Editorial 1/Return to Oz
Editorial 2/Rally round
The valley shows up cracks
Letters to the Editor

Putting the past aside was the theme of the recent visit of the Australian prime minister, Mr John Howard, to India. Australia, a long standing opponent of nuclearization of its neighbourhood, was among the most strident critics of India’s 1998 atomic detonations in Pokhran. New Delhi’s response was equally sharp. It did not help matters that the primary bilateral link between the two countries has traditionally been cricket, so there was little or no depth to absorb the shock of Pokhran II. Canberra, like other Western governments, has since been reassured that the nuclear tests were less about India’s donning the garb of a nuclear rogue and more about its acquiring a suit of armour. The Australian foreign minister, Mr Alexander Downer, has cited India’s moratorium on further nuclear tests and its search for a consensus on signing the comprehensive test ban treaty as important to Australia’s changing its tune. Like other Western countries, Australia has only softened rather than lifted economic sanctions against India. But, as Mr Howard noted, Australia did not see why this should not allow the two countries to explore relations in other fields. His visit was further evidence of how India has shown the world community it is not a rogue, but at most a dissident with whom dialogue is possible.

The future of Indo-Australian ties is not without potential. Australia has invested about one billion dollars in India and trade has been growing gradually. It is now the second most popular destination for Indians studying overseas. Mr Howard outlined a more tangible area of policy cooperation: farm trade. Australia is part of the Cairns group of agricultural exporting nations. The group is pushing for freer trade in farm products. As India’s agricultural surpluses start to pile up, the country needs to consider the possibility of allowing agricultural exports. Besides its own protectionist fears, India has tended to find it difficult to export farm products because of the subsidies, internal and external, paid by other countries. The Cairns group opposes both internal and external agricultural subsidies. India needs to recognize that in the long term, this will provide a more level playing ground for world farm trade. And this will benefit India’s ability to export fruits, grain, dairy products and other agricultural goods, in which it is globally competitive. Australia had extended an invitation to India to join Cairns last year. But New Delhi has so far remained unwilling to take a long term perspective of its trade interests. Cooperation on this front will also help India win Australian support in joining the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and revive the moribund Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation. Trade diplomacy should be seen as the key to bringing an upswing in India’s relations with Down Under.    

Small revolutions can be quite intriguing. The deputy chief minister of West Bengal, Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya, has said in the assembly that the state government was planning to ban rallies in front of Metro cinema and Victoria House. On the one hand, this is a follow up of the earlier government ban on rallies in Esplanade East. On the other, and more immediately, the announcement is a response to the Calcutta high court’s direction to the government last month to make a plan to prohibit weekday rallies on city streets. The compliant response, coming from the deputy chief minister, is a small revolution in itself. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has traditionally been the greatest advocate of rallies and processions. Given the way these were conducted, it would be excusable to infer that the party felt its strength could best be shown off or the intensity of its protests against the Centre best registered by bringing city traffic to a standstill at the busiest intersections during the busiest times. That this made the CPI(M) the greatest offender in creating indiscipline in the city where it sat in the secretariat with the rest of the Left Front was never a consideration. Mr Bhattacharya has, of course, mentioned that it is not possible to ban rallies in a democracy. But he has acknowledged — at last — that it is not right to obstruct roads either.

If implemented, the state government’s decision will be an enormous improvement. At the same time, the high court had not specified any single area in the city in which rallies should be banned. The state government is making hesitant noises in the direction of banning rallies in the Esplanade area, that being the heart of the city’s workaday bustle, but is not saying anything about other areas as yet. There is also a vague noise about consensus among political parties, although how that is relevant in the contexts of a court direction and the simple matter of law and order is not quite clear. Mr Bhattacharya seems to be in a bit of a jam. He may be wishing to show disillusioned Calcuttans there is blood in the old party yet. The CPI(M) at the head of the Left Front can still do good things for the city, never mind that its residents are courting a rival formation. Or perhaps Mr Bhattacharya is hoping to ride on the propensities of the CPI(M)’s challenger. The Trinamool Congress is a great believer in rallies and processions too. And the deputy chief minister may have thought offence is the best form of defence, what with a major Trinamool Congress rally coming up. Yet there is no need for so much fuss. The state government and the police must just be singleminded in preventing rallies on weekdays anywhere in the city. Making a drama out of a court direction merely underlines the politicization of the city administration and allows skeletons to come trotting out of cupboards.    

