Editorial / Ruling in the king’s name
The bidding game
This Above All / When a new novel imitates life
People / A.C. Muthiah
Letters to the editor

An ancient monarchy with an inbuilt feudal arrangement would have had many strange customs. The ashwamedh yagna, for example. Such rituals should seem very strange to a modern, democratic state. What is stranger, though, is that such customs are not unfamiliar enough. Certain trends in the world of Indian politics suggest an uncanny throwback to ancient times. Mr L.K. Advani’s famed rath yatra is a particularly striking example. Its purpose was not very different from the ashwamedh yagna, which ensured fealty to the king by letting a horse wander at will over adjacent lands, whose rulers automatically accepted the superiority of the king if they allowed the horse to pass unchallenged. The rath yatra just changed the parameters. It attempted to demarcate a metaphysical instead of a physical territory.

The rath yatra was a spectacular event, and happened only once. And the throwback was deliberate. But there is a far more insidious trend, subversive of the basic principles of democracy, which too appears to refer back to the ancient world of Ram rajya. This tradition seems to have come down from Bharat’s sense of deference to his exiled brother and rightful king, Ram. For all the years that Ram was in exile, Bharat ruled in his brother’s name, and worshipped Ram’s slippers that he had placed on the throne. It does not quite work in the same way today. The slippers are absent, and the dethroned rulers, unlike Ram, are very much present — in the background. But the principle is the same. The crowning of Ms Rabri Devi as chief minister of Bihar in the gloomy hour that Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav had to give up his chair because of the intransigence of the law is a case in point. The arrangement, however, is shorn of its ancient innocence. One, a chief minister sentenced by the law is given a free hand to continue governing the state through a nominee. Two, instead of an elected leader in a democratic country, the state is headed by a person nominated only because she is the former chief minister’s wife. This turns the notions of inner-party democracy topsy-turvy too, and shows up the peculiar weakness of parties that are basically one-man shows.

But it does not always have to be a wife or son as frontman. In Maharashtra, Mr Bal Thackeray has been ruling by remote control for quite a few years now. It is impossible to imagine a functioning Shiv Sena without Mr Thackeray. He gives the party its character, definition and voice, as does Mr Yadav the Rashtriya Janata Dal. So it is no surprise that Ms J. Jayalalithaa has decided to tread the hallowed path of tradition reinforced by its modern distortions. She is making no secret of the fact that she believes Mr O. Pannerselvam’s tenure as chief minister of Tamil Nadu would be a temporary one; he would keep her seat and her wishes secure while she has her little tiff with the law.

That this trend is now firmly in place is rather alarming. It will be difficult to dislodge unless relevant changes are made to the Representation of the People’s Act. Inner-party democracy, too, has to be enforced, in order to ensure that no one from the party can be “nominated” to the chief ministership by the wishes of one person. The structures of democracy will be rendered hollow if such trends continue unchecked.


To repeat what the majority leader in the German parliament said recently, adapting John F. Kennedy’s famous words in Berlin, “Wir sind Amerikaner (We are all Americans).” But in spite of emotional affirmations of loyalty right across the globe, most governments are looking at the crisis and beyond to determine what they have to gain or lose by responding to the United States of America.

At first sight, India has little reason to be pleased with that accounting. China and Pakistan have upstaged it in the initial diplomatic skirmishing. A confident China offers support only on its own terms and is still heard with respect. Worse, so drastically have roles been reversed that India seems now almost like an accidental beneficiary of Washington’s decision to lift sanctions against Pakistan. It was obviously naïve to surrender India’s scope for manoeuvre by rushing in with a gratuitous offer of operational cooperation.

Yet, all may not be lost. More than two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the US still has not taken overt military action. It is relying instead on sophisticated moves to cut off funding and build up a global consensus, which suggests a more considered view of long-term prospects than George W. Bush Jr’s first alarums and excursions indicated.

The apparent agreement — obviously under American pressure — between Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres also indicates Washington’s growing appreciation of the relevance of factors beyond just the elimination of its Enemy Number One. The argument over whether or not to topple the taliban — America’s own monstrous creation — also means that the clamour for vengeance has not obscured the importance of Afghanistan’s political future.

