Editorial 1\Reform speak
Editorial 2\Disarming words
An academic exercise
Letters to the Editor

Ms Sonia Gandhi marched to the prime minister�s residence in New Delhi protesting the increased price of products like kerosene. In the Rajya Sabha, the Congress leader, Mr Manmohan Singh, noted that India�s distorted subsidy regime is hurting rather than helping the poor. He called for economic reforms and partisan politics to be separated. It should be evident who displayed a greater national vision. Mr Singh did not speak the language of ideology or party politics. He was stating a simple fact. The bulk of India�s subsidies do not go to the poor, they are siphoned off by the rich and the criminal. Worse, subsidies eat up so much of the government�s finances that there is nothing left for primary healthcare and education � programmes that would benefit the poor far more than even efficient subsidies. Mr Singh correctly argued that the money spent on bad subsidies yearly would release the equivalent of Rs 4000 for each of India�s poorest 300 million people. Invested in these people�s lives rather than a public distribution system which helps black marketeers, the result would be a social revolution. The poor would benefit more than they will from Ms Gandhi�s strident slogans about kerosene prices.

As in so much else, Ms Gandhi is in two minds about further reforms. In November last year she had said the Congress was four square behind liberalization. These days she takes every opportunity to attack divestment proposals and subsidy cuts � both at the heart of the present reform battle. Her confusion is reflected in her handling of regional politics. A principled stand against Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav�s casteism became an embrace of his secular credentials. Ms Gandhi�s stand on the mahajot also shifts with the wind. This would all be understandable if it were part of an overall, pragmatic political strategy. However, the impression is that Ms Gandhi is hostage to contradictory advice from a constellation of advisors who include pro-reformists to unreconstructed Marxists. And there is no consistency in the advice she takes. One result has been a rise in state dissidence where her appointees are the target of attack. Unfortunately, attempts to compensate for all this by embracing mindless populism only underline the Congress�s predicament. Ms Gandhi is acting like a marginal political player out for headlines and not the opposition leader.

It is not impossible to seize the initiative. Mr Singh has called for a new national consensus on reforms. The Congress can go beyond that and reclaim its mantle as the originator of liberalization. For example, the Congress could demand that in return for its support of subsidy cuts, the money saved should be used for healthcare and literacy. This would be a perfect pro-reform, pro-poor platform. It could demand that to face off foreign competition, the small scale sector should have its regulatory burden lifted and its input costs lowered. Ms Gandhi needs to break free of those partymen who believe socialist nostalgia is the path to the 21st century. Otherwise, her party will depend on the backing of political groups like public sector employees who are in eclipse. The Congress still has local support � it holds more state assembly seats now than it did in 1980. But its dismal standing in Parliament reflects a failure to have a coherent national vision � except when the likes of Mr Singh speaks his mind.    

Giving his harness bells a fearful shake, the West Bengal home (police) minister, Mr Budhhadev Bhattacharya, has warned the police that political hooliganism will not be tolerated any more. Several intricate disciplinary measures � mainly involving the tracking down of owners of licensed and unlicensed arms � were outlined for the restoration of law and order in Midnapore, Bankura and Hooghly districts. The occasion was the inauguration of his municipal election campaigns in the Arambagh subdivision of Hooghly. Mr Bhattacharya�s ultimatums and aper�us are usually memorably pithy. A spate of murders and abductions inspired the �oasis of peace� metaphor. Commenting on the near coincidence of his recent call to end militant unionism with his support of the bandh, he invoked the complexity of human nature. His Hooghly campaign was kicked off � like the many goodwill football matches � with holding up hooliganism and effective policing as mutually exclusive options. The pithiness of the rhetoric, in this case, is lost in translation.

