Editorial 1
Editorial 2
Black comedy of errors


Big time

It is in keeping with the character of both businesses that the partners in the world�s biggest corporate marriage are internet service provider, America Online, and entertainment cum media giant, Time Warner. AOL will buy Time Warner for $ 190 billion in stock and the market capitalization of the still to be formed new company will reach $ 360 billion. The new company will be chockful of famous corporate labels, including Time, Netscape, Cable News Network and Warner Brothers. It will also have a huge pool of customers at its disposal, close to 80 million people. The size of the numbers involved seems to combine the worst of big business with the worst of internet and showbiz hype. But the merger follows logically from broad trends in the entertainment industry, trends driven by a more competitive market and rapid shifts in technology.

Time Warner is the largest of the seven sisters of global entertainment. Like its rivals it has been in a race to ensure the huge volume of games, articles, news and other forms of content it generates is available to customers in every possible media. As a consequence, it has had its thumb in television and film studios, music, publishing, the internet, theme parks, retailing, and three forms of television transmission � cable, satellite and broadcast. However, like all entertainment conglomerates, Time Warner has been watching the incredible and unpredictable growth of the internet with concern. Technology now moves in such mysterious ways that it levels even the biggest of firms. In the Eighties, for example, broadcast television ignored the newfangled concept of cable television. Today cable has left broadcast far behind in both profitability and growth. There have been attempts to merge internet services and entertainment. Microsoft poured billions of dollars trying to find the proper synergy of content and service. But its ventures, notably MSNBC, have done poorly. With Time Warner having made the jump, the floodgates for further silicon and celluloid mergers are now open. Walt Disney, for example, can be expected to be on the hunt for its own internet service partner.

This merger will arouse the usual cries that the business of culture is becoming concentrated in the hands of a few companies. These fears are exaggerated. There are two issues involved here. The first is cultural homogeneity. The assumption a globalized entertainment industry will mean everyone will end up watching the same film, reading the same book and laughing at the same jokes is false. If anything, big firms have been avidly moulding products to fit local tastes and culture. The best example is television, where better cable and satellite technology is allowing companies to send programmes in ever more specialized categories � India is seeing a huge boom in vernacular television, for example. The second issue is ownership. While the merger of internet and entertainment companies is likely to result in ever larger companies, the fact remains the industries concerned are growing even faster. This leaves plenty of space for small players. AOL is the world�s biggest internet service provider but probably has only 10 or 15 per cent of the world�s regular internet users. If the internet becomes the dominant via media for entertainment, big business is even less of a worry. The internet grows at such a frenzied pace and setting up shop on it is so easy that the question of monopoly does not arise. The biggest merger in history is really about how technology is beyond the reach of anyone, including the denizens of even the plushest of boardrooms.    


Beware of gifts

The Election Commission has decided to enforce the code of conduct for the elections in Bihar. This has thrown off the rails some of the plans the ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal had to offer sops to the electorate before the hustings. The government led by Ms Rabri Devi had the intention to present the state budget for the financial year 2000-01 before the elections. This plan has been nipped in the bud by the EC. The idea that the RJD government would announce new proposals that would bring material benefits to the people has been scotched. The EC deserves congratulations for acting swiftly and decisively. Political parties in power almost invariably use the ploy of winning over voters through the offer of largesse. In a poor country like India this amounts to bribing voters to stay in power. It is a major abuse of democracy. Yet no political party can claim to be free from it. In the case of the RJD and Ms Rabri Devi this abuse is even more glaring since the RJD government�s track record in all spheres of governance is abysmal. Under RJD rule, Bihar has sunk into a quagmire of corruption and lawlessness. There are reasons to suspect that the stark deterioration in the state of affairs has more than the tacit complicity of the government.