With politics having turned into a kind of showbiz, the imbroglio in Kashmir is made for theatricals. The Central government took the autonomy resolution as a dramatic gesture of defiance and a last ditch move on Farooq Abdullah’s part to prove that he was the rightful heir to his father’s dubious legacy. It did not reckon with his putting it to vote. The Kashmir chief minister, on his part, did not bargain for New Delhi’s curt “no” to the resolution, with not a word of sympathy for an ally in dire straits.

If the provocation by the Kashmir chief minister threw the Central government into a tizzy and forced it to make it clear that there was no question of going back to the terms of the original instrument of accession, which were untenable from the word go, the cabinet’s outright rejection of the state assembly’s resolution made Farooq Abdullah jump out of his skin. All this has created a lot of more space for theatricals.

The scripts by the two allies, turned potential adversaries, were written in quite different keys. While Farooq Abdullah vented his spleen on the Central government for not even showing him the courtesy of discussing the autonomy resolution with the members of the National Democratic Alliance before turning it down, the prime minister continued to play it cool. Why blow up the controversy, one could almost hear the latter saying to himself. The kind of autonomy demanded by the assembly resolution was not very far from separatism, which in turn was a highly contagious malady. Why risk spreading the contagion?

That the whole affair became so stagey was no reason, however, to dismiss it lightly. The timing of the autonomy resolution was by no means fortuitous. It was designed to serve several ends. The chief minister knew quite well how narrow his party’s support base was in the state. The very fact that the National Conference could mobilize no more than 10 per cent of the voters to participate in the state assembly polls despite the most elaborate security arrangements, was a resounding slap in its face. The more militant groups could call all work in the valley to a stop at their caprice and the ruling party could do nothing but wring its hands.

Against this background, the resolution could be interpreted as a desperate gamble to recover some of the ground the chief minister’s party had lost to the extremist elements in the state. Farooq Abdullah was not so daft as not to realize that the brand of autonomy his party was demanding could only prepare the ground for secession and that no government in New Delhi in its sense could afford to loosen its ties with the state, end the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, the Election Commission and the auditor general over the territory and even relinquish its control over subventions and grants made to Kashmir except at the cost of subverting whatever hold it has on it.

Why was then the Kashmir chief minister in such a hurry to push the resolution through the assembly? Apparently, he thought that even if it could not undo all the progress made by the governments succeeding Sheikh Abdullah’s ouster from power in 1953 in strengthening the state’s ties with India, it might at the very least win much more room for manoeuvre for his party and himself. Recasting the National Conference’s image as the chief proponent of full autonomy for Kashmir, he thought, would perhaps also enable it to make some inroads into the Hurriyat’s base and foil the Central government’s move of trying to open a dialogue with that militant outfit.

That this move was both a provocation to, and an excuse for, Farooq Abdullah to hustle his party into voting for the resolution is clear enough. It is also pretty obvious that the Central government felt somewhat sheepish and embarrassed about it. The mystery is who goaded it into releasing some Hurriyat leaders to explore the chances of an understanding with it when, judging from the concerned militant outfit’s record, the initiative was doomed from the start. Some who ought to know suspect that it was none other than the superpower which regards itself as the rightful guardian of peace in every troubled part of the world.

Now that the move has backfired and made the Kashmir problem even more messy than it was before, it is for the Vajpayee government to repair the damage done by unintended, though easily predictable, consequences of its action. The new theatricals neither amuse nor deceive anybody. While Farooq Abdullah’s nostalgia for the all too short pre-1953 period of his father’s rule and obsession with an autonomy that was never a practical proposition only betray his own vulnerability and sense of insecurity, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s show of nonchalance is too thin a disguise for his anxiety over the gravity of the crisis in Kashmir where long years of misrule, militancy, widespread India-baiting and all too frequent disruptions of daily life have combined to make the state’s future look more bleak than ever before.

