity. Tit for tat is a motto expected from schoolchildren rather than from politicians with pretensions to lead India. Mr Vajpayee, if he wants to be the exemplar he aspires to be, must control his spleen, and Ms Gandhi, if she is to be seen as an alternative to the BJP, must rise above her personal anguish and address political issues, politically. Neither will perhaps break the mould. But the one who does will pass the litmus test to be India’s really modern leader.


On the first day of this month now coming to a close, I read the news and said to my wife, “There didn’t seem to be any April Fool jokes in the papers today.” It’s not unusual for the media to play practical jokes; and all good investigative reporting has an element of play-acting and invention about it. The informant called “Deep Throat”, who tipped off the reporters Woodward and Bernstein about the events that came to be known as the “Watergate affair”, was, it’s been suggested, a figment of Woodward’s fertile imagination. Here, in India, Aniruddha Bahl of tehelka.com wore a beard that looked as if it had been drawn with an eyebrow pencil, and played a practical joke that had rather serious consequences, though not as serious as one might have wished.

April Fool’s day gives the media sanction to invent news, always a temptation, but never, otherwise, openly succumbed to. In the early Eighties, I remember the Observer announced, on its front page, a new channel on British television that would be devoted to pornography and erotica. Not a few people spent the morning tuning their TV sets, adjusting their antennae, and pressing buttons and changing channels. It only occurred to them afterwards, as the television critic Ludovic Kennedy dourly confessed later in the week, that the news item, prominently displayed, had appeared on April Fool’s day.

My wife pondered my question, and replied, “Probably the report about cheese.” She meant the sizeable reports that occupied the centre of the front pages of both The Telegraph and The Statesman, informing readers that, incredibly, a treasure-hoard of tinned beans, sardines, packed cheese and ragu sauce would soon be available in the Indian market. By coincidence, this announcement had been made on April Fool’s day. We held our breath; could this be a heartless joke played on our growing middle classes? We breathed again; two rival newspapers, we concluded, wouldn’t deign to play the same prank.

The drought, for the middle classes, had been a long one; and cheese might serve conveniently as its signifier. An Area of Darkness, published in 1964, two years after I was born, opens with the following melancholy account of India approached and discovered: “As soon as our quarantine flag came down and the last of the barefoot, blue-uniformed policemen of the Bombay Port Health Authority had left the ship, Coelho the Goan came aboard and, luring me with a long beckoning finger into the saloon, whispered, ‘You have any cheej?’”

Naipaul, here, echoes the lovely, but mocking, prosody and structure of the sentence with which he opened Miguel Street, and, indeed, his oeuvre — “Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, ‘What happening there, Bogart?’” — reminding us, discreetly, of the peculiar double capacity for hope and disillusionment that opening sentences and post-colonial societies have in common. The narrator of An Area of Darkness duly proceeds: “Coelho had been sent by the travel agency to help me through the customs. He was tall and thin and shabby and slightly nervous, and I imagined he was speaking of some type of contraband. He was. He required cheese. It was a delicacy in India. Imports were restricted, and the Indians had not yet learned how to make cheese, just as they had not yet learned how to bleach newsprint.”

By the end of these sentences, we have forgotten it’s the ship, and not the country it’s heading toward, that has been quarantined. Any self-respecting Indian would bristle at the flagrant disregard for fact in the last sentence I’ve quoted, or at the supercilious and possibly invented detail about the “barefoot” policemen; but enough decades have passed since those observations were made for them to have lost their sting. In the interim, the middle classes have been nursing a secret hunger while publicly eating and proclaiming the virtues of Amul cheese. Now and then, it causes a breakdown in behaviour, and a lack of decorum unique to the full-fed, educated Indian middle classes. It’s as if their secret and imagined hunger has proved to be as real, and constitutionally debilitating, as the hunger their more impecunious fellow-countrymen feel.

I have in mind an august occasion that took place at the Grand Hotel about a month ago. The French government had decided to confer a particularly distinguished honour on the sculptor and artist, Chintamoni Kar. The French ambassador had flown down from New Delhi; a large crowd of artists, writers, newspapermen, businessmen, and members of the elite citizenry of Calcutta had been invited to participate in the event in the Cooch Behar Suite on the first floor. Free wine and various kinds of cheeses, as foreign to our shores as the ambassador, were on display. There was an importunate pushing and shoving towards the alcohol and cheese. People managed to exhibit, at once, the nonchalant curiosity about food that only the rich have, and also the worried haste that straitened communities are prey to as the food runs out; these bodily movements belong to the strange double life of the post-independent Indian upper middle class, who’ve had both too much and too little of a good thing.

