Editorial / On the gravy train
Totems of nationhood
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

The colloquialism that there is no such thing as a free lunch obviously does not hold true for members of parliament in India. The recent hike in the salary and perquisites of MPs is the object of popular resentment because there is the perception that most MPs do not quite deserve the benefits they receive. This poor view of the elected representatives of the people has been fortified by the glimpse of parliamentary proceedings captured by television cameras. Empty benches, on both Treasury and opposition sides, the sight of MPs who have nodded off during a debate, the utter lack of decorum, and the impoverished nature of the exchanges have all combined to convey the impression that MPs are onto a very good thing and that for five years, they are accountable to nobody. There are MPs who take their parliamentary duties seriously, and thus cannot be accused of absenteeism, but they are more the exceptions than the rule. There is, of course, the question of active participation, which is more important than a token presence in Parliament. Proceedings in Parliament are dominated by a handful of usual speakers; the large majority of legislators remains silent. The latter are galvanized into action when they have to vote or when they have to disrupt Parliament under some pretext.

The resentment would not have existed if the MPs were seen to be effectively carrying out their responsibilities. In an overall economic situation of rising costs, representatives of the people also deserve to be paid more. The operative word is “deserve”. Higher salaries and perquisites, across professions, are being related to performance and accountability. Neither of these two conditions prevails in the case of Indian MPs. For the duration of an MP’s term, there is no system of evaluation of his performance; he is also not accountable to anybody, not even to the party to which he belongs, as long as he obeys the whip. There are no checks to see if the money he receives as constituency allowance is spent on constituency work. There are also no safeguards against the abuse of hidden benefits like cooking gas and telephone connections. The MPs appear to the rest of society as a privileged lot who have done precious little to merit the largesse they receive from the national exchequer. Unfortunately, the MPs have only themselves to blame for this public perception of their activities. The nonchalance of the lawmakers has led to them being seen as law unto themselves.

The announcement about the hike in salaries and perquisites could not have been worse timed. The Indian exchequer is in no position to bear this annual burden of nearly Rs 24 crore. There are no indications about how this extra money is to be raised. Drains of this kind which are mostly driven by political pressure and vested interests run the risk of pushing the fiscal deficit out of control. With industrial production on the down turn and economic reforms on the backburner, the economy cannot afford any kind of macroeconomic imbalance. The economy is both in a perilous and a parlous state. It can ill afford to pamper underworked parliamentarians.


Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine is not the only monument that disturbs people. The Red Fort, from whose ramparts Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke on Wednesday, has also been the cause of envy and acrimony.

The difference lies in how Indians and the Japanese view the two edifices, August 15 being a day of remembrance for both. While the shrine is gaining in importance among the Japanese who feel the need for a focus of resurgent nationalism, I doubt if Indians invest the fort with any meaning. What the historian, Jim Masselos, called “the potency in the symbolism of the Red Fort and its setting” signifying “the flowering of an imperial state system that was indigenous and therefore national” cuts little ice. It is just a convenient rostrum. With much of the savour gone out of Independence Day celebrations, India’s purposeless drift can do without a visible embodiment of national glory.

However, Shah Jehan’s great palace-fortress was a prop for the pretentious ceremonial of what is now fashionably called the raj. And seeing themselves as the Mughal dynasty’s true heirs, Pakistanis gnash their teeth every time an Indian prime minister appears on its ramparts.

Indians were not always so indifferent to the fort’s majesty. Calcutta buses in my childhood displayed coloured prints of the tricolour floating over the Red Fort, while Gandhi, Nehru and Subhas Bose — all impossibly rosy-cheeked — beamed beatifically among billowing clouds. We collected Azad Hind notes portraying the fort. Destination “Dilli Chalo” was not Parliament House or Rashtrapati Bhavan but the Red Fort whose grandeur exceeded the Kremlin’s. In his first speech from there, Nehru lamented that though Bose had “sacrificed and suffered” to raise the tricolour abroad, “when the day came for hoisting it on the Red Fort, he was not there to see his dream fulfilled”.

That was August 16, 1947, and the event outraged Pakistanis and their Indian backers. A Muslim magistrate in Delhi thought the bandstand at Connaught Place good enough for the “national flag of Hindustan”. If India’s flag flew on the Red Fort, so should Pakistan’s, with the fort jointly controlled by both countries, demanded a correspondent in Dawn. The paper screamed editorially against “petty-minded jubilation by the Hindus under the mistaken impression that by hoisting the flag of their state on the seat of power of ancient Muslim kings, they have somehow stretched a spiteful hand back into the historic past and dimmed the imperishable glory of Muslim rule”.

