Editorial / Head of state
Questions of credibility
The Telegraph Diary
People / Rajni Kothari
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / HEAD OF STATE 
 
 
 
 
With the Congress’s decision to support the candidature of Mr A.P. J. Abdul Kalam as president of India, it can safely be said that he will be the second non-politician to become India’s head of state. The other person was, of course, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who brought to the office unsurpassed dignity and erudition. It is to be hoped that Mr Kalam, given his stature as a scientist, will match Radhakrishnan’s record. There are signs, even before he has taken office, that such hopes may not be belied. When asked by Mr Pramod Mahajan to choose an auspicious day for his swearing-in, Mr Kalam replied that since he believed in astronomy and not astrology and since the earth rotated on its own axis and also revolved around the sun, any day was as good as another. One detects in this statement the voice of reason untrammelled by gimmicks and obscurantism. This is the voice that the people of democratic India would like to hear. The fact that people like Mr Murli Manohar Joshi, a physicist turned advocate of Hindu science, might discover that by elevating Mr Kalam to the presidentship, the Bharatiya Janata Party may have actually caught a Tartar is another matter altogether.

The way Mr Kalam’s name was proposed and finally decided upon has drawn attention once again to the nature of the office of the president. The Constitution is very clear that “the President cannot exercise the executive power without the aid and advice of the council of Ministers”. This is an elaborate legal euphemism for the fact that the president has no powers. He merely puts the stamp of confirmation on decisions made by the Union cabinet. This makes him a figurehead and a decorative piece. In other words, the office of president, as defined in the Constitution, is a contradiction in a democracy. He has no powers yet he is the head of state. His responsibilities are all ceremonial. Given these constraints, it is perhaps always preferable to have a non-politician ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan. For one thing, a non-politician will not have any stakes in politics and will therefore be above the pettiness and factionalism that inform Indian political life in the age of coalitions. For another, the common public perception of politicians in India is that they are corrupt and unscrupulous. A person drawn from such a tribe cannot possibly bring dignity to the office of president.

Given the ornamental character of the job, the non-politician chosen for the job should ideally be a man of stature and dignity. These qualities will enable him to bring a modicum of charisma to a post that is of no great political consequence. Mr Kalam, like Radhakrishnan before him, is eminently suited to do this. The argument that only a politician-president can cope with the pressures that inevitably operate when there is a hung Parliament is very easily countered. All that is needed in such a situation is a level head, sound common sense and the ability to seek the best advice on constitutional matters. It is not too much to expect that one of India’s leading scientists has all these qualities. Mr Kalam may indeed discover that there are too few cerebral attractions for a scientist of his standing.

   

 
 
QUESTIONS OF CREDIBILITY 
 
 
BY BHASKAR GHOSE
 
 
As we appear to be heading into another war with Pakistan, Prasar Bharati — specifically, Doordarshan — is reportedly readying itself to take on the demands of wartime reporting. A part of the process of getting ready seems to be the setting up of a special group consisting of representatives of the home ministry, the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs and others to screen all news bulletins. Not to give press conferences, on the now familiar pattern of briefings by official North Atlantic Treaty Organization representatives on the action taken in Yugoslavia, but to screen bulletins, to make sure that the reporting is on the lines that the officials want.

But an aside seems necessary here, before one goes further. Why this fascination for what Doordarshan is doing, one may well ask, when we can now turn to the private news channels for news that is more credible and probably right from the field? For one reason only — it is a network which is publicly owned and therefore there is, and always will be, a responsibility to the people at large, specifically through their representatives in Parliament, that they report accurately, fully and without any “angle” to any of their stories. It is for this, among other things, that public money has been spent, and it is consequently quite in order for us to determine the extent to which the mandate given to them has been carried out.

To return to the arrangements being made in the news divisions of Prasar Bharati. We have, then, a kind of censorship mechanism in position, or soon to be put in position, to vet what goes out in the Doordarshan and All India Radio news bulletins. A group of officials, whose first concern is not news so much as what they consider to be suitable for the “masses” to know — they, of course, being more enlightened and more intelligent than the masses —these good people will be deciding what is, in the last analysis, the nature of the knowledge that will be available to people.

