Editorial / Queen’s man on raisina hill
Squabbling over a sweater
This above all / Talk nineteen to the dozen
People / Ricky Martin
Letters to the editor

The term, “constitutional monarchy’’, somewhat a contradiction in terms, does not owe its currency to Walter Bagehot, the acknowledged authority on the English constitution. It was popularized by Thomas Babington Mac- aulay in his History of England. It was a peculiar English compromise: an attempt to preserve the gains of the republic, set- up in the 1650s, and the traditions of the monarchy; an attempt to interpolate dem- ocracy into hereditary aristocratic rule. The Queen of Great Britain, who just completed 50 years of her reign, rules by the consent of parliament and is fettered by her financial dependence on the House of Commons. She has, in the memorable words of Bagehot, “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, [and] the right to warn”. Yet, the institution of monarchy provides a sense of continuity with the past and the queen embodies in many ways the identity of the British people. In this way, to echo Bagehot again, the monarchy “does more than it seems”. This secrecy and enigma surrounding the monarchy contributes to its magic and the appeal of the queen and the royal family. This was on display when Diana, princess of Wales, died, and again more recently, in the tremendous popular appeal of the golden jubilee celebrations.

In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch is the head of the state while the prime minister, as the elected representative of the people, is the head of the government. There is no apparent tension between the two because the position of the head of the state is circumscribed by the power of the prime minister. In Britain, the queen, despite her weekly audience with the prime minister, has no effective political authority. India, after it achieved independence, decided to derive its constitution and its political conventions from the Westminster model. But India, a proud and self-proclaimed republic, did not have a monarch. The founding fathers of the Constitution chose to stay true to the spirit of Westminster by creating the office of the President, who would be elected by the representatives of the people through an arcane process. The office of President is fraught with contradictions. The occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan has very few powers. In practice, he toes the line of the elected government of the day. His office, unlike that of the Queen of Great Britain, has neither ceremony nor magic associated with it. Bereft of power, popular appeal and pomp, the President of India is a bit of an oddity in a polity wedded to democracy.

It is true that there have been presidents who have brought distinction to the office by the sheer force of their personality and erudition. The name of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who once famously patted Queen Elizabeth on her back in public, comes readily to mind. It is equally true that some others have degraded their office through their cravenness and their inability to put themselves above the political process. The President of India enjoys none of the traditional charisma that clings to the British monarchy. The queen is above her citizens; the president is primus inter pares in a democracy. The queen and the president are thus only connected by a jagged and broken line.


India cannot be the only American ally to wonder about the bloodcurdling threats that George W. Bush rattled off in his speech to West Point cadets last weekend. His vow to take “the battle to the enemy” by destroying “the worst threats before they emerge” might pose a more ominous challenge to global peace than the Kashmir crisis.

Bush’s exhortations to Pervez Mush- arraf to live up to his commitment on ending cross-border terrorism, reiterated in Thursday’s telephone call, exposes another contradiction in the American position. For, irrespective of his personal inclination, the jihad over Kashmir is the price Pakistan’s dictator must pay to keep supporters at home happy so that they allow him to play surrogate to the United States of America. Musharraf will have to be sacrificed if Bush really wants to live up to his West Point speech, which would include the end of Pakistan’s guerrilla campaign in Kashmir.

Great powers must sometimes pursue irreconcilable ends. Economic and military might invests them with responsibilities that clash with their national political agenda. But it is difficult to suppress the suspicion that the Afghanistan campaign, laudatory opinion polls at home and the absence internationally of a single critical voice have gone to our Dubya’s head.

No one in Asia will question his argument that “moral truth is the same in every culture.” It is especially welcome for, traditionally, the Christian West has assumed the opposite, holding that rectitude and integrity have different connotations east of Suez. But India might find itself forced into some extremely difficult choices if Bush sets himself up as a global Don Quixote, tilting at every windmill that he fancies is autocratic or Islamic or inimical to American interests.

