Editorial/ Capital conversion
Stirred but not shaken
This above all/ Love speaks many languages
People/ Mayavati
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL/ CAPITAL CONVERSION 
 
 
 
 
With the east Asian currency crisis, all talk of capital account convertibility had disappeared from the policymaker’s screen. The issue has resurfaced thanks to the budget and the export-import policy. The budget has proposals on convertibility for non-resident Indians and more automatic approvals for Indian companies or mutual funds wishing to invest abroad, apart from pre-payment of external commercial borrowings. The exim policy has additional suggestions for units in special economic zones. In both cases, specific guidelines from the Reserve Bank of India are still awaited. Exchange rate changes were a major strand of post-1991 reforms and India moved from an administered exchange rate to a market-determined one. Simultaneously, the rupee became convertible on the trade account, then the current account, and in 1997, the Tarapore committee had prepared a roadmap for transition to capital account convertibility before the east Asian currency crisis intervened.

A few points need to be made about these changes. Changes in the exchange control regime are linked to exchange rate fluctuations. While the thrust of the reforms package was on non-debt creating capital inflows, the Resurgent India Bond scheme in 1998-99 and the India Millennium Deposit scheme in 2000-01 were negations of this proposition. This artificial stimulation of foreign exchange reserves was dysfunctional and exerted an upward pressure on the value of the rupee. The rupee has appreciated against competing currencies and this is not evident from tracking the dollar/rupee rate alone. Such an appreciation hurts India’s exports and a key policy question is how rupee depreciation can be engineered, given that the exchange rate is now market determined.

Capital account convertibility primarily means liberalization of outflows since there are very few restrictions on inflows. It is true that the distinction between current account and capital account is artificial. In many countries, clearances are required above a certain threshold, regardless of the type of transaction. But is India ready for such a transition? The Foreign Exchange Management Act preserves the distinction between current and capital accounts and proposes current account liberalization with capital account controls. There ought to be a distinction between capital account liberalization for the corporate sector and for individuals. The reforms attempt has focussed on progressive liberalization for the corporate sector while maintaining controls for individuals. An argument can be advanced that this prevents competition and deepening of the forex market. But is throwing open the capital account lid for individuals plausible? From the point of view of popular perception, it needs to be appreciated that capital account convertibility is not a sudden and overnight step. Instead, there is phased and staggered liberalization with some transactions being thrown open before others. In general, wrong lessons were drawn from the east Asian currency crisis and capital account convertibility disappeared from the reforms agenda. That it is back on the agenda, courtesy the budget and the exim policy, is welcome.

   

 
 
STIRRED BUT NOT SHAKEN 
 
 
BY PRATAP BHANU MEHTA
 
 
The author is professor of philosophy, law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi The crescendo of debate that has followed the disastrous events in Gujarat seems to be finally stirring the Congress into action. The Congress is trying, not only to position itself as an alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party, but also to reclaim some of the ideological ground that historically made it the natural ruling party of the secular republic of India. It might seem that the Congress has a lot going for it. It has more state governments than all other parties combined. The Congress ought also to be a beneficiary of a palpable sense of electoral disenchantment with the BJP. The passage of time also seems to have made the Congress less vulnerable to the charge that it was associated with some of the most manipulative communal politics this country has ever seen. It seems that the time is propitious for the Congress to reposition itself. But the obstacles to the Congress emerging as a formidable national force are immense. The mathematics of elections suggests that although the Congress is important, it is still not in a position to go it alone at the Centre. It still has only a meagre presence in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In another big state, Maharashtra, splits and factional discords have weakened the party, as we saw in the recent municipal elections. Its fate in Gujarat is anybody’s guess and in Madhya Pradesh it might still be vulnerable to an anti-incumbent sentiment. Without these key states, the electoral arithmetic still looks daunting. The Congress also has the distinctive disadvantage of being the party least capable of working out alliances and seat-sharing arrangements, because it is not as regionally concentrated as the BJP is.

Second, although there are murmurings within the party that the Congress should go back to its core principles and secular ideology, the simple fact is that it has not been able to do much to deepen and widen its social base as a party. In north India, at least, it still has a hard time attracting large numbers of Muslims and Dalits. Digvijay Singh is valiantly trying to consolidate a Dalit constituency through the Bhopal initiative and a new round of transferring surplus grazing land to Dalit landless peasants. This is a potentially fruitful strategy but is unlikely to pay dividends in UP and Bihar, as the recent elections just demonstrated. Building a new social coalition requires a distributive agenda and, barring a few initiatives at the state level, the Congress does not have one. Given the way in which they were targeted in Gujarat, Muslims are likely to look for a party that has the organizational means to protect them on the ground. In UP that party continues to be the Samajwadi Party rather than the Congress. It is unlikely therefore that even with a cleaner image the Congress will be able to widen its social base considerably.

