Editorial 1 / Door is ajar
Editorial 2 / Long shadow
Tale of two campaigns
Fifth Column / Terror breeds its own revenge
How the tide turned
Be Indian, think Indian, read only Indian English
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / DOOR IS AJAR 
 
 
 
 
With the general perception that reforms have got stuck, the government has pleasantly surprised everyone by throwing open foreign direct investments. The phrase “throwing open” needs qualification. Certain sectors with stipulated levels of foreign equity participation qualify for automatic approval. This does not preclude non-automatic category proposals from receiving clearances through the Foreign Investment Promotion Board on a case by case basis. A legitimate criticism has been advanced that case by case clearances lead to unnecessary discretion. Hence, the automatic approval route should be widened and the so-called negative list pruned. Most of manufacturing was already free from sectoral caps and therefore, the only significant change in this sector is the hiking of the automatic approval foreign equity cap from 74 per cent to 100 per cent for pharmaceuticals. This is no threat, since larger Indian pharmaceutical companies are resilient enough and provided intellectual property protection is tightened, FDI should flow into this sector to tap India’s locational advantages.

Automatic approval limits have been hiked from 51 per cent to 100 per cent for hotels and tourism and 20 per cent to 49 per cent for banks, the latter a prelude for banking sector reforms. Service sectors hitherto excluded (courier services, mass rapid transportation systems) now qualify for 100 per cent foreign equity through the automatic approval route. Airports can have 100 per cent. Township development qualifies for 100 per cent through FIPB. As reform signals, these changes are indeed welcome and the opening up of defence production reflects a change in the mindset over which the left parties are likely to see red.

The moot question is whether these changes will lead to a surge in FDI inflows, even if they do not touch the target inflow of $10 billion per annum. India has fallen off the FDI map and inflows have not quite recovered since 1998, after the nuclear tests related-sanctions and perhaps, the east Asian currency crisis. Recognized constraints remain and the fresh round of reforms, though welcome, does not do much to remove these constraints. Consumer goods are plagued by excess capacity and there is no reason why such FDI inflows should increase, especially since two dysfunctional conditions remain — in the case of existing joint ventures with Indian companies, 100 per cent foreign subsidiaries require no objections from existing joint venture partners and mergers and acquisitions (hostile as well as friendly) are frowned upon. If defence production is being opened up, is there any sense in retaining print media or broadcasting on the negative list? Infrastructure projects have been plagued by flip flops in policy, power and telecom being two examples. Bureaucratic procedures and red tape continue to be pervasive. After FIPB or automatic approval clearance, an additional 40 to 60 clearances are required at the state-level. This explains why conversion ratios (ratio of inflows to approvals) vary widely across states. There are serious problems with land acquisition (public interest, compensation, resettlement) and environmental considerations. Until these are resolved, FDI inflows are unlikely to shoot up dramatically. However, the government should be applauded for the intent to reform, even though implementation may fall short.And also for explicitly targeting services.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / LONG SHADOW 
 
 
 
 
If the pre-election scene in Pondicherry had promised to be mildly different from that of Tamil Nadu, the post-result scene is dissolving into a reflection of the large neighbour’s. The difference lay in the Congress’s decision to fight the Pattali Makkal Katchi in Pondicherry instead of aligning with it. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress had loftily decided to ignore the PMK’s pro-Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam passions for the sake of keeping its alliance with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam intact. The loftiness was dictated by the mundane consideration of electoral chances. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress had no hopes without the patronage of the AIADMK. In Pondicherry, it could think of doing without the PMK, because the Congress-Tamil Maanila Congress combine had worked like a song in 1996. The Congress was confident of chief ministership. So was the PMK, evidently. It relied on the Vanniar votes that made up its vote bank in Tamil Nadu. The fact that the Vanniars in Tamil Nadu liked the PMK for having ensured reservations for them did not deter Mr S. Ramadoss from expecting support from the Vanniars in Pondicherry too. So the Congress-PMK rivalry was the only potential excitement in the Pondicherry elections. It turned out to be a damp squib.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Bharatiya Janata Party took care to keep the Puduchery Makkal Congress on their side. Its leader, Mr P. Kannan, could be counted on to neutralize the PMK’s clout in Pondicherry. Mr Kannan had earlier withdrawn support to the Congress ministry on the LTTE issue and happily fought the Congress to bag four seats. The net result is undramatic. The vote against the Congress-Tamil Maanila Congress combine was split between the AIADMK and the DMK-BJP-PMC. It allowed the Congress-TMC to be the largest group but not one with absolute majority. This is really a slight embarrassment for the Congress. It will be unable to form the government without the AIADMK’s help. The AIADMK can contribute another three seats. After screaming blue murder since Tehelka, the Congress is hanging on the favourable smiles of Ms J. Jayalalitha in both Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. And the PMK, sadly enough for its aspirations, is nowhere.

