Editorial/ A man and a woman
Business as usual
People/ Nirupam Sen
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL/ A MAN AND A WOMAN 
 
 
 
 
Law, writes a modern poet, is neither wrong nor right; “Law is only crimes/ Punished by places and by times”. When the place is Uttar Pradesh and the time is the present, then an Allahabad high court ruling allowing a man and a woman to live together without getting married will not fail to startle. Uttar Pradesh is a sectarian state, whose conservative social mores tend to brutally endorse inequalities of caste and gender. How likely is it that such a ruling will make a positive difference to the everyday lives, and loves, of ordinary men and women in the state? The petitioner, in this case, is a young woman detained in a protection home which is refusing to let her live with a man, for she happens not to be married to him. These nari niketans often act as state-run detention centres for women who choose not to live with their families. These homes disallow them to cohabit with the men of their choice because it is assumed to be both immoral and illegal to do so outside wedlock. The Allahabad ruling should put an end to such outrageous infringements of personal liberty, of an adult’s constitutional right “to go anywhere and live with anyone”. But perhaps this makes too optimistic a connection between legal pronouncements and their translation into actual social change. And one has to look beyond Uttar Pradesh, at the whole of urban “middle” India, in order to justify this nagging scepticism.

A man and a woman choosing to live together is not simply an offence against sexual morality. It challenges fundamental middle-class assumptions regarding the mystical, social and economic importance of marriage. Perhaps even more fundamentally, it shakes up notions of filial duty. One loves for oneself, but one marries for the sake of others. A “good” marriage is one whose romantic and procreative energies have been successfully accommodated within the existing domestic and social structures, mindful of both the man’s and the woman’s places within their respective familial establishments. So a married couple has to perform the necessary rites of passage through which what Friedrich Engels had rather quaintly called “modern individual sex love” must become part of a larger system of sentiments, obligations and arrangements. It is significant that Engels had pitted this “sex love” against the structures of the family, the state and of private property. As if sexual love, as an expression of both modernity and of individualism, is at odds with society’s most ancient institutions. Living together outside wedlock not only refuses to make sex a matter of ritual public sanction, it also asserts the independence of the couple from this entire network of customary accountabilities. It still remains a widely accepted logic that if two people have unabashedly rejected the conventional notions of marriage, family, monogamy and parenting, then they have also forfeited most of their other rights and entitlements from their families, community and society. This is pure ostracism, born out of a fear and envy of happiness, courage and independence. This unsavoury combination of envy and fear is the basis of most forms of prudery. With the explicit or implicit backing of most social and political institutions, this prudery differs only in degree, and not in kind, from the primitive witch-hunt mentality.

Yet it is silly to romanticize such arrangements. They are often a matter of convenience, and the attendant irritations range from the excitingly hilarious to the irreparably damaging. It is one thing to feel annoyed, and then wickedly entertained, by the hotel receptionist’s prurient enquiries while travelling with one’s companion, but quite another to have to agonize over whether it is at all “moral” to impose on a child the identity of a bastard. Somewhere in-between lie the middle-order humiliations — difficulties in finding rented accommodation, having to put up with one’s partner’s systematic exclusion from family and community occasions. The Allahabad high court is justifiably anxious to clarify that it has made a legal, and not a moral, ruling. But in that human arena where law has to become lived experience, the clarities of one are often impeded by the cruelties of the other.

   

 
 
BUSINESS AS USUAL 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
Bengal must be grateful to be spared the horrors of a hung legislature and a post-election tussle for power. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s emphasis on health, education and industrialization deserves an even more unconditional welcome. But reviving a devastated state demands more than the spectacle of a Marxist chief minister playing footsie with businessmen whose own motives may not be above suspicion.

Expectations of a different order animated the dawn of hope in 1977 when the end of the Emergency promised a new beginning. I walked over to Jyoti Basu’s modest Hindusthan Park house the morning after the results were announced, jostling on the narrow stairs with the bearers of complimentary dalis from Burra Bazar. Electricity charged the dust. An arbitrary Centre and Hindi hegemony had been repulsed. At last, Bengal had a government that it could call its very own. The chief minister designate had already promised to establish imaginative new channels of communication between the people and their rulers so that public aspirations could be addressed with sensitivity and expedition.