Third, the Congress party organization is still in a shambles. Again, with the exception of three or four states, the Congress party organization is still too top-down for it to be sensitive to local issues. The Congress’s behaviour in Utaranchal is an indication that its leadership still does not trust state level units, even ones that have delivered victory, to sort out their own affairs. Party centralization has historically been the Congress’s undoing. The fact that there is no credible rival to her within the Congress ought to make Sonia Gandhi confident enough to grant state units the autonomy necessary to make them strategically successful. But there is little sign that Sonia Gandhi has learnt from the Congress’s past mistakes. Rather than institutionalizing effective intra-party democracy, which is the surest way to regenerate the party and allow a credible crop of local leaders to emerge, the Congress leadership still behaves as if it were omnipotent.

Even at the national level, there is too much of a sense of an electorally insipid and politically unimaginative coterie being given too much space. In any debate it is quite apparent that the Congress, on the whole, lacks a second tier of leaders who are articulate enough to explain where the Congress stands. It used to be said that anyone who is capable of thinking would not join the BJP. But just witness Kamal Nath or S. Jaipal Reddy being pummelled by smart BJP bulldogs like Arun Jaitley, or put the ponderous Pranab Mukherjee beside Arun Shourie on economic matters, or the archaic K. Natwar Singh beside Jaswant Singh on foreign policy and you have a sense of who has the rhetorical advantage. And this is in circumstances where the force of the argument is on the side of the Congress. This consideration becomes more important for a party whose leader is herself, to put it mildly, sparing in her use of words. The result is that on issues as diverse as scandals, economic slowdown, law and order, the Congress seems incapable of capitalizing on its advantage. Indeed, on most issues it does not seem to be consolidating a constituency.

So the Congress’s last hope remains that of an ideological repositioning on the issue of secularism. But it is doubtful that this is an electorally winning strategy. It may be true that the mask has fallen off Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s face and that the BJP has suffered reverses in recent elections. But I am pessimistic enough to believe that the Indian electorate has moved so far right that it will not vote a party in or out based on its secular credentials alone. A few weeks after the Gujarat riots, the BJP is all set to gain a significant Dalit political partner. And the very ambivalent response of large numbers of Hindus to the carnage in Gujarat suggests that we should not take it for granted that openly partisan and murderous communal politics will discredit the BJP to the extent we like.

This is for the simple reason that majoritarian communalism is easily able to present itself as nationalism. The logic-defying sense that Hindus are uniquely the victims in Indian history is too widespread and will not easily disappear. If the BJP convention in Goa is any indication, the BJP plans to exacerbate that feeling of vulnerability by creating a combustible atmosphere. It is not clear that the Congress has the organizational tools to combat these portents of further carnage on the ground. Its attempts to reclaim secularism, even if sincere, will remain at the level of a political cliché, rather than a social movement around which a new political coalition can emerge. This does not mean that the BJP cannot suffer huge electoral reversals. But it will not do so simply on account of what happened in Gujarat, and it would be foolish for the Congress to assume this to be the case.

For the Congress to emerge as a credible force it will have to return to the basics of politics. It will have to restore organizational strength, widen its social base, articulate a credible programme, and present a collective leadership that seems capable of governing. Despite a wonderful political opening the Congress is still too far from these objectives. In their absence whatever gains the Congress hopes to make will be limited, and governed more by the vagaries of anti-incumbent sentiments and the mathematics of state-level contests than by the intrinsic merits and robustness of its claims to govern.

The author is professor of philosophy, law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

   

 
 
THIS ABOVE ALL/ LOVE SPEAKS MANY LANGUAGES 
 
 
BY KHUSHWANT SINGH
 
 
Of the galaxy of great poets of the Urdu language, the three most translated into foreign languages are Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz, in that order. And for very good reasons. Each of the trio excelled as a poet of a particular theme: Ghalib for his love poetry, Iqbal for his patriotic and Islamic fervour, Faiz as a leftist and revolutionary who was jailed many times by the Pakistan governments. All three had sound knowledge of Arabic and Persian and composed poetry in Persian before they opted for Urdu to reach out to the common masses.