There will, of course, be the private channels; but if they report what is considered unsuitable, it will be promptly and angrily denied, and suitable measures taken to bring the errant channels to heel. Because this group of “experts” does not just decide what the nature of the knowledge allowed to people should be; they also decree that anything other than approved knowledge is sedition, even subversion.

But having said all this, one must point out that the issue is not as simple as it may appear to be. It is not just a matter of determining the nature of knowledge; it is on occasion a question of what may set off panic reactions among people, resulting in hoarding, hysterical buying, shortages, uncontrollable mass movements of people from one place to another and a number of such reactions which would place a terrible strain on an administrative machinery which will, in times of war or national emergencies, be stretched to the limit. And, since, for better or worse, what is said on AIR and Doordarshan is still taken to be the viewpoint of the government, it becomes necessary for these two giant networks to be careful in what they say, using restraint without compromising with the truth. Lying always leads to greater panic.

This factor needs to be balanced by the kind of screening of what will and will not go in news bulletins that now seems about to start. It needs to be emphasized that, whatever the situation, whether a full-scale conflict has started between us and Pakistan or not, credibility is absolutely essential. It cannot be compromised, even if some disturbing facts are reported with a degree of restraint. If credibility goes, then the reason to have the elaborate news networks that AIR and Doordarshan have will also go. They may as well read out government handouts in their news bulletins and be done with it. And yet, the paradox is that the news and views broadcast on AIR and Doordarshan, with all the efforts that can be made, in theory, to make them as credible as the news on any other channel, are still seen to be reflective of the views of the government. As I said, the issue is not as simple as it looks.

Can one untangle this? It is possible, if the government is prepared to take some difficult decisions. The first of these must be, odd though it may sound at this point, to make Prasar Bharati financially viable, and not dependent on government funds as it is at the moment. Additionally, if it is to keep its essential nature of being a public service broadcaster intact, then it has to avoid dependence on advertising revenue. Not avoid it altogether; avoid dependence on it. This may seem a formidable task, but it is not, if the government is determined to make the organization financially viable. What it will need to do is re-introduce licensing of television and radio sets.

This is not as terrible as it sounds. Have we not regularly raised the price of petrol and diesel? So what is so frightening about re-introducing licensing of radio and television sets? Just consider this. If an annual fee for a colour television set is fixed at Rs 1,000, that is, less than Rs 100 per month, and Rs 500 for a black and white set, will people not be able to afford it, if they can buy the sets? And if we assume, in the absence of reliable figures, some 60 million television sets in the country and roughly 120 million radio sets, for which the fee will be much less, that should give Prasar Bharati more than enough to make it independent of the government and of advertisers.

Following this decision, the government will need to take another not so difficult one, that is, hive off one channel from Prasar Bharati and run it as a straightforward government channel: with news, entertainment and announcements of such kind as they choose to make. This is not as fanciful as it sounds; it will give the government an authentic voice, and a means of reaching out to people, who, in turn, will know that from this channel they can find out just what government thinking on different issues is. On the recent raise in the prices of petrol and diesel, for example.

Having done this, then the government must leave Prasar Bharati strictly alone. It will remain a public service broadcaster, it will have its mandate, and be responsible to Parliament, but it must function on its own, without any kind of fiddling by the ministries — the home, external affairs, defence ministries in particular.

What will all this do to the news? Well, the government channel will carry the official news, the government’s viewpoints and attitudes; Prasar Bharati will have its own news reports which may differ slightly, but will of necessity be more restrained and responsible than private news channels. It will mean the government will have the means of reaching out to the people and that Prasar Bharati can become a real public service broadcaster. And those who will benefit the most from this will be the viewers, with a choice they have not yet had.