The saving grace might be, as Tip O’Neill, the former democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, put it, that all politics is local. Many of Bill Clinton’s international initiatives were determined with an eye to his constituency. His successor might similarly be playing to Peoria, that being the geographical centre of his country and shorthand for Middle America.

He is also impelled not just to imitate his father but also to show the world that what dad could do, he can do better. “Read my ears” in 1994 was an obvious take-off on his father’s 1988 “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge. Similarly, Operation Enduring Freedom was Operation Desert Storm writ larger. Now, Bush is in effect threatening to revive his father’s dream of a new world order in which the US would have a special role to ensure political stability, civil freedom and human rights.

P.V. Narasimha Rao was one of the few to demur when the senior Bush mooted the plan in 1992. With Britain chairing the United Nations security council, John Major was enthusiastic. Francois Mitterand offered a contingent of French troops to operate as a flying squad for the great and the good. China objected on grounds of hegemonism, but Narasimha Rao more pertinently pointed out that the UN charter did not sanction such an innovation. Moreover, general assembly members should not be subject to a dispensation in whose creation they did not have a say.

The move petered out, but has been revived in a three-point plan for pre-emptive action that would inevitably also extend and strengthen Pax Americana. All great empires claim a noble mandate. Rome’s was to tame the barbarian; Britain’s to civilize the world. During the bleak Cold War years, the Soviet Union claimed to be defending socialism and the US what was called the free world.

Bush proclaimed at West Point that America “has no empire to extend, no utopia to establish,” but American writers have focussed lately on the administration’s assumption of imperial functions. The battle is said to have climbed into the realm of ideas. That is rich, coming from a man who thought the taliban was a band and that the people of Greece were Grecians. An American cartoon once had Dubya wondering why India and Pakistan were squabbling over a sweater, meaning cashmere.

His action programme includes pre-emptive action against terrorists and regimes that back them and, secondly, an end to the threat of war among great powers. The third promise actively to “promote moderation and tolerance and human rights” in the Islamic world and other places where freedom is in short supply could be the most contentious for two reasons.

First, Bush warns that since “the only path to safety is the path of action,” he will not wait for hostile developments. “If we wait for threats to materialize, we will have waited too long,” he says, because “containment is not possible.” This presumption of adverse intentions holds the danger of the innocent being lumped with the guilty. Second, the all-important question of definition and discretion might lead to morality being invoked to pay off national scores, as judge, jury and executioner are all rolled into one bearded figure in a frock coat whose top hat is emblazoned with the stars and stripes.

It is praiseworthy to “call evil by its name” and pledge to “lead the world in opposing it.” But who is evil? When Bush speaks of “evil and lawless regimes”, he probably has Iraq in mind, followed by Iran, Syria, Libya and Sudan, though not necessarily in that order. The governments of these countries may be hostile to the US but does that make them enemies of mankind? That would mean extending the old axiom that what is good for General Motors is good for America to insist that what is good for America is good for the world.

Bush’s worthy rationale for further strikes like those that freed Afghanistan from the taliban’s clutches is that the defender of the free must go to the rescue of “the peoples of Islamic nations who want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation”. But which peoples and which nations fall into that net apart from the five we know of?

Kuwait, whose al Sabah dynasty the last Bush presidency helped to reinstate, can hardly be held up as the ideal democracy. Though now in the vanguard of the battle for liberty, the central Asian republics remain as authoritarian as they were under Soviet rule, and are often under the same authority. And what about personal, political and religious rights in the austere theocracy of Saudi Arabia which is a major supplier of the oil without which Western and US power would crumble?

Pakistan presents the biggest contradiction of all. As in the late Seventies and early Eighties when Islamabad was Washington’s proxy in the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghan- istan, the Americans repeatedly applaud Pakistan as a frontline state in the battle for freedom. Musharraf has inherited the mantle of Zia ul-Haq, who too rode roughshod over democracy but was nevertheless America’s most allied ally. A sort of respectability can still be wrung from the notion (reiterated by Colin Powell and others) that the taliban and al Qaida remnants, as well as home-grown fundamentalists, are Musharraf’s implacable foes, and that he alone holds the bridge against mobs and mullahs.