   

 
 
TALE OF TWO CAMPAIGNS 
 
 
BY ASHIS CHAKRABARTI
 
 
What Mamata Banerjee did to lose the race for Writers’ Buildings offers a classic case study of how not to win elections. She began with several advantages and then went about dismantling and reducing them to irreversible losses. Obviously, she did not know what she was doing and, judging by her post-election posturings, does not seem to realize even now what hit her. Contrast this with the Marxists’ poll game. They took the field with distinct disadvantages and converted them to their favour, thereby making the win look easy. As in sport, it is possible in elections to come up from far behind. The Left Front won the game this easily because it was not that far behind at any stage.

Let us first see how Mamata gave her game away. She plunged into the campaign, hoping to raise a storm of anger and protest against the ruling Marxists. There indeed was widespread resentment against the left: in the towns because of economic stagnation and in the villages largely over the near-absolute dominance of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which has turned panchayats into its little oligarchies. Mamata did symbolize Bengal’s voice of protest against these and much more and therefore drew big crowds wherever she went.

But what did the leader offer her expectant folks? She meant to offer them freedom from fear, but ended up generating more fear than hope. In fact, she instilled two kinds of fear: of uncertainty and worse still, of anarchy. A senior Congress leader articulated this fear when he told me, two weeks before the polls, that he would stay away from West Bengal for three months if the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance came to power. He feared that the state would be turned into a killing field with Mamata and other alliance leaders unable — or even unwilling — to stop the orgy of revenge and blood-letting that would follow.

Curiously, Mamata and her band of leaders themselves daily helped to build up this atmosphere of fear by a bizarre campaign style that harped on revenge and retribution and little else. In the process, she achieved the exact opposite of what she wanted. Instead of offering an escape from fear, she was pushing people into conjuring up a vision of a dark abyss. The feeling seeped into different sections of people. The urban middle class began dreading the change that they once hoped she would bring about. In the villages, the fear of losing the little the poor have overweighed their hope of getting more from Mamata.

The Marxists rubbed the feeling in by conjuring up dark images of the early Seventies. Those who already believed in the Seventies syndrome were scared; those who did not were suitably confused. Mamata went around her campaign blithely oblivious of the impact this call for revenge was making. Her cup of content brimmed over with the laughs her little limericks raised at public meetings. She little realized how her style robbed her campaign of all substance. Aggression is often a good campaign stance, but it cannot be the only stuff that winning campaigns are made of.

She began with yet another advantage, not just arithmetical, by getting Sonia Gandhi on her side. It was not her fault that the mahajot did not come about. It could not for the simple reason that the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, rivals in national politics, could not be part of any alliance anywhere in the states. For all her bravado and brouhaha during the bargaining over seats, she knew that ploughing a lonely furrow could bring her glory, but not power. But the way her pride and prejudice rode roughshod over Congress leaders’ sentiments made it an ominous start for the opposition. With characteristic arrogance, she sought to grow big, while revelling in making others look small.

The result was a far worse division in her own camp than one normally sees in the Congress during any election. This time, the malcontents’ ranks swelled from two sides and the embers of rebellion were stoked by leaders in her own camp. Ajit Panja may have come out in the open to suit his own interests, but many senior Congress leaders prayed that they lose. If she was so imperious and insensitive to her own colleagues even before the victory, what would not she do if she grabbed power?

No wonder one of the first calls I received as the results came last Sunday was from another Congress leader, an old friend, who sounded relieved at the defeat. Her victory would have meant the end of the Congress in Bengal, he said. Of course, BJP leaders like Tapan Sikdar were openly jubilant that she, not the CPI(M), had been taught the hardest lesson.