Whether the National Conference decides to stay on as a member of the NDA or leaves it does not matter any longer. With their contrary approaches to the autonomy issue, how can the prime minister and the Kashmir chief minister share even the same platform, not to speak of putting the same interpretation on the phrase both have often used in the past declaring that Kashmir is an integral part of India? It will be honest for them to come to terms that their political compulsions point in divergent directions.

While Farooq Abdullah has no choice but to adjust the thinking of his party to the vitiated climate of opinion in the state if it is to survive as more than a shadow of its more confident past self, bring its concept of autonomy as near independence as possible and give a fighting edge to its rhetoric, Vajpayee has to decide how he can best contain the fallout of the new development in Kashmir on his many regional allies whose ideas of devolution of more powers to the states do not tally with those of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

As in so many other matters, the government has been too tardy in spelling out what the promise of devolution of more powers to the states means. One result of the new Kashmir muddle will be to give the ideas associated with that promise a much greater kick. A spokesman of one of the NDA constituents, the Akali Dal, has already gone on record to say that the ambit of autonomy envisaged in the Anandpur Sahib resolution to which it is committed is the same as that demanded by the Kashmir state assembly.

When the national debate on the autonomy issue, which has now acquired a new edge of urgency, begins in right earnest, the BJP can well face a situation in which the ideas of many of its regional allies go much further than it considers safe or even feasible. The path to devolution of more powers to the states is going to be more tortuous and troublesome than the party imagines. Even as it is, the leading partner in the ruling coalition and many members of its extended family are at loggerheads on many crucial economic and social policy issues. The autonomy controversy is apt not only to create new tensions between members of the sangh parivar but also to bring under greater strain the tenuous bonds that hold the ruling coalition together.

In any case, even if some uneasy consensus is worked out on the highly contentious issue of a new division of powers between the Centre and states, it will not make for a more vibrant democratic order unless the states agree to pass on some of their responsibilities, particularly concerning matters which directly concern the people, to gram panchayats, municipal bodies and zilla parishads. This is the only way to strengthen democracy at the grassroots. It is doubtful, however, whether the state governments will be willing to make drastic reductions in their powers of patronage or opportunities to abuse their authority to help themselves and their clients. The alarming decline in the standards of administration, particularly in the two largest northern states, makes a change for the better a forlorn hope.

The meanings of texts, as many postmodernists tell us, are notoriously unstable. But whatever interpretation we put on the manifestos of the different parties or coalitions, a cleaner and more efficient administration is nowhere on the cards. The autonomy issue is by no means the only one to reveal developing cracks in the system. The increasing inequalities at the regional, group and personal levels, the decay of the party system, the growing ambivalence of electoral verdicts and the conspicuous lack of cohesion among policymakers all give a more ominous ring to the question of whether the Centre can hold and prevent things from falling apart.    


Look before the leap

Sir — Why should people really bother about cracking tough nuts (“Naidu-baiters in survey fight”, July 11)? N. Chandrababu Naidu dared to take on his provider, mentor and father-in-law when he was alive and ailing. In a coup that would shame Pakistanis, Naidu established himself the invincible head of the Telugu Desam Party, in which he had started his political career under the wing of N.T. Rama Rao. The dissenting sons were coopted under the new leadership and the allegedly conspiring wife, Lakshmi Parvathi, was made to bite the dust in the tussle that followed. When disgruntled TDP leaders circulate internet surveys to give the thumbs down to Naidu, they forget they are taking on an extremely agile political adversary. Naidu in a very short while has established himself as a major player in Central politics besides making his undisputed sway apparent in the state. Rural Andhra Pradesh and even women can be dissatisfied. But it would be naive to expect Naidu cannot handle his babes.

Yours faithfully,
S. Mahanta, Calcutta

Airing views

Sir — The platitudes mouthed by the cablemen of Calcutta and those who support them in “Fadeout fight for a few rupees more” (July 6) shows once again why in India, the consumer intrinsically distrusts purveyors of any kind of supply and service. For all practical purposes, there exists a monopolistic cable connection service provider in each locality, who prevents competition of any kind. As a consequence, the service providers try all sorts of tricks to increase their already comfortable profits. There is no consistency in the rates charged, the quality of service or the number of channels provided at different localities. Now that they are depriving consumers of five channels of Star TV, has any service provider gone around accepting a lower monthly charge during the period of non-availability of the channels?

