Editorial / Absolute power
Forgotten and forgiven
This above all / The art of being outspoken
People / Rekha
Letters to the editor

A weak beginning is often a misleading omen for the future. When Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister in 1998, he, like Indira Gandhi in 1966, did not operate from a position of strength. He was, or so the quip went, the second among equals. The first being the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh who, in fact, had blocked the appointment of Mr Jaswant Singh as minister despite Mr Vajpayee’s wishes. Today, three years and an election later, Mr Vajpayee can draw satisfaction from the fact that he towers over his contemporaries and is able to despatch to exile those that oppose him. Mr Vajpayee is entrenched as primus inter pares, and the head of the RSS, Mr K.S. Sudarshan, banished to Nagpur, has learnt to his cost that Mr Vajpayee is not a candidate for being a puppet on a string.

One recalls also the instance of Mr K.N. Govindacharya, who had the temerity to ridicule Mr Vajpayee as a mere mask of the sangh parivar. Where is Mr Govindacharya now? Last reports suggest that he is around somewhere perhaps in deep contemplation. His presence or absence no longer has any relevance to Indian politics. There is the case of Mr L.K. Advani, who occasionally allows himself to be projected as a pretender to prime ministership. Mr Vajpayee put him in his place when he announced in the Lok Sabha that Mr Advani had hovered on the fringes of the Agra summit trying to find out what Mr Vajpayee and Mr Pervez Musharraf were talking about behind closed doors. Mr Vajpayee, when he began his prime ministerial tenure, was not born to political strength. But once he was thrust into political power, through sheer skill and dexterity, went on to achieve political strength.

Mr Vajpayee’s authority is evident not only in the manner in which he deals with rivals and detractors. It is manifest in the way he imposes his will on the government. He very much has his way in crucial matters. The re-entry of Ms Mamata Banerjee into the National Democratic Alliance was not without opposition, even Mr Advani had misgivings. Disapproval and dissent became silent as soon as the prime minister’s intentions were known. These displays of authority by the prime minister are remarkable for two reasons. First, they are always visible when there is talk that the prime minister is an old man who has lost his marbles. Mr Vajpayee chooses such conjunctures to assert his control. Second, such assertions occur despite the gimcrack coalition Mr Vajpayee leads. The tensions within the coalition do not affect the strength of Mr Vajpayee’s control.

Analysts will have to ponder the basis of this unchallenged position Mr Vajpayee enjoys. That he is indispensable to the NDA is too facile an explanation. That he is the only face of the Bharatiya Janata Party which Indian voters are prone to accept is also another part and pat explanation. It is related to the consummate ease with which Mr Vajpayee plays the political game. It is smooth and occasionally a thing of terrible beauty. This is a quality that is both intangible and impossible to pin down. It makes Mr Vajpayee a dangerous foe and a commanding leader.


Mamata Banerjee’s return to the National Democratic Alliance and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s shrewd promise regarding the Ramjanmabhoomi controversy have answered the question that Time posed five months ago, “Will tehelka.com become the first website in history to unseat a prime minister and bring down a national government?” The reply is a resounding No.

A second — and more relevant — question that the magazine did not ask, possibly because it had no illusions about the answer, is, Will the televised exposé help to clean up the administration? As with the question of political change, the reply must again — and more sadly — be in the negative. All will be forgotten and forgiven once the nine days’ wonder blows over.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in what Vajpayee then called a “wake-up call”. Even Bangaru Laxman’s standing among his colleagues has suffered no damage. Whether or not he is party chief, he would not have been in Durban this week leading India’s delegation to the United Nations conference on racism if Vajpayee did not wish the world to know that caught red-handed or not, Laxman continues to enjoy his trust. Of course, George Fernandes is still not in the cabinet but that is his decision since there was nothing in the tapes to implicate him. On the contrary, an explicit reference to his honesty may have been deleted. The debate has shifted from clean and transparent government to the titillating question of using women to entice men, and whether or not it constitutes an offence under the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act. The spotlight is less on the political and bureaucratic establishment — if it ever was — than on Tarun Tejpal and his colleagues. They are the stars of the show.

True, this time round not everyone may hail them as heroic crusaders for clean government. Some might even describe them as dubious dabblers in sleaze. But this does not invite moral obloquy in our society. They still enjoy stellar status. They speak of harassment, and probably blame official machinations for any change in public perception. It has been said that the sole purpose of the Venkatswami commission and home ministry inquiry is to suppress the allegations.

