Editorial / Mayhem at midnight
Raisina Hill isn’t Whitehall
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / MAYHEM AT MIDNIGHT 
 
 
 
 
Mayhem at midnight — or a little after — is merely part of life in Tamil Nadu. Unlike Bihar, Tamil Nadu has a theme to its mayhem. It is usually political vendetta, and the frequency of occurrence is determined by the rate of change in the state government as it oscillates between the two deadly enemies — the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. More precisely, the foes are Ms J. Jayalalitha and Mr M. Karunanidhi. The arrest of Mr Karunanidhi may have been the outcome of the due process of law. No doubt the courts need to find out whether the allegations against Mr Karunanidhi and his son, Mr M.K. Stalin, in the flyover scandal can hold. But the exercise of the Prevention of Corruption Act does not entail manhandling of someone close to eighty in the middle of the night. Even Mr Stalin, the mayor of the city, surrendered to the police instead of “absconding”, as first reported. It is interesting that his explanation for his surrender was that he feared for his life. Not satisfied with manhandling the former chief minister, the police roughed up two Union ministers, Mr Murasoli Maran and Mr T.R. Baalu, the second of whom was put under arrest. Nine others, including the former chief secretary, Mr K.M. Nambiar, were arrested in connection with the scandal while numerous others were put under “preventive detention”. Mr Baalu was not given any reason for his arrest.

This is colourful drama, even if very unpleasant for one side. It goes well with the highly coloured cultural and political life of the state. But central to the action is Ms Jayalalitha’s unflagging determination throughout her stint out of power to see her political rival in prison. For that she had to wait till he was down and she was up, right where she had been before her downfall — the chief minister’s chair. But sending him and his son to prison was not enough to satisfy her hurt pride. The corruption cases against her, instituted during the DMK government’s term, will not go away. Ms Jayalalitha has been convicted in the Tansi land deal and Pleasant Stay Hotel cases and was prevented from contesting the assembly elections this time because the law does not allow a convicted person to run for an elected post. In a travesty of democracy and the rule of law, she was invited to form a government after the victory of the AIADMK-led front in Tamil Nadu. She is now chief minister, and only needs election within six months to legitimize her position. The loophole in the law has served her well. The idea of law taking its own course in a government she runs may seem a bit far-fetched. Vendetta in the guise of law is more like it, and it does not need the national human rights commission or members of the National Democratic Alliance to say so.

It is always salutary to go into elections or government with Ms Jayalalitha as partner. The Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) should not try doing anything more than murmur in embarrassment. The rule of law is one thing, and an out-and-out campaign to physically humiliate a former chief minister through the agency of the police is quite another. Ms Jayalalitha seems to have won here too. Just too many political parties are tied to the hem of her cloak for the condemnation to get out of hand. Only it does not augur well for the health of either Tamil Nadu or India.

   

 
 
RAISINA HILL ISN’T WHITEHALL 
 
 
BY RUDRANGSHU MUKHERJEE
 
 
For those who have a fondness for the British brand of humour, there has never been anything better on television than the programme, Yes Minister, and its sequel, Yes Prime Minister. The scripts, written up as the diaries of a cabinet minister by James Hacker, edited by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, lampooned the political classes of Britain and at the same time, laughed at many aspects of British life and the idiosyncrasies of Britons. Nobody, save the diehard curmudgeon, can fail to be amused by the programmes. And even two decades after they were first made, they have not grown stale. They can still be read and watched with unending delight and, one may well add, with considerable amount of education about the running of the British political system.

There is the story that Indira Gandhi so loved the programmes that she once refused to give an interview to the BBC unless the Beeb agreed to let Doordarshan show Yes Minister at highly concessional rates. She also privately, or so the story goes, lamented the fact that no such programmes were made for Indian television. If she had been alive, she could have watched Ji Mantriji on Star TV. One doubts, though, if she would have actually enjoyed its Hindi version.

Ji Mantriji makes no pretense of originality. Instead of James Hacker, there is Suryaprakash Singh and the script is based on his diaries. Alok Tomar, who made the translation and adaptation for Indian television, has replaced Humphrey Appleby by Rajnath Mathur and Bernard Wooley by S.K. Kaul. The book bears the words, “Based on the original, Yes Minister”. This is an euphemism. The Hindi version, more often than not, reproduces the English script, situation for situation, with only the names and references changed. This makes Ji Mantriji a copy, a very pale copy, of the original. The title page of Ji Mantriji also carries the announcement, “English version by Monisha Shah”. This is a bit mysterious since the English version is the same as the one that Lynn and Jay wrote. Monisha Shah’s contribution seems to have been no more than inserting a few translations of Hindi words and terms.

