Editorial / A place at the head
An air of independence
This above all / Boredom is an expensive pastime
People / J.M. Lyngdoh
Letters to the editor

It is bad enough that in India enormous numbers of people who are paid to work do not work. But it is much worse when persons expected not to work become overactive. There is really no such job as a “working president” in the country’s political structure. A president of India who conceives of his role in these terms breaches the spirit of the Constitution. The newly sworn-in president, Mr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, is already generating tremors that he might be imagining himself in a more active role than that envisaged in the Constitution. The example of his predecessor, Mr K.R. Narayanan, would indicate that such eagerness for “work” is bound to land him in unseemly controversy. The only result of such debate is always damaging to the dignity of the office of president.

Not that all other former presidents of India remained clear of controversy. But the spat between the former president, Zail Singh, and the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, does not mark one of the most glorious periods of India’s presidential history. Mr Narayanan’s relationship with the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, limited itself to subtle rebuffs from time to time. What was far more noticeable was the thrust of the former president’s addresses to the nation on formal occasions such as Republic Day and Independence Day, in which a barely-concealed criticism of the government’s policies could often be discerned. None of the sentiments that fuelled Mr Narayanan’s remarks about the effects of liberalization on the poor or on growing communalism was ignoble. But the lack of faith in the executive that they implied showed that he was not always limiting himself to the role of the formal representative of the executive. It undermined the delicate poise of the constitutional relationship between president and executive.

Additionally, the controversy generated when the former president seemed to be trying to smooth the Congress’s accession to power after the previous Vajpayee government lost the confidence vote suggested that Mr Narayanan had not risen above the political sympathies of his earlier career. One of the primary requirements of a president is political neutrality. Similarly, Mr Narayanan’s repeated interactions with the media were unbecoming of his office. The president is the ceremonial head of a carefully articulated political system. He is not expected to take on the role of ideologue, entrusted with the task of changing the attitudes of the ruling government, of governors and judges.

Derived from the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, the president’s role was envisaged in the Constitution as an equivalent of Britain’s constitutional monarchy. Since the Indian president is not a king, nor at the head of a presidential system of governance, there is space for a misinterpretation of the president’s office. Also, the inadequate performance of administrative arms creates vacuums that encourage over-activity in ideally neutral institutions. It is therefore most important that a president of India confine himself strictly to his constitutional role, because his greatest responsibility is the protection of the Constitution.


Of late, the newspapers in Britain have been running stories on the triumph of the BBC; the monarch of all it surveys, both in terms of revenues and viewership. It has hewn out a position that other public service broadcasters would sell their grandmothers to have; quite simply the monarch of the airwaves, not just bigger and richer than others, but actually setting trends in programming.Over the years, after wallowing in a morass of procedures and stale ideas, it has emerged as the new broadcasting giant — earning over £ 24 billion, and fastening on to an audience-share the size of which must make the competition weep with frustrated rage.

Presiding over this triumph is the director general, Greg Dyke — a manager of men, a shrewd analyst of the market, and a man who determines what he wants and then sets about ruthlessly getting it. Recently a select committee of the house of commons very stuffily pointed to the large amount he was earning, and the fat bonus and other allowances he got last year. More than the prime minister, they said with indignation. Well, of course he earns more than the prime minister; he is, after all, a man who has the kind of job that chief executive officers all over London have, and compared to CEOs who control empires as big and lucrative as the BBC, he earns far less. Comparing his salary with Tony Blair’s is neither here nor there.

What is much more relevant is that Dyke is basically a manager of men; not a programme man drawn from the depths of the BBC’s vast network, but someone who has been known for his professional acuity for a fairly long time. True, he was a BBC man for a number of years, but he remains what he basically was. One does not know enough of the man and the way he worked to analyse the reasons for his being able to put the BBC where it is today; all one can do, as a foreign watcher in the United Kingdom for a short time is to look at what evidence there is.

