Editorial / The old order stayeth
Unofficial Gandhians
People / Tarun Gogoi
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / THE OLD ORDER STAYETH 
 
 
 
 
In politics, as in life, euphoria, is inevitably short-lived. Today’s optimism has a propensity of becoming tomorrow’s deja vu. For the electorate of West Bengal, irrespective of whether they voted for the Left Front, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the new chief minister of the state, seemed to be the face of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which was turned towards change. His utterances embodied the hope of a new and resurgent West Bengal. Sceptics tried to puncture this optimism. They pointed to the fact that the development of West Bengal could not be the result of one man’s good intentions as long as comrades in the headquarters of the CPI(M) in Alimuddin Street, breathed down the chief minister’s neck. The decisive influence of Alimuddin Street on policy-making became a fait accompli as soon as it was clear that the Left Front had won a landslide victory.

The credit for this triumph would go to the organization of the CPI(M). And rightly so. The man of the hour, when the results were announced, was not really Mr Bhattacharjee but Mr Anil Biswas, the secretary of the state unit of the CPI(M), and his comrades who had worked the election machine away from the media glare. It was obvious that the scale of the victory would make the organization call the shots in the formation of the government and even in policy-making. The rider to this would be constraints on Mr Bhattacharjee’s initiative and autonomy. Willy-nilly he would be forced to act as CPI(M)’s chief minister first and West Bengal’s chief minister, after.

How limited change in governance is going to be under Mr Bhattacharjee’s new dispensation is already clear from the names of ministers. To take one example. Mr Satyasadhan Chakraborty, the minister for higher education in the last cabinet, is on the list. This is, in many ways, an ominous sign. Mr Chakraborty’s record as education minister will be remembered because of his kowtowing to the wishes of Alimuddin Street. Education, if a new West Bengal is to be fashioned, will be a crucial area of policy-making. Education will need at the helm somebody who values excellence and is prepared to take higher education out of the clutches of party and government. Mr Chakraborty, if indeed he gets back his former portfolio, is not the right man to herald radical changes. The other area which has been flaunted as top priority by Mr Bhattacharjee is industry. One speculation has it that this all-important portfolio might go to Mr Nirupam Sen, who is making his ministerial debut in this cabinet. He is expected to receive charge of one of the areas being considered top priority. Mr Sen is known to be an organization man and given the views of the CPI(M) apparatchiki, it is unlikely that he will be private capital friendly and a great advocate of economic reforms. Mr Bhattacharjee, whatever be his private views on issues of pitch and moment, will remain, if signs are anything to go by, circumscribed by the party. Writers’ Buildings in BBD Bagh will remain an outhouse of Muzaffar Ahmed Bhavan in Alimuddin Street.

The triumph of the organization has other implications which spell gloom for West Bengal. The election machinery of the CPI(M) overdetermined the scale of the left’s victory. One consequence of this is the complete alienation and marginalization of the opposition. The latter, given its size and its leadership, will cease to have any influence within the legislative assembly. Ms Mamata Banerjee, given her propensities, will take political battles on to the streets. Those of her followers who are disenchanted with her but are anti-CPI(M) will seek to join extremist groups like the People’s War Group. These will make West Bengal more prone to violence which will drive away all potential investors. Further, political issues will move outside the institutions. The scale of the victory will encourage arrogance within the CPI(M) and the abuse of its power. Backroom boys in the party headquarters will tend to read the election results as vindication of past policies. Voters in West Bengal may well wonder what they have done to be forced to choose between a party that refuses to change and a raging virago.

   

 
 
UNOFFICIAL GANDHIANS 
 
 
BY RAMACHANDRA GUHA
 
 
A friend of mine, connected by blood and memory to the greatest of modern Indians, once observed that India would do to Gandhi what it had done to the Buddha — export his ideas and ideals while dishonouring them at home. There is much truth to that remark. Gandhi’s Congress was once a byword for probity and moral vision; it has been for some time now a den of sycophancy and corruption. The party which seems to have succeeded the Congress as the natural party of governance owes more to Godse than to Gandhi. And whether within government or outside it, we Indians have turned our back on the Mahatma’s most cherished ideals: the promotion of religious harmony and the abolition of untouchability.

The picture is more heartening overseas. The African National Congress has certainly been more worthy of Gandhi’s Congress than its contemporary Indian variant. The German Greens, who are deeply inspired by Gandhi, do not always subordinate fundamental values to political expediency. Perhaps the three most remarkable politicians of the modern world are Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, and Aung Sang Suu Kyi — ask each of them which historical figure they most admire, and the answer will be: “Mohandas K. Gandhi.”