Aficionados of Yes Minister will inevitably recall the programme when they see or read Ji Mantriji. In spite of the same script, there are some discrepancies which are significant. Yes Minister begins with an editorial introduction that introduces James Hacker. Thus, we get to know, even before we have begun reading the diaries, that Hacker had been a polytechnic lecturer and, later, editor of Reform. There is the memorable comment in the introduction which says “Being a journalist, Hacker had no particular talent for reporting facts.” Readers are told that the diaries were in fact spoken into a recorder, they are warned of Hacker’s verbosity and “his natural gift for the misuse of language”. Readers are also told that there is going to be a sequel, Yes Prime Minister, dealing with his career “as he failed upwards” to Number 10 Downing Street. Like good editors, Lynn and Jay acknowledge the help they received from the Humphrey Appleby papers preserved in the Public Records Office; they express their gratitude to Bernard Woolley who checked the record of the diaries against his own memory. The end of the introduction informs us that the editors are based in Hacker College, Oxford, and that the diaries are being published in 2019 AD.

Thus an entire edifice of fiction is created to give the reality effect. And the laughs really begin from the introduction itself. Ji Mantriji does away with such preliminaries and plunges straight into the episodes. The diaries have no editorial introduction, so Suryaprakash Singh appears without any background (we learn later that he is an MA from Gwalior University and was once the editor of Manav Adhikar). There is no indication of time, either of the diaries or of their publication. The diaries and the characters hang in limbo.

There is a bigger point here. Some of the differences introduced here just do not ring true. In the episode, “The Death List” (renamed “The Hit List” in Ji Mantriji), the Lobby Correspondent is made into the Parliament Correspondent in the Indian version. But the latter is described in exactly the same words as the former: “the political editor [of the paper] or head of the paper’s political staff”. I cannot immediately think of any daily in India which has a Parliament Correspondent, and even if they have one, he or she certainly would not be the political editor or the head of the paper’s political staff.

The Lobby Correspondent in Britain is untranslatable because the Lobby, as Lynn and Jay noted, is “a uniquely British system”. The Central Hall of Parliament comes close to it but is not the same in terms of ambience and conventions because in Britain, a Lobby Correspondent is not allowed to report anything he saw or overheard. This is one of the many unwritten rules by which the mother of democracies is run.

Similarly, Annie’s Bar, where Hacker meets the Lobby Correspondent, has no Indian equivalent. Ji Mantriji shifts the meeting to the bar of the India International Centre which is good, but not good enough, because it is not a known meeting ground for journalists and politicians which is exactly what Annie’s Bar is. In fact, if a leading journalist and a minister were seen huddled together in conversation at the IIC bar, it would raise a few eyebrows and send the rumour mills of Delhi spinning. In Annie’s Bar it would be taken as par for the course.

Moreover, the IIC is not the politicians’, but the bureaucrats’ hunting ground. In fact, from the current crop of ministers, only Jagmohan and Arun Jaitley are seen regularly in IIC and neither is a habitué of the bar.

This is not to cavil. The details and the observations on the surroundings were part of the charm of the programme which is missing in the Indian version. Copying also lands the script into trouble. Suryaprakash Singh, in a straight lift from Yes Minister, is described as a Shadow Minister. This is a bit ridiculous since in India the concept of a shadow cabinet is non-existent.

Adaptation, like translation, is a skill which demands sensitivity to locale and atmosphere. The toughest thing to translate is, of course, humour. Take, for example, that unforgettable scene in “Doing the Honours” where Humphrey tells his minister that he earns a modest wage, relative for instance to Elizabeth Taylor; Hacker points out that there are important differences. “Indeed,” Humphrey retorts, “she did not get a First in Greats.”

In Ji Mantriji, Elizabeth Taylor is replaced by Shah Rukh Khan (not the first filmstar’s name that would come to the mind of a senior civil servant) and Mathur says that Shah Rukh did not top his university. This lacks the snobbishness involved in getting a First in Classics in Oxford, considered to be that university’s most distinguished BA degree.

Stephanians will forgive me, but high tea on the lawns of St Stephen’s (Ji Mantriji) in no way compares with dinner at the high table of Baillie (read Balliol) College (Yes Minister).