That evidence is in the programmes broadcast on the BBC channels, and the nature of the channels themselves. Radio has, apart from BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC 3, the relatively recent BBC 4, although this has been around for long enough for it to be pretty much a part of the radio scene. But it has taken a great deal of listeners away and not by an act of cannibalization, that is, from the BBC’s own channels. The more dramatic change has been, inevitably, in BBC television. There is, apart from channels One and Two, BBC Choice and BBC 24; apart, of course, from what we can see in India, BBC World, which is not visible in the UK.

A look at the content of the channels, and the positioning of programmes through the day speaks of the careful planning of channel content. Entertainment shades into information, and back into entertainment; entertainment itself switches from game-shows and quizzes to serials and films; and within each genre there are different kinds carefully spaced. For example, there may be a more cerebral quiz placed at one time (usually later in the day) and the more relaxed ones like Wipeout earlier, keeping a close eye on the changing nature of the audience.

This is just one aspect of the programmes. The one factor that informs all of them is the quality. It’s not as if all of them are superbly made; but then, they don’t have to be. What they are, though, is interesting. To be sure, they look as if a lot of money has been spent on them, and it must have been, on a scale we would find mind-boggling. But good programmes do not come cheap; that is a principle which has been underscored by the survey done a few years ago by McKinsey on public service broadcasters. And set that against the revenues earned, and see if it isn’t worth the expense.

And then there is the news. Free from political interference, not acting as a mouthpiece for the government, even though it does observe certain formal requirements or norms, such as covering the Queen’s golden jubilee in more detail and more extensively than a commercial channel would. But they can and do carry stories which are critical, often sharply so, of government decisions or actions, and even though their civil servants and ministers may rage inwardly, they take care not to show it. This, one can say, is a unique feature of the BBC but let’s be very clear about one thing — the news is by no means all there is to the BBC. In fact, the news is a rather small part of the day’s programmes, contrary to popular belief at home that the BBC is a news channel.

The other element is one that from the outside one can only guess at, but the evidence provided by their efforts and work, visible and audible, literally to all audiences is there. This is the kind of people who are attracted to the BBC. They are intelligent, imaginative people, who clearly have a working atmosphere which lets them try out new ideas, even though not all of them may get to be aired. And Dyke is casting his net wide, looking at the ethnic minorities for new, fresh talent, because, as he says, the BBC is “hideously white”. He has, very shrewdly, focused on personnel; people are what any good organization is about, people with the attributes that take it forward and build it, if necessary, by breaking old modes and casts. The fact that he worked out how to get such people is borne out by the success of the organization in the fiercely competitive world of broadcasting.

There was a time, when John Major was prime minister, when the future of the BBC seemed to be in doubt. The renewal of its Royal Charter, which gave it the licence fees from all television and radio sets in the UK, was beset with arguments that, since other channels were also being watched, the fees should be divided between the BBC and other channels. In the event, the charter was renewed, and the BBC given the fees in full. But there were, for the organization, anxious moments. This time not only was there no argument about the renewal of the charter, there was also a slightly over-the-top declaration from the culture minister that this would be the pattern for the next 10 to 15 years, because the BBC has become a “much loved” institution of the British people.

So all right, let’s ask the inevitable question. How does all this affect our very own Prasar Bharati? Well, let’s begin by saying that one has outlined the triumphal emergence of the BBC as the biggest and most influential of broadcasters in the UK, not to turn immediately to sneer at Prasar Bharati. Not at all. There is much that is of value in our own broadcast organization, in terms of talented people; besides, the much talked of reach of Prasar Bharati is a reality that can be utilized to great effect. Unfortunately media attention is focused myopically on just one aspect of broadcasting — the news.

The fact is that the news bulletins of Prasar Bharati contain the same stories as those broadcast by private channels, and are printed on front pages by most newspapers on the following day. But the media says that Prasar Bharati news is biased, and most of what they say sticks, whether it’s true or not.

Yes, the government does — through the ministry of information and broadcasting, through the prime minister’s office, and other means — sometimes tell Prasar Bharati to carry a particular news item in a particular form, which Prasar Bharati does. This is disgraceful, because then the government lies about not ever having done anything like that. But this is something that will stop when Prasar Bharati stops going to the government for handouts.