Having recently visited Sri Lanka, I told him how Sirimavo Bandaranaike had bypassed the hide-bound civil service to appoint a political agent — the ruling party’s legislator — in each district, and that it was he who conveyed public demands to the government, sponsored development plans and disbursed funds. Basu was outraged. “That would mean duplication and confusion!” he exclaimed. And so the old order continued, in outward form at least, with the steel frame gradually replaced by obliging and obsequious matchsticks.

The relief this time is occasioned by the Trinamool Congress’s failure. Socially prominent members of the various mercantile chambers, associations and organizations who have made their homes in Bengal were understandably unimpressed by Mamata Banerjee and, even less, by her lieutenants and camp followers. Even if Trinamool had gained their confidence, they would have recoiled from the upheavals that would inevitably have followed the electoral rejection of a political order that is deeply entrenched in village and thana. A bank manager says that a Marxist defeat would have convulsed his branch. Every trade unionist would have been up in arms.

The status quo is profoundly comforting to captains of industry who have long followed a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” policy towards the left. But neither their willingness to deliver on Bhattacharjee’s programme nor their ability to do so can be taken for granted. Sougata Roy coined the phrase “bypass industrialists” to denote self-seekers who have discovered that donations to the political kitty ensure prime land at throwaway prices, to say nothing of licences and permits. In felicitating the new chief minister, they assume that it will be business as usual, another five years of uninterrupted privilege for the privileged.

Some are actually optimistic that they will fare even better without Basu, of whose style, silences and clipped English tones they stood in awe. The endearing note of conciliation struck by his successor seems to promise a more flexible dispensation. But even if Bhattacharjee’s gestures go beyond public relations, his revised priorities will have to be endorsed by Alimuddin Street, his coalition partners, and by political cadre all down the line before a lackadaisical bureaucracy can be prodded into action.

Simultaneously, the born-again left must reach out to a range of international agencies. The men with whom the chief minister has been hob-nobbing the last few days are basically traders with limited capital who cannot be expected to bring in foreign collaboration on a large enough scale because, internationally, they are accused of obstructing liberalization. The Bombay Club may have ceased to exist as a formal entity but the resentment of foreign competition that inspired it remains a powerful motivator.

Only the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and Japanese- and American-controlled consortiums have the kind of money that Bengal needs desperately to develop an infrastructure, physical as well as human. They alone can give concrete shape to dreams of flyovers, a revitalized central business district for Calcutta, a dynamic clutch of industries around Haldia port, other growth centres, and that famous five-lane (or was it six-lane?) super highway from Siliguri to the Sunderbans. There can be no schools and hospitals without the infrastructure to create wealth.

Global institutions will demand tangible proof of political will before they advance a penny. More, they will seek reassurance of administrative ability and some capacity for sustained work. The day’s secretariat closure in celebration of last week’s swearing-in ceremony hardly indicated a break with the ingrained practice of 23 years when any excuse was good enough for a holiday.

That impression of lethargy and worse is not easily dispelled. I flew back to Calcutta on the day votes were counted and like every return in recent years, it was a reintroduction to a system that is somehow limping along. On two such occasions, the city was paralysed by bandhs. Typically, passengers with money paid small fortunes to taxi drivers who slipped easily through the vigilante cordons, confirming that the guardians of the revolution that never was can be relied on to bungle even their ideological protest.

Once, the airport van that met our international flight drove straight to the domestic arrival lounge. Told that much as we would like to avoid immigration and customs hassles, our luggage would have to be reclaimed from the international terminal, the driver stuck out a paan-red tongue in abashment and promptly lost his way among the little cement-markers separating runways from drives.

This time I asked a uniformed airport official which conveyor belt to go to. “Only the third is working,” he replied. “That’s where your luggage will be if it’s unloaded before that one also breaks down!”

None of this can be blamed wholly on the state authorities. Neither can the erratic post, wayward telephones or confusion in many nationalized banks. These Central services are far from exemplary in other parts of the country. They just happen to be worst in Bengal, at least partly because service is regarded as demeaning by those who have no qualms about pocketing the payment for it. But political example does matter, which is why no one dreams of associating brisk efficiency with a Bengal bureaucrat.

Top-down or bottom-up, callous indifference is probably the single most powerful deterrent to growth, suggesting bleakly that it makes no difference whether the CPI(M), Trinamool or Congress rules the state. Failure is preordained as in the fatalism of O. Henry’s story, “Roads of Destiny”, where the runaway peasant who fancies himself a poet faces a tri-junction. The narrative pursues him down each of the three roads: whichever one he takes, he meets the same death. It is his destiny.