The challenge before Indian TV producers was to make a programme inspired by Yes Minister, rather than a copy of it. The latter does not work in India because the humour and the references in Yes Minister are too British. It defies transference to a desi locale. Indira Gandhi would have seen the point. One has to be a bit of a coconut (brown outside white inside) to love the programme with all its nuances.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

From the heart

Prem granth, sort of. Two of the most beautiful faces in the country, Madhuri Dixit and Manisha Koirala, were seen hugging and kissing each other, burying their dirty, old hatchet deep beneath the Indian soil, dil se. The occasion for this yaarana was a party hosted by the Janata Dal (United) leader, KC Tyagi, who was celebrating his “likely” appointment as the Air India director. The anjaam for Tyagi, however, did not turn out to be very pleasant. His mentor, the civil aviation minister, Sharad Yadav, failed him at the last moment. Yadav is not completely a khalnayak though. He may not have succeeded in putting Tyagi on the AI board, but he did manage to have the two actresses end a long khamoshi between them. Manisha denied that she had ever considered Mad “manipulative” or “bitchy”. Madhuri also conceded that in her mann, she was deeply impressed by Manisha’s talent while working with her in Lajja. The Gajagamini also joked about her supposed pregnancy. “It has been seven months since I have been pregnant for two months,” said Madhuri in all seriousness. Has the tezaab between the two really stopped flowing then?

Sitting on the border

And quietly flows the wisdom of netaji Mulayam Singh Yadav. It was evident from the swiftness with which the Samajwadi Party chief changed tack on the Vajpayee-Musharraf meet. Yadav, a full-throated advocate of India’s mahasangh with Pakistan and Bangladesh, had reportedly cried hoarse over the Agra summit, alleging that the whole deal had been masterminded by the US. He ate his words when days later, the Pakistan high commissioner, Qazi Ashraf Jahangir, called on him to convey the wish of Pakistan CEO-now-president of meeting him. Yadav couldn’t be happier. He now has no qualms about the US role, “Angrezon ne hi humko toda, unhi ko jordne diya jaye” (The whites have divided us, now let them unite us). Fair enough. But the sudden change of heart might have been prompted by another logic. UP Muslims, it is said, have not taken very kindly to Yadav’s anti-summit remarks. A majority of the divided families belong to UP, where people are quite naturally keen to see normal relations being restored between the nations. A volte-face to save face?

Trouble at the spot

A battle of wits. For Pakistan, the selection of Agra as the venue is apparently a victory of sorts. South Block mandarins reportedly had wanted to fix the meeting at Jaipur, one time capital of the Rajput rulers, but had to ultimately settle for the Mughal capital. One Kashmiri leader has a different theory. According to him, Agra is famous for one other thing besides the Taj — the mental asylum. Agra therefore has its own message to convey to both Vajpayee and Musharraf — choose between love and insanity.

Story of an outsider

Insiders in the Congress still cannot get rid of the now outsider, PV Narasimha Rao. Messrs Arjun Singh and Natwar Singh, among many more, are apparently extremely peeved by AB Vajpayee’s calling on Rao to discuss the Musharraf visit. They feel that apart from Agra, 10, Janpath must have also been on the agenda. Rao-Sonia relations have nosedived since the former prime minister’s move to appear before the Constitution review panel. Madam had directed all party leaders to boycott the panel fearing its real objective was to introduce new clauses that would debar persons of foreign origin from holding offices as high as that of the prime minister. Treason of the highest order, Rao!

To secure the future

Unpleasant surprise for another former prime minister. Chandra Shekhar returned from Ahmedabad on June 20 to discover that his fleet of cars, the elite SPG guards and the escort cars missing. Puzzled, the man from Ballia headed home only to realize that the day marked the 10th anniversary of his stint at the Centre. Which meant, according to the SPG Act, he was no longer eligible for the privilege. Incidentally, Chandra Shekhar has been placed by the ministry of home affairs in category “X” in terms of threat perception, which is much inferior to categories “Z” and “Y”. In actual terms, it means a lone cop from the Delhi police serving on an eight-hour shift basis. Plain vendetta, the Ballia camp alleges. Shekhar’s plight is being seen as one reason for VP Singh’s return to politics. Being in the public eye is probably one way to ensure SPG security.

The unholy war

Tehelka of a different kind and it is brewing underneath. A mega-fight is on between Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley over their foreign visits. While the Jaitley camp alleges Swaraj’s heading the delegation to Cannes as one pretext to attend to her daughter’s admission in England, the Swaraj faction blame Jaitley for using his US visit to inquire about educational prospects for his daughter. The heat is now turning on a third person, culture minister, Anant Kumar, whose invitation to LK Advani for inaugurating a telescope in the Qutb Minar area is being seen as one way to butter up the Union home minister. There are also other leaders suffering from heartburn for one reason or the other, Pramod Mahajan being one of them. Quite a merry-go-round, ain’t it?

No free lunches for some

A teacher recently turned up at the Fun and Food village at Gurgaon with a hundred children, claiming to be Pratibha Advani, daughter of the home minister. She was provided the best of facilities, free. A later inquiry however revealed that she had duped the management. To escape being jailed for fraud she even met Advani for forgiveness. Advani obliged but the teacher had to pay up for the hospitality at Gurgaon. Poor lady. Some are just not born lucky.