Investigative journalism has gripped the popular imagination ever since the film, All the President’s Men, bestowed immortality on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. It inspired journalists worldwide to emulate the thrilling cinematic depictions of those two young Washington Post reporters and brought the media’s ethics, composition and methods into the public domain. Less attention is given, however, to its reliance on motivated leaks and the role of furtive characters (Deep Throat’s identity in the Watergate film is still the subject of speculation) who spill the beans. For, however meritorious investigative journalism might be, there has never yet been a scoop that has not served the hidden interests of someone in authority. It strikes me as curious that no one has mentioned leaks or an Indian Deep Throat in the present controversy.

Be that as it may, all this is quite separate from what is — or should be — the central point of the Tehelka operation. Catching a number of politicians, military officers and others in flagrante delicto, as it were, was certainly an achievement, but the only justification would have been a purpose that is bigger than temporary excitement or a conviction or two. If clean administration were the end, it would have been served better by exposing malpractices in some area that is of everyday concern. The purchase of night-vision goggles for the military hardly falls in that category.

It lies in the realm of exotica. Not in the world of official arrogance, inefficiency, negligence and greed with which we must put up every day. If you wish to be spared power cuts and have the means, you buy a generator. But telephone lines have to be kept working and garbage removed, property assessments checked and income tax returns cleared. Running a car means interaction with a barrage of functionaries; buying a flat involves the municipal and judicial authorities. Building permission can be a nightmare.

No one gives much thought any longer to abuses that riddle these humdrum matters of daily life where vice has established its powerful tentacles. The sums at stake may be small in comparison to the wads of notes Tehelka handed over, but they are a heavy burden on middle-class pockets. Corruption naturally improves in size and sophistication the higher you climb. Maintenance of essential installations is shoddy because contractors make good their outlay in obtaining contracts; having bought their jobs dearly, the chairmen of public sector undertakings then drive their units into deficit; every foreign collaboration is a source of wealth to the consenting authorities; and heaven knows how many nefarious ends the menace of so-called public interest litigation panders to. Many law courts are cesspools. If civil servants do not themselves make money, they do not jeopardize their careers by obstructing their political masters.

It would have been different if Tehelka had exposed a real threat to security. But we cannot say on the falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus principle that the willingness of a few politicians and officers to be suborned by a fictitious British firm means that the Indian army buys, say, vital tanks and fighter jets only for private profit. Even the Bofors case revealed protracted procedures, layers of scrutiny and the involvement of several authorities. Jaswant Singh, as Fernandes’s successor, complains of 32 steps and inordinate delays in every purchase. That is not to play down the importance of night-vision goggles. And certainly not of defence. It is only to advise against jumping to rash conclusions.

The pyramid rises from the humble but firm base of “speed money” without which nothing moves at the bottom. Today, a domestic servant or labourer at least in eastern India dares not risk the post office to send his savings back to the village. The money may eventually reach its destination, but after a long time during which it is put to use by the men entrusted with its delivery. To avoid that delay and uncertainty, more and more people who work away from their homes prefer informal and unofficial means of remittance to the once popular money order.

It would not be worth the while of the authors of an elaborate sting operation to focus on mundane abuses that distort routine procedures and affect lowly people. Tehelka’s first major exposé of corruption in the cricketing establishment sparkled with the glamour of infotainment. Television audiences loved seeing their idols tumble in the dust. Even the criminal investigation that P.V. Narasimha Rao faces and the reopened inquiry against Sukh Ram cater to a similar craving. Large sums of money, high profile accused, political intrigue and secret procedures make for sensational drama.

Truth to tell, neither case has much bearing on general welfare. If anything, it can be argued that India would have been a much poorer place if Narasimha Rao’s government had been defeated, and that Jharkand Mukti Morcha members of parliament deserve to be commended and not condemned. But like media ethics, that, too, is another matter. So are the more violent expressions of lawlessness — custodial deaths, faked encounters, contract killings, organized rape, private armies and the criminalization of politics — that, too, are a part of the scene.

What Tehelka unearthed also belongs to the periphery. Of course, people are talking about it; that is the whole purpose of television. Of course, we would like the administration to be cleansed. But public memory is short and even Vajpayee no longer sees any need for a wake-up call. The many who have developed a vested interest in corruption can heave a sigh of relief. Exposure is an end in itself in the showbiz that is modern media. It will be back to business-as-usual once the tamasha is over.


For many years when I was young and believed in resolutions to improve myself, my New Year’s resolve used to be not to run people down behind their backs. I was in the habit of doing so and hated myself afterwards. Whatever I said somehow got known to the person I had maligned. When confronted by him or her, I had to deny what I had said and had reason to feel low in my self-estimation. I was able to check myself from indulging in backchatting for a few days. I resumed the bad habit but somehow it got lesser and lesser on its own. I came to realize the truth of Guru Nanak’s admonition:

Nanak, phikka boleeai

Tan man plukka hoi

(Nanak, if you speak ill of the people/ Your body and mind will fall sick.)

