Editorial 1 / Sounding the retreat
Of monarchs and Maoists
The Telegraph Diary
People / Somnath Chatterjee
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / SOUNDING THE RETREAT 
 
 
 
 
The politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is the enemy of promise in West Bengal. It has gone out of its way to hinder one crucial plan the chief minister of the state, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, had for giving a new image to the state. The politburo has scuttled Mr Bhattacharjee’s plans to introduce a new law, the prevention of organized crime ordinance. Such a law would give a tremendous boost to the flagging morale of the state’s police force and transform the state’s record on law and order. Mr Bhattacharjee was convinced about the need for such a stringent law after a series of crimes ranging from kidnapping to robbery which provided clues that organized criminal gangs were trying to gain access into West Bengal. Pushed out of Maharashtra because of the existence of a separate law against organized crime there, the criminal gangs were looking at West Bengal as a possible soft target. Since then, the threat of terrorism and the resurgence of Maoist violence in Midnapur have given to POCO a new and immediate urgency. Between Mr Bhattacharjee’s recognition of the need for POCO and the passing of the ordinance has fallen the shadow of the politburo and its putative national agenda.

The leadership of the CPI(M) decided in its wisdom to oppose the prevention of terrorism ordinance which the Central government has put on the anvil. Suspicious of the motives of the Bharatiya Janata Party and of the misuse of POTO by the BJP against the minorities, the CPI(M) has set itself up to oppose POTO at the national level. Mr Bhattacharjee is not an unqualified supporter of POTO: his position is a little more nuanced. Mr Bhattacharjee does not deny the need for special laws to combat organized crime and terrorism. But he argues that the enactment of such laws should be left to the state governments. A Central legislation will only work against the federal structure of the Indian Constitution. There is an obvious difference between the position taken by the politburo of the CPI(M) and the argument advanced by the chief minister of West Bengal. His argument, however, has been set aside by the decision of the politburo. The latter believes that the enactment of POCO in West Bengal while the party opposes POTO nationally will only create confusion about the intentions of the party. It has thus prevailed upon Mr Bhattacharjee to delay the presentation of POCO to the state assembly. Mr Bhattacharjee, ever the loyal party man, has consented to do just that.

The episode is imbued with a wider significance. It suggests that Mr Bhattacharjee’s efforts to separate the functioning of his government from the direct influence of the party are not making very much headway. The process of reform and rejuvenation that Mr Bhattacharjee is so keen to initiate and implement hinges on the degree of autonomy he enjoys from the backroom boys of his party. The CPI(M) is a centralized party with a long history of interference in the affairs of successive Left Front governments. The CPI(M) refuses to acknowledge that a government has a commitment to the people who elected it, whereas the apparatchiki have no such commitment since they are not elected representatives of the people. Mr Bhattacharjee had promised a government of the future. His setback on POCO marks a retreat to the past.

   

 
 
OF MONARCHS AND MAOISTS 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
The Nepalese cannot be blamed for jumping to the conclusion that only the Maoist insurrection has saved them from being browbeaten by India into accepting rigorous trade terms. For, when renewal of the bilateral trade treaty signed on December 5, 1996, was being discussed recently, Murasoli Maran, the commerce minister, remarked with no thought for geopolitical considerations, “How can I give more to Nepal than to Sri Lanka?” The treaty would have been extended automatically last Wednesday for another five years if New Delhi had not given notice of objection three months ago. Then, Atal Bihari Vajpayee suddenly telephoned Sher Bahadur Deuba, the Nepalese prime minister, last week to extend the treaty by three months.

Conjecture is inevitable because it is a deeply disturbing feature of subcontinental life that no one in Nepal, from monarch to Maoist, really believes in India’s good will or good faith. India’s financial aid is seen as clumsy bribery designed to exclude the Chinese. Indian technical assistance is described as a device to keep out sophisticated Western technology. Indian investment in massive hidel plants is dismissed as only a ploy to generate power that India alone can buy cheap.

This Great Game is more vital to India’s interests than the more dramatic Great Game being played out in the West. While American forces are blasting Afghanistan for Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar Mohammed, Nepalese troups are scouring Himalayan jungles for Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Ram Bahadur Thapa, known respectively as Comrade Prachanda and Comrade Badal.

Post-taliban Kabul is said to have yielded evidence of a connection between two centres of conspiracy. But it is the Nepalese turmoil with which India’s security is more closely intertwined. It is through Nepal that Pakistani intelligence can strike directly at India’s soft underbelly. It is with Nepal that India has an open border that straggles through 1,700 kilometers of unguarded jungle, fields and hills. Cheap Chinese manufactures are flooding Indian markets through Nepal. A Chinese delegation recently appeared in Kathmandu to discuss tourism, which seems a curious distraction at a time of convulsions along the Himalayas and a global slump.