It is here that India might still be able to help to restore stability to southern Asia once the tumult has died down. Foreign policy paradigms are bound to change drastically, and in the altered pattern of alliances, India may play a constructive role in ensuring a stable, secular Afghanistan that does not obstruct the passage of oil pipelines from central Asia through Pakistan to the Ambani petrochemical complex in Jamnagar.

When that will be is anybody’s guess. But as Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian foreign minister, has warned, American policy could send waves of violence throughout central Asia. Kozyrev knows what he is talking about for he played a key part in the 1990 negotiations over a battered and humiliated Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Obviously, he does not now expect the fledgling six-nation Shanghai Cooperative Organization (the central Asian alliance of which China and Russia are leading members) to be able to contain the damage.

If his warning is proved right, then Pakistan cannot hope to escape the backlash of unrest. Its complicity (with the US) in creating and sustaining the taliban makes it especially vulnerable. Pakistan’s fundamentalist seminaries, military training camps and heroin-producing units makes the 2,240 km border with Afghanistan of mainly academic interest. It would not have guaranteed physical security even if there were no doubts about the validity of the Durand Line which was agreed to for only 100 years and which the Afghans have since refused to extend. Moreover, Pakistan’s external debt of $37 billion, annual loan repayments of about $3 billion and internal fissures, both secular and sectarian, do not endow it with the resilience to withstand or absorb shocks.

India needs quiet on its western front. It will have to pay a high price for any kind of military adventurism that leaves behind a shattered Afghanistan which, in turn, takes toll of a Pakistan that finds itself hoist with its own petard.

Whatever happens in Afghanistan has always been of intense interest to India. It was said in the 19th century that the authorities in Calcutta were “mervous” when the town of Merv fell to Tsarist forces. That could have been one reason for Jaswant Singh’s eagerness. Another was an anxiety to board the bandwagon early enough to be counted among America’s friends when the day of reckoning comes. From that flows the third — and somewhat simplistic — hope that a grateful US would pressure Pakistan to draw back from Kashmir.

Instead, it’s Pakistan that the Americans must now placate, which means even more of the same. Long before September 11, Washington tacitly went along with the Pakistani argument — most recently reiterated by Pervez Musharraf — that the murderers, bombers and saboteurs in Kashmir are freedom fighters and not terrorists. Now, the US has once again clarified that it is just not interested in stamping out forms of terrorism that endanger other nations but do not affect American life and property. Its agenda remains extraordinarily narrow, with no reflection of the responsibilities that go with superpower status.

Being aware that this has always been America’s expedient position, India should have drawn a necessary distinction between the need to support the US and the need to safeguard its own interests. New Delhi should also have anticipated that any offer that he made would at once invite competitive, or superior, bids by Pakistan and China.

For, whatever India can do, Pakistan will always claim to be able to do better. In this case, the advantages of geography, religion and political ties are heavily weighted in Islamabad’s favour. In exploiting those advantages, Musharraf has again shown himself to be the consummate strategist that he proved to be in Agra when he so cleverly stole a march on Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The clerics, the Pashtuns and perhaps even some sections of the Pakistani armed forces might resent the plunge their ruler has taken, but the decision has once and for all secured his American constituency.

Third world dictators, whether Syngman Rhee or Ferdinand Marcos, seek no stronger credentials. They might come a cropper in the long term, but politics is all about the here and now. Recast again in the familiar role of Washington’s faithful ally, Pakistan can expect all the help, overt and covert, that used to prop up so many Asian rulers during the Cold War years.

The difference this time round is that India is no longer an entity to be written off. It is not nonaligned, there is no opposite camp for it to flirt with, and it has promised support. Above all, it holds the promise of high returns on foreign investment, and a huge market for international merchandise. Though denied Pakistan’s geopolitical advantages, India could emerge into an important economic partner.

For now, however, the advantage is all with China. It has 3.3 per cent of the world’s trade against India’s 0.7 per cent. It attracted $38.8 billion in foreign direct investment in 1999 against the $2.2 billion that went to India. Exports from China’s Guangdong province alone, which accounts for 40 per cent of the national total, are two-and-a-half times that of India’s. According to John Wong, director of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, half the number of motorcycles in the world, one-third of its air conditioners and a quarter of its colour television sets are made in China.