These three districts have been the site of political violence on a sustained and massive scale. Murders, lynchings, abductions, arson and looting have become everyday events, carried out by party supporters and cadres, since the last panchayat elections. This has recently alarmed the governor into touring these areas and calling an all party meeting. The police have been entirely unsuccessful in tackling this escalating anarchy. Early in March, the three district superintendents had met to frame a set of objectives for dealing with the crisis. A joint task force was at the top of the agenda, together with heightened vigilance, enhanced wireless communication and the formation of a list of political criminals. These operations would also be informed, they resolved, by a strictly apolitical spirit of uncompromising discipline. This task force is yet to be formed. Normal life remains at a virtual standstill in these districts, the violence spilling over into the fringes of Calcutta. Behala and Tiljala, for instance, repeatedly witness the conflation of partisan rivalry and gang warfare. Mr Bhattacharya�s rousing call � framed in his favourite tense, the future imperative � is all that this wilderness needs to become, perhaps magically, another �oasis of peace�.    

The setting up of a commission to review the Constitution was treated as a non-event by both the public and the media. There was a gut feeling that nothing would come of it. It raised no hopes and ruffled no feather. The chairman, M.N. Venkatachalliah, himself ironically dubbed the job assigned to him as �an academic exercise�. Would it not have been cheaper and more in keeping with the spirit of the times to entrust the work to a supercomputer, feed it with all the relevant data on how the system has worked so far, develop the appropriate software and get answers free from the taints of human error and ideological hang-ups?

It is true that the Constitution has been amended all too often in the past to meet new contingencies, remove roadblocks in the way of policy decisions and, as on the eve of the Emergency in 1975, nullify a court decision to keep Indira Gandhi, with her party having a two-thirds majority in Parliament, to stay on as head of government. These were all piecemeal changes. A wholesale revision is a different kettle of fish. It calls for a broader national consensus. For the present government of shreds and patches it will be hard to mobilize even a two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional amendment on contentious issues on which there are deep divisions even in the ruling coalition.

In any case, no changes in the Constitution can make any difference to the dynamics of the forces that are splintering political life and speeding up the decay of all state institutions. These developments are at the root of the current uncertainties and instabilities. No amount of tinkering with the basic law can help clear the fiscal mess, energize a slovenly administration, improve the calibre or character of the sort of persons who get elected to Parliament, produce leaders with sufficient charisma to capture the imagination of the nation and pursue policies based on a wide enough consensus at the national level.

How can an overhaul of the Constitution enable a government living on borrowed money and time to find the massive resources to invest in the woefully inadequate infrastructure, not to speak of education and healthcare? Whether it is the problem of checking the fast rising incidence of crime, ending the growing urban chaos, or doing away with the virus of corruption that is affecting the very nerve and bone of both the body politic and the administration, it calls for a strong government able to take hard decisions and make them stick in the teeth of opposition from powerful vested interests likely to be hurt by the new measures.

A pamphlet issued by the leading partner in the ruling coalition says that one of the government�s aims is to enlarge �the domain of fundamental rights� and make �their realization more effective�. This is sheer humbug, seeing that even the existing rights are violated every day with impunity by not only those with enough clout or the right contacts but by both big and petty officials armed with a vast array of arbitrary powers.

It may cost very little to break the good news to the people that they have the right to education, healthcare, work and even a home. But these are no more than hollow promises in the absence of the requisite resources and the will to get things done. For over 50 years, successive governments have not been able to deliver on the promise of universal literacy. A new class of extortionists has risen in every city in recent years and the government is unable to do anything about it. Never before has the citizen felt so insecure.

Successive governments have not been able even to check thefts of half of the electricity produced in Delhi and prevent large scale leakages in poor relief funds. On the other hand, they have worked overtime to develop dilatory procedures in order to extort speed money from those unfortunate enough to have any business with any municipal, state or Central department, and a holiday culture, with no norms of punctuality, efficiency or productivity. An Indian official who had an appointment in Washington on the day following John Kennedy�s assassination took it for granted that the meeting was cancelled. He was told curtly, �You can mourn for our late president as long as you want, but we are working�.

This is not to say there is no need for having a fresh look at a time when information technologies, the closer integrating of every national economy into the global market, the many active insurgencies in the country, the new mobility of capital across national frontiers, the need to do something about gender inequalities, easier access to arms and environmental degradation are fast changing the complexity as well as the dimensions of the problems confronting many societies. But no change in the basic law can be of much avail unless those in control have the grit and the means to meet the new challenges more effectively.