Right now it needs Rs 800 crore a year, or perhaps more, just to keep going; it has no money to do anything except to just about keep going. If some means were to be found to make Prasar Bharati independent of the government in terms of resources, then the real battle will commence over the independence of the news division. But as long as the government pays Prasar Bharati to keep going, this is never going to happen.

Right from the time the BBC started operations in 1927, it has been funded by the licence fees gathered by the post office for it. That kept it independent of the government, and yet linked in an indirect way. In our turbulent society, the only way Prasar Bharati can distance itself is by becoming financially independent. If it finds such a way, and it can persuade the government to accept it, the initial step will have been taken, not just for the news division’s independence — that is only a part of the broadcasting Prasar Bharati does — but also for funding the production of good programmes. For public service broadcasting in India, this will be as revolutionary as the invention of the wheel.


I cannot understand people who complain about being bored with life. They moan, “nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to talk to. There is nothing worse than being alone.” I tell them, “I like being alone but never feel lonely. There is so much to read, write and see. I never seem to get enough of the world without people. What I find boring is humans, chiefly those who complain of being bored. I put up with them for a few minutes and then politely ask them to depart as I have more interesting things to do — by which I mean to be left alone. I don’t think they mind my being blunt; if they do, I don’t care. I will be the master of my time, not they.”

I have so many dates to keep: I come out in the garden at 6 am. A Himalayan barbet perches itself on the top of a fir tree and begins to wail. It is a bit of a ventriloquist: its calls sound as if they are from a long distance whereas the bird is only a few yards away from me. Another barbet somewhere far down in the valley responds. Wailing and counter-wailing goes on for almost five minutes. Barbets depart, koels take over. They are followed by crows, white cheeked bulbuls, mynahs, simla tits and a whole variety of tiny birds my aged eyes fail to identify. If you have eyes to see and ears to hear there is not a dull moment in any garden.

If there are no birds, lie back, gaze at the sky and watch the clouds float by overhead. Why are some going from north to south and others from south to north? Evidently, at different levels winds move in different directions. Why do clouds assume different shapes and colours? Why are some dark, moisture-laden and bring rain while others are like fluffs of dry cotton and simply float about?

In the afternoons, particularly over weekends, people drop in uninvited. It is odd that over the years I find total strangers more interesting than those known to me. One afternoon, two young men accompanied by two young ladies dropped in. They were from Bhatinda and Chandigarh. I got the name of only one girl, Aman. “But she has very little aman (peace) in her,” said a powerfully built young man who seemed to be the leader of the group. He had lived in Toronto for some time but having failed to have his visa extended was back in Chandigarh. “I am into yoga in a big way,” he said, “It is the most perfect system of exercises for the mind and the body.”

When tea-coffee was served, he refused to take either. “I only drink water. Whether or not I am thirsty, I down a couple of gallons every day. Water flushes out impurities in the system,” he proclaimed. “Why do you torture your body with what it does not need?” I asked. I knew there was no point arguing with him and asked them to let me get on with my work. They departed but the yoga man came back. “I am studying a method of putting the clock back. We need you to be active and young in mind for some more years.” I did not buy his offer. “You mean something like Viagra? No, thanks. I’ll age with the years and decline into senility with time.” None of my friends would make such interesting suggestions.

Another afternoon a lady rang up. “I am Poonam (or Poornima) Raina. I teach English in Delhi College. Could I drop in to see you for a few minutes?” I invited her over. She turned up before I could cover my head. With her was her husband, Kalsi, and son. Poonam, though married to a Punjabi, was proud of her Kashmiri heritage. Unlike most Indians, she was interested in trees, and birds she had seen around Kasauli. Also knowledgeable. I took the family indoors and showed them a plaque on which I have my motto spelt out. “This Above All; To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day that then thou will not be false to any man.”

“Can you tell where these line come from?” I asked Poonam.

Without any hesitation she replied, “Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar”. So far she is the only one of the dozens who descend on me, who was able to identify the source of the quotation.

Then there were Major Doctor Gautam Chaudhry and his wife, Saroj. He is the head of the Military Hospital in Kasauli due to be transferred to Mathura. He is Bengali, his wife a Punjabi Mohiyal Brahmin and as strappingly attractive as any militant Mohiyal should be. They met in Dehra Dun. I told them of the many Bengali-Punjabi alliances in my family. It was not she but her husband who told me all about Mohiyal Brahmin martial traditions. Apparently some had even fought in the battle of Karbala.