All this further underlines the kingdom’s importance, and the need for diplomatic skills of the highest order, for political wisdom and the utmost generosity. Insensitivity to geopolitical compulsions is at least partly responsible for the crisis in what is probably the weakest link in India’s defensive perimeter though it is not, of course, the only reason.

Nepalese lobbies with vested interests are also paying for their own crass shortsightedness in manipulating the militant left in their power games. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s central leadership is not so inhibited by Tamil blinkers as to equate the landlocked kingdom with an island which looks on the world as its oyster. King Birendra’s presence in New Delhi as chief guest when the new government celebrated its first Republic Day was rich in symbol and substance. When he flew to Kathmandu four months ago, Jaswant Singh assured his hosts that no one would be allowed to kill the trade treaty’s spirit.

But what about its body? The problem will arise again next March unless Maran demonstrates greater understanding of strategic considerations. But not even the most liberal terms then can expunge the impression of arm-twisting created by the notice of expiry followed by a last-minute reprieve which the rebels are bound to exploit.

They have always come in handy for Nepalese lobbies. Some used the Maoists to discredit, and others to justify, the old panchayati raj. Some legitimate political parties were tarred with the Maoist brush, others exalted as the only bulwark against revolution. Some accused the palace of playing footsy with the guerrillas to discredit parliamentary politics; others thought that one branch of the palace found them useful to pressure another. Everyone saw them as leverage against India.

These cynical games might not have boomeranged so violently if it had not been for grinding poverty, illiteracy, population growth of more than 2.5 per cent, a rigid caste system and oligarchic Brahmin and Chhetri control. Unemployed youths are exposed not only to this country’s rumbustious but liberal democratic polity but also to the revolutionary propaganda of the Maoist Communist Centre in adjoining Bihar and the People’s War Group in Andhra Pradesh.

It makes for an explosive mix. The monarch in his pearl-studded crown and flowing bird of paradise feathers is the obvious symbol of privilege. For all that some see him as the avatar of Vishnu, the Narayanhitty Palace massacre did not foster respect for either the throne or the dynasty. An elected government should have been able to absorb anger and defend institutions of state, but factional strife has robbed parliamentary groups like the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) and the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party of much of their prestige.

King Gyanendra has not helped either by dealing direct with the army chief of staff, General Prajwal Shumshere Jang Bahadur Rana, though Deuba holds the defence portfolio. That must convey to the populace that elected leaders and, indeed, the government, lie outside the loop of real power. If the palace can disregard the prime minister, so can the rebels.

Development is the only answer. Though the Nepalese elite, with its penchant for flirting with China may not like this, India is the only country with the will and ability to help while Beijing plays on Kathmandu’s fears to gain strategic advantages. The failure of King Mahendra’s efforts to route trade through the north exposed the limit of Nepal’s China card. Prachanda knows that New Delhi is the only power to which Kathmandu can turn — hence his thesis of the inevitability of war with India and tirade against the India-Nepal friendship treaty.

Nepalese officials were pleased when the old trade and transit treaty was split and a new transit treaty valid for seven years signed in 1999. They called it “very accommodating”. The problem is that the separate trade treaty does not exclude goods that might be manufactured in Nepal but have a high element of components from a third country. Vajpayee told Deuba on the telephone that such imports were damaging Indian industry. This is a legitimate complaint. Nepalese sales to India have jumped from about Rs 70 crore to Rs 270 crore largely because the Chinese are abusing the kingdom’s geopolitical advantage.

But with globalization the keyword, and the World Trade Organization watching out for any kind of protection, India must tread with circumspection. Kathmandu is especially concerned because in spite of passing off Chinese exports as Nepalese, its trade deficit with India is still about Rs 250 crore. Restrictions would increase the imbalance, which is why India must make a major effort to remove the impression of penalizing a vulnerable neighbour. At the same time, political considerations should not prevent India from bringing Chinese malpractices to the WTO’s notice. Clandestine exports and dumping must be fought internationally, not through bilateral ties with a small country with which India has such intimate historical, cultural and economic ties.

India has a new ambassador in Kathmandu; Nepal has a relatively new monarch. They should be able to undertake a four-fold process of reconstruction. First, the rebellion must be stamped out. Second, Kathmandu must engage the rebels. Third, it must accept that personality-ridden politics has brought Nepal to this pass and that the only answer lies in economic growth. Finally, India must convince Nepal that no other country can help its political, economic and strategic transformation.