The Guru’s words can also be interpreted to apply to saying nasty things to people to their faces. Many people make a point to say hurtful things to others and justify doing so. When in return they get more than they gave, there is a slanging match in which both participants get hurt while others enjoy the spectacle.

Another of my annual resolutions was that no matter how grave the provocation, I would not lose my temper. My father had a short temper; his father was even more ill-tempered. His pet word for me was bharwah(pimp) and since I went to a school which had lady teachers, rann mureed — disciple of a slut. My father never used bad language but being over-worked, he was impatient and inclined to snap at everyone. We were terrified of him and kept out of his way as much as we could. In the later years of his life, he mellowed a great deal and I looked forward to joining him in the evenings for a sundowner. However, I could never get over my allergy towards people with short tempers. Incidents of people snubbing me still rankle in my mind. I have no forgiveness. Once somebody loses his temper with me, I write them off forever and no amount of their trying to make amends makes any difference in my attitude towards them.

According to our ancient scriptures, Hindu and Sikh, krodh (anger) is as serious a shortcoming as kama (lust), lobh (greed), moh (self-love) and ahankaar (arrogance). They exhort us to overcome them in order to achieve moksha (salvation). They do not tell us how we go about getting the better of them. As far as anger is concerned, people have their own formulas: “When roused to anger, count ten before answering;” or “swallow the insult and keep your mouth shut”. There is no doubt that a person who loses his cool, loses the argument. Another school of thought is that it is better to let off steam and get it over with because if you contain your anger, your blood pressure will rise and you may get peptic ulcers. I have evolved my own formula to get anger out of my system. I say nothing to the person who has insulted or snubbed me but when I narrate the incident to my friends later, I let loose a torrent of the choicest abuse in Punjabi and Hindustani — I have a large repertoire of filthy words in four languages — and purge myself of anger. I even feel exhilarated for having scored over my traducer by saying nothing to him or her and cleanse my system by letting out all the accumulated venom in front of third parties who thoroughly enjoy my outburst.

Season of ailments

With the onset of the summer monsoon came mosquitoes and dengue flies ushering in malaria and dengue fever. Since drinking water also gets polluted there is an outbreak of cholera, intestinal disorders and unnamed water-borne diseases. Sore throats, colds and cough afflict those who are prone to them. Doctors and chemists make more money than they do at any other time of the year. Every third person you know is down with something or the other. Some ailments are easy to diagnose.

Malaria starts with fits of shivering followed by high fever and sweating. Dengue fever is accompanied by aches and pains. Cholera with vomiting and loose motions. There are also subtle variations of these illnesses which are harder to diagnose. You are put through various tests: blood, sputum, urine and so on. When nothing yields a positive clue, doctors wisely shake their heads and pronounce “viral fever” — whatever that means. In old times we used to call it miyadi bukhaar (which would run itscourse in a week or ten days) with or without medication. Now they call it viral and prescribe antibiotics which make you feel worse without shortening the miyaad (period) by even a day.

People who believe in self-medication for the monsoon ailments, dispense with doctors and chemists. In my younger days, I knew young men who believed in sweating out mild fevers with vigorous exercise. In some cases it worked, in others their condition got worse. There were others who believed the best cure was to starve yourself, on the presumption that colds and fevers flourished on the food you ate. Harivansh Rai Bachchan in his auto-biography, In the Afternoon of Time, has this to say on the subject:

“I was never one to make a fuss over being unwell; in fact, I was always quite firm with illnesses. I read in one of Gandhiji’s essays that to be ill is blameworthy; and if we cannot look after the body we have been given, then we are indeed at fault. I took this argument one stage further and felt that illness deserved punishment. Whenever I had any minor ailment such as a cold, a cough, or a headache, I would make myself work all the harder; people who worked for a living had no right to fall ill; illness was the wicked indulgence of the wealthy, and the poor should keep out of its clutches.

I remember going out to my evening tuitions with a raging fever, when the heat within me would make me teach with even greater zeal; when I was writing, I would find a high fever a catalyst and an inspiration (Kipling too said that he wrote good stories when feverish), while a minor temperature would have no effect on the normal way I did things. If someone touched me and said I had a fever, I would reply: ‘Yes, I have a fever, and I have me too!’ ”

A president with a difference

“General Musharraf, General Musharraf

what have you done?