The plan to bring forward the budget in order to win popularity is not only cynical but also an attempt to camouflage the government�s non-performance. The promise of gifts thus stands in the way of a fair verdict on the government�s performance. Populism as vote getter not only mocks at the democratic system but is also a huge drain on the exchequer. It is an evil which has gone unchecked for too long. The EC�s model code of conduct seeks to curtail this evil. What is significant is that the EC is eager to implement the code of conduct. This is bound to put the RJD on the back foot. But that should not bother the EC. Its sole concern should be the holding of free and fair elections. The plan to buy votes through promises does not fall within the definition of fair polls. The EC seems to be the only institution eager to uphold some codes of behaviour in India�s most lawless state.    

For journalists reporting one grave crisis after another, life would have been grim if it were not for situations which are bizarre in the midst of these crises.

When innocent Sikhs were being butchered in Delhi after Indira Gandhi�s murder, orders went out from the army headquarters to move a unit to the capital to reinforce the inadequate security arrangements. It was only after the unit set out from Pune that the army�s top brass realized that the regiment which was being sent to the capital was made up of Sikhs. Half way into their journey, the unit was diverted to another city.

After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the authorities similarly despatched an army unit to Ayodhya, but discovered too late that there was a problem. The battle cry of the unit was �Jai Sri Ram�. Once the unit reached Ayodhya, it was ordered to change its battle cry to �Har Har Mahadev�.

To be fair, such bizarre situations are not unique to India. When the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, decided to send his troops into Mogadishu to check the disintegration of the Somali state, the US army started looking for American citizens who spoke the Somali language. It was not easy, but ultimately a young marine called Hussain Aideed was appointed as the interpreter and liaison officer.

It was not until many weeks later � and after the Americans had suffered casualties � that the Pentagon realized Hussain Aideed was the son of Mohammed Farah Aideed, the very Somali warlord whom the US forces were trying to subdue.

Of all the stories which one has heard about the recent hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC 814, the most bizarre is the one about how the ministry of external affairs first heard of the sky piracy.

The airport control tower in Lucknow was the first to pick up the message from IC 814 that the aircraft had been hijacked. Simultaneously, the prime minister�s aircraft, which was returning from Patna to Delhi, also picked up the radio message.

Not surprisingly, the airport control tower in Lucknow was at sixes and sevens over the emergency message. However, that did not prevent air controllers from talking about the hijack to all and sundry at Lucknow airport. They did a thorough job of gossiping, but took their own sweet time to convey the message to the right people in New Delhi.

Meanwhile, one lowly police constable on duty at the airport was among those who had picked up the gossip. He was beholden to a senior officer in South Block who had once done the constable a good turn. The officer, Ajay Singh, joint secretary (security), needless to add, is not a professional diplomat. The external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, who has known him for many years brought him to the MEA to clean the Augean stables of South Block�s security.

Ajay Singh, who has a reputation as a cop with a heart, is also said to command extreme loyalty across the board � and cutting across ranks � in the police force, wherever he has worked. The loyalty of the constable at Lucknow airport was, on Christmas eve, a godsend to South Block.

As soon as the constable picked up the gossip at Lucknow airport about the hijack, he went to an STD booth in the terminal building, spent his own money and called up Ajay Singh in the hope that the information may be of use to him.

Ajay Singh, who was completely taken aback, straightaway informed the foreign secretary, Lalit Mansingh. The foreign secretary, the cautious diplomat that he is, naturally asked Ajay Singh to confirm the tip-off so that he could act on it.

Since South Block had come to hear about the hijack in so bizarre a fashion, it is not surprising that its mandarins were way off the mark in their assessments of the crisis or in their efforts to find a way out of it.

There is little sympathy among New Delhi�s large diplomatic community for Indian diplomacy whining in the aftermath of the hijack that the Americans let India down. And the attitude of these diplomats reflects the considered opinion of their governments that India�s recent expectations from the US have been not only unrealistic but also immature.

Take, for instance, the landing at Minhad air base near Dubai. Officials of the US administration are now putting out the story that they tried to persuade Dubai to detain the plane at Minhad and terminate the hijacking there. According to these officials, Dubai did not want to get involved in the hijacking lest it should subsequently be at the receiving end of an Islamic backlash for any help given to India.

The tragedy is not that the Americans are putting out this story, but that the Indians � including some ministers whom the US envoy, Richard Celeste, has met recently � are swallowing it hook, line and sinker.

