Editorial / On the right track
The great American odyssey
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / ON THE RIGHT TRACK 
 
 
 
 
Unlike the president of Pakistan, Mr Pervez Musharraf, the prime minister of India, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has no reason to be either defensive or concerned about his own position in the developments leading to a military offensive against the taliban. In fact, the emerging situation is, in very significant ways, a vindication of some of the positions India has adopted in international relations. India has harped on the problem of terrorism. In Kashmir, externally sponsored terrorism has threatened stability and India’s sovereignty. India’s case was never really given the attention it deserved because the United States felt that India, driven by naked self-interest, was making a mountain out of a molehill. Now the wheel has turned full circle and terrorism has been recognized as a global problem demanding immediate obliteration. In a cruel and an indirect way, India’s point has been proved to the US and the world. Mr Vajpayee will be justified in feeling satisfied about this. There is also a diplomatic angle to this sense of satisfaction. From the time of Mr Narasimha Rao, India’s policy towards Afghanistan has been directed towards covertly encouraging the anti-taliban forces known as the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance may well serve as the proverbial thin end of the wedge in the action against the taliban. In such a scenario, India’s policy will see rich dividends in the future.

The other apprehension that is being voiced is that despite India’s offer to co-operate with the US, it is Pakistan which has walked away with the cake. This is to mistake appearance for the reality. In a global battle against terrorism, it is highly unlikely that Pakistan will be allowed to persevere with its patronage to terrorists. Already, the scaling down of action in Kashmir is noticeable. It has always been India’s contention that cross border terrorism is the principal problem in Kashmir. In the onslaught against terrorism, Pakistan will be forced to dismantle the instrument it used to create an atmosphere of violence and intimidation in Kashmir. By agreeing to co-operate with the US, Mr Musharraf has willy-nilly taken a step towards doing what India has wanted him to do. In the chess game of diplomacy, India has perhaps lost a pawn to gain a rook. The art of diplomacy demands the ability to ignore the small issues and to keep intact the bigger goal. The war is against terrorism. By joining that war, Pakistan has agreed to bring the curtain down on the terrorism that it has sponsored against India.

Mr Vajpayee should not dither from the position he has already taken. Within the National Democratic Alliance and without it, among the leftist parties, there are discordant anti-American voices. Such people do not see reality beyond their noses because a perverse ideology has rendered them myopic. The balance of power in world politics is going through a profound change. These changes predate the gruesome events of September 11 and will continue after terrorism has been eradicated. In the new balance of power, the US needs a counterweight to the growing economic and political power of China. No other country in Asia, save India, quite has the potential to be this counterweight. India cannot afford to lose sight of this and miss the bus. Mr Vajpayee should not be put off by uninformed criticism.

   

 
 
THE GREAT AMERICAN ODYSSEY 
 
 
BY MUKUL KESAVAN
 
 
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a professor of philosophy in Jawaharlal Nehru University, has recently suggested in an essay that anti-Americanism amongst intellectuals has psychological roots (“Anti-Americanism as an ideology”, The Hindu, Sept 21). Intellectuals, argues Mehta, loathe America with a special fervour because a part of their own selves has been seduced by America’s culture and affluence. Anti-Americanism is an attempt to purge themselves of this seduction, this taint.

This is acute and possibly true: righteousness is shrillest in the presence of temptation and complicity. Mehta asks Americans to unlearn their conviction that they’re different; paradoxically, he asks anti-American intellectuals to acknowledge America’s uniqueness. It would be difficult to imagine that “any society on earth would qualify as being more open, more ready to confront its own past, and having a more ardent desire to better itself. America’s faults are grievous, but they are shared by all nations; its virtues are more (sic) unique.”

The scale of American virtue — its extraordinary freedom, its myriad careers open to talent, its appetite for improvement — is usually invoked to put America’s failings into context. William Shawcross, the chronicler of America’s savage bombing of Cambodia, wrote a fiercely patriotic piece in The Guardian after the destruction of the World Trade Center. His subject, like Mehta’s, was anti-Americanism. Shawcross angrily characterized anti-Americanism as the only acceptable form of racism in the contemporary world. Like Mehta, Shawcross conceded that America makes mistakes (he pointed out that he had unsparingly documented one of these lapses) only to step back from local error to gesture at the big picture, the epic part America had played in safeguarding human freedom against fascism and communism. American lives and American treasure had been freely spent in the cause of freedom against tyranny, wrote Shawcross — which is why, for him and others, in America and outside it, American cruelties are mistakes, while the atrocities of others, unredeemed by any larger human good or purpose, are instances of barbarism or even evil.