The author is former secretary,ministry of information and broadcasting

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Hair down

Whose baby? What was it that made Atal Bihari Vajpayee change his mind about APJ Abdul Kalam? Did he think a bachelor president would instinctively understand the problems of a bachelor prime minister? Not quite. ABV, who was till recently rooting for PC Alexander as president, seems to have been swayed by more profound logic. “Do not repeat the mistake of the Pandavas,” said a senior saffronite, “they put their raj-pat (monarchy) at stake in a game of dice. You’re doing the same for the sake of an outsider.” Vajpayee, with his sound knowledge of Hindu history, was jolted by this wisdom. But even before that, there had been high drama at his residence over the man to be made king. The Andhra CEO, N Chandrababu Naidu, had suggested the name of Krishna Kant, the vice-pres. Brajesh Mishra had accordingly called up the opposition, K Natwar Singh in this case, to inform him about the choice. But plans changed within two hours. Georgie-Porgie for one complained that Kant, as chairman of the Rajya Sabha, had done precious little to bail him out during the Tehelka debate. There were others blaming Kant for his allegedly “partisan” attitude. So a second call was made to Singh, proposing the name of Alexander. Natwar, as it goes, flatly refused to back the former bureaucrat. When Vajpayee suggested Kalam’s name instead, Natwar is said to have blurted out instantly, “He would make a good president provided he gets a hair cut.” Naturally. For a career diplomat who still visits his barber at least once a month, the prospects of having Kalam as the next president would undoubtedly be hair-raising.

Bowing out?

Although the scientist may not realize it, APJ Abdul Kalam is quickly getting into the hair of the Rajya Sabha deputy speaker, Najma Heptullah. Now that a member of the minority community is all set to take a moonlight walk in Rashtrapati Bhavan, Najma has little chances of making it to the vice-president’s chair. Worse, her term in the upper house ends in 2003 and she is unlikely to get an extension in Parliament for the fifth time. The bad news also comes at a time when things are not exactly happy between her and the occupant of 10, Janpath. If Najma is out of the Rajya Sabha, there is no chance she will be considered for the next round of presidential and vice-presidential elections. She will also lose out on chairing the inter-parliamentary union and other fancy designations at international fora. Our heart goes out to poor Najma!

Wait for the new arrival

The gloom that set in at the Congress camp following the debacle in Goa and the loss of face over the presidential polls will soon lift. The Congresswallahs are overcome by a sense of expectancy as Priyanka Gandhi Vadra seems all set to deliver — a child — again. The maternity ward of New Delhi’s Ganga Ram hospital is apparently being readied for the occasion. The topiwallahs are betting on a baby boy, claiming that like grandma Indira Gandhi, Priyanka will also have two sons. The other prediction is that the mom will enter politics a year after her second delivery, that is when the country begins its countdown to the next general elections in 2004. Party-sitting after baby-sitting?

One who runs the show, still

The front office might be run by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, and Anil Biswas may be the backroom boy, but the real reins of power lie with the wily Jyoti Basu. One measure of his growing (some would say, abiding) importance is a recent CPI(M) state unit pamphlet on the distribution of work among members. As one of the seniormost and a founder member of the party, it is only natural that Jyotibabu’s name should head the list. But look at the areas he has been assigned — government and communication. In effect, Basu is the interface between the party and the government, his job being to iron out the glitches for the CM and the party gen-sec — something that requires going into the minute details of party affairs. The other area Basu has been assigned — prachar — entails networking with national leaders of the CPI(M) and other parties. Basu has been given a room at Alimuddin Street, where he goes every morning and stays for three to four hours, sometimes more. For the CPI(M), putting Basu’s vast experience to good use makes sense at a time a new generation of leaders is trying to strengthen its grip over the party. But for the octogenarian and ailing Basu, the readiness to give up a well-deserved retirement is a measure of his commitment to the party.

Snacks before, snacks after

Our prime minister lives to eat and leaves his doctors in no doubt about this simple truth. This time even journos accompanying him to Almaty got a distinct taste of the PM’s love for food. Perhaps as part of its austerity drive, the airlines carrying ABV and his entourage did not serve any breakfast as was the custom earlier. The PM, soon after settling down in his seat, queried why the nashta was not being served. He was told that an early lunch would be served. The lunch was rich and heavy. About an hour later, it was tea time and the PM was once again heard asking his officials, “Bhai, nashta kahan hai (Where are the snacks?)?” No satisfying this hungry old man!

Choose your stars

Clash of the titans. The director of Sarfarosh, John Mathew Mathan, is supposed to have approached Hrithik Roshan and Salman Khan for his next venture. John was keen to work with Aamir Khan again, but the Lagaan hero is apparently booked for the next three years and more. Mathan, signed in by Sajid Nadiadwala for the film, had no option but to move on. Which means he had to go for the next best on the rungs. Second rate, Roshan and Khan?