Contrast all these with the way the Marxists turned the scale in their favour. Communists claim to hate hero-worship but have done it all the time, as much in the former Soviet Union, China and Cuba as in India. But Jyoti Basu, the hero of yesteryear, was no longer worshipped by older people as before and very little by younger people, particularly in urban areas, for various reasons ranging from fatigue to failure. With one hero gone, the party assiduously carved out another in Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. If Mamata personalized the politics of protest, the CPI(M) matched it by personalizing the hope of change in Bhattacharjee. And look at the difference in style. The more Mamata screamed and made faces, the more Buddha smiled. The more she slipped, the more he climbed.

It is difficult to accept that the change that the CPI(M) projected in the new leader was for real. But he glowed in the new image and added to his — and the party’s — flock as he went about the campaign. In a post-election survey, a social studies group has found that, while the majority of the respondents were with Mamata as the strongest protester against left rule, most of them said they did not trust her with the governance of the state.

Another man symbolized this CPI(M) strategy of turning disadvantage into advantage. The state party secretary, Anil Biswas, took over from his predecessor, Sailen Dasgupta, at a most difficult time for the party. Factional squabbles had taken an ugly form, with Subhas Chakraborty and Saifuddin Chowdhury daily firing salvos at Alimuddin Street and threatening to tear the party apart. Biswas played the carrot-and-stick card with what now seems remarkable foresight. Chowdhury was expelled, but Chakraborty was tolerated. When subsequently Samir Putatunda also left, Biswas managed to hold back the former’s closest lieutenants like Rishi Halder, thereby blunting the edge of the revolt and reducing the extent of damage in South 24 Parganas.

Biswas’s coming — in November, 1998 — had been preceded by the rise of Mamata in the Lok Sabha elections of that year and followed by her further successes in the 1999 parliamentary polls. Then came the left’s ignominious defeat in the Panskura byelection in 2000, in which she gave the CPI(M) a body blow by showing she could outdo the Marxists in rigging. It was the worst of times for Biswas, but it was also his hour of reckoning. With Buddha leading from the front, Biswas managed the backroom job to turn it into the best of times.

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN / TERROR BREEDS ITS OWN REVENGE 
 
 
BY GWYNNE DYER
 
 
“Borrowing a page from American foreign policy, I decided to send a message to a government that was becoming increasingly hostile,” wrote the mass murderer, Timothy McVeigh, in a recent letter to the British newspaper, The Observer. “Bombing the Murrah federal building (in Oklahoma City in 1995) was morally and strategically the equivalent to the US hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq or other nations.”

McVeigh is no longer scheduled to die this month, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation forgot to give his defence lawyers 3,000 pages of documents pertaining to the possible existence of an accomplice — “John Doe 2” — from the early months of the investigation, before the FBI settled on the “lone lunatic” theory of the bombing. At the moment, he’s scheduled to be executed on June 11, but by then the whole federal case could be unravelling.

McVeigh was responsible for the deaths of 168 people, including 19 children, in the Oklahoma City bombing. He freely admits it, and the polygraph test that his own defence team gave him confirms it. Alas, when they asked him if he had acted alone, and he echoed the government line that he had, the polygraph said he was lying.

No John Doe

At McVeigh’s trial the US government did not call a single one of the eye-witnesses who had seen him in the days before the bombing, and even then people wondered if that was because every one of them said they had seen him in the company of someone else. So cynics now suspect that the FBI’s forgetfulness about the “John Doe 2” documents may have something to do with the fact that the prosecution never had quite enough evidence to make a case for conspiracy hang together.

In the Anglo-Saxon judicial system, if you don’t have solid evidence that Crime A (conspiracy, in this case) occurred, then you are better off not mentioning it at all. Just produce the evidence connecting the suspect with Crime B (bombing the Murrah Building, in this case), and bury the rest. Until, perhaps, some request under the Freedom of Information Act puts you on the spot, and you face the choice between handing the relevant documents over or deliberately concealing them in a capital case.

And you know what? None of it matters. McVeigh did it, and shows no signs of repentance, and certainly deserves punishment. Maybe not the death penalty, which has been abandoned by the other developed countries, but if it’s good enough for Afghanistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, then it’s probably good enough for the US.

