Editorial / Investing in disinvestment
London dreams of Bombay
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / INVESTING IN DISINVESTMENT 
 
 
 
 
Success, even a relative one, has its own price, especially if one is surrounded by non-achievers and mediocrities. Mr Arun Shourie, the minister for disinvestment, must be feeling the pinch of being successful. The word success is used here in a strictly relative sense. In the realm of disinvestment, Mr Shourie’s achievements have been neither spectacular nor substantive. Neither in terms of the number of companies privatized nor in terms of the amount of money brought into the exchequer through sales has the set target been met. But there are two points to be consi- dered when evaluating Mr Shourie’s performance as a minister. One — and this might well be the most important — is that he has not wavered from the task he has set himself. There has been no back-pedalling on his part under political pressure. He grasped the importance of privatization in the scheme of liberalization and then went about setting the pace for disinvestment. This is no mean achievement in India. Even the best policy-makers have floundered on the everlasting rock of populism. Mr Shourie’s achievements can only be compared to the unsurpassable work of Mr Manmohan Singh in the early Nineties when he used the prevailing circumstances and practically singlehandedly dismantled the socialist scaffolding of the Indian economy. Mr Shourie may have a few lessons to learn from the later phase of Mr Singh’s tenure as finance minister when he did succumb to political pressure.

The second point to underline in the context of Mr Shourie’s achievements is the flatness of the country around him. None of Mr Shourie’s ministerial colleagues can claim to have achieved anything that even remotely resembles Mr Shourie’s record in the ministry of disinvestment. The real site of liberalization should by definition be the finance ministry. This ministry under the current dispensation will be remembered for its rollbacks, for its rudderless movements between the tide of economic reforms and the quagmire of populism. There has been a reluctance on the part of the finance minister to take hard and unpo- pular decisions. Compared to this, Mr Shourie’s record has justifiably earned him the reputation of the best finance minister Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee has not had as yet. Other ministers in charge of portfolios important in the liberalization agenda — telecommunications, commerce, civil aviation — have often refused to move out of old and familiar grooves. Complacency has been compounded by a certain amount of backsliding on economic reforms.

Mr Shourie’s position is thus invidious. He runs the danger of being the victim of envy and the pettiness that envy invariably produces. More than that, in the second half of Mr Vajpayee’s tenure, the shadow of electoral results may fall on Mr Shourie’s keenness to push through reforms and disinvestment. Mr Shourie believes in privatization and reforms whereas most of his colleagues, including perhaps the prime minister, accept reforms as a compulsion. The difference between the two attitudes may well be the biggest obstacle to the rise and rise of Mr Shourie.

   

 
 
LONDON DREAMS OF BOMBAY 
 
 
BY SIMON PARKES
 
 
Here in England, all last week on the radio, they’ve been serializing Chris England’s book, From Balham to Bollywood. England, you may recall, acted as one of the upper class twit cricketers in Lagaan and his book tells an insider’s story of what shooting the film was like. The nifty alliteration of the title immediately got me hooked. I live in Balham (in south-west London), you see. But this book-reading on the BBC is simply one small element of a much wider, cultural alliteration that seems to have got Britain — or the British media, certainly — gripped in its jaw: the notion that Britain’s gone Bollywood-mad.

Consider these: the director of Britain’s fastest-grossing film is Gurinder Chadha; the fastest-selling record is Oasis’s The Hindu Times; Selfridge’s (after Harrods, London’s biggest and most prestigious department store) is doing a Bollywood promotion (subtitled “Drama, Emotion, Mascara, Devotion”) that takes in everything from food to sequinned old film-posters to a tacky recreation of Dimple Kapadia’s bedroom; there’s been an Indian film season at the National Film Theatre; last month’s Vanity Fair magazine saluted Bollywood; then there’s clothes, music, fashion, photograph-albums covered in sari material. Anything and everything where the possibilities exist for purple and lime-green and orange and fuchsia to clash together with a thin veneer of Indian filmi escapism is being touted as the next big thing.

The convergence of all the above is due to the main event, the one that will probably put all the others in the shade, the sun around which, all these planets revolve. I refer to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams, his new musical with music by A.R. Rahman and lyrics by Meera Syal, which opens on June 19. Although he’s had his fair share of flops (The Beautiful Game — about the role of football in Northern Ireland — never quite did the business at the theatre and closed early), generally Lloyd Webber is regarded as a wise reader of the runes. And the way he sees it right now? Well, it’s gotta be Bollywood, stupid.