For how long can such self-serving fiction be trotted out? There may be some truth in the claim that Pakistani extremists are not entirely enamoured of Musharraf’s military regime. But that is because, for starters, they want him to be much less accommodating to the US military. He defends himself against them not by publicly justifying American bases and troops and even less by invoking secular liberalism, but by pandering to national chauvinism by taking a rigid stand on Kashmir and against India.

Bush must resolve that dichotomy if he is to be taken seriously. Pakistan will be the touchstone for India of the seriousness of his West Point speech.


One thing I look forward to in these infernally hot and dusty days is to escape to the club bathing pool and stay in the water for one hour to cool off for the evening. One thing which often deters me from doing so is the presence of a retired colonel. No sooner I enter the changing room, he starts talking to me. I have to extricate myself to take a shower. He follows me into the pool and continues talking. One pause and I plunge into the water to do my prescribed quota of lengths. He awaits me in the changing room and resumes talking while I change into dry clothes. He continues his monologue till I leave the club to return home.

What makes some people compulsive talkers? I try to find an appropriate word to describe them. Talkative, monologist, soliloquist, loquacious, garrulous, chatter-box — none of them quite fit the people I have in mind. In the end I opt for monologist as the closest to what I have experienced. I drew up a list of monologists I encountered. I found that without exception, though somewhat tedious, they were well-meaning and likeable. Also, men far outnumbered women. The only woman put on my list happens to be the most likeable of the lot, the writer Ajit Cour. Whenever she deigns to visit me, she becomes the life and soul of the party because when she sets off talking, there are no awkward moments of silence. She flies off in different directions to return to her main theme only to fly off again. The remaining on my list are men. They can be divided into communists and retired soldiers. At one time I could boast of being a close friend of the late Danial Latifi. He was an absolute gentleman but when he got talking, his monotonous voice had a soporific effect which could lull his audience to sleep. Comrade Jagjit Singh Anand is of a different mould. He assumes you know nothing about Marxism, the class struggle and the evils of capitalist imperialism. He sets about teaching you with the zeal of a Christian missionary sermonizing about the gospel.

Retired soldiers have high place on my list, the topmost being the late general Nathu Singh. Everyone in my family loved him. But once he got going, we had to take turns to listen to him. Then there was Pratap Singh who became governor of Goa. I happened to be on the same flight from Goa to Delhi. He ordered his aide-de-camp to change places with me. And talked non-stop for the two hours that took us to get to Delhi. He was kind enough to give me a lift in his car to my flat which is close to Goa Bhavan. His sons have inherited some qualities from their father. Once general Himmat Singh Gill accosted me on the road in Kasauli. He asked me if he could drop on me for five minutes next morning. He came and launched on a long bit of advice in what I should be writing. Enough of boobs, bottoms and tits, he said, if you have nothing better to write about, leave it to people like me who write on serious matters. His five minutes stretched out to an hour and a half. His brother Manohar Singh Gill is also never short of words but it is a pleasure to hear him because he is about the most erudite of civil servants I know.

Two retired diplomats on my list are Ranbir Singh and Jagat Mehta. Ranbir is Rajkumari Amrit Kaur’s nephew. He used to visit Delhi every winter and without prior warning descend on me and regale me with stories of valour of his Sikh ancestors. I got tired of hearing them, year after year, and once asked my servant who had gone to answer the door bell to say he should make an appointment before he called.

Jagat was among the brightest of men in our foreign service. He ended his distinguished career as foreign secretary. He would have been our ambassador to Germany if he had not fallen foul of Indira Gandhi. During his tenure as foreign secretary, he signed more treaties with foreign countries than all other foreign secretaries put together. He is very upset with the way our government has handled Afghanistan. He has written a book on the subject, The March of Folly in Afghanistan: 1978-2001. The last time he dropped in he told everyone about it. They were not interested.