Collateral damage

If there was a conspiracy involving other rightwing, anti-government fanatics who were with McVeigh in the “Aryan Republican Army”, that doesn’t matter much either. Most of his alleged co-conspirators are already dead or in jail too.

What does matter, strangely enough, is what McVeigh said: “Bombing the Murrah federal building was morally and strategically equivalent to the US hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations.” If you don’t like what they’re doing, to hell with the law. Whack them.

The moral distinction between a truckload of fertilizer-based explosives and a cruise missile or other instrument of high-tech death was not immediately obvious to the innocent people who have been killed in unilateral, mostly illegal, US attacks from Grenada, Panama and Libya to Sudan, Iraq and Afghan-istan. They were, in McVeigh’s phrase, “collateral damage” as Washington used its almost limitless military power to swat some irritating fly, but they really died.

This sort of behaviour by the British was called “gunboat diplomacy” when Britain was the world’s greatest power in the 19th century. No country other than the US, sole superpower of the age, goes in for it nowadays.

Perhaps it is a complete coincidence that some Americans feel their government has the same cavalier attitude towards its own citizens (as in the 1993 federal siege of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas that so upset McVeigh, in which over 80 people were killed). They certainly have no right to take unilateral revenge against it, and hurt innocent people in the process. But like their government, they see themselves as above the law.

   

 
 
HOW THE TIDE TURNED 
 
 
BY NAREN DEKA
 
 
The eagerly-awaited results of the Assam assembly elections held on May 10 have been declared. And the electorate has rejected the Asom Gana Parishad. Elections were held in 125 legislative assembly constituencies. The election in the Dibrugarh constituency was countermanded because of the death of Jayanta Dutta, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate for this constituency. The results indicate that the Congress has secured 71 seats, an overwhelming majority. Tarun Gogoi, projected as the chief ministerial candidate of the Congress, is likely to be sworn in in the next few days.

The miserable failure of the AGP at the hustings also points to the complete failure on the part of the party leadership to gauge or anticipate the mood of the people who were fed up with the “misdeeds” of the party.

The AGP was born in Golaghat more than 15 years ago at a convention attended by representatives of the Assam agitation who had spearheaded the movement for the identification and deportation of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The issue of the large-scale influx of Bangladeshis came to light at Mangaldoi after the death of Hiralal Patowary, who represented the Mangaldoi parliamentary seat. Re-elections were ordered within six months of Patowary’s death and it was observed that there was a rise of about 60,000 voters within the preceding six months. It became clear that the abnormal increase in the size of the electorate was due to immigration. There could not have been such an unbelievable natural growth.

The issue became the focal point of a massive people’s movement against foreigners all over the state. The 1983 elections were boycotted by major political parties and the people overwhelmingly responded to the boycott call. The elections were regarded as a farce. Hiteswar Saikia, who became the chief minister, was seen to be heading an illegal government.

At that time, Congressmen had to suffer a lot. Social boycott and threat to life and property were only a few of the humiliations they had to suffer. There were frequent strikes and arson as well. The All Assam Students’ Union, of which Mahanta was the president and Bhrigu Kumar Phukan the general secretary, took the lead in opposing the government. It became almost impossible for Saikia’s Congress government to run the administration.

The government of India meanwhile woke up and took cognizance of the reasons behind the agitation. Negotiations took place and the Assam accord was ultimately signed on August 15, 1983. In keeping with the terms of the accord, the Saikia government resigned and fresh elections were held.

The AGP, riding the popular wave, came to power and the Congress was totally routed. Mahanta became the chief minister of the state and earned the distinction of becoming the youngest chief minister of the country. The people were jubiliant, and the swearing-in ceremony of the ministry was held at the Nehru stadium in Guwahati. It was attended by several lakhs of people. On that day almost all the houses in Assam remained illuminated.

So what happened to that illumination? Why has the second term of the AGP been so disenchanting? It appears that the AGP has become the most unpopular party in the state. The dismal performance of the party during its term has totally disillusioned the people.

Several factors are responsible for the party’s fall from grace, the principal one being corruption. Also, there was practically no tangible economic development during AGP rule. Unemployment rose alarmingly. The state government’s understanding with the Centre that there would be a total ban on new appointments frustrated many. And all this while some jobs were being sold like commodities in the market.

