Editorial/ Head hunters
Editorial 2/First summit
Rupee on the run
Letters to the Editor

The president of India is expected to be above politics and patronage. And certainly above the politics of patronage. Yet, recent exchanges between the prime minister�s office and Rashtrapati Bhavan augur otherwise. The PMO has made a number of appointments to key diplomatic and judicial posts in what could be seen as an attempt at smoothing out the rough edges of a troublesome relationship. However, this has necessitated a form of unabashed nepotism that puts in a rather unsavoury light the public image of the country�s two constitutional heads. The president�s daughter, Ms Chitra Mohan, has been named ambassador to Sweden and his secretary, Mr Gopal Gandhi, will be the next high commissioner to Colombo. Both appointments flout the basic norms of diplomatic hierarchy. Ms Mohan, a middle ranking officer in the Indian Foreign Service, has never headed any mission, neither has she been entrusted before with senior or middle level responsibilities in any Indian embassy or in the ministry of external affairs. The post she is to fill has been held always by secretarial level diplomats. The high commission at Colombo is strategically much more crucial, at present, than the Swedish ambassadorship. And it is about to be taken over by someone who is not in the foreign service and has little diplomatic experience, simply because he happens to be the president�s secretary and the grandson of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. It would perhaps sound fatuous to point out to no less than the president and the prime minister that the sole basis of such crucial appointments ought to be merit grounded in experience. But sadly, this is precisely what they both firmly need to be reminded of. Particularly when the president�s ideological predilections seem to be influencing major appointments in the judiciary as well.

Apart from flagrantly violating the principle of merit, the ease with which Mr K.R. Narayanan has implicated himself in the nation�s ubiquitous patronage system certainly tarnishes the image of a �working president�. The history of Mr Narayanan�s principled public transgressions of his designated role, his critique of the government�s agenda of constitutional and economic reform, his public warnings to the judiciary, executive and legislature, his snub to the president of the United States during the latter�s recent visit are all meant to add up to the image of a national leader who is considerably more than a symbolic figure. The righteous socialist rhetoric with which the president expresses his identification with the country�s unempowered and neglected will also be difficult to reconcile with this readiness to go along with conduct that cannot get any further from lofty uprightness. It would have been better if the president and the prime minister had made their peace with each other through means that did not compromise their respective offices in such a public and unethical manner.    

The man in the limelight during this weekend�s United States-Russia summit was the new Russian president, Mr Vladimir Putin. In comparison to his predecessor, the erratic Mr Boris Yeltsin, Mr Putin was confident and in control. The general impression was that he was a person Washington could do business with. There have been no major tangible sources of friction between the sole and former superpowers in the past few years. Yet the US and Russia have not built a stable, constructive relationship. Hence Mr Bill Clinton�s ambiguous admission the two countries were neither enemies nor allies. In large part, going beyond the photo opportunities is difficult because of the minimal economic relationship between the two countries. Another reason was the political limitations of Mr Yeltsin. Mr Putin is a different kettle of fish. He has already put together a working majority in the duma. Legislation, like his recent ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty, has been passed with remarkable efficiency. When Mr Putin says he expects to pass economic reform legislation, his claim is credible. Mr Clinton and he had their disagreements, but these were minor in comparison to Washington�s relief at having someone in Moscow capable of making decisions and implementing them. Mr Putin has none of Mr Yeltsin�s back slapping affability. However, he is likely to be more able to build a working relationship with the US than his predecessor.