Wing Commander M.M. Singh is with the Indian air force. His wife, Ruby, a buxom cuddlesome product of some IIT, professor of something, rendered idle because of her husband’s posting in Kasauli. There are no colleges within commuting distance. She looks forward to his transfer to some city where she can resume teaching.

Most recent of my visitors were three girls from Ludhiana. They had come up by bus to spend a few hours in Kasauli, which they loved. They had a little time to spare before catching their bus back; so they decided to descend on me. They were nervous of the reception they would get and stopped a few paces away and said, “Sir, can we disturb you for a few minutes? We have come from Ludhiana.” I gave them stern look before inviting them to sit down. They were in their early 20s, dressed in T-shirts and jeans, very mod and very giggly. “Come,” I replied. “I don’t mind being disturbed by pretty girls.” They broke out in happy laughter. “He thinks all of us are pretty.”

They insisted I got to know their names: Harpreet, Gagandeep and Amiraj. We talked about love and marriage. They were sure about love but had reservations about marrying. Two of them, pointing to the third, said, “She has just got engaged to an NRI living in California.” “Love or bandobast?” I asked. “Well, we met twice as arranged by our parents. After the second meeting I said yes.”

“Did you kiss him?” I asked.

Without a blush she replied, “Yes, after we got engaged.” She held out her hand to show me her engagement ring; gold with the letter H set in diamonds. I guessed she must be Harpreet. Can old friends provide such excitement?

One Saturday, a contingent of five arrived from Chandigarh to share their dinner with me. A.S. Deepak came a little early, bringing three bougainvillea saplings to plant in my garden. He was followed by Nagina Singh Kohli of Aroma Hotel and her fiancée, Salil Gulati, scion of the Gulati chain of departmental stores. Nagina is a ravishingly beautiful girl, the toast of Chandigarh.

So go the days. I spend the last hour of the day wrapped in a shawl against the evening chill and swarm of mosquitoes. I watch the sun disentangle itself from the branches of pine trees and go down over the hill. With twilight a strange calm descends on me.

I turn in, switch on the lights and pour myself a whisky. Then I order the greatest musicians of the world to entertain me. They come cheap; Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Bismillah Khan, Ravi Shankar, Mehdi Hassan, Farida Khanum, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Darshan Singh Ragi, Singh Bandhu — name them, I order them to sing or play at the press of a button. You can’t enjoy music or drink in company. To savour its fullness you have to take scotch alone, feel it going down your throat and warm your entrails. I get slightly tipsy, a bit of suroor and float at eye-level as I walk to the dinner table and then to bed. Boredom? I do not have the time to get bored when I am all by myself.

Ultimate cure for all ills

A Hindi-loving doctor set up a clinic. Through tinted glass, he saw passers-by looking at the clinic and smiling. No patient for three days. He looked at the board. It read: “Rogi Nashak Aushadhalaya (Patient destroying clinic.

(Courtesy: V. N. Bharadwaj, Delhi)



Easy does it

The bard seems to have written one of his oft-quoted lines — the one that clubs people with greatness — keeping India’s chief election commissioners in mind. T.N. Seshan, the man whose middle name was megalomania, would have said that he was among the few who were born great. His successor, M.S. Gill, a mild-mannered man who became some sort of a celebrity somewhere down the line, managed to achieve greatness as he went along. But James Michael Lyngdoh — the man who now occupies the seat — clearly has greatness thrust upon him. And he doesn’t seem to be very happy about it.

These days, Lyngdoh’s appointment book looks something like a busy politician’s engagement diary. Every day, scores of people are ushered into his spacious conference room at Nirvachan Sadan — the New Delhi office of the Election Commission. Plates of cashew nuts and badaam barfis do the rounds, while the delegates — some of whom have come to voice their support for elections in Gujarat and some their apprehensions — speak their minds. Most of the time, Lyngdoh, a low-profile retired bureaucrat if there was ever one, just listens. Flanked by the other two members of the commission — T.S. Krishnamurthy and B.B. Tandon — and four EC officials, Lyngdoh sits patiently through every deposition. “He does not appear to be a man in a hurry,” says political scientist Zoya Hassan, who called on him on Thursday with a delegation that urged him not to cede the Gujarat chief minister’s call for an early poll. “And when he listens to you, you get the feeling that he is seriously hearing you out,” says actress-activist Sharmila Tagore, who was in the delegation as well.