America’s claim to pre-eminence in the matter of political virtue is based upon its cultivation of freedom and democracy. Its spotty record in encouraging democracy abroad doesn’t, for Shawcross or The Economist, undermine its position as the guarantor of global freedom. There are two reasons for this.

The first, which I mentioned earlier, is America’s vanguard role in seeing off the two great ideological challengers to liberal democracy in the 20th century, fascism and communism. The Central Intelligence Agency might have overthrown Mossadeq and Allende and subverted the democratic systems that produced them, America might have propped up despots like Franco, Marcos and Zia-ul-Haq, but the great campaign that prompted these policies, anti-communism, was just and, crucially, successful. The travails of Iran and Chile can be understood either as the unavoidable costs or as the avoidable excesses of a rational policy that tried to make the world safe for democracy by combating its greatest enemy.

America’s other claim to being the custodian of democratic virtue is the country’s extraordinary record as a democracy. It was the modern world’s first constitutional democracy, its first democratic republic, and its first self-consciously secular state. And the United States can claim without exaggeration that throughout its republican history, it has, haltingly some times, but progressively, widened and deepened the reach of its democratic polity and drawn more and more Americans into its fold. With the arguable exception of the Civil War, the democratic institutions written into being by its constitution have functioned uninterruptedly for more than two hundred years. It is an astonishing achievement when you consider that India’s democracy nearly foundered 25 years after its Constitution was written.

This democratic durability persuades many Americans and many admirers of America, like the eager Tony Blair, that any attack on the US is, in fact, an attack on civilization, Western values and the free world. A vast country, that has for two hundred years shown that it is possible to be democratic and prosperous, is clearly a great advertisement for liberal values. It is not incomprehensible then, that the recent destruction of the World Trade Center is widely construed by Ameri- cans as an assault on a great redoubt of freedom.

This conviction is immune to domestic inconsistencies in America’s democratic record. The genocidal policies sanctioned by this state against native Americans, the horrors of slavery, and subsequently of racism, neither qualify nor change the basic belief that the American way of life is another way of spelling liberal democracy. Not because Americans don’t acknowledge the injustice suffered by its minorities; they do. It’s just that they believe that their political system is resilient enough and flexible enough to reform itself to accommodate those whom it had once excluded. For them, from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement, from segregation to busing, American democracy progressively moved towards a more consistent implementation of democratic values.

In this telling of history, the master narrative is America’s long, steadfast trek towards a full realization of the democratic ideals outlined in its constitution, it is an epic tale of self-improvement. The violations of these ideals — the atrocities against “Indians” or “Blacks” — are seen as just that: violations, aberrations, deviations from a trajectory which often had tragic consequences but which didn’t derail the democratic project.

Just as those low blows to Allende and Mossadeq didn’t disqualify America from being the heavyweight champion of the free world, similarly its wholesale destruction of native American society and its record of racism don’t add up to a counter-narrative that can discredit the powerful idea that American history is a democratic odyssey with a happy ending.

Critics who have tried to assemble a counter-narrative out of American atrocities have ended up writing lurid histories where the “military-industrial complex” replaces democracy as the main actor in the story and where Lincoln and Roosevelt are supplanted by Zionist conspirators and racist cabals. What we need is an account of America which will acknowledge and explain both its democratic achievement and its well-documented capacity for cruelty, bigotry and violence, in one story. Because till that story is written, American democracy will remain an automatic alibi for every American atrocity, and American atrocities will continue to provoke a reflexive anti-Americanism more revealing of the anxieties of the critic than the shortcomings of America.

[email protected]

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Claim to fame

This could make it to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The Keshubhai Patel government in Gujarat is more efficient than the Bush administration, now sifting through the rubble of the World Trade Center. If you believe not, the Gujarat administration will provide the facts and figures. To start with, it says the tragedy in Bhuj was far more severe and extensive than plane-made holes on WTC, which fell shattering its glasses on 14 acres of Manhattan. The casualties far outnumbered that in both New York and Pentagon. It takes off from here. In Gujarat, Keshubhai and his bhais apparently cleared the debris and rescued those trapped underneath within the first 36 hours of the earthquake. And everyone was accounted for within the first three days. Phew! Very different, it goes on, from Bush’s men who, after removing only six per cent of the debris, do not know whether to pursue the operations more than a week after the attack. Fair enough. Only that Keshubhai doesn’t remember his firangi bhais who came with most of the equipment only hours after the tragedy to do his work, the NGOs who helped out people in the rehabilitation centres and the public itself who gave its all to save neighbours. Keshubhai makes tall claims, as tall as the WTC. Remember some people bore holes into it!