Not unlike the Cold War summits, arms control and disarmament topped the agenda. As expected, Russia warned against US plans for a missile defence system. Recognizing that injecting momentum into the frozen global nonproliferation regime would be the best means to get the anti-missile plan sheathed, Mr Putin agreed to reduce plutonium stockpiles, set up a joint missile early warning system and joined Mr Clinton in calling for approval of the second strategic arms reduction treaty. The two also wagged fingers at each other about the Russian military campaign in Chechnya. Differences remained in the realm of rhetoric with Washington urging a political solution in Chechnya but going no further. Mr Putin made it clear even before his election that his foreign policy would be one of accommodation with the West, with the overall purpose of seeing Russia remained at the high table of global politics. He said he had nothing against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expanding. Mr Clinton promised help in seeing Russia was part of the global policymaking circuit, including the World Trade Organization. What was palpable was a sensation of two leaders interested in trying to work together. Thus the two agreed on the threat of missile attacks and terrorism, but not on how to tackle the two problems. But this is Mr Putin�s first face to face meeting with a US president. And he has already pencilled in three more meetings with Mr Clinton this year.    

Events are unfolding strictly according to the script. The management of the country�s external accounts has to all purposes been handed over to foreigners. Institutional investors in the domestic stock exchanges as well as elsewhere have taken charge of the buying and selling of the domestic currency. It is in the interest of foreigners to bring the value of the rupee down, down, down.

Consider this aspect of the matter, along with acknowledgement of the other important factor operating in and around the phenomena of direct investment. Long term external investment in the country has, for whatever reason, lagged woefully behind over the past decade. For instance, notwithstanding the manifold allurements offered by the New Delhi government to external parties, direct foreign investment in the course of the decade has not even approximated the magnitude of long term money that has gone into the People�s Republic of China in a single year.

The regime in New Delhi and its agencies are, quite visibly, at the end of their tether. We are the leading votaries of globalization, and, despite vicissitudes, we propose to march ahead in the manner of Christian soldiers. There can be no question of reversing the process merely because political developments have been toward a contrary direction.

There is an impasse though, a genuine one, which will not go away on its own. India is infested with website lovers. But the problem of joblessness does not dissolve. Temporary assignments with the information technology sector could take care of a limited number of job seekers from the middle class segments of society. Unless massive investment is on the way � investment involving agriculture and industry � the strain on the system is bound to show soon.

The strain eventuated by the investment lag in the economy is to be reflected in measures which mount further pressure on the country�s foreign exchange reserves. We are, as a result, caught in the trap of a vicious circle. The intensified demand for foreign exchange keeps lowering the external value of the domestic currency, that is, the rupee. Depreciation of the value of the rupee raises the level of demand for foreign exchange. Unless the national government or a major international financial institution intervenes in a big way, the country�s reserve of foreign currency is likely to reach the very bottom within a very short period.

Well, it is no longer a hypothesis. A crisis of a sort has in fact begun to afflict the rupee. The foreign exchange markets are full of reports of how pressure mounted by foreign speculators is bound to lead to a run on the rupee, dragging its value down all the way.

The initial reaction of the government has been cautious and on a low key. The authorities know there is little scope for defending the national currency in case some big external forces are determined to get it depreciated. In any event, it will not be deemed as civilized behaviour if national fiscal and monetary institutions begin to defend the domestic currency against the onslaughts launched by important foreign parties. Foreigners must be shown respect.

The underlying issue calls for some introspection. You are supposed to be a sovereign regime, and nominally in full control of the processes of your economy. The urge is nonetheless irresistible to give in to browbeating by foreigners. These foreigners have made up their mind to do your currency in. Their local cronies have already been informed that it would not be gentlemanly on your part to devise stratagems to defend the external value of the currency. Things are so arranged � seek advice from Thailand, or the Philippines or Indonesia � that uninterrupted fall in the external value of the currency becomes the general pattern.

There is no question that such is the fate awaiting the Indian rupee. Irrespective of bunches of foreigners coming with driblets of external funds, the outcome is likely to be stabilization of the rupee�s external value at a precariously low level. The sequence of subsequent developments is not difficult to anticipate.

Speculators will move centrestage, the external value of the rupee is likely to decline further, exports consequently will become stickier and imports will go into a spree. It would have been less onerous to mount the plea to suspend the World Trade Organization�s provisions till as long as some kind of near normalcy is restored to the system. But we have already slipped into the 19th century colonial mind, royalty is not to be argued with.