Footnote / Some have less luck with them

There have been many a time when talents of the better halves have been discovered only after husbands have assumed powerful positions. Shiela Gujral belongs to this august club. A collection of her writings was released when IK Gujral was in the hotseat. On Tuesday last, she presented her latest offering, My Years in USSR, ahem, with some minor glitches, at a function in the Rashtrapati Bhavan attended by the president himself. The publisher of the book got so carried away that he invited the author to say a few words even before the president had spoken himself. Shiela’s pleadings, “Kya kar rahe ho, main abhi nahi boloongi (What are you doing? I won’t speak now),” had no effect. Dragged to the podium, the old lady had no option but to fall back on her written text, which thanked the president for his “kind and encouraging words”. There was a hushed silence and red faces everywhere. The president eventually managed to say his kind words of encouragement, but not before the publisher had been made to acknowledge his gaffe before the audience.    

 
 
PEOPLE / RAJNI KOTHARI 
 
 
 
 

Dare to dream

The mellow chinar leaf, in shades of washed-out red heralding a nostalgic autumn, stands out on the jacket of Rajni Kothari’s new book. And the muted autumnal tones peep out of Kothari as well, as he takes the book in his hands and gently rifles through its pages.

The book, called Memoirs, has a strapline as well, printed only on its spine. “Uneasy is the Life of the Mind,” it says. Kothari, greyer than ever before, thanks to a new beard, looks uneasily at the book in his hand. “I have written many books, but for the first time, I am looking at the historical process through the eyes of the self,” he says. “And I am uneasy about recapturing life because I keep rethinking. My thoughts move on.”

The book, out this month, has caused quite a few ripples in academic circles. Reviews in the country’s two leading news magazines reacted differently to it, with one raising a toast to its words, and the other voicing a lament. But the 74-year-old academic-activist is already moving on, merging the action on the streets with the thought that emanates from the armchair.

In 1942, he was out on the streets, urging the British to quit India. Sixty years later, he was on a candle-light vigil in New Delhi, protesting against the militarisation of the subcontinent. After all these years, Kothari is still an activist as much as he is an academic. “But I have always wanted to be both an academic and an activist,” he says.

Kothari’s life is a reflection of his mind. He lives with an activist son in a flat in an East Delhi apartment inhabited mostly by academics and activists. His comfortable room, with books lined neatly on one side of his bed, is his study when he is not at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) — an institute that he set up nearly 40 years ago. Known simply as “The Centre” in the right circles, it is arguably one of the best academic think-tanks in the country. And quite evidently, one of Kothari’s abiding passions.

Kothari will tell you that three issues fire him: ideas, institution-building and politics. In an age where cynics believe that ideas are bankrupt, institutions have lost their meaning and politics is truly the refuge of the scoundrel, Kothari is something of an anachronism. “One of my sons told me the other day: the world that you wanted to build is under attack,” he says. “Sometimes I despair.”

Kothari’s dream world was the vision of nation-builders. His story is the archetypal tale of a man spurred on by a dream who leaves his riches behind in a quest for an egalitarian society.

Kothari spent his childhood in Burma with his diamond merchant father, moving to his home state Gujarat before the second world war (after being forced, he complains in his book, to leave behind his most precious possession — a stamp album — because it contained stamps portraying Hitler). The book outlines the horror that his rich relatives expressed when he revealed a turn for academics.

Family members were reconciled only after the CSDS was set up. Helping them change their opinion on his chosen vocation, he says self-deprecatingly in his book, was the perception that he knew people in high places — including Indira Gandhi. Kothari — who has personally known and possibly advised every Prime Minister since Jawaharlal Nehru — was once close to Indira Gandhi before they fell out during the Emergency. “But much before the Emergency, I had been warned by Jayaprakash Narayan not to trust her,” he says.

Kothari first met Gandhi when Nehru was still alive. A group of people –– including politician Asoke Mehta, sociologist M.N. Srinivas and still-to-be foreign minister Dinesh Singh used to meet in Gandhi’s part of the house at the Teen Murti. “The first time I met her was there –– she was sitting next to me. She wasn’t happy then with the way Nehru’s government was being run.”

The group wanted to help her prepare an agenda for the future. Some years later, Kothari even supported her ‘Garibi Hatao’ campaign. “But I started opposing her as her autocratic trends became more and more evident,” he says. Once the Emergency was announced, Kothari was a committed activist, organising opinion against her rule.