Kings are often vain, and Mahendra was exceptionally so. It is his legacy that India is still fighting. Meanwhile, there is no need to offend Nepalese sensibilities and compound estrangement by claiming that Jawaharlal Nehru could have annexed the kingdom but chose not to do so. Nepal will fear for its security as long as Indians repeat that unproven tale.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

A small gift in return

Quite evidently, the gods are not as forgiving as the people of Tamil Nadu (or should we say, even the blind goddess?). So Amma had to rush back to the Guruvayoor temple the moment she got her re-entry pass to chief ministership. The last visit was on July 2, when the puratchi thalaivi went to the neighbouring state with a posse of 30 cars and friend Sasikala in tow to keep her date with the deity. This was a repayment for her election to the assembly and the bonus of the pre-dawn swoop on rival DMK MPs on Saturday. The return gift to the lord was the elephant, Kannan, which J Jayalalithaa donated to the temple amidst the blaring of horns and beating of drums. The gift this time was not another elephant, but a cash of Rs 4 lakh. This was for the maintenance of Kannan and something Amma should have given the temple in her previous visit according to the temple rules. But she forgot. The obvious corollary was her unceremonious exit and the seating of O Panneerselvam. But Amma seems to have paid with her pains of being the backseat driver. Hence the bounty. Shouldn’t the temple expect another elephant, that is in keeping with the arithmetic of gifts and return gifts?

What was on the platter

One person surely cares for no return gifts. Had it been otherwise, Mulayam Singh Yadav could not have dared to mess up his iftaar party. Most rozedars invited to the party reportedly left 2, Krishna Menon Marg ready to eat up their own fingers because there was too much political colour and too little food at Mulayam’s iftaar. Although Yadav realized what had happened and profusely apologized for it, the damage had been done. Many failed to reach the kebab stalls and those who did were sorely disappointed. The wise among them quietly left for Omar Abdullah’s iftaar nearby where food was plentiful and guests few. But for the average, it was out of bounds. Perhaps Mulayam has forgotten that without a little help from the rozedars, Lucknow could be out of bounds as well.

Some like it this way

Seems like rules have to be framed not only for parliamentarians but for secretaries as well since they invariably lose their minds whenever there is a foreign junket. Secretary to the water resources department, BN Navalawala, was apparently warned against going to the UN sponsored conference on water resources in Bonn in the first week of December. That is because the minister for the sector, Arjun Charan Sethi, would be attending the same conference and that both the minister and the secretary could not leave the country together or at the same time especially since the Parliament session was on. But two hoots for regulations. When the foreign land beckons, can secretaries be far away?

This is how the others would like it

Talking about discipline, veteran journalist and member of the Rajya Sabha, Kuldip Nayar, has a complaint. He alleges that the media takes scant notice of orderly or serious debates on major issues in Parliament. Instead, they concentrate on pandemoniums and the noise-makers themselves in the newsprint. Citing an example, Nayar mentioned the meaningful debate on Ayodhya that was held in the upper house only days back. Not surprisingly, it had found no mention in the news pages. Maybe, after honourable members of the house are put in place by a code of conduct, another set of codes need to be drawn up for the media as well on how it should cover Parliament?

The fashion conscious

Among other things, the AB Vajpayee regime is also likely to be remembered for being a patron of the world of glitz. All film directors of Bollywood, its actors and producers, make a beeline to seek the attention of the pillars of government the moment the film is released. And Messrs Vajpayee, LK Advani and Sushma Swaraj do not believe in disappointing the seekers. The home minister is even reputed for his interest in the finer points like cinematography or the sub-plots in the masala movies. For Bollywood it means free publicity and sometimes even tax exemptions.

Those of the younger faction like Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley and Swaraj, are even proving to be great patrons of the fashion industry as well. The other day, Mahajan is said to have been spotted wearing a flashing silk kurta with some breathtaking hand-made embroidery on it. The foreign minister is also supposed to be keen on the fashion statements of one particular lady designer of Mumbai who he thinks is the cultural ambassador of India. Sushma, despite her FTV past, is said to be just as fashion-conscious as the rest of the saffron brood and an ardent admirer of this fashion designer. Be Indian, buy Indian?

Words of wisdom

A pearl of wisdom from that great lover of all things Indian — the Metro Rail in West Bengal. At the Tollygunge Metro station: “Let all of us Hindus, Mussalmans, Parsis, Sikhs, Christians live amicably as Indians, pledged to live and die for our motherhood (sic) — Mahatma Gandhi”. Is that how Gandhi meant it or is that how the Metro authorities want it to be?