In the last few days, several people have called on Lyngdoh to air their views on the polls. Former Prime Minister Inder Gujral was there last week with human rights activists Rajinder Sachar and George Verghese. Harkishan Singh Surjeet, H.D. Deve Gowda and Sitaram Yechury met him on Thursday. As did a SAHMAT team — comprising Hasan, Tagore, economist Prabhat Patnaik, activist Rajen Prasad, artist Vivan Sundaram and designer Parthiv Shah. The SAHMAT group seemed rather overawed by its meeting with Lyngdoh. Said Tagore: “I found him very correct. He doesn’t say much, but his his body language tells you that he is a man who is not going to take a hasty decision.”

That Lyngdoh is not a man in a hurry is apparent. Nearly ten days after Narendra Modi dissolved the state assembly and called for early polls, the Election Commission is still to announce its decision on when the polls will be held. Seshan would have risen to the occasion and said a few provocative things. Gill would have smiled pleasantly and said something wise. But Lyngdoh, an EC whose face few would know outside the Election Commission, sits in his room and confabulates. There is also some talk that the EC may tour Gujarat for a first-hand report of the situation there.

Despite the silence that engulfs the EC, his own views on the subject — though not reiterated in recent days — are known. Just a few days before the Gujarat assembly was dissolved, Lyngdoh had made it clear that he was not in favour of early polls in a state that reeled under a wave of violence for over three months. “It’s a few mad people who keep talking about it [election], so why should we bother?” Lyngdoh had said.

That was uncharacteristically blunt for a man who is known to keep in the shadows. But, says a friend, Lyngdoh is also known for his very strong views. “He is a very, very strong person,” the friend — speaking on the condition of anonymity — says. “I find it amazing that he rose to become a secretary in the government despite his absolute no-nonsense attitude.”

Read between the lines, it means that Lyngdoh does not buckle under pressure — political or otherwise. Apparently, when Deve Gowda was the Prime Minister, he tried to make Lyngdoh his cabinet secretary. Lyngdoh, the story goes, wouldn’t hear of it. “He is a man who goes by the rule-book,” says an associate. “He wouldn’t take up the post because he couldn’t think of superseding T.S.R. Subramaniam who was senior to him.” Subramaniam went on to become the cabinet secretary. And Lyngdoh went on to become something like a folk hero in the corridors of power. The mark that he left was on his files. Apparently, his markings on files were so sharp that successive generations of bureaucrat used to go through them just to pick up a tip or two on how to deal with politicians.

Surprisingly, the bureaucrat of the 1961 batch of the Bihar cadre — a former secretary (coordination) in the Cabinet Secretariat — has had a quiet innings in government. In fact, many of his contemporaries were surprised when Lyngdoh joined the Election Commission in 1997. There is a story — possibly apocryphal — about this as well. Apparently Purno Sangma, the former Lok Sabha speaker and a Garo tribesman from Meghalaya, was concerned when he heard, some five years ago, that another Meghalaya politician, G.G. Swell, but of the rival Khasi tribe, was about to join Deve Gowda’s cabinet. That was when Sangma told Deve Gowda that he would give the government an even better Khasi and proposed Lyngdoh’s name as an EC member. Deve Gowda, whose government depended heavily on Sangma’s good offices, agreed. And that was how Lyngdoh came to the Centre.

Few had then heard of the man, and not many know of him today either. His friends say that he is exceptionally intelligent and fond of reading. He comes from a well-known family of Meghalaya and his grandfather was a reputed Khasi writer. Lyngdoh speaks several languages — French like the French, German like the Germans and Hindi like a Bihari.