Most of the talkers are blissfully unaware of being long-winded. That reminds me of my fellow villager Nazar Hayat Tiwana, son of Khizr Hayat Tiwana, once the prime minister of Punjab. It was Nazar who first made me conscious of endless talkers. It was impossible to stop him. I began to make excuses to avoid him. One day he said to me, “My wife says I talk too much.” And waited for me to contradict the statement. I kept mum.

Long lost daughter

Sometime in 1983 I happened to be in Calcutta staying at the Airport Hotel: I often chose to stay in airport hotels when in Bombay or Calcutta to avoid traffic jams and be in time to catch flights back to Delhi. Being a good distance from the city, it also saved me from compulsive callers. However, this time I was rung up and a very girlish voice asked me if she could see me for a few minutes: I invited her over for a cup of tea. An hour later she arrived with her father. Her name was Piyali, she was in the first year of college; her father was Pradip Sengupta who was an established scientist and an entrepreneur. I don’t recall why she or her father came to see me, but thereafter the process of bonding began. Whenever Piyali or her father were in Delhi, they came to see me. Whenever I was in Calcutta, I invited them over to join me for a meal. Piyali began to address me as chacha; I was flattered and began to look upon her as my Bengali daughter.

Piyali got her degree and a doctorate. She invited me to her wedding on March 1, 1994. I went to Calcutta. Her father was busy with the bandobast; the baraat had yet to arrive. I was escorted to the ladies chamber where Piyali was being decked up as a bride. She embraced me warmly; I waived my packet of kanyadaan over her head and gave it to her. I was overcome by emotion and left abruptly. I felt like any father would when giving away his daughter in marriage. Piyali’s husband, Saurav Sengupta, was with Dupont posted in Willington Delaware. After a few weeks of their wedding they left for the United States of America. I assumed it would be the end of my close association with Piyali and her father. It was not so. Piyali made it a point to ring me up once a while to find out how I was doing. Once a year she came to visit her parents in Calcutta and made it a point to see me if she visited Delhi. She was there for a longer stay when her mother, Basanti, died on New Year’s day of 2001. Meanwhile I got to know her father better and learnt something about his distinguished career.

Pradip Sengupta was born in Silchar (Assam) in 1933. His father being an engineer in government service, the family moved from city to city. He graduated from St Xavier’s College, Calcutta and went on to IIT, Kharagpur where he topped in his class. He became a polymer scientist and joined the Indian Cable Company at Tatanagar. He was there for 17 years. He was involved in research projects and inventions in optic fibre, glass, ceramics, radiation, isotopes and much else. One passion we had in common was tackling crossword puzzles.

Last month Piyali was back in Calcutta. She rang me up to tell that her father was very ill and was in the intensive care of Suraksha hospital. She rang up everyday to tell me how he was doing. She did not call on May 21. She did the next morning and said in an anguished voice: “I lost baba yesterday”. Pradip was only 69.

In a few days Piyali returns to the US with her husband. It was my suggestion that in future she address me as baba and not chacha. She concurred because she is my Bengali daughter.



Living la vida celeb

When a man is on top of the world, he is bound to have a few enemies. Ricky Martin is no exception. The Latino sensation, who came over the world like a crazed El Nino with his single Maria, is the unenviable subject of a rather popular website — or hate site, to be more precise. It calls itself “Why Ricky Martin Should Burn in Rock ‘n’ Roll Hell”. An excerpt from one of the reasons offered by the site goes something like this: “He can sing. But there are millions who can sing. Because he can only sing and not write a song or play an instrument, we’ll get someone else to write a catchy tune…then we can begin the merchandising. This has all been done before, so the producers thought, ‘wait a minute…he’s Latin… he could sing Latin music…new wave Latin music!… that’s what we’ll do’.”

A slice of pure malice no doubt. A man who has been virtually hailed as the global ambassador of Latino — any form of music that has congas and timbales and is vaguely Hispanic in origin — can’t be a cleverly planned out industrial product. What’s more, he is charitable, and spiritual, as amply proved by his recent and earlier visits to India.