Footnote / How do they get there?

Intelligence failure? Our chief minister is not too sure, but he is mightily upset with the fact that state secrets should not remain secrets at all. In other words, he is not too certain about how the rest of Calcutta gets to know about what he has decided to talk about with his cabinet. The other day, an exasperated Buddha told cabinet colleagues without mincing words, “You guys are no novices. Don’t leave your papers behind when you are leaving the room.” Buddha is quite sure that unsuspecting ministers become victims of unscrupulous newshounds who can even sneak into their chambers to get a piece of meat. Quite contrary to expectations, Buddha’s ministers are not too happy with what was hinted about their sense of responsibility. Many complained that they had been around since Jyotibabu’s early years of chief ministership and such a problem had not occurred. What they were more upset about was that Buddha had not even given them a chance to explain their situation and that scribes do have other ways to access news. Which is what? Getting into ministers’ minds?    

 
 
PEOPLE / SOMNATH CHATTERJEE 
 
 
 
 

Food for talk

If in spring, a young man’s fancy turns to love, the onset of winter does strange things to a Bengali patriarch’s soul. For winter rings in the grand hilsa’s last curtain call of the season. And, any sage will tell you, there is much to be done before the coveted fish goes downstream.

So, before it was too late, veteran Parliamentarian of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Somnath Chatterjee, thought he’d do something to test the conciliatory powers of the hilsa. Last week, he stacked his table and invited the neighbours in. Chatterjee — and the mustard fish — effected a neat coup d’etat, by getting bitter foes Sonia Gandhi and Mulayam Singh Yadav to his dining table. And spurred on by success, the MP even invited a motley group of Rajya Sabha members for a breakfast meeting on Wednesday.

Apart from Yadav and Gandhi, there were quite a few surprise guests at Chatterjee’s official bungalow in Ashok Road. Sharad Pawar, not quite known for his open fondness for Gandhi, was there. And then there was, for reasons that are still to be fathomed, the eternal maverick of Punjab, Simranjit Singh Mann.

Over a shorshey ilish for dinner and radhabollobhi and aloo for breakfast, the leaders of the various parties warmly spoke of Opposition strategies. “His house is like Geneva,’’ says Samajwadi leader Amar Singh, referring to the Swiss city’s repute as a venue for ironing out tangles.

There is, no doubt, a great degree of bonhomie building up in the opposition ranks these days. The Congress is not bickering about the Marxists very much, the Samajwadi Party is not taking constant potshots at the Congress and Laloo Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal seems to have buried the hatchet with the Samajwadi Party.

Speculation is rife that the meetings are a run-up to the elections in Uttar Pradesh to be held next year. The Opposition — and here, for the time being at least, there is unanimity — wants to bid a cold farewell to the BJP. And, observers see a larger game-plan in the dinner diplomacy that has taken the capital by storm. There are also some who believe that Chatterjee’s house is going to be the launch-pad for a campaign to prop Jyoti Basu up for the post of the country’s President.

Chatterjee pooh-poohs all such suggestions. For a long time, the genial, Bolpur MP — whose rumbling baritone makes Jaswant Singh sound like a tenor — has been getting a negative feedback from the people on the Opposition’s haphazard way of functioning.

“The BJP, leading a 24-party government, is assiduously and nakedly carrying on with its communal agenda — with an eye on Article 370, the Uniform Civil Code and so on,’’ says Chatterjee. “And that is why we feel that the Opposition needs to put up a united front and strongly oppose the BJP. People look up to the Parliament, but feel that the Opposition has let the government off the hook,’’ he says.

Chatterjee set the ball rolling. His dinner and breakfast were followed by an iftaar party hosted by Samajwadi leader Amar Singh at Mulayam Singh’s residence on Wednesday. Sonia Gandhi turned up for the iftaar, and now the Samajwadis are all ready to grace Sonia’s iftaar party on December 11.

The fact that the exercise has been taken up by Chatterjee possibly accounts for the success it has met with so far. Unlike the party strongman, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who has for long years confabulated to keep the Opposition together, Chatterjee has never been seen as a power-broker. “That could be because most of Surjeet’s activities take place under the table, whereas Chatterjee’s has been all over the table,’’ says a Left watcher.

Elected to the fifth Lok Sabha three decades ago, Chatterjee is one of the most seasoned politicians in Lok Sabha today. “He is an articulate and a very respected Parliamentarian,’’ says Amar Singh.

So, not surprisingly, when Chatterjee broached the topic of a dinner with both Gandhi and Yadav — on different occasions, of course — both promptly agreed. Gandhi, in fact, went a step further and, without saying it in so many words, hinted at the kind of food she hoped to eat at the Chatterjee residence. “I love mustard fish made in the Bengali way,’’ she volunteered.

