Editorial / Central nervous system
Birth of an attitude
The Telegraph/ Diary
Letters to the editor

Backbones need careful tending. Mr Murli Manohar Joshi has been disturbed, for a while now, by his nation�s bad back. India�s �moral and spiritual backbone�, he feels, is �in decline�. The Union minister for human resources development would like to project himself as some sort of a national bone-setter, determined to straighten this tangle of nerve and bone and restore his country to the correct posture. Upright Indians mustn�t stoop or slouch, as every right-thinking chiropractor-cum-scoutmaster will agree. The crucial arena for such essential rectifications is, of course, that all-encompassing, hence conveniently vague, concept, which Mr Joshi�s ministry likes to call �value education�. After a period of long and frequently vocal mulling over, the ministry has taken its first decisive steps towards making value education a part of the new school curriculum. The National Council for Educational Research and Training has set up a resource centre in New Delhi which is about to implement an �action plan� for the propagation of the �right� values.

This move has a history. Earlier this month, the NCERT had announced that it has abandoned the idea of �religious instruction� for its new school curriculum, to replace it with �education about different religions�. This is to assure paranoid secularists that the dread hue has now burst into a riot of pluralist colours. And most important, secularism � still �one of the core curricular components� � is being unshackled from the traditional and limited idea of a �complete dissociation between religion and education�. Hence this latest shift from religious to value education. Nevertheless, several fundamental elements of this new plan remain regressive and far from reassuring.

First, the entire programme is founded upon an attitude of pious Gibbonism. Mr Joshi�s �nation in decline� theory can only result in the most dangerous archaisms in educational policymaking. Besides, if the nation is in decline, what entitles Mr Joshi to set himself and his ministry apart from this process so as to be arbiters of human values? Second, the elaborate ethical system that the NCERT has devised as the basis for this new form of education can be of use only to the most Dickensian of caricaturists. Diligent research in Mr Joshi�s resource centre has yielded a precise number of human values � 83 to be exact� which will be �classified into different categories� before nationwide dissemination. Bone-setting meets here the ancient arts of memory. Third, the inspiration for this year-long research into the new meanings of secularism comes, incredibly, from dubiously powerful godmen and quasi-spiritualist multinational organizations. The chief inspirer of the resource centre�s reformist ideas has been Sai Baba of Bangalore. Finally, Mr Joshi�s reforms remain motivated primarily by a dour � and distressingly familiar � nationalism. The value education factory line intends to produce �good citizens and nationalists�.

This vision and practice of educational reform � involving an 83-point value-system and the usual bureaucratic paraphernalia for its implementation � raises another fundamental question. To what extent should the state, already groaning under its own unwieldiness, take it upon itself to intervene in the moral education of its citizens? This is a matter of both principle and pragmatics. The state could certainly discharge its constitutional commitment to elementary education without mixing up basic literacy and numeracy with what is good or bad for the soul. The inculcation of human values should be left to the individual and to the self-regulating institutions of civil society. Outside the sphere of elementary education, this interventionist attitude to morality can spill over into such important national concerns as sexual health or the regulation of the private entertainment market. A greater degree of unobtrusiveness in matters spiritual would certainly afford opportunities for bureaucratic streamlining. Mr Joshi�s �good citizens�, in spite of their spinal mettle, would perhaps prefer a minimalist to a moralist state.    

Within moments of flying into Singapore from Bangkok, I was regaled with the latest Lee Kuan Yew joke whose very unkindness testifies to the new spirit of assertiveness that is abroad throughout the region, and which has a serious political dimension. Out of the dust and mortar of economic reconstruction might arise one day an edifice of political liberalism of which Marx and Engels might have been proud.

Apparently, Lee bought a suitlength and took it to a tailor in Singapore. The man measured it and him, then said it would just suffice for a twopiece suit. Lee then went to Kuala Lumpur where a Malaysian tailor told him that apart from a suit, he could squeeze out an extra pair of trousers. A Taiwanese tailor went one better with two extra pairs from the same material. Then, the veteran Lee went to Washington where an American tailor said the cloth would easily suffice for three full suits.