“I have made myself president as I’m the

son of a gun.

But General Musharraf, General

Musharraf we’ll have

to give you a 21-gun salute!

Ya Allah! I became president because my

begum says,

“The boom of guns will sound very cute.”

(Contributed by : R.E. Canteenwala, Lucknow)

Not so brainless after all

Ninety-year-old Banta’s grandfather went into a coma and was taken to a government hospital. All of Banta’s relatives and friends thronged the hospital corridors and pestered the head surgeon with questions. The doctor lost his temper and shouted at them: “You are a brainless lot. Take your old man to another hospital for treatment.”

Banta was very put out and took his bapu to a private hospital where he died. The family decided to give him a grand funeral led by a band and a party of singers. Someone accosted Banta and asked him why they were celebrating his bapu’s death instead of mourning over it. Replied Banta: “that fool of a government doctor called all of us brainless. Bapu proved him wrong. He died of a brain tumour.”

(Contributed by Madan Gupta, Spatu, Chandigarh)



Age Wither

The poet John Keats had famously observed that a thing of beauty is a joy for ever. He hadn’t met the actress Rekha, but those lines from Endymion could well have been written for the ageing-but-still-going-strong Bollywood actress.

That Rekha has no immediate plans of hanging up her vanity case was never more evident than at a do at a five-star hotel in the capital the other day. Raj Kumar Santoshi’s Lajja — a film involving so many women that the crew could organise its own kitty party — had its world premiere in New Delhi. And among those who flew down to Delhi to grace the occasion was Rekha.

Lustrous hair all nicely waved, eyes beautifully lined and lips glossed like a mirror, Rekha stood in the centre of the room as the camera flashlights kept popping. A matron called Madhuri Nene was there as well, as was a has-been called Monisha Koirala. But the star of the evening, clearly, was the south Indian siren, still sultry after all these years. “Lajja is me and I am Lajja,” Rekha said, in a context that wasn’t immediately clear. But who cared?

The film has been stayed by a Chennai court for three days, apparently because the producers had clean forgotten to pay their creditors. But the release of the film is eagerly awaited in some other quarters. For Rekha’s fan club is legion.

Rekha plays the role of a poor Dalit woman called Ramdulari — raped and beaten up because her son was in love with an upper-caste woman. Each of the four women protagonists in the film — including Rekha — is named after Sita, the paragon of womanly virtue.

That’s somewhat ironical, for Rekha has never been a Sita. Unlike Sita’s, her origins were not just humble, but dark and sleazy. And unlike Sita, Rekha has managed to brush off societal opprobrium with considerable elan.

The Rekha enigma is an all-abiding one. In her first couple of films, she was an over-developed and mustachioed little woman with an accent so thick that it could only be tackled with a battle-axe. Rekha once said that Naveen Nischol, the co-star of her first Hindi film, Sawan Bhadon, was “ready to puke’’ when he first saw her. “Itni kaali aur itni moti (so dark and so fat)!’’ But even then, if her salivating fans are to be believed, there was some magic in the podgy Rekha.

The transformation happened suddenly. One day she had thunder thighs and a 33-inch waist. The next day, she was Just So: svelte, fairer in complexion by several degrees and immaculately made up with lips coloured and parted just right.

It is said — but never confirmed, nor denied — that the man behind her metamorphosis was Amitabh Bachchan, with whom the actress was said to have enjoyed a long and abiding relationship. Old timers believe that Bachchan took her under his wing, and transformed her from a hirsute duckling to an elegant swan.

The best thing about Rekha is that she continues to be an elegant swan. Her contemporaries are all dandling their grandchildren on their knees, but Rekha continues to dominate magazine covers with oomph and gloss. “Rekha represents the Eternal Seductress. She is the Divine Enchantress,” says writer Shobha De, a former editor of the film magazine Stardust. “One glance is all it takes. One look. One pout. One smile.”

The actress, clearly, has worked hard at keeping the image going. She has eight glasses of water first thing in the morning. She swears by the therapeutic effect of gram flour, shikakai and oil massages and tries to go to bed by eight in the evening. Very seldom does she party after ten. “What’s the big idea in having a terrible hang-over or puffy eyes the next day? I’m far more excited over seeing a new leaf bursting out of my bonsai. That’s my kind of celebration.”

At 44 (if she was really 13 when she acted in Sawan Bhadon) or 49 (if she was born, as some claim, in 1952), Rekha has reasons to celebrate anything that makes her happy. Her early life, after all, wasn’t quite a bed of roses. Her father was the popular Tamil film actor, Gemini Ganesan, and her mother, a small-time actress called Pushpavalli. The uncharitable say the two were never married, others say she was one of his many wives. But Gemini did not acknowledge his daughter, called Bhanurekha. It is said that the young Rekha was sexually abused through her childhood and teens as she tried to get into the big bad world of cinema.