Begum Shaista Ikramullah and Chaudhuri Khaliquzzaman extended possessiveness to all Delhi. Not long afterwards, Pakistan gave Princess Elizabeth an ivory model of the Taj Mahal and a tiger skin as wedding gifts, ignoring Lord Mountbatten’s reminder that the Taj Mahal and most of the subcontinent’s tigers were in India. Was it a deliberate snub, therefore, or plain tactlessness that forced Pervez Musharraf to gaze on the Taj Mahal from every window of his hotel suite?

Seeking a past, Pakistan felt robbed by geography. Equally sensitive to the value of symbolism, the British were anxious to drive the House of Timur out of the Red Fort even before 1857. The fort became the titular centre of revolt; the setting for “redressing the balance of justice”, as Masselos put it. It had, therefore, to witness the utter humiliation of the most exalted symbol of revolt. And so Bahadur Shah was put on trial in his own diwan-i-khas. For good measure, the commissioners representing Victoria sat on the dais where the emperor’s throne had stood, with the last Mughal, referred to as “the Prisoner”, below it.

In its dying throes, the viceregal regime decided on one last fling of power by staging the trial of three Indian National Army officers in the Red Fort. In between, they tried to drape some of the glory of the Mughals on the secretary of state for India who sat not far from the ostentatious Durbar Court in London’s old India Office. The oak-panelled walls of his chamber were decorated with miniatures looted from the Red Fort.

Lutyens’s Delhi was Britain’s eventual answer to Mughal magnificence. Nevertheless, Nehru had to foil Victoria’s great granddaughter in her ambition to play hostess in the diwan-i-khas. It would be misunderstood, he explained, knowing that a measure of “misunderstanding” would not have been unwelcome to his royal guest. Another grab at imperial recreation was thwarted when the queen had to present Mother Teresa with a medal on Rashtrapati Bhavan’s lawn instead of the Asoka Hall.

After Japan surrendered, the occupying Americans ordered the keepers of the Yasukuni shrine, dedicated to those who died for the Meiji restoration of 1868, to mutilate the two bronze lanterns in front of the main altar which are engraved with the figures of Japanese military heroes and scenes of celebrated battles. The objection was that among the two and a half million souls commemorated were those of men who massacred civilians in Nanking and Manila, experimented on human beings in Manchuria, practised cannibalism in Malaya, mobilized “comfort women” in Korea and tortured prisoners of war in Java. The Shinto priests dutifully slapped cement on the raised designs on the lanterns, but easily peeled it off in 1957, nine years after Hirohito resumed his annual pilgrimages to the shrine.

Not surprisingly, India’s friendly and hospitable ambassador just could not understand why I wanted to see Yasukuni when visiting Japan years ago. There was nothing there, he repeated; there were so many other, more spectacular, creations to feast my eyes on during a short stay. He was a career diplomat whose India of the latest constructs allowed no space for concept, sentiment or the past.

This was by no means my first encounter with the new class of successful urban Indians who briskly dismiss everything that is intangible and unrelated to prospects and promotion. A gubernatorial aide in Calcutta’s Raj Bhavan was once astonished at my interest in Tipoo Sultan’s masnad. “It’s a crumbling old thing, yaar, full of dust!” exclaimed the bright young naval officer. Similarly, India’s excellency saw the Yasukuni shrine as only a grey building of no great antiquity and not even ornate architecture.

The Japanese deliberately play down its significance when they compare Yasukuni to the Cenotaph in London or the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. That is their defence against Western disapproval. For all that it is only 132 years old, the shrine is steeped in myth and mysticism. It embodies the victory of the imperial order over the shogunate, the spirit of state Shintoism and the military cult with the emperor as its political figurehead.

Emperor, Shintoism and militarism have lost much of their force. But in a land where everything is raised to ritual and where, as a Japanese author wrote, people “live with the dead”, politicians like the prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, would not have bowed before the altar if Yasukuni did not still represent something. Even the Buddhist priest who the other day petitioned the shrine’s keepers (in vain) to erase his dead father’s name from among the revered souls obviously believed in the shrine’s potency. The removal would have been meaningless otherwise.

Yasukuni stands for national revival. It is an architectural manifestation of “The Japan That Can Say No”, the title of Shintaro Ishihara’s sensationally defiant book. It is past, present and future woven into Japan’s history, emblematic of its aspirations. Nations that achieve greatness revere totems of nationhood.

Indians do not live with the dead or seek to convey meaning through subtle symbols. There are no national ikons. We ceased to respect Mughal traditions and creations when we internalized them. Mahavir Tyagi was voted down in 1947 when he proposed the Red Fort as the most appropriate site for the transfer of power ceremonies. Shades of Kipling’s bandar-log, his Congress colleagues much preferred to pirouette in the halls where the sahibs had ruled. That was the only reality they venerated.