Minhad, for the uninitiated, is an air base located in Dubai, but it is not controlled by Dubai authorities. Originally meant to be Dubai�s second airport, it was converted into an air base during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and placed totally under the charge of the US air force for operations against Iraq.

After the Persian Gulf war, the air base reverted to local authorities, but only nominally. But meanwhile, the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates were unified, liquidating the central military command which was Dubai�s fiefdom. What this means is that although Minhad is in Dubai, it is actually under the charge of the unified UAE defence command.

The chief of the unified command is Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed, son of Abu Dhabi ruler and UAE president, Shaikh Zayed. The chief of UAE�s secret police is Shaikh Hazaa, another son of Shaikh Zyed. It is one of the worst kept secrets in the Persian Gulf that the US played a key role, post-gulf war, in unifying the UAE defence command. An apocryphal story in the Persian Gulf is that these two sons of Shaikh Zayed do not even rearrange the furniture in their offices without consulting Martin Indyk, US assistant secretary of state for the Near East, a former ambassador to Israel. It indicates the kind of influence that the US has over the UAE defence set up, of which Minhad is a part.

The Americans are, therefore, correct in saying that Dubai was not in a position to detain the Indian plane. They could not have, even if they wanted to. Only the two sons of the Abu Dhabi ruler, who are in charge of defence and the secret police, could have stopped the plane. The million dollar question is: was India able to persuade Indyk to talk to either of these princes?

When India opened the high profile anti-terrorist dialogue with the US some months ago, this column had warned that New Delhi was chasing a mirage. The UAE experience involving the US during the hijack should be an eye opener to those in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government who believe that India and the US are potential allies.

The US did not become a super power by protecting the interests of other countries. It remains a super power by ensuring that its own interests are well taken care of. America will go along with India in New Delhi�s efforts to contain and fight terrorism. But it will not fight India�s battle against terror. IC 814 has, hopefully, disabused any illusions South Block may have had in this regard.    



Sir � The courts seem to have turned into the last resort measure for most citizens disgruntled with the �system�. Concerned with blaming others, no one cares to see if some of the mess all around is not of his own making. Take the recent public interest litigation which sought to end the practice of private tuitions by teachers of state-run schools (�Ban plea on tuitions rejected�, Jan 6). The Calcutta high court was right to dismiss the petition saying that it was none of its business, politely phrased of course. If teachers are guilty of neglecting their duties in school for private tuitions, why don�t guardians just stop sending their wards to them? Private tuition has become such a menace because most parents are obsessed with their wards� academic performance, the desire for their children to do well irrespective of inclination or ability. Or worse, the imperative of oneupmanship over other parents. If private tutors are greedy for money, then parents are greedy for their children�s, and by reflection their own, success.

Yours faithfully,
Rikta Sen, Calcutta

Two�s company, one�s better

Sir � The reported apathy of all opposition parties as well as the allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party led government regarding the 79th constitutional amendment bill � barring citizens with more than two children from contesting elections � exposes problems in the Centre�s efforts to stabilize the nation�s population (�Hum do, hamare do, not for our MPs,� Dec 14).

The Centre�s schemes for curbing unemployment and poverty have failed as a result of the population explosion. So the Centre and state governments must put population control and family planning at the top of their agendas. Thus, it is encouraging that the president, K. R. Narayanan, mentioned the population problem while addressing the last joint sitting of both houses of Parliament. It indicates that population control is a priority for the Vajpayee government.

During its previous tenure, the National Democratic Alliance had decided to target population stabilization. And since 1991 the BJP has been highlighting the necessity of population control and asserting that the party would put population related issues, especially those on family planning, back on the national agenda if voted to power.

Two of the 11 points outlined in the BJP�s 1998 manifesto on population control are interesting. One was an offer of incentives to those who opt for the �two-child� norm and further incentives to those who embrace the �single child� norm. The second was the inclusion of disincentives applicable to all sections of society in order to discourage large families. Now that the BJP led NDA is in power, it should take immediate steps to curb population growth and promote effective family planning measures. In this context, the apathy of the members of parliament with regard to the 79th constitutional amendment bill is demoralizing.