When the respected ambassador made his speech, inflected with charming Gallicisms (more than once he referred to the recipient of the honour as “Shintanomy Car”), the crowd was as quiet as schoolchildren at morning prayer; but as soon as Mr Kar began to make his rather moving and brief acceptance speech, it, probably mistaking him for a minor Indian official, returned to conversation, reminiscence, networking, wine and, urgently, cheese.

An Englishman passed through Calcutta recently, travelling back to England from post-earthquake Bhuj, which he was reporting on for a programme for BBC Radio. At a get-together one evening, he complained to his friends in the city, among whom I include myself, of the European aid-workers who, more familiar with war-stricken zones like Kosovo, were rather at a loss in Bhuj (he pronounced the word in the BBC way, roughly like the first syllable in “bourgeoise”). These well-intentioned Europeans (mainly Scandinavians) were, our English friend told us in some bafflement, living in Bhuj on Swedish accessories, sleeping on Swedish mattresses, eating out of Swedish tins, Swedish sausages one day, probably Swedish caviar another.

I advised my friend to keep this information from members of the Calcutta Club, who, if they heard of the plenitude of tinned sausages in Bhuj, might make a silent exodus towards Gujarat; for I have seen how, on the Club’s international evening, people queue patiently at the German stall for boiled frankfurters. Anyway, that anecdote now belongs to a different era in our history. We can finally hope to eat brie and roulade and German sausages in the sociable, if over-familiar, spaces of our own, and each other’s, homes.



How GOT-IT did it

A sharp rift seems to be developing within the Central group on telecom and IT. This is the result of a row over WiLL and cellular operators, with the telecom minister, Ram Vilas Paswan, openly backing WiLL and Sudheendra Kulkarni, the officer on special duty in the PMO, pitching in for the latter. Paswan and the telecom secretary, Shyamal Ghosh, argued lengthily in favour of the basic telephone providers being allowed to offer WiLL-based limited mobile services. Kulkarni, on the other hand, believes that the cellular operators would be driven out of business if this were to happen.

Tactfully sitting on the fence are the Union I&B minister, Sushma Swaraj, and, of course, the law minister, Arun Jaitley, with the full support of Fali Nariman, the jurist member of the Rajya Sabha. These have eventually won the day. The final GOT-IT report also bore the unmistakable impress of this tactical trio. The report navigated so well between the two factions that it managed to make both sides unhappy.

Where is all the glitter?

The Bengal communists are beginning to feel the absence of glitter. There seems to be no star campaigners on their side. The state BJP has already started flashing its impressive line-up, with the likes of the prime minster and the home minister about to start their campaign sprees. Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma Swaraj will also be joining in. So far the CPI(M) has failed to get any such assurance from the third front leaders, although there has been no dearth of appeals to them. Alimuddin Street is also upset by the poor turnout at a number of meetings the CPI(M) general secretary, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, recently addressed in and around Calcutta. Alarmed by this, the party did what it normally does at the whiff of a crisis. Run to Jyoti Basu. In this case, Basu has been asked to persuade the former prime minister, VP Singh, and the RJD chief, Laloo Prasad Yadav, to charm the electorate. Although Singh was present at the Left Front-sponsored rally at the Brigade Parade grounds on March 25, party managers are reportedly insisting on some small public meetings to be addressed by the third front leaders. Some communists even think that film stars like Shabana Azmi and Raj Babbar may have pulled a better crowd than the old guard of a non-existent front.

Net to catch a falling star

Stardom does not always mean a head in the stars. Nor does all brawn mean no brain. Actor Sunil Shetty, at the peak of his career now, seems to be encashing his success for future security. Having bagged an award for Dhadkan, Shetty has set up a company called Popcorn Entertainment Ltd or, more cutely, PEL. The actor plans to have a floating restaurant, introduce beach volleyball, waterjet skiing and such glamorous sports on Mumbai’s shores. Shetty already has a boutique, “Mischief”, which has spawned “More Mischief”. In this, as in his conception of what sports and what kind of restaurants will catch the fancy of the glittering classes, he is no way downmarket. His boutiques are meant to supply designer clothes to film personalities. In addition to all these money-spinning dreams and realities, Sunil’s family is running a series of ethnic South Indian “Udipi” restaurants. But our Sunil is not one to remain confined by national boundaries. He has opened another food joint called “Thai Me Up”. As the name suggests to the more clean-minded, it is a restaurant that serves Thai food. Well, that’s not bad for a man at forty. Filmstars seem to be going the cricketers’ way, securing their non-playing futures while the going is good.