Of course, the Chinese exaggerate their achievements, and ethnic Chinese worldwide lend credence to the exaggeration. Of course, China’s non-performing assets amount to about 50 per cent of the gross domestic product. But even making allowance for hyperbole, China would not have attracted the huge volume of foreign investment that it does if it had not been making impressive strides.

That is where the real challenge lies. New Delhi cannot just sit back and imagine that Washington would prefer an understanding with India because China’s hegemonistic ambitions pose a military threat to American supremacy. In order to influence US policy in Afghanistan or elsewhere, India must be able to position itself as an attractive partner in its own right. It can do so only through economic pragmatism that avoids repeating the Enron and Air-India fiascos.


I am unable to make up my mind about Rushdie: is he a genius or is he mad? The border line between the two is very thin. As this genius crossed from sheer brilliance into inexplicable eccentricities, I am left bewildered and don’t know in which category to place him. However, I make it a point to read anything he writes. He is not easy to read. Every time Taki of The Spectator mentions his name he prefaces it with the words “that unreadable Rushdie”. Taki’s judgment is highly biased because there is lot Rushdie has written that is highly readable and a lot that is difficult to comprehend and leaves the reader with the uneasy feeling of being illiterate. His latest novel, Fury, is a mixture of the readable and the incomprehensible. It reminded me of the kind of patakha we used to play with on Diwali. You rubbed it against a hard surface and it spluttered into tiny explosions as it hopped about in different directions. Without exception, the book was rubbished by English and American critics. There is a strong element of anti-Americanism in it.

Fury is evidently autobiographic, Rushdie style. The main character is a chap called Solanka. He is Bombay-born, has a doctorate from King’s College (Cambridge), the same as Rushdie. He ditches his first wife and son and escapes to New York (so did Rushdie). He has made a killing inventing new kinds of dolls (Rushdie with books). He has affairs with different women till he runs into the love of his life, Neela Mahendra, a Fiji-born Indian. Neela is probably Rushdie’s Padma, whom the protagonist in the novel steals from his closest friend, a black American. There is a lot of violence and much boozing. Neela is upset by the coup de tat in Fiji and flies home. Solanka chases her and lands himself in a prison cell before he is let off. I am not sure whether Neela and he live happily ever but apparently Rushdie and Padma are enjoying themselves in the Big Apple.

A talent on the horizon

The dog days of summer end with the monsoons. The month of September is singularly without character, neither warm enough to switch on the airconditioner nor cool enough to switch off the fan. And largely flowerless. With October life picks up: exhibitions, dance recitals, concerts, literary gatherings. The marriage season is in full swing.

Being a man whose life revolves round books, I look forward to new publications, readings by authors and book launches. One I am looking forward to most this coming October is the first novel in English on Nepal by a Nepali girl. There are good reasons for my looking forward to this event. For one, I have never been to Nepal and know next to nothing about this Himalayan kingdom except that it is Hindu. I am baffled by the news that is published in the papers: the royal family, the Ranas, its common folk and the communist movement. The massacre of the royal family stunned me to disbelief. I am still not sure about the motives for the patricide, matricide, fratricide and homicide. To be quite honest all I know about Nepal is that whatever happens there, they point the accusing finger at us Indians, their closest neighbours and like them largely Hindu. And that Manisha Koirala is Nepalese.

More important than all these considerations is that I happen to know the author, Manjushree Thapa. She is the ravishingly beautiful daughter of his Excellency, Nepal’s ambassador in Delhi. Manjushree was a Fulbright scholar who did a course on literature and creative writing in the University of Washington (Seattle) and photography in the Rhode Island School of Design. Back home in Kathmandu, she has been writing literary columns for the Nepali Times and translating Nepali fiction and poetry into English. The Tutor of History is her first novel in English to be published outside her country. It will be released in Kathmandu early October and later in the same month in Delhi. It is about the love affair between a Nepali girl and her history teacher.