Invading the upper house

It’s not all hunkydory with the Trinamoolis. The Rajya Sabha elections are nearing and the race to the hot seat has started. Last time didi had pulled off a coup by getting her nominee, Jayanta Bhattacharya, into the upper house. It would be silly not to try this time as well. The Trinamoolis who are seemingly putting on their racing shoes are Sougata Ray, Nayana Bandopadhyay and Dinesh Trivedi. For Ray and Nayana, the going might not be easy. Despite being close to Mamata, didi’s blow hot-blow cold relationship with Nayana’s hubby Sudip might come in the way. Ray’s flight might be cut short by a non-compliant Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, whose interests are also involved. The best bet is Trivedi, didi’s man in Delhi, who is liked by most political parties, has access to the PMO, can invite himself to a power lunch with Mandal messiah, VP Singh, and leave no footprints. The problem is he must learn never to aim too high. Didi hates Trinamoolis with a high profile. See what happened to Ajitda?

Eye on home affairs

A subaltern view. Darban Singh, peon in the home minister’s office is mighty impressed with his present boss. A veteran, who has served at least a dozen home ministers in 15 odd years, Singh reportedly insists that no other boss of his has put in so many hours in office. Moreover, LK Advani is hardly visited by controversial figures, unlike his predecessors. Other ministers even took time off to snooze at office. Not so with Advani. If he is in the capital, he spends long hours in the office, even on weekends. Which, let us tell Singh, is no indication of his surveillance over home. He was in office, September 11, oblivious of what was happening elsewhere in the world. The foreign channels had started the telecast of the event half an hour earlier, before the superbosses of the country, both the home minister and the prime minister, were informed of the attack. Should we blame our intelligence or Advani who bosses over it?

Time to switch boats

The anti-Italian brigade, that is the Nationalist Congress Party, suffered a setback lately when the fourth most important man in the party, Devendra Nath Dwivedi, decided to call it quits and get back to where he belonged, the Congress. Dwivedi alleges he was put off by the NCP’s pathological hatred for Sonia Gandhi because of her foreign origin. The reality seems to have dawned on him almost two years after. Anyway, the Sharad Pawar camp claims Dwivedi abandoned ship because the party had refused to dole out crores for the Uttar Pradesh elections in which it had no stakes. The Congress with its open door policy meanwhile does not believe that the return of Dwivedi, former law officer, will enthuse the upper castes in UP very much. Checkmate.

He has the last laugh

More on changing loyalties. SV Pillai, once subordinate to madam’s private secretary, the all powerful Vincent George, is now calling the shots in fortress 10, Janpath. Pillai supposedly has the patronage of the new Sonia coterie led by Ambika Soni and Oscar Fernandes. Pillai has taken over the workload, looking after madam’s files and most important, making her appointments. Most George loyalists like Natwar Singh and the media secretary, Tom Vadakkan, are allegedly now working overtime to get close to Pillai. Happy hunting.

Speak your mind

Ever since the West Bengal health minister, Suryakanta Mishra, spoke his mind about the running of the CPI(M) last week, there has been speculation about what made him say what he did. Mishra’s barbs were surely not directed at Jyoti Basu, who has long since retired from competitive politics, nor at Biman Bose, who is Left Front chairman and a team man. That leaves Anil Biswas. Mishra probably did not attack Biswas, but there is no doubt that many like him resent Biswas’s reported attempts to tighten his grip over the party. Hell hath no fury like a leader scorned.

Parting of ways

Nayak Anil Kapoor is apparently feeling low these days. His daughter is off to Singapore to pursue higher studies and Papa can’t bear it. This is also because beta Harshvardhan, who is “completely money-minded”, has recently set out to find for himself who makes more money — cricketers or filmstars. “He says only then will he decide what he wants to become”, says Anil. Surely, our cricketers can answer Harsh’s question?

Footnote / Whose cake is it anyway?