The Indian institutions that might have been expected to carry on Gandhi’s work have spectacularly failed him. Vinoba Bhave did to the Sarvodaya movement what Indira Gandhi did to the Congress: changed its character beyond recognition, and altogether for the worse. Fortunately, the picture is redeemed somewhat by the work of those whom one can only call the unofficial Gandhians. These are the men and women who, starting out as boys and girls, have been inspired by an Indian they never saw to dedicate their lives to India’s poor.

The achievements of some of these Gandhians have been chronicled in Rajni Bakshi’s fine book, Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi. The individuals Bakshi writes of come originally from the middle class. Privileged by birth and education, they chose nonetheless to eschew a certain and comfortable career in the city in favour of a life of service and struggle in the village.

Consider a few of the characters in Bakshi’s book. There is Aruna Roy, once an officer of the Indian administrative service, later a social worker promoting the use of handicrafts, later still the catalyst of an extraordinary movement for the right to information based in rural Rajasthan, that conducts public hearings to hold public officials accountable for the money they claim to have spent for the uplift of the people. There is (or sadly, was) C.V. Seshadri, a brilliant scientist from an aristocratic Tamil family who forsook the path of awards and patents to develop technologies aimed at enhancing the welfare of the rural poor: biogas plants for farmers with only one cow, nets to augment the catch of artisanal fisherfolk, bio-fertilizers to increase plant productivity without causing toxic pollution. There is T. Karunakaran, with a PhD in systems engineering from th e Indian Institute of Technology, a promoter of “practical swadeshi” and “social entrepreneurship”, who has designed crafts cooperatives to enable small-scale producers to successfully market their products. And there is the grandfather of them all, Muralidhar “Baba” Amte, that selfless servant of leprosy victims and a leader of the struggles against large dams in central India.

With the exception of Amte, the people profiled in Bakshi’s book never met Gandhi. Some were born after he died. Yet it is his call that they have heard, and chosen to answer. It is his example that led them to abandon their own urban, upper-class moorings and root themselves among the poor. But, as Bakshi points out, they have also been inspired by professionals who were Gandhi’s own contemporaries. In a late chapter she lovingly rehabilitates the work of J.C. Kumarappa, the chartered accountant and Columbia-trained economist who became one of Gandhi’s most doggedly devoted followers. Kumarappa was a brilliant if truculent man, a promoter of appropriate technology and a precocious environmentalist who thought that an “economy of permanence” must necessarily be based on the wisdom and skills of the peasant and the craftsman.

As Rajni Bakshi generously recognizes, her book is only a sampling — albeit a fascinating and instructive one — of the wide array of social workers and social activists in contemporary India. Next to Bapu Kuti on my shelf now rests a book called Oona: Mountain Wind. Written by Jasjit Mansingh, this is a memoir by a mother of a daughter who died tragically young, at 33, while working amongst the villagers of the Kumaon. Oona Mansingh was a graduate of St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi, an institution generally known for producing top-flight civil servants and boxwallahs and, more recently, novelists. But this self-consciously elite place has also nourished an alternate tradition of service. C.F. Andrews once taught there, and Sanjit Roy — husband of Aruna and himself one of the finest social workers in independent India — once studied and played squash there.

It is to this alternate Stephanian tradition that Oona Mansingh belonged. After college, she took a further degree from the Institute of Rural Management in Anand, and worked in Gujarat prior to making her home in the Kumaon hills. Here she joined an established non-governmental organization, Chirag, before marrying a doctor and starting her own organization. Named Aarohi, this had the objective “of supporting need-based rural development through village-level microplans and farmer’s organizations that would be instrumental in diversifying the rural economy”. There was a strong emphasis on healthcare and community forestry, and on developing products such as apricot oil and medicinal herbs whose care and cultivation depended on the rich traditional skills of the Kumaon peasantry.

Her organization was making steady progress when Oona died in 1996, of mushroom poisoning. The work of Aarohi was, in the best Gandhian tradition, based on what the hill people wanted and desired, programmes flowing from the villagers’ identifications of their needs rather than from an a priori plan designed by outsiders. As Oona wrote to a friend, the “attitude of programmes and larger projects that come from generalizing problems at levels other than the village level, leads to a standardization that is known, by the common man, as a ‘scheme’. Schemes, then, are associated with subsidies and cash help”. That was the sarkari way of rural development; to which Aarohi hoped to offer a counter, in “trying to evolve micro-plans, village wise”. For, as Oona wrote, “our ability to get people to think about their problems and voice them collectively is fundamental to a sound foundation of our work”.