The main contradiction in politics at every level today is that even as the overload of demands on the system goes on increasing, the steering capacity of the state continues to decrease. Partly this is a result of larger forces which are beyond the government�s control. But to a large extent it is also a consequence of the malignant turn taken by the democratization process which has badly fractured political life and made for chronic instability. One of the primary objectives of the commission which is to review the Constitution is indeed to find ways of ensuring political stability.

It is extremely doubtful, however, whether this aim can be achieved by tightening up the anti-defection law. There may be legal means of penalizing any member or group from a party from which they defect though elected on its ticket. There can be no effective sanctions against potential defectors forming a faction and being a permanent thorn in their party�s side. What is even more pertinent in this context is the risk of penalizing an entire party for deserting a coalition or for using its clout, when its support makes all the difference between a government�s survival and demise, to force the policymakers now and then to act at its bidding and acquiring a say in policymaking out of all proportion to its strength.

I n any case, the suggestion made by some to let even a badly hung parliament run its full term, even though it may avoid all too frequent elections is not likely to make effective governance any easier. It can lead to a succession of unstable ruling coalitions as a result of periodical realignments of political forces and rule out pursuit of coherent or consistent policies. Just as in the field of moral action there is no alternative to being good, as M.K. Gandhi said, in the matter of effective governance, there is no substitute for unity of purpose. A national perspective on major policy issues is achieved not by a series of uneasy compromises between regional or sectional interests but by transcending divisions of religion, language, caste and ethnicity.

The president was quite right when he said that �it is not the Constitution which has failed the people but the people who have failed the Constitution�. He was merely drawing his conclusion from a stern warning given by B.R. Ambedkar when he told the constituent assembly: �However good a Constitution may be, it will turn out to be bad because those who are called to work it happen to be a bad lot.�

It will be churlish, however, to dub those who led the independence movement and ran the country in the formative period of the republic a bad lot. They could not possibly envisage the dynamics of the politicization process, the sort of persons who would get elected to parliament or occupy top slots in the political establishment, the population pressure, the frenzied pace of the technological revolution, the circumstances in which the Cold War would end, the ascendancy of neo-liberalism in most parts of the world and the increased presence of transnationals in almost every country.

The problems this country faces today are in many ways of a different order and have to be resolved in far more difficult circumstances than in the Fifties. The population is thrice as large as at the time of independence. A national market and easier communications have brought people closer together but ironically, the working of the political system has also hardened regional, communal, caste and ethnic divides. While the spread of consumerist values among the elite groups has widened the gulf between them and those who lack the basic amenities of life, �more people in more parts of the world� � thanks to the mass media � �dream of and consider a wider range of possible lives than ever before.�

In the long run this can mean a more acute sense of frustration, a more frantic search for subnational identities and more group conflicts. No exercise in constitutional reform, however sophisticated, can insure against these dangers, which already loom large.    


Photo finish

Sir � Nature must be especially partial to Delhi politicians for India�s billionth baby, Aastha Arora, to be born there (�Flashbulbs bombard billion baby�, May 12). After all, the ministers, Sumitra Mahajan and N. Shanmugam, and the posse of photographers, could hardly be expected to hotfoot it to some remote corner of the country if the billionth baby had chosen to be born there. Or in the uncongenial surroundings of a basti. The fuss made over Aastha�s birth would suggest reaching the billion mark was reason for celebration. Even accepting that the to-do was more about photo opportunities, those assembled could have spared a thought for the child � it�s a miracle that she didn�t come to any harm in the crush. Also, instead of promising two lakh rupees for her education, wouldn�t it have been a better idea to first get her father a job? But, as usual, politicians do not see the things that are as plain as the noses on their faces, they are too busy peering into the future. That is, when they find time from posing for photographs.