Struggle for American space. Despite the PM’s principal advisor, Brajesh Mishra, reputed to have been cut down to size after Tehelka, he doesn’t seem to have given up his habit of poaching on foreign affairs. The ministry of external affairs and the embassies abroad are torn in their loyalty to the foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, and Mishra. Singh naturally took offence when Mishra was recently given orders to proceed to the US from Moscow. An earlier incident had proved equally upsetting. The US ambassador to India had allegedly called on the home minister, LK Advani, and the telecommunication and parliamentary affairs minister, Pramod Mahajan, and the MEA had had no clue of the meetings. So Singh made it a point to clarify the situation this time. He is said to have told the media that although his friend, the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, had wanted him in America for important discussions, he had to stay back because the PM had wanted him to be in New Delhi. Which was why, he explained, he could visit the US either at the end of this month or early next month. Reclaiming turf?    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Still small voice of sense

Sir — Contrary to what Atanu Neogi would have us believe, multiple parties do not necessarily make a “democracy”, unless multiple opinions are encouraged ("Backhanded", Sept 21). How many people who have been glued to their television sets for the last few days know of a lady called Barbara Lee — the lone Californian Democrat congresswoman who voted against a war? Such voices will continue to get lost under the cover of so-called “freedom” and “democracy”. The rhetoric comprising of these two words has long been used to justify the actions of the United States. Also, to state hard facts, it is the dollar-rupee conversion ratio that motivates majority of Indians to stay in the US, not democracy.

Yours faithfully,
S. Datt, via email

City on hold

Sir — A few years back, the high court of Kerala passed a landmark verdict declaring “bandhs, gheraos, strikes” as unconstitutional and illegal. Subsequently, the Supreme Court of India upheld this verdict of the Kerala high court. The people of our country were relieved hoping that they will be spared these nuisances. Unfortunately, as far as Calcutta is concerned, strikes and bandhs continue to plague the city. This amounts to flouting the apex court’s ruling. The state government seems to be a mute spectator of such behaviour. The government as well as the people should pay heed to the ill effects and work themselves out of this mindlessly disruptive mindset.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjan Purkayastha, Uttarpara

Sir — Are the political leaders of West Bengal, of whatever colour, completely incapable of thinking straight (“In Buddha’s Bengal, Basu strikes a blow for old habit”, Sept 10)? One cannot help but be amazed that the former chief minister, Jyoti Basu, could advise the workers of the state not to give up their right to strike, when it is obvious that strikes are the bane of the state’s industrialization.

It is time that West Bengal’s Marxist leaders put an end to their politics of bandhs and processions. When the chief minister seems ready to admit past mistakes, the last thing his predecessor should do is to queer the pitch for him by exhorting the workers to organize strikes.

Yours faithfully,
Sanghamitra Bhattashali, Calcutta

Sir — It will not help matters if Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee realizes that the culture of bandhs is going to push the state’s economy to the brink, while his party turned a blind eye to it. Like charity, reforms too should begin at home, in this case, in a building on Alimuddin Street. The editorial, “Call of the past” (Sept 9), thus rightly points out that the ghost of an agitational past might come back to haunt Bhattacharjee’s dream of an industrial Bengal.

Yours faithfully,
Niloy Sinha, Azimganj

Sir — Calcutta still has a Seventies hangover, which is evident from the students’ protests on campuses across the city, a device popularly used during the Naxalite era. Are protests, bandhs and strikes so well-entrenched in our sensibilities, that whatever decisions the authorities take, they have to be protested against — without any consideration of their relative merits and demerits.

The most recent cases of student protests have been witnessed following the hike in tuition fees, and the alleged “saffronization” of education by the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is strange that the ruling party’s student wing should choose to disrupt normal life a few days after the chief minister has publicly condemned the practice (“Let’s party”, Sept 17).

Why don’t students of the state colleges and universities just enjoy campus life and leave administrative decisions to the authorities?

Yours faithfully,
Rose Paulose, via email

Parting shot

Sir — The coverage by CNN and other United States television channels of the US attacks reveals a bias not to be missed by viewers in other countries. Disasters in any other part of the world are usually covered by these channels with footage of mangled and mutilated bodies of the victims. No detail, however grotesque, is left out.

However, the coverage of the US attacks displays greater restraint. This respect shown to the dead of one’s own country is indeed worthy of praise. But why is the same restraint not exercised with calamities elsewhere in the world?

Yours faithfully,
Radha Iyer, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

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