Oona Mansingh remarked of a group of social workers in Gujarat that “one thing that seems to be common to many of these people is the deep sustenance they get from spiritual contemplation though their work is distinctly pragmatic and secular”. The resonances are unmistakably Gandhian. Oona herself had a dignity and quiet poise that seemed to emanate naturally from the fulfilment she found in her work.

Indians such as Aruna Roy and Oona Mansingh would perhaps wish to be known chiefly by their chosen local context, by the work they do with and among the communities they have made their own. But we must also acknowledge their impact on the high-born Indian, on the writer of this article and its readers, for example, on people who cannot go all the way in following them but are nonetheless affected by their example. To know of such Indians, better still, to know such Indians, is a powerful moral incentive to be more honest — or, at the very least, less dishonest — in the ways in which we conduct our own humdrum and self- obsessed lives.

Last of all, there is a consoling historical message in the stories of these social workers. It is this: that despite his murder by a Hindu with an ever-widening fan-club, despite the brutalization of his name by his own Congress, and despite the self-evident decline of his own ashrams at Sabarmati and Sevagram — despite all this, and more, we Indians have not yet been entirely successful in expelling from our midst the memory and methods of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

[email protected]

   

 
 
PEOPLE / TARUN GOGOI 
 
 
 
 

Meek Inherit

When the Indian Airlines flight took off for New Delhi from Guwahati on Wednesday afternoon, it had on board a man who had a little while ago won the race of his life. Though victory was never in doubt, there was still a lurking fear, fanned mainly by vested quarters, that he might be robbed of the ultimate glory. Having finally bagged the crown, he was understandably relaxed and happy — proving to the world that good guys don’t necessarily finish second.

Meet Tarun Gogoi, Assam’s new chief minister. An unassuming politician who can disarm even his harshest critic with a childlike smile. This 65-year-old lawyer-turned-politician from the upper Assam town of Jorhat preferred to wait for his turn rather than follow the gatecrashing ‘bratpack’. It has been a long journey to the coveted post but he knew his time would come.

After leading the Congress to one of its most convincing wins — bagging 71 out of the 125 seats — at the hustings and then smoothly getting himself elected as the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader in a party famous for its internal squabblings, Gogoi has finally silenced his critics — but only for the moment.

Since taking over in 1996 as the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president, Gogoi has not only kept a “divided” party together with a smile (“Congress is a democratic and big party. There will be and should be a difference of opinions”, was his oft-repeated line during crises), but has also taken it to new electoral heights.

In both the 1998 and 1999 general elections, the Congress won 11 and 10 seats, respectively. More importantly, its main rival Asom Gana Parishad drew a blank both times and the victory came at a time when the Congress was being literally mauled by the BJP at the national level. The period has not only seen Gogoi walk out of Hiteshwar Saikia’s shadow but also mature as a political leader, making the right noises at the right time and being at the right place at the right time.

“The chief minister’s post is a just reward for the man. Though people wanted a change, it is doubtful whether any other person from the Congress could have led the party as effectively as him,” says Tapan Dutta, who taught agronomy at the Assam Agricultural University in Jorhat, and is a school friend of Gogoi’s.

Not only friends, Gogoi commands respect even from ‘rivals’. Says Hitendra Nath Goswami of the AGP, the Congress’ most vocal political enemy: “He comes across as a simple and sincere man. He has vast experience gathered during his long stint as an MP. If he can take hard and mature decisions, I see no reason why he should not do well.” In an ironical twist, Goswami, one of the few ministers in the erstwhile government to have retained his seat in the strong anti-incumbency wave, won from Gogoi’s hometown Jorhat.

Says journalist Prafulla Rajguru: “Under his leadership there will be a positive change in Assam because he has political will and vision. He has been consistent with his policies.”

When Saikia was alive Assam was too small to accommodate the ambitions and egos of two persons. Gogoi did the next best thing, he remained in Delhi and bided his time.

More than anybody, Gogoi was sure of the Congress victory this time. In preparation for the takeover, the PCC under him had prepared an economic plan for the state, with special emphasis on the agricultural sector. The same was vetted by experts at a workshop held in Guwahati on March 3. “Even if we don’t come to power, it will be handy for the next government,” he used to tell his aides.

“His real test will be whether he and his team can bring peace and initiate innovative development plans for Assam. He is going to be stuck with the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act issue which he supports,” says New Delhi based author journalist Sonjoy Hazarika.