Trying out something different

A family living in Haryana have made growing ber (zizyphus) more profitable than growing apples, oranges or mangoes. They grow the best bers I’ve ever tasted. I wrote about them some years ago. They dropped in to see me earlier this year and brought me samples of a new product they are marketing, gulukand. I had vague notions of what it was: some kind of mash of rose-petals and sugar said to be good for the stomach and prescribed by both ayurvedic and Yunani systems of medicine. I tried it out first thing in the morning with a few teaspoonfuls of chilled milk. It was as fragrant as it was delicious to taste. I am not sure if it did my stomach any good but I look forward to beginning my day with it.

I wrote to my friends to send me more by VPP or let me know if they had an outlet in Delhi. I did not get any response. I asked Kishen Lal of Rajdoot hotel if he knew a good brand of this rose concoction. He got me a plastic jar of a well-known firm producing ayurvedic medicines. It was a different fragrance and taste. I turned to my newly acquired friend, the astrologer, Dimpy Chopra. “No problem”, she replied. “I’ll make some for you myself.” And so she did. It was yet another kind of fragrance and taste. Instead of sugar she had used honey. And finally I asked my friend Dr Vinod Verma who has written a lot of books in German and English on ayurveda and yoga including a best-seller, kama sutra for women. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” she reprimanded. “I make it all the time for my family in Ludhiana. When I return from Germany three months from now I will make some for you.” However, one morning she breezed in unannounced with a plastic jar of fresh gulukand made by her.

So I have four kinds of gulukand made of different kinds of rose petals. Most manufacturers simply buy them or collect the offerings of temples; that is why their products are not very good. Would readers knowledgeable about the subject enlighten me on how this delicious concoction is prepared, and if anything besides rose petals, sugar or honey should be mixed in it? And if it is any good for the stomach, blood, heart or whatever?

God bless America

On a visit to the United States, Gorbachev met a Russian who had immigrated to this country. “What do you do for a living here?” the Soviet leader asked him. “My brother, my sister and I work in a big factory.”
“How do these capitalist bosses treat you?”
“Just fine,” answered the man. “In fact, if you are walking home from work, the boss picks you up in his big car and drives you to your door. Another time, he treats you to a dinner in an expensive restaurant. Sometimes he takes you home for the weekend and buys you presents”.

Gorbachev was stunned, “How often does this happen?”
“Well, to me, actually never. But to my sister, several times”.
(Contributed by: Reeten Ganguly, Silcher).

Words of wisdom

A sign at the back of a truck plying in Punjab reads:
Kee lorh hai Vakeelaan dee
Teyrey nain Vakaalat Kurdey
What need is there for lawyers
Your eyes are more eloquent
(Contributed by: Rajnish, Shimla)


Friends are all he needs

Everyone says he’s a very nice guy. Even his rival in today’s election for the BCCI (Board for Control of Cricket in India) president has always said that. He certainly knows how to win friends (and influence people). The diverse constellation he has commandeered to root for him at Chennai today could teach Dale Carnegie a lesson or two. Well-bred (one of the wealthiest Chettiyars of Tamil Nadu, his father M.A. Chidambaram was BCCI president in the ‘60s, his uncle is former finance minister P. Chidamabarm), soft-spoken and polite (he did not raise his voice even during the turbulent cricket scam days), 61-year-old A.C. Muthiah makes an unlikely street-fighter.

Controversy could well be his middle name. His admirers insist he is a “low-profile man, like all South Indians, he doesn’t like controversies”. The record speaks otherwise. For better or for worse, the Nineties saw Muthiah waging wars - and winning them.

“Only when the chips are down do you know who your friends are,” Muthiah remarked while emerging from an innocuous CII seminar on a sombre Chennai morning in February 1992. It was a moment of unexpected truimph for the MAC family, as the Tamil Nadu government had at last reversed its earlier decision of appointing a state nominee to be chairman of SPIC (Southern Petrochemical Industries Limited), the largest fertiliser producer in the South and the flagship of this leading Chettinad business family. Muthiah’s father was back to his old post, a moment which also coincided with the state government’s decision to resign its rights in SPIC in favour of the private promoter. That paved the way for the MAC group to beef up its stakes in SPIC, a dream come true for Muthiah.