The hitch with Star TV is probably not being resolved deliberately. Maybe Star TV is also sticking to its guns, even sustaining loss of advertising revenue, knowing full well the habits of the cable connection service providers. Like print media, electronic media cannot possibly run on subscription money. Had it been so, all the newspapers would not have reduced their prices in the recent past, even when there had been no substantial drop in their cost inputs.

There should be something like a “pay as you see” system. The viewer could, for example, then pay for the Bangla, English, Urdu and German channels only, which constitute barely 10 per cent of the available channels. One could avoid paying for the other 90 per cent channels running in Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, several south Indian languages, Chinese, Russian, French and so on.

Cable operators who raise the rates after Star TV comes back should be taken to task. I am willing to pay a higher charge for my cable connection, but only if I can receive a high speed, wide band internet connection through the same cables, as is available in many places.

Yours faithfully,
L.N. Roychoudhury, Calcutta

Sir — “Cable cry for Crorepati” (July 5) comes a bit late in the day. The city based cable unions under the RPG Netcom umbrella have taken their customers for granted for far too long. They not only do not have any qualms about overcharging their customers and refusing to justify their charges, they have taken it upon themselves to decide what their customers want and what they don’t want. Their latest attempt is their effort to stonewall Star’s “package deal”.

This latest impasse has been going on for a very long time and customers have been denied the popular Star channels while cable operators battle it out with Star TV. RPG Netcom’s role in this issue has not been encouraging. It has remained a silent spectator, although it could have played the role of mediator and brought about a quick solution. It is crystal clear that the city based cable operators’ unions as well as RPG Netcom do not have the interest of their customers at heart.

Reportedly, cable operators across the country have already agreed to Star’s “package deal”. It is only the Calcutta based cable operators’ unions which think it is their right to demand and it is Star’s obligation to succumb to them. Actually, these cable operators are already overcharging their customers and are in a fix over how to increase their rates even by a few rupees and justify it.

Although all the cable operators are raking in money, they refuse to plough some of this money into upgrading of equipment and infrastructure and thus improve services. Instead, they use these huge resources for other business activities Ultimately it is the reputation of RPG Netcom which is at stake. Its failure to break the deadlock does not augur well for the company.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjan Guha Majumder, via email

Sir — What reason other than greed can justify Star TV’s charging the same viewers who form the basis of their revenue from advertisements? Viewers have been forced to switch over to watching other channels. If Star TV is itself not bothered about losing its popularity, why should cable operators bother? Viewers should refuse to pay even an extra rupee for the Star channels. In fact, efforts should be made to build public opinion against channels which earn revenue through advertisements and yet become pay channels.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Chakravarti, via email

Sir — Before embroiling themselves in a long drawn out battle, cable operators should have asked for the viewers’ opinion of the matter. Although it is not impossible for customers to pay a nominal price hike for pay channels, there should be some logic behind such demands. Both cable operators and broadcasters make huge profits. Both of them should have shouldered a part of the increase instead of piling the load entirely on to the viewers.

Yours faithfully,
Somdatta Sen, Calcutta

Sir — It needed Big B to rudely shake up the Calcutta viewership. The stalemate between RPG Netcom and Star TV is quite old. But 70 per cent of Calcutta’s homes did not seem particularly bothered about being taken for a ride by their cable operators and a television channel that is out to mint money. One gets what one deserves. Probably Calcuttans deserve no better deal.

Yours faithfully,
M. Samaddar, Calcutta

False proceeding

Sir — In the report, “IFB Fin faces RBI action” (May 23), it was mentioned that the Reserve Bank of India has decided to initiate criminal proceedings against IFB Finance Limited, a non-banking financial company. The statement attributed to a senior official of the RBI is factually not correct.

Yours faithfully,
S. Bhattacharyya, general manager, Reserve Bank of India, Calcutta

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