Two years back, even Ricky’s closest friends would have thought as much. Take the case of Robi Draco Rosa, one of Martin’s pals and co-author of the monumental hits Livin’ La Vida Loca and The Cup Of Life. When the 30-year-old Puerto Rican sensation decided to grace US President George W. Bush’s election victory festivities in early 2001, Rosa was shocked.

“Singing The Cup Of Life at George Bush’s inauguration is like playing the fiddle while Rome burns. This is a partisan act. This is a president who has people on his cabinet who would obstruct the exercise of civil rights and human rights. This is a betrayal of everything that every Puerto Rican should stand for,” he said.

Had Rosa scratched a little deeper, the decision wouldn’t have come as such a big surprise. After all, Martin is the king of all crossover artistes — a term generally used for performers who turn to English from their native tongues to sell their music to America. His Spanglish albums have as much Latin influence as heavy metal has metal. Like all other artistes of his genre (yes, even Carlos Santana in his new incarnation), Martin ruthlessly compromised on his art to ensure his success in white suburban America. Fernando Olvera, vocalist for the successful Mexican band Mana, sums it up well: “Ricky is a friend of mine but his music isn’t the real thing. Latin music is an ocean of sensation that Anglos haven’t yet discovered. I’m concerned. A lot of things that come to America end up like Ricky Martin.”

Martin, for one, sure did want to end up in the US. As Ricky Martin, a superstar. Born Enrique “Kiki” Martin IV and brought up in the middle-class suburbs of the Puerto Rican town of Hato Rey, the CEO of Ricky Martin Inc. managed his career in a way that was anything but vida loca.

Debuting in commercials at the age of seven, he joined boy-band Menudo, an eighties version of eye candy for drooling girls, as a teenager. But fame in the Spanish-speaking world didn’t count for much. Aiming for Uncle Sam’s patronage, Martin soon left the band and started working in American soaps and Broadway musicals. At the same time, he kept on releasing Latin albums and marketed them relentlessly all over the world. Except in the US. A move that ensured that he got the much coveted role of singing the FIFA World Cup ‘98 anthem and phenomenal publicity and album sales.

As Martin explains, “People asked ‘Why Europe now? Why go into Asia before America?’ Let’s put it this way: America is my doctorate. Europe and Asia… there I did my master’s.” When Martin finally hit his promised land in 1999 with his first English-language album (simply titled Ricky Martin), all the collective global hype rocketed him straight to Number One, where he remained lodged for several weeks.

By his own admittance, it was the euphoria that followed that made Martin turn to Indian mysticism, namely yoga and Buddhism. “Yoga came into my life with such perfect timing. It came into my life right before the Grammys [in 1999],” he says.

Good for him but what’s new? Stars from the Western hemisphere, from Madonna to Meg Ryan, worth a peek have run the spiritual mills to death. It’s a sort of a rite of passage for the bold and the beautiful — if you’re not in the namaste brigade, your stardom remains incomplete. And what better way to recover from the daily hangovers of life as a wild party. As one pop observer noted: “The spiritual side of the Catholic-reared Martin, nurtured with meditation and yoga breathing, co-exists with that of a wild adventurer who sky dives to break from the norm.”

Charity too is usual celebrity territory. So is the money that Martin Inc. will be making by selling the exclusive photo rights of the tour to the UK-based Hello! magazine, which is known for its “buying the star at any cost” policy. If there’s genuine conviction behind the football matches with the Calcutta kids, it has so far remained elusive. At least in his art. His songs — generally the pointer to the artiste’s inner self — are well, all about shaking your bon bon.

The Indian connection that perhaps runs much deeper is Sushmita Sen. She genuinely came close to the elusive Maria that Martin keeps talking about in many of his interviews. The two met at a festival in 1994, just after Sush had won the Miss Universe title. Martin was floored from the word go. Right after their very first date, he presented her with a “I Love You” teddy bear, which Sen fondly calls Ricky to this day. “I always wanted to meet a woman from that culture, and all of a sudden I have in front of me the first Miss Universe from India. It was like a dream,” Martin had said at that point of time.