But despite a strong tendency to remain in the wings, Lyngdoh has begun to emerge as a someone who is different. The SAHMAT group got a glimpse of that in his office the other day. Though his room had a hundred people waiting outside to see Tagore, the man himself seemed more excited by his encounter with Patnaik. “I have read your works,” Lyngdoh told the economist. “I didn’t realise that the Prabhat Patnaik who was coming to meet me was the same,” he said.

For the next several months, the spotlight will be on Lyngdoh. But the man who practises karate in his backyard is clearly not going to wilt under the arclights. “He is a zero tolerance man,” says his friend. “He is not going to get influenced by anybody; he’ll do what he thinks is the best.” Amen.



Fact not fiction

Sir — Audiences had mocked the films, Armageddon and Deep Impact, for being highly improbable — both dealt with the possibility of an asteroid colliding with the earth, leading to the extinction of the human species. But recent reports show that in 2019, the earth is supposed to collide with an asteroid — a collision that might indeed reduce us to the dark age (“Feb.1, 2019: Smash date with an asteroid”, July 25). Remind one about what they say about life imitating art. But not wanting to make light of the situation, can we next expect an invasion of aliens much like in Men in Black?

Yours faithfully,
Trishna Barua, Calcutta

Title tattle

Sir — Kapil Dev’s being chosen as Wisden’s Indian cricketer of the century ahead of the two cricketing legends —Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar — will somewhat make up for the trauma that followed the allegations of match-fixing and betting levelled against him. Clearly, a good, honest man cannot be put down for long.

The “Haryana Hurricane” well deserves the award — he pioneered pace bowling in India, has a world record of 434 wickets and more than 5,000 runs, and was an outstanding fielder. The World Cup 1983 win under his captaincy was a defining moment in Indian cricket. He was also a great entertainer and a fierce patriot. Kapil Dev should also be credited with raising fitness levels in the Indian team.

Even after he retired, his love for the game remained undiminished. He might have ruffled feathers with his comments on the state of affairs in the Board of Control for Cric-ket in India when he stepped down as national coach, but they were made in the interest of the game.

Yours faithfully,
S.L. Singh, Calcutta

Sir — Although, Sunil Gavaskar was the better batsman, Kapil Dev’s brilliant all-round career tilted the balance in his favour, as far as the Wisden jury was concerned (“Cup tilts balance between greatest and greatest”, July 23). Kapil Dev is perhaps the only fast bowler in the world who has been in a team for 15 years at a stretch. This speaks volumes about his fitness and talent.

Another of Kapil Dev’s sterling qualities was the fact that he shared an excellent rapport both with his teammates as well as with players of other teams. Vivian Richards and Ian Botham’s presence at the Wisden event to felicitate Kapil Dev is evidence of this. That most of his friends from the cricketing world stood by him when he was charged with match-fixing shows how highly the “Haryana Hurricane” is regarded.

Yours faithfully,
Manjul Saha, Rourkela

Sir — Though the Wisden Indian cricketer of the century title went to Kapil Dev finally, it was Sachin Tendulkar who was the popular choice for the award. This shows how much Tendulkar has won the hearts of Indians, despite Kapil Dev’s having far more match-winning performances to his credit. Most of Tendulkar’s runs have been scored on home ground and rarely in a career spanning 13 years has he performed under pressure. Kapil Dev, on the other hand, has done well both in India and abroad. It is strange how little time people take to forget past performances.

Yours faithfully,
Amit Choudhury, via email

Sir — There is no explanation for withdrawing Mohammed Azharuddin’s invitation to the Wisden cricketer of the century ceremony (“Welcome, but not welcome”, July 22). Apparently, the criteria for choosing nominees were “character” and “impact on the public”. If Azharuddin, owing to the match-fixing allegations, has made such a negative impact on the public and the game, should the jury not have kept that in mind while nominating him? After the nominations were made public and the media had yet again raked up the issue of Azharuddin’s match-fixing conviction, Wisden authorities naturally felt that it would be better to give in to public opinion and withdraw the invitation. This event has only served to further embarrass the man who has long been slandered with allegations of being involved in match-fixing. Azharuddin should be allowed to get on with his life, not dragged into further controversy.

Yours faithfully,
Samidip Basu, Calcutta

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