It’s dizzying and uplifting and disturbing in equal measure to see how, by slapping the B-word on everything, there might be the thin chance of some extra revenue or kudos. Selfridge’s certainly haven’t been slow to realize that. I can’t think of any other reason how they could get away with charging £1,000 (Rs 70,000) for a dog-eared poster of Sholay with the addition of a bit of tinsel flung around the edges. As for Dimple Kapadia’s boudoir? Well, a hessian cushion with a few bits of mirrored glass embedded into it will set you back the princely sum of £170 (Rs 11,000). Wandering from floor to floor, taking in the food hall and the stingy single rack of Rohit Bal clothes, what struck me most was the energy and colour and sheer upfront nature of the displays. What I couldn’t answer was the nagging question of whether this had anything to do with representing any particular notion of what India — either a contemporary or historical version — might be about.

Let’s cut now to South Kensington and a week or so ago. I knew I’d arrived at the smart chic eaterie, Zaika, simply because I could see from at least 100 yards away a garlanded entrance (think wedding party) and the presence of one of only a handful of Ambassador cars to be found in London (belonging to hire-car firm, Karma Cabs). Zaika was hosting the launch party of Justine Hardy’s new book, Bollywood Boy (of course, what else?), an exposé of both Hrithik’s meteoric rise and that of the underworld his father got embroiled with. No great revelations as far as you’re all concerned, but brand new territory for most of us Brits. And it seemed to be a rather raj-loving assemblage of Brits who turned out — the only Indians I spotted were the waiters and Amit Roy. Certainly no sign of our boy, Hrithik, that’s for sure. This was very much theme-park India for the well-heeled. Bolts of silk had been strung up around the room (everything was pretty in pink). The food being served, just like the tenor of the evening, was bite-sized, easy-to-digest Indian.

So, why all this cultural appropriation? And why now? And what will be the fallout once we Brits get fed up with Bollywood (or, as is more likely to happen, realize that much of Bollywood is as crass and as formulaic as, well, Hollywood)? It’s too early to tell for the large part, but there are some acutely interesting little blips gathering momentum on the cultural radar.

Even allowing for its gross distortions, the one thing Bollywood does capture about India is its colour and energy — something that I often feel we British are particularly good at denying ourselves. The sheer palette of vibrant tones — even if we are talking about sari-silk-backed books — is totally at odds with the minimal approach that’s been peddled in Britain over recent years in everything from clothes to interiors to packaging. We’ve become a country that dresses in black, white, beige and maybe navy blue. We dress our homes the same way. It’s what has become known as “the subtraction of elegance”.

Certainly in London and other big cities, what we now crave and what is in short supply is Space. So, when we have it, we celebrate it by distilling it into its purest form: empty, bare and uncluttered. Twenty-first-century minimalism is, let’s face it, utterly at odds with virtually anything that might be exported out of India. These are very different sensibilities that often fly in the face of each other. If you’re bored with beige, so the style magazines are telling us, why not drape some Murshidabad silk round your room?

What this cultural awareness is now also doing is helping give a greater voice to the one-point-something-million British Asians who, until very recently, had their traditions and culture kept firmly locked away. If you wanted to find out about music or film or theatre or dance that had Indian roots, you had to delve around in areas where Indians live in Britain: Southall, Tooting, Wembley, Leicester and so on. (Oddly, literature was the odd one out. Books by Indian writers have been widely available for years.) But now, all that’s changing. Events by Indian artists get listings and critical recognition alongside everybody else. And the fact that there are many different Indian experiences is also recognized. A mainstream British audience wants to know about authenticity and provenance. Restaurants are no longer Indian, but Keralan or Punjabi. Film-makers are no longer Indian, but Tamil or Bengali.

As someone who lived in South Calcutta for a year, much of all this gaudy, dizzy Bollywood lark strikes me as lowest-common-denominator culture that suddenly finds itself in the spotlight and, in all probability, might find itself ejected from it just as quickly. But there can be no doubt that there is an appetite and a curiosity right now. Perhaps, Bollywood is nothing more than a Trojan horse and that, once the doors have come crashing down, far more interesting aspects of India lie in store for a British audience.

Just the other day, someone handed me a tatty leaflet stating that the National Film Theatre will be holding a two-month Satyajit Ray retrospective in July and August, screening all his films from Pather Panchali to Agantuk. Now, that can’t be bad, can it?