The dinner diplomacy, Chatterjee believes, is going to be a “social and polite way’’ of working together. “I don’t expect Sonia Gandhi and Mulayam Singh to sit next to each other and at once start talking about UP elections,’’ he says. “All I am looking out for is better floor coordination in Parliament so that the government doesn’t get away with all that it’s doing because of a weak Opposition,’’ he says.

Among the many issues Chatterjee expects a united Opposition to take up are POTO, disinvestment, Ayodhya and George Fernandes. “The acts of the NDA — which is like a railway platform with people coming in and going away at will — have to be effectively countered,’’ he says.

The 72-year-old senior advocate, who battled away in court for the Marxists before he fought an election on a party card, seems rather happy with the effort. People — from politicians to voters — have been calling him up to express support for a united front. But the best accolade, Chatterjee says, came from a flower-seller a few days ago.

Chatterjee, on his way to a wedding, stopped to buy a bouquet from a pavement florist. “But the man refused to take money from me. Thanks to television, he recognised me and said: ’Nahin, saab, aapney itna kuch kiya, un logon ko ek saath bithaya, aap sey hum paise kaise lenge (You have done so much, got those people to sit together, so how can I charge you).’’’ An embarrassed Chatterjee left a note behind and hurried away.

“I was so moved,’’ says Chatterjee. “But this is clearly what the people want,’’ he says.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

A time to act

Sir — After the United States of America’s war against terrorism, it is now the turn of the Israelis. The news report, “Toughest test stares at Arafat” (Dec 4), has aptly summed up the dilemma of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who is facing the toughest challenge of his political career. His failure to control terrorist groups like Hamas which is responsible for the current spate of suicide attacks in Israel has made him unpopular in Washington. Arafat is aware that his failure to take a strong stand against terrorism may result in a situation similar to that of Afghanistan and may invite further foreign intervention. The air strikes launched by Israel are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Yours faithfully,
Arunima Roy, via email

Insane moments

Sir — The article, “Not the season for sanity” (Nov 23), is both contradictory and prejudiced. It seems that Ashok Mitra has allowed his leftist sensibilities to influence his understanding of the Kashmir issue. On the one hand he impugns the diplomatic failures of the Indian government and is afraid that they may try to offer the Americans port facilities and military bases as a last desperate gambit while on the other he praises Pervez Musharraf for doing the same thing. Musharraf has exploited the present situation in order to wrangle economic aid from the United States of America. And as far as its war against terrorism is concerned, Pakistan is strategically more important to the US than India.

One is not sure what to make of Mitra’s suggestion that Kashmir should be made into a sovereign state and play the role of a buffer state. Does Mitra genuinely believe that democracy will prevail in Kashmir? It is doubtful whether non-Muslims will find a place in independent Kashmir. No doubt the idea of a separate Kashmir will appeal to both the extremists and the people of Kashmir. It is not difficult to see why India has not contemplated this step. The loss of Kashmir will be followed by that of Punjab, Nagaland, Manipur and other states as it will encourage secessionist movements here.

Yours faithfully,
Neeraj Kumar, Ranchi

Sir — Ashok Mitra’s latest tirade against the US makes very little sense. As a retired soldier of the Indian army who had the privilege of fighting in two India-Pakistan wars over Kashmir, I must object to some of his statements. According to Mitra, Kashmir is “occupied territory” and the Indian military personnel “rule the roost” there.

Mitra’s views on Kashmir are not erroneous and biased. Perhaps he does not quite appreciate the sacrifices made by the Indian armed forces, who are forced to brave the inclement weather and high altitude. In fact, one can even go to the extent of saying that Mitra is being deliberately provocative.

Yours faithfully,
J.K. Dutt, Calcutta

Sex and the Indian

Sir — It was shocking to read the news report, “From battlefields to bedrooms, one superpower reigns”(Nov 28). Surveys like the one mentioned in the report are nothing more than a publicity gimmick and are misleading and sensational. Further, the report also displays a complete lack of sensitivity towards the Indian ethos. It encourages what is known as “apasanskriti”.

Yours faithfully,
Jitendra Kumar, Calcutta

Sir — The report, “From battlefields to bedrooms, one superpower reigns” reinforced a few existing stereotypes. For example, according to the survey, men are more sexually active than women and are less faithful than the latter. Not only have Indians become more sexually active, but are also having sex from a younger age than before. This points towards the changing face of Indian society.

Yours faithfully,
Nitu Trivedi, via email

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