Not that the government is unable to see the predicament. The fresh bout of trade liberalization is going to cause the economy to enter into an excruciatingly difficult time. Certain ground realities you cannot run away from.

Do you dare to challenge the imperial order? In case you do, out you go and your assets and properties are to be annexed by imperial order. Should any of the party or parties involved have the temerity to confront the colonial and imperial forces impinging on the country�s trade and commerce, the course of events will be exciting as well as unpredictable.

Are we waiting for a reenactment of that kind of denouement? The external value of the rupee has come down crashing. No reversal of the trend is to be expected. What is additionally noteworthy is that while the government has instructed the Reserve Bank of India to maintain the incentive of exporters, it shows little courage to strike at the root of the problem by adoption of measures slashing the level of import demand for goods and services.

The major breakthroughs the foreigners have achieved through the 2000-2001 budget connotes a triumph for free market activities. Foreign traders and foreign institutions could not care less whether, because of the introduction of unregulated market transactions, there is utmost strain on local activities, including on local employment.

This attitude of mind on the part of the government, including the ministry of finance, supplemented by stances adopted by influential sections of the comfortably placed middle classes, will decide the content of the impending discourse that will shape the fate of the country in the course of the next decade.

Meanwhile, the external value of the rupee will keep falling and some pundits are confident that by Christmas, the dollar-rupee rate will be 50:1. What the implication of such a turn of events is for the Indian producer or worker or trader, nobody is seemingly interested. Under dependent colonialism, the country however learns to survive. There will be no growth and no meaningful redistribution of income and assets. So what, at least some of our countrymen will learn to survive despite the fury of the circumstances.    


Way of kings

Sir � The sangh parivar can rest assured. We have arrived at a Ram rajya of sorts. Look at the elan with which our rajas are bestowing their blessings on all and sundry. A few days after Ram Vilas Paswan made his benevolence known by distributing rent-free telephone connections to his courtiers, otherwise identified as employees of the department of telecommunications, we have our maharaja, the prime minister, in other words, upsetting the plans of the rival queen by his show of altruism to a dislodged chieftain (�Vajpayee beats Sonia in Kesri house-hunt�, June 5). Quite typically, we have also had the king indulge in the entertainments usually associated with royalty. Remember the fireworks at Pokhran, the fanfare of the diplomatic voyage to the enemy kingdom, or the monarch�s promise to send his vahini to help out a war torn neighbour? And as is the king�s wont, it is the prajas, the hapless billion of India, who still remain the subject of neglect. Are our mai baaps listening?

Yours faithfully,
Motilal Jha, Calcutta

Women�s world

Sir � March 18 was �celebrated� as international women�s day with great fanfare. But how much will these celebrations, centred around the spirit of womanhood, ultimately contribute to their welfare, and improve the quality of their lives?

Media reports seem to show that women�s lives are deteriorating by the day. Moving out of households to earn a livelihood has made them more prone to exploitation. It is also ironic that the facade of protection of chastity and honour within the family is also breaking down. The �chastity� of men, on the other hand, is never questioned. All this makes it necessary for families and the society to prepare women to protect themselves against adversities, and to stand up for their own rights.

Women are genetically no different from men � their �human� attributes are all the same. Strength, humanity and tenderness are not mutually exclusive. So women can have a combination of all these qualities instead of being bogged down by social stereotypes. Unfortunately, we teach our daughters to be dependent, to consider marriage their ultimate goal in life.

In India, women�s education has received the lowest priority. Not only higher education, their primary education has also been perpetually neglected. One of the planning commission members had once conceded he was opposed to compulsory education for women since, �then we will not get maidservants�. More recently, most male members of parliament are up against the women�s reservation bill for fear the comforts of home will be lost forever. One must remember it is a man�s world unless women stand up and claim their rights not only in Parliament, but in all other policymaking institutions.