Languages maketh a leader

Sonia Gandhi seems to be making sure that her “foreign origin” is really a dead issue. Perhaps she follows both Telegu and Tamil, which is more than many of her colleagues in the Lok Sabha can claim. The press gallery could clearly see the opposition leader listening with grave attention to TDP and DMK members on the plight of farmers. Both groups were speaking in their own languages. That is not remarkable; what was remarkable is that madame’s headphone was not on, so she was without the facilities that provide translations in Hindi and English. No wonder she is unperturbed by the Congressmen’s worries about Rahul’s friendship with a Colombian girl. Never mind that “uncle” Satish Sharma is looking for a suitable girl for him, Rahul is not interested and Rahul’s mother unwilling to bring up essentially private matters. Congressmen might worry about what they will say to the BJP should it bring up these “private matters” in order to hark back to the foreign origins issue. Madam is too confidently Indian now to bother about such trifles.

Footnote / The oldest and the youngest

It was a meeting between the oldest and the youngest member of the Congress parivar. Senior Kerala Congressman and former chief minister, K Karunakaran, who had revolted against and then submitted to the leadership, came to New Delhi to “thank” Sonia Gandhi and withdraw his resignation from the Congress working committee. The veteran leader also called on Priyanka Gandhi to pay his condolences over the death of her sister-in-law, Michelle Vadra.

As Karunakaran — who has the distinction of being an All India Congress Committee member since 1937 — was coming out of Priyanka’s 35, Lodi Estate residence, he also met the the little prince, Rehan Rajiv Gandhi Vadra, and the encounter gave rise to many a pleasantry and joke among his colleagues within the party. Not that there wasn’t a touch of the snide in some of the comments. Karunakaran’s detractors have not hesitated to wonder if there is now a chance of his becoming the chief minister of Kerala, now that he has paid the right obeisances and secured the “blessings” from the right quarters.



Muffled protests

Sir — The recent clampdown on democratic forces in Pakistan only goes to show that this country is losing all hope for the restoration of individual freedom (“Pakistan police sweep down on opposition leaders”, April 27). Apparently the officials are also not making clear exactly how many people have been arrested. According to arbitrary estimates, the number could run into thousands. That the two major opposition parties in the country, Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League, which form the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy have been crushed by this assault speaks of a dictatorship that is coming into being in the country. All this is ominous for India.
Yours faithfully,
Arvind Gupta, via email

Singing in the void

Sir — Sankarlal Bhattacharjee’s article, “Is anybody listening?” (April 20), makes sense. There is a palpable void after the death of Hemanta Mukherjee, Nachiketa Ghosh, Gouri Prasanna Mazumdar and other such legends. Although there are several talented singers today, including the likes of Indranil Sen, Srikanta Acharya and Lopamudra Mitra, their skills hardly ever get a chance to be displayed due to a dearth of talented music composers and songwriters. But, one name can be mentioned in this context — Suman Chattopadhyay.

Bhattacharjee is justified in discussing Chattopadhyay at some length. The latter is perhaps the sole good thing in the world of Bangla gaan. But the tragedy of Bengal lies in the fact that despite composing a brilliant score in the film, Sedin Chaitramas, Chattopadhyay has been largely overlooked by Bengali filmmakers. He could have redeemed Bengali cinema from the insufferable music we have to hear all the time.

But this never happened. Chattopadhyay is also one who can be original with his songs while others have to remain content with singing their renditions of old hits. This too is ignored by most.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Sodepur

Sir — Sankarlal Bhattacharjee’s feature on the death of Bengali adhunik songs was moving. We all mourn this passing away of the Bengalis’ first love. There was a time when this state was proud of its cultural heritage. But profit-making entered the scene and commodified this art form. No one wants to produce songs which do not fetch monetary returns. This has been detrimental to the music scene in Bengal.

Yours faithfully,
Dilip Kumar Basak, Calcutta

Stars and the state

Sir — The University Grants Commission’s recommendation to introduce a graduate course in Vedic astrology has created a controversy (“All in the stars”, April 1). Many scientists have voiced their opposition to the spending of public funds in teaching such a subject.

It is remarkable that the ancient Indian philosophers could accurately chart the movements of the planets in spite of the lack of sophisticated instruments, but there is no evidence that planets exert influence on humans. But thousands of babies are born at the same time. If astrology is to be relied upon, these babies should have similar experiences in life.

Again, if astrology is infallible, there is no point in knowing the future after all, because it is already determined by the planetary positions. What would the education minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, have to say about this?

Yours faithfully,
C.V.K. Moorthy, via email

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