The frustrated young people who once participated in the agitation found that while some of the fellow agitationists had become ministers and occupied lucrative posts, they had been left by the wayside. Some of them took to arms. Terror started its reign and lawlessness became the order of the day. The then chief minister, however, succeeded in persuading a section of the militants, including the United Liberation Front of Asom, to surrender arms and abjure violence.

The anti-incumbency current in this election was so strong that it has swept Mahanta and his colleagues away. It was only just before the polls that the AGP leadership realized that it could not possibly fight the elections alone. So it hitched its wagon with the BJP. Despite strong opposition from the state BJP leadership and some sections within the AGP, the two parties entered into a pre-poll alliance.

There was strong resentment against the alliance in several parts of the state. In Guwahati, the state BJP headquarters was ransacked by hostile partymen. Although the resentment apparently subsided, the AGP-BJP poll alliance proved to be a suicidal pact for both parties. Workers at the grassroots were both unhappy and confused. Senior BJP leader, Hiranya Bhattacharyya, resigned from the party to form the Asom BJP. The pact thus benefited neither. The AGP could capture only 20 seats while the BJP could manage to win only eight.

The AGP-BJP pact also alienated the religious minorities in the state. They panicked and voted for the Congress in a big way. The AGP gave about 45 seats to the BJP and there were friendly contests between them in about 10 constituencies. The seriousness or sincerity of the candidates/parties in these “friendly” contests were seen to be completely lacking. Candidates of both the parties were thus doomed to failure.

Again, the wave was not so much against the AGP than against Mahanta. His family-oriented politics took its toll at the hustings. His wife, Jayashree Goswami Mahanta, who contested the Nagaon parliamentary seat in the last polls, was sent to the Rajya Sabha.

With the AGP joining the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre, ugly rumours began doing the rounds. Mahanta, it was alleged, was trying to make his wife a minister in the Union cabinet. This greatly angered the common people and agitated senior party leaders. It was also this anger that was reflected in the poll results. People’s dislike for Mahanta was manifested in the results of the prestigious Dispur constituency, where he suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of his arch rival, Atul Bora, and the relatively unknown Robin Bordoloi, son of the revered Gopinath Bordoloi.

The AGP had also shied away from holding the long-due panchayat elections despite warnings from the Centre that it would withhold Central assistance. The party simply did not have the courage to face the people. This lack of courage proved to be its nemesis. It totally lost touch with the grassroots. Its organizational network eroded. Naturally, the AGP miscalculated its electoral prospects.

The AGP is a regional party which rode to power on the emotions of the people regarding their identity in their land. It is ironic that during AGP rule the number of migrants increased manifold. There were no identifications, no deportations. The people of Assam quite obviously found this very difficult to accept.

The Congress on the other hand is a national party with a mass base and has always appealed to many people. But the return of the Congress this time is largely due to the misdeeds and failure of the AGP government on all fronts. The low-profile and unassuming image of Gogoi, who has held several important posts in the Congress and is a former Union minister, also contributed to the Congress’s appeal. Gogoi is backed by a band of trusted and experienced politicians. The Congress also took care that its differences did not reflect on the polls. On the other hand, the AGP’s internal differences were quite evident to the people.

The disenchantment of government employees who did not receive their salaries also contributed to the downfall of the AGP government. Worse, the way the agitation of the government employees was handled by the government disenchanted a large, influential section of the electorate.

On the eve of the elections, a number of killings took place. There were widespread rumours about government involvement in these acts. Moreover, although there was a ban on appointments, several appointments were clandestinely made in several departments, including the Assam public service commission.

Tarun Gogoi, leader of the Congress legislature party is poised to take over the reins at Dispur. As for his election to the assembly, it remains a mere formality.

The author is a columnist and former editor, Assam Tribune

   

 
 
BE INDIAN, THINK INDIAN, READ ONLY INDIAN ENGLISH 
 
 
BY PARIMAL BHATTACHARYA
 
 
After a controversial engagement with the history taught in schools, the National Council for Educational Research and Training has set for itself the task of “Indianizing” the English literature syllabus. On the face of it the effort to replace dowdy Byrons with homegrown Vikram Seths seems necessary and even timely. Only recently, Amitav Ghosh reopened the debate on literaure and national boundaries by refusing his nomination for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Also, during the last three decades, the success of Indo-Anglian literature in the West has redefined India’s position vis-à-vis British or American literature. Given this, some of the centuries-old English writers and poets found in school textbooks look out of place in the changed socio-cultural context of our classrooms.