Footnote / When darkness falls

No more dinner diplomacy for the Trinamooli didi. Her party MPs seem to have made a mess of her rather ingenious plan of discussing her party and its politics over phulko luchi and biriyani. Nearly a fortnight after the humiliating defeat of the Trinamool Congress at the Bengal hustings, Mamata Banerjee had apparently announced with much fanfare that she would visit the houses of party MPs, barring that of Ajit Panja of course, and discuss ways to get back at the left. Gastronomy and politics mixed well till it was time to visit the house of MP Akbar Ali Khondakar. Dinner was ready, but didi reportedly did not get even a moment to spare and had ultimately to leave without eating a morsel. Khondakar, in his excitement, had made the visit public by inviting hundreds of his followers, who supposedly made a beeline to greet didi, much to her disappointment. On her return, Mamata is said to have told her close aides that this was the end of all dinner meets. “What will I gain by attending dinner meetings if nothing is discussed about organizational matters?” didi queried. Why forget the good food?    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Sealed with a kiss

Sir — Looks like England can expect many more events connected to Camilla Parker-Bowles’s social work coming its way in the next few years. They will be needed not so much for the welfare of the people for whom they are organized as for the lady for whom they will gradually become indispensable. For public kisses from Prince Charles seem to be the only way Bowles can gain social acceptability as the future queen of England. Never before has royalty appeared so subservient to the masses on whose financial support the House of Windsor now stands. Who knows, we might even have to witness a public referendum to decide on Bowles’s eligibility.

Yours faithfully,
G. Chandrasekhar, Calcutta

Completely off track

Sir — The derailment of the Chennai-bound Mangalore Mail on a bridge over Kadalundi river near Kozhikode and the heavy toll it has taken of lives underline a stark truth — rail travel has become unsafe in India (“Train death trap on bridge”, June 23). This is corroborated by the alarming incidence of accidents every year — 396 in 1997-98, 397 in 1998-99 and 463 in 1999-2000 respectively. The toll had already reached 408 in end January for 2000-01.

These are the result of poor supervision and control that have led to negligence, inefficiency, poor maintenance and rampant corruption in the railways. This should be obvious from the fact that of the 396 railway accidents that occurred in 1997-98, railway staff were to blame for 262. The corresponding figures for 1998-99, 1999-2000 and 2000-01, were 268, 287 and 278 respectively.

Even these figures do not reveal the enormity of the problem. As the high-level safety review committee, headed by the judge, H.R. Khanna, has reportedly pointed out, the railways continue to gloss over the role of the staff in the distortion, suppression and under-reporting of facts related to accidents. There is little accountability.

In its latest report presented to the Lok Sabha, the standing committee on railways is alleged to have expressed displeasure. The ministry has failed to hold an independent inquiry to fix responsibility for the purchase of some faulty rails which have caused a number of accidents. The rail budget for 2000-01 allocated Rs 2,600 crore for track renewal, but only Rs 1,683 crore was apparently spent from it. The allocation in this year’s budget is Rs 2,050 crore. Critical equipment like mobile ultrasonic fault detection machines, wheel impact load detectors are yet to be bought despite recommendations of the chief commissioner of railway safety. Passengers pay the price for such unpardonable lapses.

Yours faithfully,
D.V. Vamsee Krishna, Bhubaneswar

Sir — The Khanna report on railway safety says there are about 262 unsafe bridges which need an immediate allocation of Rs 650 crore. Either the bridges should be repaired or proper instructions given to the trains while they are crossing them. There should be speed restrictions, especially since trains carry enormous loads.

Yours faithfully,
S.S. Almal, Calcutta

Sailing through

Sir — The report, “SAIL salary” (June 15) is both disturbing and humiliating for the Steel Authority of India Limited executives. The way the company’s executives are performing, given the present market scenario, is praiseworthy. The success in cost curtailment and in the improving of SAIL’s financial performance are not the only evidence of the sincerity of the executives, but also the fact that they show their fighting spirit in difficult times.

SAIL executives are running one of the best integrated steel plants in India. The present financial performance of SAIL is mainly due to the unrestricted dumping of steel, gradual increase in input costs, market sluggishness, faulty management decisions in the past and wrong investment of borrowed money. The present officers are aware of the hurdles ahead and are doing their best to come out of the red. SAIL has contributed heavily to the national exchequer and will continue to do so. The Central government is aware of the internal problems and has, by acting on the Mohan committee recommendations, fulfilled a long due duty.

Yours faithfully
K.R. Mandal, Durgapur

Sir — SAIL executives might have deserved a pay hike. But will the management concede as easily to a salary hike for the rest of the staff?

Yours faithfully,
S. Kamath, Calcutta

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