A nightmare followed when the DMK returned to power and turned the heat on Muthiah and his patron-saint Jayalalitha, leading to a CBI enquiry and finally a fine of Rs 28 crores, a verdict that is under appeal.

That’s not controversy, that’s business Indian-style, a friend of Muthiah protests. May be, may be not. But the way he barged into FICCI this year has caught even his friends on the wrong foot. For sometime now Muthiah has had little time for his business interests. Even as SPIC has been ailing Muthiah has entrusted it to his son, Ashwin, a Singapore-based NRI.

FICCI presidentship, Muthiah’s reply has always been — eight years ago when it was first offered to him and as recently as last year — a polite no thank you. Suddenly, late last month, he decided to cash in his chips and foisted himself as a vice-president, slated to take charge in November 2002. Displacing Calcutta’s Rajiv Kanoria who has resigned in protest.

There’s no reason for Muthiah to have anything against Calcutta, but the man he is determined to defeat today, Jagmohan Dal-miya, till the other day the czar of Indian cricket and Muthiah’s benefactor, does come from this city. BCCI vice-president Kamal Morarka and an obvious Dalmiya supporter claims, “After Muthiah became president, he simply turned his back on Dalmiya.” So, when the votes start rolling in at the BCCI AGM today, Muthiah will be counting on many new friends to keep out his old friend who had helped him to become BCCI president in the first place.

Friends he has taken pains to cultivate. Once considered Dalmiya’s Rabri Devi, Muthiah went out of his way to rope in Laloo Prasad Yadav and his newfound Bihar Cricket Association. Now his supporters range from known Dalmiya baiters of the cricketing world like I.S. Bindra and Raj Singh Dungarpur to Sharad Pawar, the boss of the Maharashtra Cricket Association.

No surprise that Muthiah is confident of getting 18 votes out of the 31 affiliate units, which means a clear majority. He has even been flaunting this ever since he threw a lavish dinner in New Delhi last Tuesday, where all his “friends” were present. In fact, he called a press conference immediately after the bash and announced that he will win.

Announcing to the world another controversy. Initially it had looked like Muthiah would slip smoothly into his third term as president but then, a few days ago, Dalmiya sent everyone into a tizzy by deciding to contest the elections to head the world’s richest cricket body. Things haven’t looked too easy ever since.

Dalmiya, too, insists he is comfortably placed. An experienced player of the administrative ballgame, he has the support of the likes of Arun Jaitley, Jaywant Lele and most of the cricket board chiefs of eastern and southern India. He is also armed with a whole list of accusations, some of which are potent enough to turn the tables.

Team Dalmiya says the game is in a mess and the present body lacks cohesiveness. They portray Muthiah as weak-kneed in front of the government on Indo-Pak cricket relationship. Dalmiya is also strident on the appointment of Geoff Marsh as the board’s consultant for a fancy sum of money and his subsequent controversial resignation. “It is intriguing why there has been such a considerable slump in India’s ranking in world cricket. Despite the scientific methods that the present management has claimed to have introduced, six key cricketers of the team are suffering from injuries,” alleges Dalmiya.

In the war of words between the two factions, it was Muthiah’s closest ally, Dungarpur, who fired the first salvo, criticising Dalmiya for trying to block “the roads for introduction of corporate governance. “It will be a great tragedy if Dr Muthiah is not allowed to complete his third term,” said the former BCCI president.

There’s no denying Muthiah took over at the time when Indian cricket was passing through its worst crisis. Unlike his father who had to deal with the game when it was still being played by ‘gentlemen’, Muthiah Jr has had to face tougher times. The game has grown too big and there are just too many administrators to deal with.

The biggest thorn was the match-fixing scandal. The clean-up act that followed did earn Muthiah a few kudos but his greatest gift to Indian cricketers was the graded-payment system for international players. This meant that players would be paid according to their experience. A far cry from a time when all players were handed the same amount for a match. Muthiah promises more. He now wants to provide better conditions for those who play domestic cricket and ensure that senior players guide the younger lot. Commendable feats for any board president. But are they good enough to see him through? You can’t count upon it. That’s where his allies come in.