Conquer their imaginations

In early 19th century, when English studies hadn’t acquired a canonical status in its home country, the colonial policy-makers introduced a selection of literary texts in the British Indian curriculum. Modern postcolonial studies have shown that this was done to conquer the psyche of educated Indians, to produce — as Macaulay prescribed — a “class of persons Indian in colour and blood, but English in tastes, in opinions, in moods and in intellect”. Almost two centuries later, some of those same texts, and more important, the ideological basis of their selection, have survived. Although the 20th century has seen some remarkable developments in the field of literary criticism, it has scarcely affected the methodology of teaching and evaluation.

To the layman, English literature still conjures up the misty-eyed teacher clutching an anthology of Romantic poetry. The English literature syllabi in most of our universities must be a vestige of the colonial baggage. But that is hardly surprising with the bureaucratic control over the education system, where the key official is called the director of public instruction — a post that reeks of Macaulayan presumption.

Value addition, then and now

As things stand, any move towards purging the literature syllabi of outdated British texts and incorporating some of our desi authors who wrote in English is welcome. But NCERT has professed a greater undertaking. It wants to promote Indian values and ethos in classrooms through a selective study of Indian literature. And this is going to bring the project onto slippery ground as it did when, a few months ago, the council tried to tinker with the history syllabus at the higher secondary level. Ever since, there has been a move to saffronize the central educational bodies, “Indian values and ethos” now means a reductive and retrogressive reading of the vast complex culture of the subcontinent. We see this when the University Grants Commission plans to introduce university-level courses in astrology, or when the NCERT thinks of removing Premchand’s writings from textbooks on the ground that they no longer reflect Indian social reality.

But using literature as a tool to disseminate “Indian” values in classrooms has deep ironical underpinnings. In British India, English literary studies were part of the imperial mission of educating colonial subjects in the literature and thought of England. To dismantle it and replace it with a “nationalist” mission would mean the continuation of the same cultural hegemony, different in content but similar in form and style. And that would be a gross disservice not only to young minds, but to the cause of literature as well.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Capital gain

Sir — Elections over, purpose far from served, Pranab Mukherjee returns to the capital, allegedly to “concentrate on national politics” (“Priya, Somen back in race as Delhi beckons Pranab”, May 14). But does that explain the real reason behind Mukherjee’s departure? There can be no two opinions about the fact that as president of the West Bengal Congress, Mukherjee has been ineffectual. He could neither quell the rebellion of senior leaders like A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury nor keep the party’s junior leadership under control. Besides, at the last moment, it was the Congress general secretary in charge of the state, Kamal Nath, who conducted the negotiations with the Trinamool Congress. Mukherjee was nowhere in the news pages when Ghani Khan Chowdhury and Adhir Chowdhury held on to crucial seats, resisting being swamped by the Trinamool. That Mukherjee is being called back is probably because of the Congress president’s realization that this son of the soil serves better on different soil.

Yours faithfully,
M. Mukherjee, Calcutta

Survival issues

Sir — This letter is in response to the editorial, “Opium of the intellect”, published on May 13. The editorial page on that day also carried an article by us entitled “Bengal’s economic survival”.

It seems that from our short article, the editor was expecting no less than a radically new, yet comprehensive, vision for the future of the economy of Bengal and detailed blueprints for its implementation.

Our goal, however, was a little less ambitious — to identify a list of priorities and state it with conviction and without any fanfare. It is important to have a consensus among the general public and political leaders about the areas of priority before working out concrete policy options. To be useful, the list had to be short and not include everything under the sun. What was not in the list was as important as what was in it. For example, agriculture, decentralization, or population policy did not figure, not because these are unimportant but because we felt that these are areas where some progress has been made.

Now the editor tells us that everyone knows and agrees about these things and chides us for the banality of suggesting them. We would be delighted if this is the case. The task of the newly elected administration would indeed be very easy if there is no controversy over things such as partnership with the private sector, the need for rewards and penalties for achieving a better work culture, or labour discipline in the state. But if this is not the case, we would still be happy if our statement provokes others to react and thereby start a dialogue on what the priorities ought to be.