Just a few years ago, he was advising the then foreign minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Most of the nation’s foreign policy was drafted at Kothari’s house. And Kothari chuckles dryly when he remembers how keen Vajpayee was to convene a conference on disarmament. “And today, the biggest challenge facing us is militarisation,” he says.

Kothari is something of the nation’s conscience keeper. An independent thinker at a time when the throne of academia was occupied solely by the Left, Kothari admits that he has often been seen as the nation’s conscience. “I suppose it’s because I carry a fair ground of credibility,” he says. From another person, the thought would have sounded narcissistic. From Kothari, it emerges like a bald fact — somewhat hesitantly worded.

Today, Kothari’s focus is on the non-party political process. There was a time when he wanted to change the system from within; now he is convinced that the system has to be shaken out of its wits. “The changes have to come from below,” he says. “It will take its time, but it is going to happen. The bricks are all there — they just have to be laid out.”

From somebody else, the thought would have sounded like a pipedream. Rajni Kothari makes you believe it’s true.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

High speed justice

Speeding away Sir — The Delhi high court’s quashing of the chargesheet filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation against the Hinduja brothers probably signals the end of one of the most sensational bribery scandals in India (“Bofors backfires on CBI”, June 11). But the case will linger in public memory for all the wrong reasons. Even after 12 years, none of the accused has been convicted, and three of them — Rajiv Gandhi, Win Chaddha and S.K. Bhatnagar, have died. It is time judicial proceedings were speeded up so that cases against public figures do not drag on interminably or get dismissed on some technicality.

Yours faithfully,
Nitu Roy, Pune

Enemies of the people

Sir — The attacks on minorities in Bangladesh, and on journalists, are an indication of the consolidation of fundamentalist forces in the country(“Find your enemy”, May 9). In fact, the recent ban on two music channels, MTV and Channel V, on the grounds that they would encourage the growth of an alien culture, is a frightening reminder of similar culture policing by the taliban regime in Afghanistan. India has been no stranger to such policing either. The sangh parivar’s prescribed dress codes for women and it’s diktat on Valentine’s Day celebrations come to mind readily.

It is hardly surprising after all this that the ruling coalition in Bangladesh seems determined to pass the special privileges and powers bill, 2002, which would curtail the freedom of the press and make it easier for the Khaleda Zia government to target journalists on any pretext. Fundamentalists in the country could not care less that their actions have invited the wrath of the international community, with Denmark withholding a $ 45 million dollar aid to Bangladesh recently.

Given that Bangladesh’s economy is largely dependent on foreign aid and the contribution of nongovernmental organizations involved in several welfare projects, the withdrawal of aid would only push the country to the brink of bankruptcy. It would also lead to its isolation internationally. The combined fallout of all these would be nothing short of disastrous.

Yours faithfully,
Urmila Deb, Calcutta

Sir — Apart from being apathetic, even hostile, towards the minority communities in their respective countries, the governments of both India and Bangladesh have something else in common. Instead of trying to condemn or restrain fundamentalist forces, the governments in both countries have blamed the media for fomenting trouble or exaggerating the incidents that have taken place.

While the Indian home minister, L.K. Advani, decided to lecture the media on its social responsibilities, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party ruling Bangladesh has gone a step further in trying to curb the freedom of the press. Perhaps both governments secretly fear that the truth about them will be exposed by the media acting as watchdogs.

An impartial and probing press is always the biggest fear of fundamentalist forces because it threatens to bare their hypocritical faces. Although the Indian press has been accused of pampering certain public figures or of promoting consumerism, its secular credentials are not suspect. The incidents in Gujarat may well have remained in the dark had it not been for the sincerity of the media. Indians can take heart from the fact that despite Gujarat, there is still hope. Can the people of Bangladesh do the same?

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Sodepur

Sir — The editorial, “Freedom song” (May 24), has rightly criticized the Bangladesh government for banning two private music channels which have allegedly been corrupting the minds of the people by promoting an alien culture. The idea that the culture of one country could have a corrupting influence on the people of another is preposterous. With the advent of globalization, the world appears to have shrunk, and the determinants of alienness have also changed. Given that Bangladesh is a former British colony like India, its citizens have already accepted the attire, lifestyle and food habits of the West. It is up to the people of Bangladesh to make their government see sense on this issue.

Yours faithfully,
Asoke Banerjee, Calcutta

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