Against the laziness of official employees must be set the tireless zeal of small self-employed men like hawkers, pedlars and craftsmen plying their dying skills, even the humble professional typist pounding battered keys all day on melting pavements under a scrap of tarpaulin that is no protection from blazing skies. They are often a nuisance; they are certainly political cannon fodder. But they betoken an abundance of bustling energy that could with direction, training and facilities be the human catalyst for development.

Singapore demonstrates how a state without other resources can make the most of manpower. Its hawker centres are a triumph of management and marketing. Such sophisticated rehabilitation programmes would have been impossible without hard work and sound eco- nomic policies that enjoy international confidence.

Nirupam Sen is right to highlight the scope of entrepreneurship and to warn against both Bengal’s traditional hankering for service and too much reliance on industrialization. But self-employment would not justify artificially protecting an uneconomic small scale sector either. We have worried for far too long about the colour of the cat and forgotten the mice it doesn’t catch. The challenge to a replication here of Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatism comes not from ideology but temperament.

   

 
 
PEOPLE/ NIRUPAM SEN 
 
 
 
 

Smells left

When, in 1997, the CPM’s Bengali organ, Ganashakti, brought out an anthology to mark the 50th year of India’s independence, the editor had to grapple with a minor problem. Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen had contributed an article, but the rest were by party mandarins and ideologues. It being a party publication, the editor decided, Sen’s piece had to give way to a party ideologue’s in order of priority. It was another Sen — Alimuddin Street’s resident economist — who took the pride of place over Amartya.

Nirupam Sen, though, plays it down with an air of modesty that doesn’t usually go with his image as hardline party pedagogue. “My education is nothing to talk about. I took an ordinary bachelor’s degree, not an honours, from Burdwan Raj College. My involvement in student movement left me little time for studies.” It is possible that Sen later burnt plenty of midnight oil to get a proper Marxist education to become a major member of the party thinktank in Bengal. For the party faithfuls in Bengal, he is the native version of the Delhi duo, Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechuri, for whom the party dialectics were an extension of the debate sessions at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Like his politburo mentors, Sen revels in long speeches, in party forums or public meetings, dissecting national and international situations and offering guidelines on What’s To Be Done. He is never impassioned, never high-pitched and rarely ever populist.

“He (Sen) is so cool and realistic. Quite a contrast to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who was obviously brimming over with enthusiasm. I really was impressed with Sen,” remarks a leading businessman who met the chief minister and his virtual deputy, the commerce and industries minister, within days of the new Left Front Government assuming office. Sen’s importance is underscored not only by his heavyweight portfolios (including Planning and Development, a snatch from finance minister Asim Dasgupta), but also by the fact that he has been given the unofficial number two slot despite being a first-timer in government.

Sen obviously is an important man in the CPM’s scheme of things. His rise in the party hierarchy has now been capped by a Cabinet position second only to the chief minister’s. Having joined the party in 1964 (the year the CPM was born of a split in the undivided Communist Party of India) and received wholetime membership four years later, Sen served just one term as MLA — between 1987 and 1991 — but got his first crucial party position in 1989 when he became secretary of the party’s Burdwan district committee.

The position was crucial because Burdwan was — and still is — crucial in the CPM’s organisational power game. It was at the Burdwan conference of the undivided CPI in 1959 that Promode Dasgupta became the provincial secretary. After the birth of the CPM, the first party plenum was held at Burdwan in 1968. The Burdwan gang, as detractors called it , comprising Harekrishna Konar, Benoy Choudhury, Benoy Konar, Subodh Choudhury and Rabin Sen, was openly pro-Chinese in their line , not only on agrarian rebellion and reform, but also on the question of inner-party struggles. This group was once the hardcore of the party and its leaders were not much enamoured of the so-called liberal intellectuals shining in the arc lights in Calcutta. He was inducted in the state secretariat in 1994 and in the Central Committee in 1998.

“I grew up in the company of leaders like Harekrishna Konar, Benoy Choudhury and Subodh Choudhury. They would come to our house in Burdwan town because my father was also a party activist,” Sen recollects. His father, a practising kaviraj, had a tough time with seven children — four sons and three daughters — when the CPI was banned in 1948. The family had to leave its Burdwan town home and move from village to village to evade the police.