Surprised but impressed, Lee complimented Bill Clinton on the efficiency and economy of his tailors. �Not at all!� replied the American president. �You see, the farther you travel from Singapore, Mr Lee, the smaller you become.�

I was told that the story was posted on the Internet and read and repeated widely. But knowing Singaporeans, I would not be at all surprised if one of them � they are a people with an unsuspected mischievous sense of humour � posted it himself. The internet plays havoc with closed or excessively deferential societies. It has made nonsense of Singapore�s bilateral agreement with Malaysia that one country�s newspapers should not circulate in the other. A high Singapore official who imported a number of expatriates to revitalize the net may have been hoisted with his own petard when they set up the Singapore Internet Company which promptly created a website called �Not the Straits Times Forum�.

The joke is that �Forum� is the title of the paper�s letters to the editor page � the new website gleefully publishes masses of letters that the Straits Times supposedly rejected as being too bold or liberal. Again, I would not be at all surprised if many of these iconoclastic letters were deliberately created for the internet, and also, perhaps, to give the conformist Straits Times a bad name.

Conformism is unfashionable. As southeast Asia rebuilds again after the economic crash of 1997, it is discovering virtue in toppling all the old gods.

The Thais are boldly accusing Thaksin Sinawatra, a telecom tycoon and the most hopeful prime ministerial candidate for the December election, of concealing his vast wealth in a series of fake trusts.

In Indonesia, the lawyer representing 37-year-old Hutomo (Tommy) Mandala Putra, Suharto�s favourite son, says that his client has been in jail for the last 18 months, unknown to anyone. Tommy and his five siblings are accused of extensive fraud involving hundreds of billions of dollars. The most revolutionary development is that their 79-year-old father, Suharto, revered for so long as the saviour of the nation, can avoid facing trial only by pleading one illness after another.

A Malaysian journalist, Hoo Ban Khee, associated editor ofThe Star, is not afraid to complain openly that �the same coalition government has been in existence� since the country became independent in 1957, only changing its name from time to time. Hoo also admits that Mohamad Mahathir�s commitment to the flamboyant multimedia super corridor and, therefore, to allow cyber news to run free will eventually have a profound impact on political thought and media operations.

Why do I bring Marx and Engels into all this? Because it is not often remembered that both were convinced votaries of the free press. �The censored press has a demoralizing effect,� wrote Karl Marx. �It is potentiated evil, from which hypocrisy is inseparable, and from this fundamental evil flow all its other weaknesses.� Engels wrote in August 1882, �You simply must have a press in the party which is not directly dependent on the executive and the party congress, i.e., which is able within the programme and the accepted tactic to oppose without fear individual party steps and...freely to expose to criticism the (party) programme and the tactics.�

Few southeast Asian rulers would have permitted such heresy when fortunes rode high and the miracle seemed everlasting. �We no longer believe in that miracle,� Singapore�s personable young nominated member of parliament, Simon Tay, regarded by many as the voice of responsible liberty, told a seminar on media and democracy organized by the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre earlier this week.

�We have seen property and currency bubbles burst in our faces. We have come to recognize the corruption and cronyism in so many of our elites and their dealings. We have come to see the faces of the poor, the children, women and others, who have been marginalized in the process of development. In this context, the first and most important change in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region is the rise of democracy.� That was Simon�s verdict.

Soon after the crisis when I wrote that the future might see the region�s �soft authoritarian� states replaced by liberal regimes, there were bitter protests all round. Loudest of all were the Americans and Europeans in the region who accused me of wishing to visit the chaos of India or the lawlessness of Chicago on the orderly ASEAN countries. But all that is changing. �In the broader region of Asia, this shift towards democracy can add to the democratic examples in India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan,� Simon, who describes himself as a committed democrat who was not democratically sent to parliament, told the seminar. �For the first time in history, potentially, the balance of the region�s countries will be democratic.�

But, of course, an extreme swing would serve little purpose. I have little doubt that history will reassess both Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew and give them greater credit for their solid achievements. Simon Tay is the first to admit � and Indonesia proves � that democracy alone is not the panacea. The last word belongs, I think, to Fidel Ramos, former president of the Philippines, Southeast Asia�s least developed country.