Born in April, 1936, Gogoi was politically-inclined since his school days. In fact, Gogoi’s political career took wings way back in 1971 after he got elected to the fifth Lok Sabha with the blessings of Devakanta Barooah (of “India is Indira” fame). “Most people don’t know that Gogoi had even tried to get himself enrolled in the Indian army after the Chinese aggression of 1962,” says Tapan Dutta.

Though no one disputes his being a sober, honest, simple and non-controversial politician, the jury is still out on one front: Gogoi’s weak image. Says veteran politician and former minister Dulal Baruah of the BJP: “He is a sober person, stays away from controversy but I am not sure if he will be effective in the prevailing situation. The main problem is that he cannot take independent decisions.”

The image problem he faces is largely attributed to his low profile — despite having been elected to the Lok Sabha six times and having had two stints as union minister of state with independent charge. Even partymen are hardpressed to answer queries on his family.

The enhanced security has robbed Gogoi of one of his favourite past times — of visiting the local vegetable market or grocery shop with a jute bag in his hand. “He loves to go out and buy this or that,” says his wife.

A “non-interfering husband” who has passed on the “home department” entirely to his wife, Gogoi nevertheless is a very caring father, preferring to take all important decisions regarding his children: a daughter — an MBA, who is working for the British Council and a son who is an engineering student.

What impresses Dolly Gogoi are her husband’s convictions and his accurate political calculations. “When the exit polls were predicting that the Congress will win 60 seats, he kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, we will win 70’,” she says.

The only time Gogoi comes close to being flamboyant is on the golf course. Though he used to play football in his younger days, he picked up golf in New Delhi. “I will miss my rounds of golf,” he says now.

The bespectacled Gogoi, a tall but frail man, has played his cards well. It remains to be seen how he takes off from here. Will he turn out to be the answer to Assam’s myriad problems or will he flatter only to deceive? The ball, clearly, is in his court.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Let me out of here

While his party colleagues begin contemplating for the length of another five years how to get rid of the left in Bengal, the state Congress president is desperately trying to rid himself of the whole state. The loud noises Pranab Mukherjee is making have already got 10 Janpath to announce in a hurry that it is considering his recall. Pranabda in fact has been creating polite sounds ever since he was dropped in the choppy waters of Bengal politics to steer a sinking ship, particularly at a time when the elections were all ready to hit the shores. The decibels rose when the high command decided to go ahead with the jot in Bengal. And they have been rising since the royal snub at the hustings and the prospect of Pranab playing deputy to both didi and Kamal Nath loomed large over our poor man. It is not Akbar Road alone which has heard him. Scribes who had parked themselves in front of his residence in New Delhi after the Bengal results were also made to listen to him. A very hostile Pranab screamed at them saying that they had to first explain why the media had hyped the chances for the alliance and misled the country before he answered their questions. A similar shout greeted every query. When a rather disappointed journo cribbed about Pranab’s behaviour, the personal secretary of the state Congress president consoled him, requesting the newspaperwallahs to think of his condition. That probably speaks volumes about Pranab’s mood these days. Let him roll back.

A lesson in management

The mood seems to be just as bad in another political household in West Bengal. Deepa Das Munshi, wife of Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, the Congress’s chief whip in the Lok Sabha, is reportedly planning to give up politics after her defeat as the Congress candidate from Goalpokhor in north Bengal. She had been confident about her victory. But after the humiliating experience, Deepa has apparently told her party colleagues that she will concentrate on rearing her son instead of nurturing the constituency. Wife’s defeat has given Priya’s detractors a lot of grist to their mill. “Priyada worked overtime to manage boudi’s nomination, but all that has ended in a whimper,” said a Congress worker. It is not Priya’s alleged efforts in “managing” things alone that have got tongues wagging. In the Trinamool camp, stories are doing the rounds about how Ajit Panja had surrendered himself to Mamata’s dictates to get his daughter, Mahua Mondal, nominated from Vidyasagar. Panja, the story goes, turned rebel after Mondal had safely bagged her ticket. The management obviously had no idea the workers thought like this.

That’s what friends are for

AB Vajpayee returned from the Malaysia tour on a weak knee. The much talked about signing of the extradition treaty turned out to be a flop. This wasn’t so much because of Vajpayee’s doing or not doing enough. The government simply underestimated Q’s clout. The famed Ottavio Quattrocchi has many friends in Kuala Lumpur and does a roaring business in liaising. He and wife Maria are personal friends of many Malaysian ministers, including the foreign minister. So the chances of putting Q in a quandary did not arise. Looks like V has to look for other scandals to embarrass madam. Italians in fact are proving to be too smart for the khaki pants. On the eve of Vajpayee’s visit, Quattrocchi was oozing confidence. He reportedly told an Indian TV network that along with the prime minister, many of his friends were coming to Malaysia. Which means V should also turn and look around him.