The romance didn’t last too long and Sen refuses to comment on him these days. But when asked in a recent interview if she still keeps in touch, she replied: “Yeah, we do keep in touch.” But also added: “I don’t like the new look of his blonde hair. I’m happy that he’s got the success he so very much wanted. I just hope he’s not changed with all the adulation.” The Calcutta visit would have been the best opportunity to check out on that for the Bengali beauty. As for us, if Sush was here, no one’s telling.



She’s got her timing wrong

Sir — Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party and Bahujan Samaj Party formed an alliance to come to power in Uttar Pradesh, one had the idea that it wouldn’t last long. But who would have thought that barely a month later, things would reach such a pass (“Mayavati web snares BJP”, June 7). While local BJP leaders are chafing under the chief ministership of Mayavati, the lady hasn’t helped matters by scraping the much-vaunted reservation policy of her predecessor, Rajnath Singh. Mayavati, it seems, does not realize just how fragile the alliance is. Surely, her long experience in politics has taught her not to play with fire?

Yours faithfully,
Rama Sen, Calcutta

Games people play

Sir — Ramachandra Guha is a little too quick to jump to the conclusion that cricket has replaced football as the most popular game of Bengalis (“That other ball game”, June 1). The excitement that the football world cup generates even now in Calcutta and West Bengal belies this statement. Until June 30 when the current World Cup ends, every Bengali will rearrange his daily routine around the line-up of matches that day. In fact, on June 3, most Bengalis were more concerned about the outcome of the Brazil-Turkey match than the Indian cricket team’s victory over West Indies in the one-day international held that day.

Yes, the advent of satellite television and the rise of Sourav Ganguly have played an important part in making cricket so popular, but there is also another reason that has nothing to do with the “throwing over of proletarian loyalties”. The Indian football team is by no means at par with other international sides, and Bengalis try to compensate for this disappointment by supporting either Brazil or Argentina. But it was a different story earlier. The Indian football team had reached the semi-finals of the Olympics in 1956 and won the gold medal at the Asian games in 1962. Unfortunately, Indian football’s international standing has slipped so low that it can never hope to replicate its successes.

Now, players like Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar have filled the void left by players like Chuni Goswami and T. Balaram. The popularity of a game usually depends on the performance of individual players. For example, the growing popularity of chess can be attributed to the emergence of a player like Vishwanathan Anand. Until Indian football gets a “star” of the calibre of, say, Kapil Dev, it will continue to languish.

Yours faithfully,
Sujit De, Sodepur

Sir — Ramachandra Guha’s article takes us back to the golden era of Indian football. As Guha rightly points out, the decline of football has coincided with the rise of cricket and the emergence of players like Sourav Ganguly. It is interesting though that Guha does not mention Sachin Tendulkar, a Maharashtrian by birth but nonetheless no less popular among Bengalis.

Cricket popularity also has a lot to do with the glamour, prestige and money that is now synonymous with the game. The television boom in India in the early Nineties has also played a part. Television has not only brought the game into our living rooms, but it has also inspired in thousands of youngsters the desire to emulate the successes of their favourite heroes. The growing popularity of cricket is reflected in the mushrooming of para cricket clubs in every nook and corner. On bandh days, or on Sundays, it is cricket — not football — that we see young boys playing on empty streets.

Yours faithfully,
Ratula Mitra, Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — I would like to draw the authorities’ attention to the poor condition of Baguiati Road, which links V.I.P. Road to Jessore Road. The road is about 25 feet wide. It is lined with shops and even the footpath is occupied by hawkers, causing a great deal of inconvenience to pedestrians. The ever-increasing population of this area, coupled with the recklessly driven autorickshaws, has made matters worse. Not surprisingly, the road is almost always chock-a-bloc. The situation is particularly bad on festival days like Durga Puja and Poila Bais-akh. Will the civic authorities come up with a solution at the earliest?

Yours faithfully,
Debapriya Dutta, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
Third Floor, Godrej Building,
G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007
All letters [including those via email] should have the full name and full postal address of the sender

Maintained by Web Development Company