Chided by Lee for allowing too much democracy, Ramos replied with realistic dignity: �Today, we Filipinos are competing hard to catch up with our vigorous neighbours in economic and ideological growth. But perhaps we are more than abreast of them in one key component of modernization. We Filipinos have already gone through � and succeeded in � our democratic revolution. History has made our culture proof against tyranny. While freedom by itself does not bring about progress, it does provide the most enduring foundation for the good society we are trying to build for ourselves and our posterity.�

I find in that statement the only acceptable justification for the raucous, violent and corrupt operations of our own political pluralism.    


Another one bites the dust

Too many bodies at too short an interval. The Gandhi topi alone does not ensure survival in the big bad world of Congress politics. Post-Salman Khurshid, this thought is increasingly giving Congresswallahs acute indigestion. So here�s a survival kit for those who need it. One, be a complete loyalist. Any professed doubts about the leader�s ability or nationality will land you in the league of Sharad Pawar-PA Sangma-Tariq Anwar � all dressed up and nowhere to go. The last time one heard of the fabled Maratha, Pawar, was when he was trying to stitch together a patchwork with rejects like HD Deve Gowda. Two, if you have a problem, find its solution too. For the moment problems are conveyed to the leader, solutions are asked for. If you don�t have one ready, your ratings will go down. Why do you think old war horses like Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Natwar Singh are still running? Three, never exceed your brief. Do what you are told, or join castaways like Khurshid, Ahmed Patel, ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury. Always keep in mind the role model of Pranab Mukherjee, who found himself being banished to the West Bengal state Congress committee, but went without a murmur. In short, be a slave and obey the master � sorry, mistress.

Stopped dead on the tracks

This could have been a masterstroke, had it not been for the overkill. We are talking about the much-speculated-on prospects of P Chidambaram joining the saffron fold. Although the denials are vehement, there could hardly have been smoke without any fire. There, after all, have been times without number when the suave, smooth-talking, Tamil Maanila Congress leader has expressed his willingness to be part of the parivar if only the latter gave up its sectarian agenda. This time the family seemed to have almost complied. The BJP leadership recently decided to abandon its traditional Hindutva agenda and drop the Ram temple, Article 370 and uniform civil code from its list of priorities. The BJP also needed a high profile Tamil like him to take the place of PR Kumaramangalam and to contest for the Trichy parliamentary constituency that was held by Ranga. The temperature was just right, only if senior party leaders, including a BJP vice-president, could have kept their mouths shut. The press was apparently brought into the scene rather prematurely. The result was a botched up deal. And LK Advani, who had endorsed the entry, didn�t want to have the egg on his face. So that is where matters were left to burn out. Let�s hope there is more fire next time and less smoke.

Way out in the order

The prime minister has a way with things. He has found a modus vivendi with thesangh parivar. The number three man in the RSS hierarchy, Madan Das Devi, is AB Vajpayee�s newfound sympathizer. The growing bonhomie between Vajpayee and Devi is helping him tackle the googlies from within the parivar. For one, it has helped soften criticism of the government by various offshoots of the saffron family. The recent edict by the RSS to the Swadeshi Jagran Manch that it should not rush to the media with its criticism of the government�s economic policies has much to do with Vajpayee�s persuasive skills. After trying so hard for so long he has been able to impress upon one shorts-clad die hard the importance of presenting a unified picture of the parivar to the world. United colours of saffron?

You have to trust this man

Ram Prakash Gupta, the irremovable chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has done it again. When asked if the UP government was thinking of banning the SIMI or the Students Islamic Movement of India, in view of its alleged involvement in the recent bomb explosion on the Sabarmati Express, Gupta almost jumped from his chair saying, �Why should we ban Simi? She is a fine actress. She used to be extremely glamorous decades ago. So why should we put a ban on her. What has she done?� Did we hear the state BJP groaning again?