Sen himself had to experience similar ordeals for seven long years from 1970 when the sensational murders of the Sain family members in Burdwan sent the police on a hot chase of CPM leaders and activists accused in the case. “I changed name to Haridas Banerjee and long after I resurfaced in 1977 (when the Left Front first came to power), people would call me Haridas,” Sen says with a chuckle. With the same name he attended the all-India conference of the Students’ Federation of India at Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) in 1971. When in 1974 the police arrested him during the nationwide railway strike, “they thought they had picked up one Haridas Banerjee.”

With a background of a diehard communist, how does Sen see his new role as Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s Man Friday for Bengal’s great leap forward ? The realist in him comes out as he outlines his — or “actually the chief minister’s — priorities. “We know how the role of the public sector, which had earlier been the engine for industrial growth and creation of jobs, is being curtailed because of the Centre’s policies. Now, growth and jobs have to come in a big way from private enterprise.” Hence the interface with captains of commerce. The priority areas are also identified — agro-industries, IT, small industries and self-employment. But he also knows that nothing much has happened to expect a sudden capital rush into Bengal.

Sen’s mission therefore depends on something big — change the Bengali mindset. Bengalis, he says, must not lose any more time to get out of babudom, the colonial legacy that made them live off government jobs. The old Marxist’s new mantra: let a hundred entrepreneurs bloom in every Bengal town. His government would act as facilitator and help every budding Bengali entrepreneur of today bloom into tomorrow’s businessman. The communist ideologue hopes his capital idea will work for a New Bengal.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Left on the wayside

Red turning green? That seemed to be the change taking over Jyoti Basu as he accompanied the newly crowned chief minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, to Delhi to attend a meeting of the politburo recently. A brainwave meanwhile struck reds in the capital and they decided to take this opportunity to celebrate the sixth consecutive victory of the left in Bengal in a grand manner. Incidentally, no such ideas had made waves in Delhi when an old man returned the Marxists to power five times without fail in Bengal. Nor was there any grand farewell for him in the capital when he walked the red carpet of the Writers’ for the last time. Things, quite obviously, could not have gone down too well for the former ruler of Bengal. But the worst was yet to come. As the Marxists from Bengal reached the venue, there was a mad rush for Buddha. The cadre wanted to see their man, touch him and hear him. The media also turned its full glare on the new king of Bengal. Cameras clicked for Bhattacharjee while party members jostled to get close to him. With the lal salaams all going for Buddha, Basu sat glumly in the car till a scribe noticed him and tossed in a question. No answers. Several minutes later someone from within the state unit realized Basu had been sitting all the while in the car. Several more minutes later and after much coaxing, Basu emerged out of his refuge and followed his rescuer to the podium through the crowd still busy with Buddha. Looks like this winner has really taken all.

Cutting the costs

About another winner. This in Kerala. Mr Clean, AK Antony, has taken over the reins but the ride ahead seems to be quite rough. For one, AK’s focus on austerity has few takers in the party. Naturally. You cannot expect a party that spends Rs 13.26 lakhs on the visiting AICC general secretaries to pay much heed to the subject of reining in the purse strings. Apparently, three rooms had been booked in three different hotels in Thiruvananthapuram for the comfort of the gen-secs. But that could be because Congress leaders in the state like to play the perfect host. K Karunakaran, till recently a pain in the neck for 10, Janpath, is one who excels in playing this role. The day his son, K Muralidharan became the state Congress chief, Karunakaran hosted a lavish meal consisting of the choicest of fish preparations. The party went on till a fish bone got stuck in the throat of a senior party leader. Tut-tut. A bad omen. It probably only warned of the shape of things to come under Antony. A cap on the celebrations then?

In whose interest

More charges against Congress bad habits in Assam. The general secretary in charge of the affairs of the state has been accused of bringing in a planeload of businessmen from Delhi. Kamal Nath, the man in question, denies the charges pointblank, “Untrue, unless you consider my private secretary and Jagdish Tytler as businessmen”. Accepted that none of these has business interests in Assam. But it would be unwise to push this theory in the case of another Nath accomplice in the state. This is Subash Chopra, who heads the Delhi Congress unit. Apart from the party, Chopra has another interest. He apparently has a flourishing business in surgical instruments, together with a family-owned outlet in Daryagunj. The Northeast, with its readymade market for Chopraware, would obviously have its own attraction for the Delhi Congress chief. A vehement no again?