Apart from his powerful friends, Muthiah also has convention on his side. He has completed two terms as president and should get a third and final term. There has been only one exception to this in BCCI’s 73-year history. The then Board chief had lost out to player power.

Muthiah must also be aware that Dalmiya has never lost an election. Right from Rajasthan Club in Calcutta to ICC, the most recognisable corporate face of Indian cricket has always emerged a winner. Dalmiya has also reportedly claimed he will be able to convince Pawar to switch to his side.

Whatever happens, Muthiah is assured of one support. That of his spiritual guru, Paramacharya. Muthiah has been indebted to his blessings in the past, he sure will be counting on them today.



Do a Blair and dare

Sir — The report, “Blair speaks Atal language” (Sept 26), shows that gradually the saner of the world leaders are coming back to their senses. Despite the United Kingdom’s support to the American cause, Tony Blair has made it clear that the UK is thinking of something more concrete than the killing of Osama bin Laden and thousands of Afghans with him. The reason is obvious. Already public sentiment seems to be tilting to the side of the underfed, underclothed Afghans fleeing across the borders to find refuge. The backlash if the Allies kill them will be even more severe than the World Trade Center in flames. Blair is being cautious. Probably George W. Bush needs to take heed as well.

Yours faithfully,
T. Joseph, Calcutta

Emergency measures

Sir — Thanks to Yashwant Sinha’s “dream budget”, the Indian economy is facing the worst crisis since independence. Given the aftershocks of Black Tuesday, which spells a difficult future for south and southeast Asia, even the optimists cannot forsee any tangible chance of recovery for the Indian economy. The prime minister has been warning people of hard times and the necessity to take hard decisions. Only, the government seems to be unable to take them. The finance minister has introduced voluntary retirement schemes in banks and other public sector organizations. To reduce fiscal deficit, interest rates on savings in banks, post offices and others have been cut. On the other hand, members of parliament have succeeded in raising their allowances and perks to astronomical levels. Central government employees are now among the highest paid in India. There are besides the advantages of an ever-increasing dearness allowance plus periodical bonus payments. Are these not contributing to the fiscal deficit of the country?

Yours faithfully,
Tapan Das Gupta, Calcutta

Sir — The prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in a recently televised address to the nation has warned the people of the country that the impact of the terrorist attack on the United States will surely hit the country’s economy in the next few days. No wonder that harsh measures are going to be taken by the government in the coming months. Possibly, the first apprehension may come with the hike in the price of petroleum products. A rise of oil prices — given that already the prices have soared by one dollar per barrel — will invariably inflate India’s oil import bill by Rs 3,600 crores. Although the fragility of the Indian economy was evident much before the terrorist attack, the global economy now faces a similar threat.

This is not the first statement in which Vajpayee has talked about taking firm steps. The finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, has also complemented the prime minister in the government’s gambit to save face. However, the veracity of Vajpayee’s present statement cannot be doubted. The nation has to overhaul some of its policies that are hampering growth. What is most immediately needed is the scrapping of obscurantist laws that hamper progress.

Yours faithfully,
Abhijit S. Roy, Jamshedpur

Sir — With rising oil prices, would it not be prudent to dispose of huge stocks of foodgrain even at lower cost to buy oil in exchange for the bad days? One hopes that the finance minister in consultation with the petroleum and food ministry would be doing something to make best use of the situation in the wake of a condition that might exacerbate.

Yours faithfully,
C.R. Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

Sir — The stock markets are in a bad shape after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Investors are running for safety. Many are reportedly thinking of investing in gold. The invariable import of gold to cater to the demand will adversely affect our balance of payment. To avoid this, the Reserve Bank of India should allow trading in gold futures and gold bonds so that investors can hedge their risk instead of actually buying gold. A quick decision in this regard is required. Which means the government has to act fast. It should announce its policy on the matter and allow trading in gold futures and gold bonds on the premier stock exchanges since these exchanges are easily accessible to the common investors.

Yours faithfully,
Vaibhav Chirimar, via email

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