Leave it standing

Three Congress Rajya Sabha MPs from Delhi � Ambika Soni, Karan Singh and AR Kidwai � have been bitten by the philanthropic bug. They have decided to pool in their MPs area development fund to set up an old age home. Urban affairs minister, Jagmohan, has been requested to provide suitable accommodation, of course for a price. Was it to ensure it won�t be pulled down?

Footnote/ House for Mr Laxman

Bitter home truths. Bangaru Laxman, all India BJP president, came to know them on his maiden visit to Calcutta last week. Soon after his arrival, state BJP vice-president, PD Chitlangia approached the state unit president, Asim Ghosh, with the request Laxman be put up in his Alipore residence. Ghosh agreed. Hours later a former party veteran, Ghanashyam Burial, pleaded that Laxman be accommodated in his house. When Ghosh informed Burial of the previous arrangement, he was crestfallen. A stung Burial shot off a letter to the central leadership saying that he had played host to senior party leaders in bad times of the party and now he was being sidelined. An unfazed Chitlangia however declared that since he was state vice-president, there could be nothing wrong in putting up Laxman with him. The focus of all this wrangling, however, was shattered. Laxman has apparently asked to be put up in a good city hotel the next time he came visiting. The leadership is now planning to accommodate all visiting leaders in hotels to avoid unpleasantries. Should leaders thank Laxman for the luxury?    


Black is athletic

Sir � Venus Williams�s 58 minute win in the women�s tennis final at the Olympic Games on Wednesday (�Venus strikes gold but Woodies fail�, Sept 28) has demonstrated that her Wimbledon and US Open wins this year were no flukes. This has also vindicated the point made in Sreyashi Dastidar�s article published on the same day (�Last days of the white sporting world�). Indeed, we are approaching a time when we will see no more white athletes in action in any sporting event because the black athletes are physically much too strong to beat in any event requiring immense physical prowess. And as far as the Indians are concerned, they can altogether forget about doing well in sporting events.
Yours faithfully,
Irfan Hussain, via email

Nothing to bank on

Sir � In your bold editorial �Opening Doors� (Jun 15), it was pointed out that the nationalized banks are overstaffed and debt ridden and have few takers. But this is only one side of the coin. There is enough evidence to believe that there have been very few recruitments against retired personnel in the nationalized banks in the last five years.

That banks seem afflicted with a surfeit of staff may be because of the sudden computerization of many branches. The excess is eventually reduced as personnel get redeployed to manually operated branches. The accusation that public sector banks are debt ridden, when made out of context, skirts some crucial points.

Most of the banks which are in debt are in this condition because of the non-repayment of loans. These loans are very often taken by large industrial houses which do not pay back. Bankers can hardly be blamed for the banks slowly turning penniless.

Yours faithfully,
Debaprasad Mukherjee,

Sir � Hard times are coming for those who rely on monthly cheques and warrants in order to meet expenses. Those likely to be particularly affected will be pensioners and other retired people.

The reason this is going to happen is that October 1 will be a Sunday this year. October 2, of course, is a national holiday. besides the Pujas will commence from October 3. In effect, all banking facilities will be inaccessible for that whole week. Could the authorities look into the matter and take some measures to solve the problem?

Yours faithfully,
Shyamal Gupta, Calcutta

Dead giveaway

Sir � It is appalling how the �etc� section of The Telegraph has given the suspense ending of a film away in its movie review. Take the review of the film, What Lies Beneath (�Super suspense�, Sept 22), in which the critic writes that Harrison Ford is the murderer.

What we want is an opinion on the film and not the story. The review has just killed the entire purpose of watching the film. It is also surprising that the critic of Fiza has given the end away (sister shoots brother). I can understand individual viewpoints, but please don�t let the cat out of the bag.

Yours faithfully,
Manish Kandhari, Calcutta

Sir � The �etc� supplement of The Telegraph always has beautiful blow-ups on the centrepage. These photographs are carefully chosen and they invariably turn out to be quite pleasant.

Yours faithfully,
Rohit Goenka, via email

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