Faiz has been translated into English by quite a few scholars, the most successful of whom was the Scotsman, V.G. Kiernan, who for some years taught English at the Aitchison Chiefs college, Lahore. Besides having an Indian wife, Kiernan had the great advantage of knowing Faiz and interacting with him. His selection remains the paradigm of what translations from one language to another should be. The only justification of attempting a fresh translation is if the translator can improve on those done earlier. Sarvat Rahman wisely avoided trying her hand on most of those already done by Kiernan, thus tacitly admitting that Kiernan cannot be bettered. However, she includes one which most Faiz’s admirers know by heart and have tried to put in English words:

Raat yun dil men teri khoi hui yaad aai
Jaisey wiraney mein chupkey sey bahaar aajaaae
Jaisey sehraon mein hawley say chaley bad-e-naseem
Jaisey bimaar ko be-wajaa qaraar aajaae

Sarvat Rahman translates the verse as follows:

(Last night, your long-lost memory came back to me as though/ Spring stealthily should come to a forsaken wilderness/ A gentle breeze its fragrance over burning deserts blow / Or, all at once be soothed somehow the sick soul’s distress.)

Another favourite is Faiz’s poem on his disillusionment with freedom: Sub-’h-e-Azadi 1947. I quote three verses with Rahman’s renderings into English:

Ye daagh daagh ujaala,ye shab gazi da sahar
Wo intizaar the jis ka, ye wo shar to nahin
Yeh wo sahar to nahin jis ki aarzoo lay kar
Chaley tthey yaar key miljaegi kahin na kahin
Falak kay dasht mein taroon ki akhiri manzil
Kahin to hoga shab-e-sust gam ka saahil
Kahin to jakey lageyga safina-e-ghum-e-dil.

(This blemished light, this dawn by night half-devoured,/ Is surely not the dawn for which we were waiting/ This cannot be the dawn in quest of which, hoping/ To find it somewhere, friends, we all set out./ In the deserts of the sky, beyond the stars’ last flight,/ Must be the shore of the ocean of slow-moving night/ A haven where the heart’s load of pain may alight.)

Suna hai ho bhi chukaa hai firaaq-e-zul mat-o-noor
Suna hai ho bhi chukaa hai wasal-e-manzil-o-gaam
Badal chuka hai bahut ahle-dard ka dastoor
Nishat-e-wasl hallal-o-azab-e-hijr haraam

(Light and dark have been parted, it is now maintained;/ Footsteps have found their path, and their home attain,/ Changed are the rules for the brotherhood of pain,/ Woes of parting forbidden, joys of meeting unconstrained.)

Abi garaani-e-shab mein kami nahin aaee
Nijat-e-dida-o-dil ki ghari nahin aaee
Chale chalo ke wo manzil abhi nahin
aaee

(The darkness of the night has not yet waned,/ Heart and eyes their freedom have not yet obtained,/ Let us go on, for the goal has not yet been attained.)

Sarvat Rahman is a doctor of medicine. She spent many years in Paris on medical research. At the same time, she spent the time she could spare working on Faiz’s poems. The outcome is 100 Poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Besides the original in Urdu, the poems are transliterated in Roman for the benefit of those who cannot read the Arabic script and a glossary of the more difficult words appended. The book is a must for every library and home where Urdu is cherished.

Survival of the fittest

Mathura Das Pahwa was the most sought after physician of Lahore in the years before Partition. More than his skills as a doctor, it was his perpetual cheerfulness which taught his patients to look at the sunnier side of life. Among his closest friends was Rai Bahadur Ishwar Das, Registrar of Punjab University, who usually took a very melancholic view of the world. I often ran into Mathura Das in Ishwar Das’s home. After assuring Ishwar Das that there was nothing wrong with him, he would recite his favourite couplet in Urdu:
Meyrey Yaar, patang Uraya Kar
Kat Jaee to gham na khaaya Kar

(My friend, always fly your kite high in the sky/ If, by chance, its string is cut and it falls apart/ Do not let it get you down, do not take it to heart.)

Strangely enough, this brought a brief smile on Ishwar Das’s face. But while he often quoted these lines to other people, he himself relapsed into his gloomy world. On the other hand his son, Prem Kirpal, repeats the same lines and though now deaf and confined to a wheel-chair, he remains a cheerful nonagenarian. All one can conclude is that a formula for survival may work with one person but not with another.