Her personal life has not been a happy one either. She had a short-lived marriage with the actor, Vinod Mehra, and a shorter-lived one with industrialist Mukesh Aggarwal — who ended both his marriage and his life by hanging himself with one of Rekha’s dupattas.

Professionally, Rekha has been given her due. The new, improved Rekha was a successful actress. Her best performance, till date, was that of a courtesan in Muzaffar Ali’s period film, Umrao Jaan.

Someone once said that heroines don’t retire, they just tire. The nice thing about Rekha is that three decades after she first emerged as a heroine, she is still going strong. She continues to act in mediocre films, but every Rekha film is hailed as a comeback. “I must be the most in-demand comeback artiste,” she said in an interview about the many films that are billed as the vehicle that seeks to bring Rekha back.

The fact is, she never went anywhere. The poet Alfred Tennyson hadn’t met Rekha either. But his oft-quoted line, “For men may come and men may go, but I go on for ever,” could well have been written for her.



What a fall it was

Sir — The report, “Big B snapped on hot chase” (Aug 29), reflects one of life’s innumerable ironies. S.P. Kamat, the big fan of the superstar, Amitabh Bachchan, found himself in a soup after being pulled in by police for being allegedly involved in the murder of the chairman of the Dum Dum municipality, Sailen Das. This proved to be a “fall from grace” for the ardent follower of the mega star who was earlier given much coverage by some newspapers for his inauguration of the four-month-long Amitabh utsav in July. Such unnecessary media hype for every Tom, Dick and Harry should be immediately stopped because it often puts the media themselves in an acutely embarrassing position.

Yours faithfully,
Samir Bhattacharya, Siliguri

Culture of distrust

Sir — The editorial, “Going native” (Aug 22), is right in that hope for the people of the Northeast lies in their receptiveness toward others. But utmost care should be taken so that they do not find themselves aliens on their own soil. Tripura is an example of this. There the migrant Bengalis have the upper hand over the indigenous population. So the native tribals tend to question the entry of outsiders in their region.

Although India is a country where unabated mobility and settlement are permitted, there still exists a need to safeguard the culture of the indigenous peoples. As The Telegraph suggests, the northeastern people have a right to do so. But they should do so without spreading anarchy.

The question is whether they would be able to protect their culture by peaceful means if there is a change in the nature of demography. Adopting a violent method cannot be the solution. But a meek surrender would not keep the outsiders at bay. Thus the Northeast, and for that matter all other regions, should have the legal right to protect their ethnic identity and culture.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Sodepur

Sir — In the troubles between the Nagas and the Meiteis the state should be careful in maintaining the principle of equal opportunity and privileges for all citizens. That in turn may help in the development of the region to the best of its capacity. It may be that the Nagas are worried by the way things are unfolding around them. They fear these might be to their disadvantage. It would be a relief to see the government taking immediate measures to reassure them.

Yours faithfully,
A.A. Pfoze Mao, Shillong

Sir — It seems that by now the problem of the Naga ceasefire is over. But the ceasefire extension and its subsequent withdrawal have worsened the situation. The main victims of this ordeal are the Manipuris. The Nagas have now started the economic blockade on the National Highway-39 which is seen as the lifeline of Manipur. The supply of basic commodities has dwindled. The price of petrol has risen in the black market and students are finding it difficult to reach their schools. Unfortunately the concerned state and Central authorities till now have ignored this situation.

Yours faithfully,
L. Gurumayum, Manipur

Coloured by caste

Sir — A number of Dalit activists, some left, democratic, progressive, secular, socialist intellectuals and even some noted lawyers believe that caste in India should be equated to race in that it discriminates against certain sections of the people.

They propose that the government should not object to such issues being taken up at the Durban summit of the United Nations. Apparently they feel that this will help India gain international support in its crusade against caste-based discrimination.

But there already exist stringent laws to curb caste-based discriminations. However, it must be accepted that a centuries-old social evil is not likely to disappear overnight in spite of proactive legislations. India can gain nothing from internationally equating caste with race, just as including the words, socialist and secular, did not make India a socialist country and help in putting an end to communal violence.

The fact remains that the populist politicians of the country are responsible for keeping alive caste-distinctions. It is the sincerity of action and not posturings and debates that will bring about an end to caste discrimination.

Yours faithfully,
T. Mani Chowdary, Secunderabad

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
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Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
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