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Mishra listens to the Beatles

Amid the hectic parleys and nerve-racking diplomatic manoeuvrings at Almaty, it was nice to see a group of young IFS officers letting their hair down at Soho, a plush nightspot in the Kazakh capital. Soho — incidentally, nothing to do with its infamous namesake in faraway London — is famous for its Beatles Boulevard, where old favourites by the Sixties’ band are played. As the clock struck the midnight hour, who should walk in but Brajesh Mishra, in an uncharacteristically jolly mood. “What are you youngsters doing here? It’s time children went to bed,” he greeted them light-heartedly, as he settled down in a corner to take in the ambience and the music. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s principal secretary is hardly a favourite with the media, but scribes covering the Almaty summit came back hugely impressed with Brajesh’s capacity to work ceaselessly. Brajesh’s best performance however was reserved for the media-briefing that followed Pervez Musharraf’s hour-long press conference. He seemed to know what Musharraf had said better than the journalists themselves — correcting them when he thought they were misquoting the Pakistan president. No wonder that he undid all Musharraf’s good work in 15 minutes flat!

The game of the name

Even as world leaders were racking their brains at Almaty on how to prevent an Indo-Pak war over Kashmir, National Conference leaders were busy grappling with an even more important problem. With chhote sarkar Omar Abdullah due to take over as party president soon, members of J&K’s ruling party are on the lookout for a suitable title for him. All the appropriately laudatory and high-sounding ones have been taken — Omar’s illustrious grandfather, Sheikh Abdullah, was conferred the title, “sher-e-kashmir” (the lion of Kashmir), his grandmother, Begum Akhtar Jahan was called “mather-e-meharban” and his father Farooq, “quaid-e-sani” (second leader). Some have suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that he be called “Raja Hindustani”, while his detractors in the state have suggested that “Barkhur ghalat”, Persian for good-for-nothing, would be more appropriate. Any suggestions?

There’s a mole in our midst

It is time for a parting of ways for one time bumchums, the left parties and Mulayam Singh Yadav. The Samajwadi Party president, feel the former, is playing a double game — he is actually Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s man in the People’s Front. The Marxists are amazed at Mulayam’s unshakeable hatred of the Congress. If his role in scuttling Sonia Gandhi’s bid for power in 1998 had disillusioned them, Mulayam’s refusal to support KR Narayanan for a second term as president has convinced them of his perfidy. Apparently, Amar Singh has told Jyoti Basu that his party will not support Narayanan precisely because the Congress is supporting him. Mulayam has instead been pleading the cause of APJ Abdul Kalam, who is reportedly backed by the PM. Even worse, Mulayam, it is said, is also trying to prop up a separate anti-BJP, anti-Congress front, with the likes of N Chandrababu Naidu, Sharad Pawar, and among the left — the RSP and Forward Bloc.

Up and abroad

Some people have all the luck. Shahnawaz Husain is currently on a tour of Turkey, leading a delegation. From there, the man will be flying on to London where he will bask in the balmy English sun for six whole days. But perhaps Husain has earned it. Last month was a particularly difficult time for the high-flying minister for civil aviation what with his detractors making determined efforts to have his wings clipped. And they very nearly succeeded. But Husain is a wily player — he appealed to the RSS. A Muslim in the RSS’s good books, you may well ask. But miracles do happen.

Husain managed to convince the khaki chaddiwallahs that he was a “nationalist”, in the Hindutva-sense of course, and in that sense the person best qualified to be the Muslim face of the BJP. No doubt his case was helped by the fact that he has a Hindu wife. Ever since his close brush with powerlessness and oblivion, the grateful Husain has not stopped extolling the virtues of MS Golwalkar, Hedgewar and the RSS pantheon. The stars save us from such politicians!

Sequel to the trunk call

George Fernandes never misses a chance to belittle Sonia Gandhi as a videshi bahu. And now the raksha mantri is on the verge of acquiring a foreign daughter-in-law himself — his son is soon to marry a Japanese girl. It does not seem as though George has anything against Japan — he had gifted an elephant to the Japanese government during his visit to that country last year (incidentally the elephant was called “Jaya”). But a videshi is always a videshi — Italian or Japanese.

It’s all about money, honey

The great Bhagat Singh film festival has generated a lot of interest in the capital’s political classes. Our very own Sardar Patel wannabe especially plans to watch all five movies on the life and times of the fiery revolutionary. LK Advani feels these films, which come at an opportune moment with India poised on the brink of war with Pakistan, will help awaken patriotic fervour among the people.

But since when has the Mumbai film industry become so ardently patriotic? Apparently, the real reason for the spate of Bhagat Singh movies is the entertainment tax exemption. At a time when Bollywood is staggering with one flop after the other, desperate producers feel that a little help from the government will go a long way.