The world has become a gloomy place to live in. India gloomier than other countries. And in India, Gujarat has become the gloomiest state. Where it appears, goondas now outnumber good people. They lay rough hands on a saintly person like Medha Patkar and the beautiful danseuse Mallika Sarabhai. The police officer who tried to protect them has been transferred. I have strongly criticized Patkar and Arundhati Roy’s stand on the Narmada issue without losing respect for them. In Gujarat, they have lost respect for life as well as respect for women of virtues. My hackles rise when I hear people defending or trying to explain what is happening in Gujarat. They say media reports are biased. My own reactions are that they are fair. I have enormous admiration for people like Rajdeep Sardesai, Pachauri, Barkha Dutt and others who have the guts to confront hate-mongers in their dens.

On the other hand, there is my friend Prafulla Goradia, who has coined a new expression for people like me — anti-Hindu Hindus. I want to spit back and call the likes of him — anti-Indian Hindus. Do we have to say nasty untruths about Muslims to prove we are not anti-Hindu? The upsurge of anger does me no good. On the contrary, it raises my blood pressure to a dangerously high level. I let my anger cool down and my BP returns to normal. I realize that there is little or nothing I can do about bringing people round to my point of view, except keep repeating “You are wrong, I am right.” I leave it to that and like Mathura Das Pahwa continue to fly my kite high in the Indian sky.

   

 
 
PEOPLE/ MAYAVATI 
 
 
 
 

To the chair born

It’s not official as yet but there is no denying that Mayavati, chief operations officer of Bahujan Samaj Party, is Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister-in-waiting. At a time when several allies in the BJP-led national coalition are re-evaluating their future roles in the alliance of convenience, the 46-year-old BSP leader has no qualms about holding hands with a party which, many believe, is responsible for the unabating Gujarat communal violence.

Battling communalism is not high on the pragmatic and politically calculating Mayavati’s wish list. ‘Bahenji’ — as everyone in her party calls her — is well aware that only state power can keep a political party like the BSP alive and happy. And the existing political arithmetic of the national government and the social equations within the northern Indian state have again combined to ensure that she gets a third shot at the post of chief minister. The former school teacher, who is fond of eating Chinese noodles while, believe it or not, watching MTV, has again outsmarted her opponents.

To the millions of Dalits who are spread across the 403 assembly seats of Uttar Pradesh and who form her core constituency, it hardly matters who Mayavati allies with. For them, the fact remains that Mayavati single-handedly took her party’s tally to a whopping 98 seats in the state assembly from a modest 69 in the 1996 round, despite the BSP mastermind Kanshi Ram being indisposed at that time. In fact, the actual figure was just 50 as 19 had defected to support the BJP.

For them, what matters is that while most political parties had roped in star campaigners from different parts of the country, Mayavati all by herself had mapped the length and breadth of the state for the BSP. And, for them, what is significant is that upper caste men do not block their wedding processions and ask the groom to get off the horse ever since she became the first Dalit woman chief minister back in 1995.

The only thing that really matters to them is whether Mayavati becomes the chief minister again or not. “Intellectuals in Delhi and other metropolitan cities would like to see her alliance with the BJP as an alliance with Hindutva forces, a sort of secular betrayal. But the Dalits in Uttar Pradesh would see this as a way of power sharing with upper castes,” says Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad.

At the root of her decision lies a pragmatic approach that extends to all aspects of her politics. Having realised that exclusivist caste politics had its limitations, she fielded 82 Muslim candidates and a large number of upper caste Brahmins and Thakurs. And while her contempt for manuvaad remained, she chose to redefine it. “By manuvaad, I do not mean everyone who was born upper caste, but anyone who discriminates against lower and downtrodden castes,” she repeatedly underlined at recent public meetings.

There have been allegations of corruption against her. Mayavati has been accused of selling BSP election tickets to the highest bidder but the feisty former school teacher is quite forthcoming on the matter. According to her, no industrialist or business house supports the party and everybody needs finances to run a political party. In other words, the end justifies the means.

But even her most vicious critics admit that during her two brief reigns, she managed to instil fear into the recalcitrant bureaucracy. Her first stint, when at the age of 39 she became the youngest Uttar Pradesh chief minister, lasted a mere four-and-half months but even the short rule ensured that many Dalit villages had a taste of water, electricity and navigable roads for the first time since Independence. “Her votes double everytime she has a stint in the government,” says a political observer.

One doesn’t know whether the 14 Muslim MLAs in her party would now be squirming at the idea of breaking bread with the BJP, but many still remember that as the head of the state government she had taken a firm stand in protecting the Shahi Idgah in Mathura and in repulsing workers from the the BJP and the VHP.

