Editorial/Politics of confusion
Bigots and idealists
Letters to the Editor

The home minister, Mr L.K.Advani, may have given wits like Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar a very good handle by announcing that all his plus points are from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. His opponents might point out that he has no plus points and therefore the RSS has nothing to recommend it. The point, however, is a little more serious. It relates to the entire controversy over the Gujarat government’s decision to lift the ban on government servants from joining the RSS. Those opposed to the RSS argue that it is nothing more than a political organization and therefore its doors should be closed to government employees. But the sangh parivar does not see the RSS as a political organization but as a cultural one. There is something more here than a debate regarding the character of the RSS or about the intersections between culture and politics. The entire episode is a very good example of the doublespeak that afflicts Indian public life. Those attacking Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee in the Lok Sabha and disrupting proceedings in Parliament cannot by any means be unaware that in other parts of India government employees remain members of political organizations or of fora which are no more than front organizations of political parties. There cannot be two laws on the same issue in India.

In West Bengal, the entire lower rung of the bureaucracy owes allegiance to a forum calling itself the State Co-ordination Committee of West Bengal Government Employees’ Associations. It is no secret that this body is controlled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Babus who belong to the co-ordination committee stop work, demonstrate, go slow and so forth at the behest of the CPI(M). The committee also acts as a pressure group on the government since it forms a cadre base and a vote bank. Similarly, teachers in government schools and colleges in West Bengal belong to various associations which are fronts of the CPI(M). Leaders of these associations do more political work than their assigned duties as government servants. Nobody has ever raised any questions about this state of things in West Bengal, not even the Congress whose members are the most vocal in the Lok Sabha about the RSS in Gujarat. This blindness is rooted in a mindset which sees the RSS as a big bogey. There is no doubt that the RSS peddles a most pernicious version of Indian history on the basis of which it propagates an anti-Muslim ideology. Its vision of India runs contrary to what the Constitution seeks to uphold. It has also been involved in inciting violence. Many of these charges can also be levelled at the CPI(M) which still believes in revolution. This means that the CPI(M), at least in its party programme and rhetoric, is committed to overturning the existing Constitution. It has also been implicated in the spreading of hatred and violence. This is not to equate the RSS and the CPI(M), but merely to show how different yardsticks are applied to the two of them even though both are devoted to fashioning an India which would be economically, socially, politically and culturally different from the one that exists today.

There is an urgent need to clarify the confusion that prevails. There should be one rule for all government servants joining political organizations. The difficulty here would be defining the term “political”. There is hardly any sphere which is not in one way or the other touched by politics. Even organizations involved in matters pertaining to environment have to engage in political activity to push through their aims. The issues are by no means simple. They need to be discussed and guidelines formulated. Otherwise the shadow of a bogey will continue to disrupt the proceedings of Parliament and stall decisions on matters of vital importance. There are no grounds for holding that membership of a shakha is a sin and holding a card of a party cell is not. Both are equally political.    

Even so mundane an event as the budget exposes the enigma that is India and its burden of harsh contrasts. A benevolent government has decided to restrict ration sugar to those hapless millions who do not pay income tax. But Yashwant Sinha balances that gesture of compassion by reducing the duty on cellular telephones, than which there is no more raucous symbol of intrusive affluence. It stands to reason that Pokhran II cannot yield the expected political dividend until this gulf between these two extremes has been bridged. But, then, one cannot but wonder whether ration card or income tax returns provide an index to anything except the manipulation of which we are capable.

Any Indian government faces complex challenges of faith, philosophy and fact at many levels and on many fronts. The dilemma must be all the more poignant for a party that, on the one hand, swears by the lofty ideals of swaraj and swadeshi, sammaan and sanskriti, and is held hostage, on the other, by a bunch of goons whose nationalism is only a scanty fig-leaf for communal hooliganism.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s opposition to the comprehensive test ban treaty and now to a Rs 3,000-crore Indo-American telecommunications project are further examples of how the two can overlap unless authority acts with courage and dexterity. Any Indian budget must simultaneously address widely varied and seemingly conflicting interests that can be mutually exclusive unless the government is able to demonstrate that they are part of a harmonious whole, and that economic policy’s objective is to enable the least fortunate to join the most fortunate within a determinable time-frame.