Footnote / Will he be a member?

The House of Macaulay, now the Bengal Club, has a cobra as its emblem. The venom embedded in the building is, however, manifesting itself in strange places and in strange ways. According to one story, His Excellency the Governor of West Bengal, conveyed, very discreetly, his desire to be a member of the Bengal Club, considered by some to be the ultimate social niche in Calcutta. The committee of the club met to consider the Governor’s desire. It was discovered that the constitution of the club had no provision for making the Governor an automatic or ex officio member. A distinguished grey-haired committee member suggested that the Governor be made a member and that the committee member would pick up the tab. One member of the club, known to be hostile to the present president, conveyed this to the Governor. Normally, Viren Shah only sees red in the Writers’ Buildings, but this suggestion by the committee member of the Bengal Club had him seeing red. What are the chances then of seeing Shah in the Reynold’s Room? The betting is open at Ladbrokes.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Standing very tall

Tall claims Sir — If there is a cause to stand up for, you can bet that our favourite cause celebre, Arundhati Roy, will be first in line. Roy’s latest worry is nuclear war in the subcontinent (“Roy & imagined holocaust”, June 3). While Roy’s love for the underdog is commendable, one wonders why she can never see two sides of the coin. While protesting the ill-effects of dams, she refused to see the scientist’s point of view. This time, while condemning India for going nuclear, Roy fails to hit Pakistan with the same handle. Does Roy fear that a look at the other perspective would water down her aggression?

Yours faithfully,
Saroda Paul, Ranchi

Plane facts

Sir — Hansie Cronje was probably one of the best captains to come by the way of modern cricket (“In death too, Cronje shocks”, June 2). It was under his leadership that South Africa, a perfectly ordinary team till recently, turned unbeatable. Many cricketers have been, and still are, involved in match-fixing, but none have had the courage, unlike Cronje, to own up to it. Yet Cronje’s admission left a permanent smudge against his name. No blocks in the Johannesburg stadium may be named after him. People will soon forget his achievements and he will be remembered as a cricketer who tainted the game. It is unfortunate that this former role model had to end his life under the shadow of shame.

Yours faithfully,
Shantanu Bhattacharya, Khardah

Sir — Hansie Cronje has won his country many laurels. He had given in to greed, but despite the brickbats and the ban on him, Cronje was trying to rebuild his life and even hoped to make a career as a cricket commentator. His death leaves one with the image of a talented but unlucky man who suffered terribly in the hands of destiny.

Yours faithfully,
Shantanu Bagchi, Kalyani

Sir — The death of Hansie Cronje reminded me of the death of the singer, Buddy Holly, a number of years ago. Much like Cronje, Holly had also changed his travel plans at the last moment in the hope of returning home early and opted to fly home in a small plane. The plane later crashed, leading to Holly’s death. It is strange how a seemingly simple choice can affect a person’s life. This only shows how little control we have on our own lives.

Yours faithfully,
Sarbani Sen, Bangalore

Sir — The death of Hansie Cronje is indeed tragic. Yet, I find it strange how people tend to forget the negative aspects of a person’s character upon his death. Despite his outstanding performance as a captain of the South African team, Cronje brought a lot of disrepute to the game of cricket. Thanks to Cronje’s confession, the joy of watching cricket has diminished.

Yours faithfully,
Sankar Lal Singh, Calcutta

Sweet memories

Sir — Memories of Operation Blue Star seem to have obliterated from Khushwant Singh’s mind Indira Gandhi’s subtle sense of humour (“May the soul rest in peace”, May 10). Numerous anecdotes may be recalled to refute Singh. For example, during Indira Gandhi’s visit to the United States of America in 1982, she had supposedly been asked at a luncheon meet at the National Press Club in Washington if India “tilts” towards the US or the Soviet Union. She retorted, “I think we stand upright.” Asked if India was seeking military aid from the US, she replied “We are not seeking military aid from any country. Whatever we have sought, we have bought.” Her ready wit always enlivened her encounters with the media.

At another press conference during the same visit, Indira Gandhi declared that she would try to clear up a lot of misconceptions about India, as well as the negative image she had as an “aggressive iron lady.” Asked if she had been able to explode the myth, she said, “I don’t know. Actually, I am having to take iron supplements.” Contrary to what Singh says, Indira Gandhi was one politician who had the rare ability to laugh at herself.

Yours faithfully
Tathagata Sen, Calcutta

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