Show down

A striptease that hasn’t pleased too many. The bare-all, dare-all by DMK MP, Thiru Vetriselvan, in Parliament not only brought marauding AIADMK MPs to the NDA benches, it also left saffron MPs fuming. They think it was not so much the government’s failure to discipline an ally (as the opposition sees it) as the prime minister’s inability to ensure better conduct by DMK parliamentarians. Many were so livid that they reportedly complained to their senior BJP leaders about what they saw as AB Vajpayee lending himself on a platter to DMK blackmail. Because Vajpayee has been piling into them for some time about party discipline, saffronites allege the episode meant that the onus for maintaining parliamentary discipline was only for the BJP MPs to follow, not the other allies who could, presumably, make the house an “extension of the Marina Beach in Chennai”. That Vajpayee is mollycoddling the allies was also evident, many saffronwallahs believe, in the way Digvijay Singh of the Samata Party was given back his old railways portfolio while BJP leaders were left sucking their thumbs. Which only meant ghar ka murgi dal barabar. Worse, the murgis are coming home to roost.

Brief assessment

Never mind the stock exchange crashes, the numerous financial scandals or the fact that the Indian farmer and manufacturer might become an endangered species soon, we should be happy our finance minister’s confidence is growing with every passing day. The other day he was in Mumbai to address the creme de la creme of the country’s corporate world in connection with the annual awards for excellence instituted by a financial daily. Sinha spoke extempore, unlike the awardees who read from prepared scripts. When a leading industrialist, who had won the award, announced in his acceptance speech that the motto of his group was the e-word, “excellence”, Sinha pointed out that he wished one other e-word was included in the curriculum — ethics. Apt riposte to an aggressive and arrogant industrial house that is alleged to have paid no heed to either ethical or legal compunctions while climbing the corporate ladder. But who’ll size Sinha up?

What goes with the news?

God save Ashok Gehlot, Rajasthan’s chief minister. He has incurred the wrath of the Congress president for his apparent failure to curb communal violence in the state. Although Gehlot insists that it is his political rival, the BJP that is, which is behind all the mess, madam is in no mood to listen. She is supposed to have received reports that the Samajwadi Party is using the Urdu press in Uttar Pradesh to show that the Quran is being defiled and mosques being burnt in “Sonia administered Rajasthan”. And there are invariably madam’s photographs to embellish the news.

Seeking another refuge

Before the world collapsed on Prafulla Mahanta, he seems to have tried to escape to Goa. Plagued by reports about his secret marriage with a state secretariat clerk which upset his wife, Mahanta, it is rumoured, had approached the home ministry with a request. He wanted to be made the governor of Goa. Wife Jayashree apparently put a spanner in the works. In a swift move she made it clear that it would be risky to have Mahanta as the governor of a place as idyllic and romantic as Goa. Point noted. She apparently also had another suggestion: that she be made the governor of Uttaranchal so that she could be close to her children studying in one of the region’s famous hill stations. Each to one’s own wishes.

Glory be to the ministers

Both the senior and junior ministers for telecommunications are known to be publicity sharks. They allegedly spend crores on advertisements just to see their pictures splashed in newspapers. A postage stamp was recently released in the memory of the late DP Mishra, father of the PM’s principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra. The advertisement for the release carried the photographs of both Ram Vilas Paswan and Tapan Sikdar, that of DP was missing. Brajesh acolytes apparently complained to Vajpayee, who took the matter up with the ministers. This time, when the advertisements on the Independence Day were released to the directorate of advertising and visual publicity, officials are reported to have been categorically instructed that the largest photograph would be that of the PM, the second of Paswan and the smallest of Sikdar. Cut down to size?

Too many in one hand

More problems for AB. Not everyone is happy with the appointing of NRIs as ambassadors, as in the US. The new Indian ambassador to the US is a friend of the BJP overseas and has direct access to Jhandewalan. Similar appointments for Canada and the UK are apparently in the offing. A formal protest has been lodged with Jaswant Singh, but since he too is trying to get friendly with Jhandewalan, it is unlikely there will be earth-shattering changes. Meanwhile, the saffronites will soon have to do something about the race for supremacy between two Muslim ministers — Shahnawaz Hussain and Omar Abdullah. Omar is on higher ground because of his family ties. He is also trying to endear himself to the BJP, the left and Congress leaderships. And Hussain, from Kishangunj, the largest Muslim constituency, is in the good books of the BJP leadership. But if Vajpayee goes, Hussain may find the going less smooth. Advantage Omar, anyway.