That aim will not convince anyone if society is convulsed by disputes like those over the films, Hey Ram and Water, or if the government is seen to be pusillanimous and prevaricating, as over opening the print media to foreign investment. Neither problem is purely economic or political.

Both touch the core of the Indian psyche. Both also illumine the gap that yawns between those who would take India forward into the 21st century’s fast track and those who would drag her back into the obscurantism that the 19th century Bengal renaissance failed to dissipate. Ironically, too, both controversies concern a ministry whose head is regarded as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s most dynamic and forward-looking leader.

He and his colleagues must know that the bomb alone will not bestow the status of a global power on a squabbling and impoverished nation of recalcitrants and reactionaries. India has every right to demand the end of sanctions, transfer of dual-use technology, full freedom to take whatever steps might be necessary in terms of missile and nuclear development to ensure her security, and membership of a reconstituted United Nations security council. However, the United States would find it more difficult to reject these demands if India is first able to put her own house in order and present a coherent front.

Two points must be made about the furore over the films, one released and the other aborted for now, without necessarily taking sides. First, it is irrelevant whether Deepa Mehta is a Canadian citizen. I am not saying anything about the official gushing over those who were once dismissed as “Not Really Indians” and are now eulogized as “National Resource of India”. But no government that practises cultural apartheid can expect to be treated with respect: Water must be judged on its intrinsic quality, not on the filmmaker’s nationality. Secondly, there is a prescribed procedure for such ventures.

As Arun Jaitley told Parliament, it is the Centre’s responsibility to clear a script and the duty of the government of the state where shooting takes place to provide the necessary protection. There is no scope in this for the goondaism that was euphemistically called “cultural policing” in the case of Water and the St Valentine’s Day disturbances in Kanpur. Inevitably, people suspect authority trying to enforce through the backdoor what it cannot forbid upfront.

A further point. If the depiction in Water is repugnant, the reality of abandoned widows is more so. If foreigners are culpable for projecting India’s social abuses, Indians are even more culpable for allowing those abuses to flourish. Even more despicable are migrants who have fled to Britain or North America, escaping both the distress and the obligation to do something about it, and who then spend their time fulminating patriotically against Western television channels and publications for showing India in a poor light.

The question of foreign competition for the print media reveals the government at its most contortionist. In December, the secretary to the information and broadcasting ministry led an international conference in New Delhi to believe that the matter was under, as they say, active review. Early in February, Murasoli Maran, the industry and commerce minister, ruled out any change in a status quo that goes back to the Jawaharlal Nehru cabinet’s famous decision in the Fifties not to allow foreign publications to publish in this country.

Barely a month later, Jaitley told the Rajya Sabha that a decision had yet to be taken. Where lies the truth amidst all this pussyfooting? I suspect that the cabinet (or some members of it, possibly including Jaitley himself) would like to liberalize the print media. Others object, and the reformers lack the courage of their conviction.

The BJP and its coalition partners cannot be blamed too much, perhaps, for this is exactly what happened when P.V. Narasimha Rao was prime minister. Colleagues like Manmohan Singh were all for allowing the Financial Times (of London), Time magazine and the International Herald Tribune to print in India. But they dared not defy Nehru’s holy writ. What was worse was that they did not even dare go public with their hopes. And so the brave new world of a vigorously competitive print media that was no longer beholden to authority for a range of favours died by default.

It need not have happened. It would not have happened if the authors of reform had not allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by its enemies and their propaganda that liberalization is only for the rich. Isolated from the world, Indians remained unaware that there was greater deprivation in the Soviet Union than in Britain or the US, and that wealth generation calls for freedom of opportunity.