Yours faithfully,
Suchitra Das, Calcutta

Where love has gone

Sir � It is unfortunate that the present government is introducing the Christian marriage bill in Parliament without taking the community concerned into confidence (�Cloud on Christian marriage law�, May 6). If the bill is passed, much of the freedom enjoyed hitherto by the Christians will be taken away undemocratically. It is sad that the Indian government is interfering with the personal laws of a minority community without consulting the community concerned. One can only hope that the Union law minister, Ram Jethmalani, will convene a meeting of the church leaders before he takes the unwarranted bill to Parliament.

Let me also draw the attention of members of parliament to an act that still puts many couples through unhappy social lives. Ever since the Christian marriage and matrimonial causes bill, 1962, was introduced in Parliament, and lapsed in 1971, little has been done in this regard. It may seem paradoxical that the courts in India do not recognize an annulment by the church as ground for divorce, while the same courts of law regard a couple married in the church as man and wife. What is more ridiculous is that the church refuses to solemnize the marriage of either party after the annulment unless a decree dissolving the earlier marriage has been obtained from the court.

In order to remove the legal anomalies, the antiquated divorce law of 1869 must be suitably amended and codified. As one belonging to a minority community, can I not claim the right to ask or expect MPs to perform their parliamentary duties impartially with respect to the discriminatory piece of legislation imposed on the Christian community, and to the impending marriage bill?

Yours faithfully,
Omar Luther King, Shillong

Sir � The report, �Conversion permit raj in Orissa� (March 8), implies that there has been a blatant misuse of the right to freedom of religion. In several regions forcible conversions have taken place for years without being properly reported by the media.

This is not to say missionary activity has been linked to proselytization alone. Missionaries have undoubtedly contributed to education and health services. However, the former missionaries were mostly European. The present breed of missionaries are aggressive converts from Gujarat, Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, with the sole aim of converting innocent, illiterate tribals.

The said order by the Orissa government, ordering the church to furnish it with information regarding conversions, is justified in view of the dubious methods adopted by missionaries. If the church is as innocent as it claims, it should follow the order instead of panicking.

Last year, the killing of Graham Staines was given a communal twist, which resulted in the Hindus being made scapegoats, as always. Reports about the rape of a nun added further colour to the communal theory. Those who protest against uncalled for rampages throughout the nation are surprisingly quiet now. Is this the freedom of religion they want to advocate?

Yours faithfully,
R.H. Putran, Calcutta

Sir � Attacks on Christians are becoming a routine affair in India. Of late there have been several attacks on Christians and their institutions in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. In Karnataka, a Jesuit scholar was stabbed.

There is a pattern to all these incidents. The Hindutva forces are attacking the innocent, dedicated, service-oriented but unarmed Christian leaders. In Orissa, many people now openly admit and appreciate the black deeds of Dara Singh. The motive behind all these attacks is mere fear of being threatened by the educated, conscientious and so far oppressed classes � the adivasis, the Dalits and �the weaker sections� of society.

Fortunately, the English language media of this country has given coverage to heinous attacks on Christians. However, government officials are downplaying these as isolated and local incidents. They blame the media for highlighting and exaggerating such minor incidents with the purpose of inciting communal passions.

As a citizen of this country and as a Christian, I feel pity for the protectors of our Constitution. I think that the Hindutva forces are riding a tiger. It is a dangerous game they are playing. Vulnerability and the attitude of love and forgiveness need not be taken as our weakness. It is, in fact, our strength.

Yours faithfully,
Sunny Jacob, Jamshedpur

Spies in the haystack

Sir � Kudos to Ashoke Sen for his masterly analysis of West Bengal�s plight under communist rule for more than two decades (�Decline and fall of the Bengali middle class�, May 10). However, he has failed to mention one vital aspect � state security.

The state has become the happy hunting ground of Inter-Services Intelligence agents because of the complete neglect of our communist masters. Times without number, the Central government has warned against the callous attitude of the state government. The upshot has been that explosives are found strewn around, causing fatal accidents. On several instances direct ISI links have been found. Yet, the government has maintained a studied silence over the findings.

Two years ago, our garrulous minister of home (police) affairs, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, even refused to meet a fact finding team from New Delhi which came to inquire into the security set up in the state.

Yours faithfully,
J. Gupta, Calcutta

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