Avoid the red lights

In Uttar Pradesh, once there were over 13,000 cars with red lights on their roofs to advertise the VIP status of their occupants.The Rajnath Singh government has slashed their number to less than 2,000 by revising the list of people entitled to this privilege. Despite the pruning, however, most politicians somehow connected with the administration continue to use the red lights on their cars.

Enter our man. An alert sub-inspector of police, who came to know of the government order aimed at curbing the red-light menace, tried doing his job. He stopped a car carrying a Samajwadi Party leader in Shahjahanpur the other day and asked the occupant why he had put on the ubiquitous red light on his car despite the government orders. Exit our man. The SP neta promptly rang up his friends in the BJP who lord over Lucknow and poured out his heart. The action from the top of the political echelon was prompt and unrelenting. Our poor sub-inspector on the street, doing his duty, suddenly found himself suspended.

Moral of the story: stop, when you see the red lights.

Footnote/ The pillars and the post

No sea-change in Bengal, just replacement of bricks. The newly-appointed minister of state for Sundarbans, Kanti Ganguly, who also heads the Left Front in the civic board, cannot retain his civic post as he has already become a minister in the new Left Front cabinet. The grapevine in Alimuddin Street has it that Sudhansu Sil, who won this time from the Jorabagan seat, may replace Ganguly as leader of the opposition in the civic board. But apparently it is not really technicalities which are preventing Ganguly from retaining his post. There is one other factor working overtime. The mayor and Trinamool Congress leader, Subrata Mukherjee, seemingly has his finger in the Kanti pie. Mukherjee, it is alleged, feels that he will have difficulty working with an opposition whose leader happens to be a cabinet minister. Sources say that Subratada, defying criticism within the party about his alleged proximity with the left, has already conveyed his feelings to the chief minister. It goes without saying that Buddha and his government will respect the wishes of someone who, in the core, belongs to the same hue.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Timing is everything

Sir — The Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, is getting ready for a world tour next month (“Globe-watcher Sonia looks West”, May 24). She will be visiting the United States and Britain and will try to meet both Tony Blair and George W. Bush. However, given that Blair will be busy with the general elections and the Oval Office has not yet expressed any interest in her forthcoming visit, her move may well backfire. Instead of leaving for a tête-à-tête with international leaders, Sonia Gandhi should have stayed in India and devoted her attention to domestic affairs. The triumph in the assembly elections notwithstanding, the Congress still has a long way to go if it wants to come back to power at the Centre.
Yours faithfully,
Nina Sen, via email

Switch position

Sir —The editorial, “Swinging time” (May22), has rightly pointed out the ambivalence in the government’s stand regarding hawkers. All political parties have, from time to time, talked about making alternative arrangements for the hawkers, but nothing has happened. As a result, any talk of rehabilitation still remains unrealized. The Trinamool Congress and the Left Front seem to have changed their stance on this issue frequently, expressing their support to the hawkers and then withdrawing it.

As a result, hawkers have crowded streets like Canning Street, Brabourne Road, and Rabindra Sarani. While unemployment may have compelled many young people to set up shop on the streets, it cannot be an excuse for crowding the roads and causing inconvenience to others.

Yours faithfully,
C.R. Bhattacharjee, via email

Sir — Political opportunism is an integral part of both pre-poll and post-poll theatrics. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s varying stance on Operation Sunshine is yet another instance of rampant populism. On the one hand is his exhortation for clean streets in a clean city, and on the other is the supplication for the downtrodden hawkers’ rights. The government has failed to provide its citizens with the basic civic amenities that can be expected of a civilized society.

The unceasing comparison of our streets with the clean, wide roads abroad, where pedestrians can walk comfortably, have not made the slightest difference to our political leaders. Indian streets will continue to remain crowded and dirty. While the rehabilitation of the evicted hawkers is indeed a justifiable demand, a deeper commitment on the part of the civic and political authorities is extremely necessary.

Yours faithfully,
Sandhya Sreekumar, via email

Parting shot

Sir — For many years, the National Library has occupied a place of pride in the hearts of Calcuttans. Students and academics have benefited from the services provided by this institution. Of late, however, a section of the Hindi-speaking readers has been inconvenienced by the poor services offered to them, particularly on Sundays and holidays. While the number of readers increases on holidays, the staff remains scanty. In the absence of properly trained people helping readers find what they are looking for, library members have lost their eagerness to come to the library. Further, the toilets are rarely cleaned and the tables are covered with dust.
Yours faithfully,
Lalit Kumar Mishra, Calcutta

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