Yours faithfully,
Abhijit Banerjee (MIT), Pranab Bardhan (UC, Berkeley), Kaushik Basu (Cornell), Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri (D. School), Maitreesh Ghatak (Univ of Chicago), Ashok Sanjay Guha (JNU), Mukul Majumdar (Cornell), Dilip Mookherjee (Boston Univ) and Debraj Ray (Boston Univ), via email

The chairs stink

Sir — Politicians in India can sleep peacefully now that J. Jayalalitha has been sworn in as chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Corruption has been officially accepted as part of governance. Jayalalitha’s triumph shows that the extent of corruption notwithstanding, politicians have no problems acquiring ministerships. So far so good for democracy.

It is also clear that voters hardly care about corruption at the highest level. It may now be assumed that files on many pending court cases will never be traced in Tamil Nadu. One can only sympathize with George Fernandes and Bangaru Laxman, who had to leave their posts in a hurry. Meanwhile, all the moral champions of the country who shouted themselves hoarse over Tehelka in Parliament now stand in queue with folded hands before Jayalalitha.

And all this despite the sincere efforts of M. Karunanidhi to transform Tamil Nadu into the fourth most prosperous state in the country. The average annual income per household in Tamil Nadu stands at Rs 22,541, double that of West Bengal where the figure is Rs 10,632. The fiscal deficit of Tamil Nadu is Rs 3,983 crore while that of West Bengal is Rs 10,856 crore. Besides, a large number of capital-intensive industries like automobiles have set up manufacturing bases in Tamil Nadu. The state is also producing a large number of software engineers. The state is well connected with metal roads and Chennai has six new flyovers.

All the hard work has come to nought by the appeal of a lady who persuaded voters that the corruption cases against her were part of a conspiracy. Tragically, voters believed this woman who has property worth crores abroad, who lives in a palace and sits on a gold throne. Given the state of Indian democracy, it will not be too long before India begins heading the list of the most corrupt countries of the world.

Yours faithfully,
Tamal Basu, Kodalia

Sir — The elections, both in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, sent out distinct messages. In the first, it is quite obvious that Mamata Banerjee would have won had she continued with the National Democratic Alliance. But her immaturity, impulsiveness and double-speak caused her fall. As can be seen in the South as well, S. Ramadoss, who deserted the NDA and aligned with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, failed to get a seat in Pondicherry. Again, Vaiko parted with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and faced the same results.

Obviously, the electorate does not take kindly to betrayal. In the case of Banerjee, her defeat came almost immediately after she withdrew from the NDA and aligned with the Congress, which she had declared to be the “B” team of the ruling left. The case of Tamil Nadu is a little baffling because the chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, had done a lot for the state. The reason could lie in his ambition to create dynastic rule, as in the case of K. Karunakaran in Kerala. Karunanidhi had been treating the DMK and the state as his personal fief. That may have been the reason for the huge swing in Tamil Nadu.

Yours faithfully,
S. Ramakrishnan, via email

Sir — In a democracy, the verdict of the people has to be honoured and respected. But while doing so it has to be kept in mind that emotions, even the public mood on polling day, play a large part in creating this verdict. The victory of J. Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu exemplifies this. The AIADMK leader was totally rejected in the last assembly polls. Later, she was arrested more than once on corruption charges. The court upheld the charges. She was convicted and it was believed that her political career had ended. Yet, despite the odds, she has become the chief minister of the state.

The law should take its own course without rejecting the people’s verdict. But only one person in a system which is regarded as corrupt cannot be targeted alone. That would amount to persecution. But the tainted should not have the reins in their hands.

Yours faithfully,
V.A. Gopala, Bangalore

Sir — J. Jayalalitha has been convicted of corruption and this disqualified her from contesting the assembly elections. However, in Kerala, a member of the legislative assembly, who has also been convicted and sentenced was allowed to contest. It appears that the Representatives of the People Act allows criminal members of the legislative assembly, even when convicted, to contest elections while a convicted former MLA or minister cannot. R. Balakrishna Pillai, the sitting MLA in Kerala, had the audacity to say he would be judged in the people’s court. Jayalalitha said the same thing.

Corrupt politicians seem to be placing greater value on the people’s court than on the judiciary. Why should there be two sets of courts — one for the citizen and one for the politician?

Yours faithfully,
P. Parijata, Hyderabad

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