Yours faithfully,
Renuka Biswas, Calcutta

Sir � Beauty pageants have been so stigmatized that people use them as an excuse to questions about women�s moral standards. No matter what they do, women�s actions are always under scrutiny. Men fail to treat women as strong individuals, preferring to keep them as sexual objects. It is this attitude that leads them to denounce beauty pageants which they feel are sacrilegious to deep seated notions of �purity�.

If these men are so vociferous about not causing slight to the image of womanhood, why do they not stop crimes such as rape, molestation, various forms of domestic violence, dowry deaths et al? Why do they waste time and energy in protesting against beauty pageants and ignore more important issues? Today, a girl from a middle class family can hardly think of taking up modelling as a profession, even though we take pride in being progressive people. Why should women be shunned for wearing skimpy clothes, when men can take pride in displaying their bare chests? Why should such sexist attitudes be persistently encouraged? Instead of seeing beauty pageants as a potential way of exploiting women, they should be seen as a way of emancipation.

Yours faithfully,
Saima Afreen, Calcutta

Sir � It is not true that Ashwini Sarin�s �daring modus operandi� of buying a woman to prove the existence of trafficking in women �had no precedent in journalism� (�An undercover scribe tells his tale�, June 4).

In 1885, the assistant editor of London�s Pall Mall Gazette, the redoubtable W.T. Stead, bought and abducted a 13 year old girl to demonstrate that widespread trafficking in girls took place in high Victorian London. Though he was sentenced to a term in prison, his sensational expose titled �Maiden tribute to modern Babylon� led to parliament raising the age of consent to 16 years.

Stead died as interestingly as he had lived, going down calmly with the Titanic and so failing to file what could have been the most sensational copy in the history of the journalism.

Yours faithfully,
Abhijit Gupta, Calcutta

Sir � Indian society is reluctant to accept unwed mothers in real and reel life. However, actresses playing these roles exhibit a different attitude in their personal lives (�Just do it�, May 19). Truth is, Indian women are hypocritical about matters relating to sex. But are they solely responsible for this? I would suggest the reverse. Generations of chauvinistic men have forced women to suppress their passions and sexual instincts. What men fail to realize is that they are the real losers. After all, would it not be great fun if women were allowed to be as fancy free as their male counterparts?

Yours faithfully,
Vasan Nair, Calcutta

Criminal Party of India

Sir � The protests by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders that rocked the areas near Siriti crematorium in south Calcutta were sparked off by the arrest of a wanted criminal, Mahesh Sharma (�Crimelord arrest sparks protest�, May 3). Obviously, goondas are �honoured guests� of the ruling Left Front and must be protected at all costs, even if they have made the lives of citizens intolerable. It is the elected representatives, supposedly chosen to look after the interests of people, who champion these dredges of society.

The protestors, led by local CPI(M) legislators, Kumkum Chakraborty (also Sharma�s godmother), Basudev Chakraborty and Sadhan Bhattaraj, did not care how much inconvenience the criminals caused citizens.

Are people to suffer in silence as the CPI(M)�s henchmen break laws with impunity? Are there no laws empowering the police to arrest them, especially given the fact they invaded police stations and threatened policemen? Will the state�s home minister in charge of police pay attention to ground realities in this supposed �oasis� of peace, instead of mouthing inanities.

Yours faithfully,
N. Sarkar, Calcutta

Sir � West Bengal has come to a sorry pass now that political leaders have become completely brazen about their nexus with criminals. How can leaders betray the voters who made it possible for them to attain power? Or are the politicians quick to jump to the goons� protection because they helped them rig the elections and win the polls?

It is the government�s duty to provide security to citizens. It is the duty of these elected representatives to ensure the money taken as taxes is properly used to provide security and infrastructure, and in development programmes for the benefit of the people. They cannot demand the release of a criminal whom the police officials have arrested at great risk to their own lives. There must be someone somewhere who can bring to justice these wrongdoers. Or will the public have to seize the initiative to bring an end to all this? These leaders should be prosecuted alongwith the criminals.

Yours faithfully,
Abhisek Roy, via email

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