As a political leader, there runs an authoritarian streak in Mayavati. Party workers are not allowed to sit before her on a chair, instead they squat on the ground. Any form of dissent is dealt with a heavy hand. Even senior BSP leaders Barkhu Ram Verma and R.K. Chaudhary, who had stood by her on June 2, 1995 when she was allegedly attacked by Samajwadi Party workers at the State Guest House in Lucknow, were expelled for anti-party activities. and she has allowed no second-rung leadership to emerge.

The past year-and-a-half has also seen Mayavati undergo a change in appearance. From an oiled pony-tailed look to the closely cropped ‘boy cut’ look in the new millennium. But Mayavati says the change has been prompted by compulsion rather than fashion: “It is only for convenience. You save so much time”.

But other changes too have swept over the girl who was born into a poor family in Badalpur village in Ghaziabad district bordering Delhi. She first met Kanshi Ram in 1977 at a jati-todo meeting. By then she had earned a degree in law and had completed her B. Ed. She was working as a school teacher but wanted to become a bureaucrat. As the story goes, Kanshi Ram had told her, “Forget the civil services. I will give you a career where all these IAS officers will be at your beck and call.”

Now three eventful Lok Sabha stints later, where the BSP played a crucial role in bringing down the BJP government, Mayavati is again ready for a new innings. It is not going to be easy. But one is sure that by the time she is through, the BSP leader would have given many sleepless nights to the BJP as she has done in the past.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Age of experience

Sir — Age has never been a bar in Indian politics (“Basu back in charge of ‘family reunion’”, April 17). With the formation of the People’s Front, the former chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, has once again become the most sought after politician, with senior leaders like V.P. Singh and H.D. Deve Gowda seeking his counsel. Given Basu’s versatility and experience, it would not be surprising if he manages to stitch together a viable coalition against the Bharatiya Janata Party. If he is successful, Basu would be back in the hotseat. And with a little bit of luck, he might even become the prime minister this time round.
Yours faithfully,
Anima Goswami, Pune

What’s in the loot?

Sir — Parimal Bhattacharya is right in pointing out that the rampant looting of upmarket shops and the showrooms of designer brands during the Gujarat riots is a symptomatic effect of the lavish and unrealistic lifestyle portrayed in Hindi films and in advertisements (“To make neighbours envious”, April 10). The author’s point is well taken because the incidents described in the article involve looters from affluent middle-class families. But incidents of looting are not difficult to come by, and occur almost regularly after train accidents.

That advertisements play an important role in influencing behaviour patterns is clear from catchlines such as “Neighbours envy, owners pride”. There is no question about the fact that consumerism has become the new religion of the middle classes.

But how could Bhattacharya argue that most of these advertisements show the patriarchal joint family? Many don’t, and even when joint families are shown, the aim of an advertisement is to attract the consumer towards the product and nothing but that. Game shows and quiz shows have acquainted the middle classes, particularly the youth, with shortcuts to wealth. But the one option that is still available to the consumer is to refuse to barter his humanity for consumerist joys.

Yours faithfully,
S. De, Sodepur

Sir — Parimal Bhattacharya must be congratulated for exposing the ugly face of the consumerist Indian middle class. Thanks to the efforts made by business houses, advertising agencies and the media, possession of luxuries and the latest gadgets has become the signature of the middle class, more important than human values and intellect. Thus, a garment store can boldly assert that a man is known by the place from where he shops, while a cement manufacturer stresses that a person’s social status or identity is shaped by the place he lives in.

The consumer today is bombarded by such advertisements which place no importance on moral values. The middle-class consumer is urged to be free of moral compunctions and go all-out to satisfy his greed.

Yours faithfully,
K. Chatterjee, Sodepur

Yet to develop

Sir — The deplorable conditions of Katnara area near Bokaro Thermal Power station in Jharkhand requires immediate attention of the authorities. For the last 10 to 15 years, there has not been any development in this region whatsoever. The roads are abysmal because of the plying of heavy vehicles. As Katnara is a coal field area, a network of better roads is essential for easy transportation of coal. In telecommunications, the state of affairs is equally sad. Neighbouring areas are much better off. Why shouldn’t Katnara be too?
Yours faithfully,
Abhijit Kumar Dubey, Katnara

Sir — The residents of the Dohali village of Murshidabad are deprived of even the most basic amenities. Supply of electricity is irregular with frequent power thefts.

The story is the same for telephones. The long list of excuses provided by the inefficient telecom department perpetuates the problems. Despite the prime minister’s announcement that all villages would be connected to the national highways, much is still left to be done. Accepting that corruption and political high handedness will always be there, a little sincere effort to implement a proper development policy might help.

Yours faithfully,
S.N. Chakroborti, Murshidabad

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