Only if he had been present

Trouble-shooter for the NDA, Pramod Mahajan, was told by a backbencher that had he been around, the battles of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata would not have happened. Mahajan however is still wondering if it was meant to be a compliment of sorts.

Footnote /To catch falling tears

Enter, the third star. If Aamir Khan and Akshaye Khanna have been getting rave reviews for their performances in the newly released Dil Chahta Hai, can Saif Ali Khan be far behind in receiving adulation? The third of the bum chums in the film, Khan, is reportedly being flooded with flattering phone calls (at last, one might add). He has confessed that he had almost turned down the role when first offered and that he is much relieved that better sense prevailed and he changed his mind about the film. Back home in Delhi, Mom Sharmila Tagore, (who, after two grandchildren, is still believed to be having problems about accepting Amrita Singh as bahu) was a special invitee to the film preview arranged for the president. After the film was over, Sharmila could hardly hold back her tears. Later, she is supposed to have written a letter congratulating the debutant director, Farhan Akhtar, and praising his understanding of relationships at such a young age. Incidentally, Farhan’s step-mom, Shabana Azmi, is also reported to have shed tears after seeing the film. Could three lads have such devastating effects?    


And there lies the difference

Sir — The news report, “Chennai rivals trade rally blows” (Aug 14), reminded me of the race riot that broke out in Bradford, England in July. The policemen in Bradford handling the rioters were equipped with only riot shields and batons. They were repeatedly attacked with crossbows, sledge hammers, flares and petrol bombs. Although almost120 policemen were injured and some even received head wounds, they did not fire on the crowd. They faced the rioters with humanity, as one should erring fellow citizens. While policemen in the United Kingdom want water cannons to face rioters, ours want lethal weapons. This speaks volumes about the difference in attitude between the police in India and in the UK.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Dutta, Calcutta

Woefully to school

Sir — It was shocking to read the news report, “Xavier’s on collision course” (Aug 11). It is regrettable that the Burdwan administration and the principal of St. Xavier’s school have now been pitted against each other. The principal issued letters to guardians pleading helplessness in the matter of providing transport to the children. This has not gone down well with the administration.

It is quite possible that the controversy erupted because the representatives of the district magistrate had approached the school for the admission of the district magistrate’s under-aged daughter.

It is too big a coincidence that the regional transport authorities woke up to the fact that the school’s papers regarding its buses were not correct, barely a few days after this incident. The buses were seized and this has inconvenienced the students.

Recently, there have been reports that Guru Nanak Mission school buses carrying students of St. Xavier’s were also seized. This clearly points to vindictiveness. Unless the truth is found, this might encourage the manipulation of educational institutions by the state administration.

Yours faithfully,
Chandan Soren, Burdwan

Sir — What is happening to St Xavier’s school in Burdwan is both alarming and unfortunate. It is a glaring example of the high-handedness of the district magistrate of Burdwan.

If the principal’s story is true, then he had every right to turn down the demand made by the district magistrate that his three-and-a-half year old daughter be admitted into a class of four-year-old children. The government of West Bengal should check the misuse of power if it has taken place. The educational system in West Bengal is in a bad enough condition without undue interference making it worse.

Yours faithfully,
Mohanlal Sarkar, Budge Budge

Sir — The fracas between St Xavier’s, Burdwan and the district administration has once again brought to the forefront the problem of public offices in our country being blatantly used for private privileges. Not only, it seems, has the district magistrate asked for the admission of his daughter into a class she is too young for, but he is apparently also exerting pressure indirectly after being denied.

The number of people in official positions and the powers they have, give them the idea that they are more privileged than others. Some make a habit of pulling strings to get work done. They need to be punished for the misuse of power. It is the common man — in this case the students and their parents — who ultimately end up paying for the misdeeds of these people.

Yours faithfully,
P. Thomas Rajan, Durgapur

Priced just right

Sir — The cost of generating power should be cheaper in the United States than in India because of higher technology, cheaper fuel, lower manpower, better load curve, and so on. Except for the Dabhol Power Company or Enron, power generation costs in India are within two to three rupees per kilo watt hours. Recently, the US power generation costs shot up to six times this amount.

Currently, with the energy regulator commission coming into position, rise in power tariff is under quasi-judicial scrutiny and any abnormal price hike is ruled out. It seems we have a better mechanism here than one of the most advanced countries in the world. There should be an inbuilt system to correct the trend of raising the price of power according to the power situation, since an excessive price rise will be unbearable to most.

Yours faithfully,
C.R. Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

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