The 1999-2000 Economic Survey revealed that 320 million Indians lived below the poverty line in 1993-94, and suggested that this trend had not been reduced. The blame must be laid not on liberalization but on the neglect of employment-oriented growth which is not the same as the wasteful “job creation” of socialist autarky, on resource mobilization that concentrates on disinvestment while ignoring huge reserves of black money, and on far too little investment in infrastructure which alone can raise private investment to a satisfactory level. Liberalization is not an end in itself: Rao’s strategy was to save crores of rupees through the private takeover of public sector units, and to invest this money in roads, railways, transport, ports and telecommunications.

The bigots and the blinkered are not all poor. Our monopolists have traditionally supported regressive policies only to protect their private patches. The poor are the foot soldiers of their cynical crusades, ever ready to march against an idea that has not been explained to them and which seems threatening merely because it is novel. Tragically, the information gap is India’s most crippling burden in the age of information technology. It will remain so, frustrating all attempts to revitalize the economy, until rural grassroots society is involved in what K.R. Narayanan called the “three-way fast lane of liberalization, privatization and globalization”.    


Patchwork morale

Sir — The Indian cricketing fraternity has an extremely cavalier attitude to success. All it takes to win, the Indians probably think, is a captain changed here, a spinner added there, a speedster subtracted and players juggled on an ad hoc basis. The board should take tips from their South African counterpart, which has instituted a committee for the 2003 world cup and has a regular system of bonuses for matches and series won (“Huge bonus up for grabs”, Feb 29). No wonder South Africa had no trouble getting over the 1999 world cup debacle. Also look at how rock solid the team stands behind Hansie Cronje, a sharp contrast from the crises in Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and West Indies.

Yours faithfully,
Somen Saha, Calcutta

Balancing act

Sir — Mamata Banerjee deserves congratulations for not merely being the first woman and the youngest railway minister to present the railway budget but also for looking after the interests of West Bengal and of the poor. (“Thin gravy train”, Feb 26). True, Banerjee’s bonanza for the state has raised a few eyebrows among people who felt that other states’ interests had not been looked after. But it might be remembered that Bansi Lal who took over from A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury stopped work on his predecessor’s pet project, the Malda wagon factory.

Then again four small projects Barkatda had started in the early Eighties were not taken up by later railway ministers. These included providing for open-heart surgery at the B.R. Singh hospital, a cancer research centre at Tollygunge, a kidney transplant unit at Garden Reach and a burns unit at Kharagpur.

True, Banerjee is now being feted for all the new projects she has awarded her state with, but this is after more than 10 years of Central neglect. Besides, about a decade and a half ago, the then railway minister, Kedar Pandey, shifted the Eastern Railway service commission from Calcutta to Danapur. During his tenure as railway minister, Ram Vilas Paswan also created five new railway divisions, including one in Hajipur, his constituency. Strangely, none of these have come into being. Construction work on the Ranchi divisional office is yet to begin. One hopes Bengal’s beloved didi realizes these dangers.

Yours faithfully,
N. Bose, Ranchi

Sir — “Please-all Mamata pleases Bengal more than Bharat” (Feb 26) revealed the political compulsions behind Mamata Banerjee’s maiden railway budget. But to be fair to the railway minister, she has done a good job, at least for the short term.

The editorial that appeared on the same day however rightly looks at the economic bankruptcy of Indian Railways. One had expected a necessary hike in long distance passenger fares. Undoubtedly, this hike will come in the next budget. Woe to whoever is railway minister next year, or will Banerjee herself declare a hike after seeing the state through the local assembly and civic polls?

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

Sir — While Mamata Banerjee must be thanked for taking up several development jobs including the provision of two trains, one each from Howrah and Sealdah, she might consider introducing a passenger train from Dhanbad to Berhampur via Bandel and Naihati. A direct train along this route will greatly benefit the people of Murshidabad, Nadia and North 24 Parganas who work in the coal belts of Ranigunj and Jharia.

Yours faithfully,
Anupam Banerjee, Dhanbad

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