Yours faithfully,
Santosh Kumar Sharma, Kharagpur

Sir � �Hum do hamare do� (Dec 14) shows how the people�s representatives are inclined to continue playing about with the interests of our nation. It is deplorable that India is heading towards a population crisis that may be irreversible in the long run. No political party, whether inclined to the right, left or centre, is willing to take the issue seriously � in spite of India�s population having crossed the one billion mark.

At present, the average number of children per woman in the country is 3.4 and there is little possibility of an improvement in this figure because of poor implementation of family planning schemes. India�s population may cross that of China within the first quarter of the third millennium unless effective measures are implemented. Thus, the proposed 79th constitutional amendment bill should be unanimously passed for the sake of the welfare of our country.

Yours faithfully,
Gautam Patre, Bankura

Games people play now

Sir � The decision of the touring Indian cricket team management in Australia, with the inclusion of Kapil Dev, the coach, Sachin Tendulkar, the captain, and Sourav Ganguly, the vice-captain, to keep Mohammad Azharuddin out of the one day squad suggests personal spite. They reason that Azharuddin�s inclusion will harm team spirit and disturb the balance and equations within the team.

So far, the balance has only achieved a 3-0 loss in the test series. It will take a long time for Vijay Bhardwaj, Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Jacob Martin to live up to the expectations of filling up the vacuum Azharuddin�s absence has caused. Therefore, keeping him out of the Carlton and United one day series will certainly go against the best interests of the country.

Yours faithfully,
T.F. Shamsuddin, Calcutta

Sir � Is it not high time that the selectors pulled up their socks and not let Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar dictate terms any more? Even after a 3-0 defeat in the test series in Australia, Mohammad Azharuddin is being neglected. It is quite amazing that the Indian team had been sent to play such an important series with only three established players, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Tendulkar, while Azharuddin was left behind. Doesn�t this prove the inefficiency of the selection committee?

The demand for a young side for the one day triangular series featuring India, Australia and Pakistan was met with the inclusion of one day specialists like Robin Singh, who is as old as Azharuddin. The latter has played 98 test matches. He has even scored handsomely in the domestic circuit and his leadership qualities are beyond doubt. He should be immediately brought back to the team as captain.

Yours faithfully,
Rahul Sinha, Calcutta

Sir � The issue of not including Mohammad Azharuddin in the Indian cricket team has been under close scrutiny for quite some time. The media accuses him of not willing to play under the captaincy of Sachin Tendulkar. This is baseless, as he has already played under Tendulkar. And even the former Indian captain, Kapil Dev, has played under Azharuddin in the past. Azharuddin is also accused of not playing well against Pakistan. But during the 1999 World Cup, he had scored well. The fact that Azhar is facing all these charges goes to show that the Indian cricket team is not only politicized, but also communal. In Nayan Mongia�s absence, M.S.K. Prasad was included in the team, though Syed Saba Karim, a wicketkeeper and batsman with proven skills, was ignored.

Yours faithfully,
M.A. Zafar, Kulti

Sir � Navjyot Singh Sidhu has quite predictably bid adieu to international cricket. What is surprising nonetheless is that everyone in the cricketing fraternity has kept mum about this. In a career of about 15 years, his contribution to Indian cricket has been immense. He even scored a double century against West Indies on their home turf. Despite such a glorious career, he never got his share of the limelight.

Yours faithfully,
Susobhan Sarkar, Nadia

Sir � The bridge column should deal with instances of proper bidding, comparative merits of different conventions, safety plays, proper opening leads, defence and play techniques, art of deception and so on from which the reader may gain by developing his power of analysis as well as by improving his game. What is the point of the column if this purpose is not served?

Yours faithfully,
B.P. Sinha, Ranchi

Sir � Whatever speculations might suggest, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi play best when they play with each other. Could there be any proof more glaring than Paes�s recent second round loss partnering Byron Black in the Gold Flake Open in Chennai?

Yours faithfully,
Sumit Sanyal, Calcutta

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