His cup of coffee

Coffee growers recently called on V to request him to do something to save the industry. The prime minister instantly obliged them. In the cabinet meeting held within minutes of his interaction with the coffee industrywallahs, Vajpayee settled the issue of “tea or coffee” within a wink. He wanted coffee to be served to his cabinet colleagues. “I have been asked to promote coffee, so let us have coffee,” V said smiling. Ministers smiled too, but coffee growers are reportedly not very amused.

How they relate

Calcutta and its people, including scribes, have their own terms of endearment. The dalai lama was nabbed by reporters at the airport on his recent visit to the city. He was addressed both as “Mr Lama” and “Lamada”.

Footnote / There’s a story in it

A seething simian (apparently) and a city engulfed with fear. The rumour mills in Delhi are naturally working overtime to keep up with the demand. The assortment of what these have produced is mind-boggling. There is one story which has Pakistan as the invariable villain. The monkey or monkeys are the ISI creating problems in the Indian capital to the neighbour’s benefit. There are other versions however. The god-fearing believe it is divine retribution for those who have strayed from the path of faith. The indomitable autowallahs of the capital have given a free rein to their imagination. Many have a hunch that it is the handiwork of the residents of the resettlement colonies who want uninterrupted power supply throughout the night. Given the threats from the monkey-man or men, bijli at night has naturally become the first act of administrative benefaction. Not a bad idea at all. But there are others who pooh pooh this gem. They think it is the building and the land mafia trying to scare off the pavement dwellers. Take your pick. But remember, before the monkey man is caught, no monkeying around.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Another reign of terror

Sir — “Jaya case crusaders jump ship” (May 17), and this is just the beginning of another span of Amma’s malevolent dictatorship. The earlier spate had seen acid attacks on civil servants, hounding of newspapermen, engineered riots and other trifle crimes to keep the puratchi thalaivi on her gold throne. The coming years will see more of the same — muzzling of the press, dismissal of courts and mugging of men. More jewellery, gold coins and pots of money will accumulate in J. Jayalalitha’s backyard. It is ironic that despite so much evidence against the corrupt Amma, people still want this woman to rule them. When will the people of this country learn their lesson?

Yours faithfully,
T. Chandran, Calcutta

Case in point

Sir — Rupali Ghosh’s “ A double-edged sword” (May 9) is biased and does not elucidate the inbuilt safeguards of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. A critical reading of the legislation will show that it is designed to prevent the misuse of the executive machinery.

Section 21 of the NDPS Act makes possession of drugs a punishable offence with a prison sentence of upto 20 years. However, to protect the innocent, Section 50 of the act provides that at the time of arrest and seizure of the drug from the possession of the accused, a magistrate or a gazetted officer has to be present. Moreover, a diary has to be made of the entire proceedings. Section 51 of the same act and Section 100 of the criminal procedure code makes mandatory the presence of two witnesses who belong to the locality and their signatures on the memo. Apart from this, a scientific or forensic test by an expert has to be carried out to prove that the seized material is a narcotic or psychotropic substance.

If the conviction rate is low for the NDPS Act it is because of errors in the procedure made by the investigating agencies. Often Section 50 is violated and no test done of the seized material. But this does not mean the law itself is flawed. The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act also has similar safeguards. As for Ghosh’s argument against Section 377 of the Indian penal code, it should be said that no civilized society can permit unnatural sexual acts.

Yours faithfully,
N. Mukherjee, Calcutta

Sir — Recently, Fardeen Khan was arrested and kept in custody for a number of days before being released on bail. The arrest was perhaps justified since Khan was caught in possession of drugs. Yet, Bangaru Laxman, who was caught by the spycam taking a bribe has neither been arrested nor interrogated. It is a political umbrella that provides special protection to the country’s political leaders. While the Laxmans move around without any shame, artists like Salman Khan and now Fardeen Khan are not allowed to leave their city. If these steps are mandatory to preserve law and order, they should be made compulsory for all who are under suspicion.

Yours faithfully,
S.A. Rahman Barkati, Calcutta

Sir — Despite the arrests, star sons are often released on bail and then the case is dismissed. Had a similar incident taken place involving a common man, justice would have been promptly delivered. Salman Khan has been charged with the killing of endangered species in Rajasthan. However, the law has still been unable to nab him.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

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