Friday 25 June 2010

Nirupama Rao comes calling in Pakistan (PO)

M D Nalapat

Unlike more conservative societies such as Saudi Arabia, which prize uniformity and discourage diversity, India prides itself on its mosaic of faiths and peoples. The food, dress and attitudes in an eastern state such as West Bengal is very different from that in the northern state of Rajasthan. The first has had a Communist government in power since the 1960s,while the latter still respects the Maharajas whose kingdoms were taken over in 1947 and who - despite having signed a binding covenant with the Government of India at the time – were deprived of their titles and much of their wealth in 1969 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to whom the only law that mattered was her personal whims.

Even nearby states are very different. Maharashtra (where Mumbai is situated) is one of the most poorly administered states in India, where even the police are more likely to side with lawbreakers than with law-abiders. This was on international display less than two years ago, when a few scruffy youngsters held the city to ransom for three days after having come ashore from Karachi. The reaction of the Mumbai police (except for a very few instances of personal courage) would have made Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther fame look serious. That it took more than 72 hours to clear them away from just three buildings revealed the sorry state of preparedness of Mumbai against a terror attack, in contrast to Pakistan, where action against desperados has been swifter. In contrast, the next-door state of Gujarat has a super-efficient government that ensures one of the highest rates of economic growth in India.

Friday 18 June 2010

Cost of an Indian life $500 (PO)

M D Nalapat

Prime Minister Rajiv Ratna Birjees Gandhi’s political future was permanently darkened by the 1987 revelations about illegal payments made for purchase of Bofors guns. At the time, there were suggestions that the media frenzy in India was being fuelled by leaks from a competitor of Bofors that had lost the gun contract. Whatever the source, the information about illegal payments was so detailed that Rajiv Gandhi spent his last two years in office firefighting, his effectiveness eroded despite an overwhelming majority in Parliament. The Bofors wave resulted in the Congress Party’s defeat in the 1989 Lok Sabha (Lower House) elections,resulting in the formation of a government headed by Rajiv’s former Defense Minister V P Singh, whose main campaign slogan was that he would bring the guilty to book within a year.

Of course, nothing of the kind happened. As soon as V P Singh began to occupy the Prime Minister’s spacious office in South Block, his enthusiasm for Bofors died, perhaps because quite a few of his allies were also implicated in the scandal. Instead of seeking to clean up the administrative machinery of the Government of India (where people turn from paupers to billionaires in a year’s time), V P Singh decided to let loose caste fury across the country, by pushing for a higher reservation for “Backward Castes” in government jobs. This group ranks just above Dalits in the traditional Hindu hierarchy (which incidentally is largely followed by Christians and Muslims as well, who are each divided into “high”, “middle” and “low” castes, although not on paper. The resultant uproar led to his resignation and replacement by political rival Chandra Shekhar, who in his turn was quickly overthrown by Rajiv Gandhi, who sensed that his party could return to power in the elections. The Congress Party did get close to a majority in 1992,but this was due to the sympathy wave that followed the assassination of the young leader by the LTTE, in revenge for his having sent an Indian military force to Sri Lanka four years earlier.

Friday 11 June 2010

No visas for S Asia media dialogue (PO)

M D Nalapat

Wafting through the corridors of North Block, the abode of India’s sprawling Home Ministry, are rumours that Congress President Sonia Gandhi wants a more youthful face to her loyal government than the 77-year old Manmohan Singh, and that her choice is the athletic 64-year old, Palaniappan Chidambaram, who was shifted from Finance to Home after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008. The new minister in charge of internal security shares with the current Prime Minister the advantage (in Sonia Gandhi’s eyes) of having a zero political base, thus being unable to pose any political challenge to the Nehru dynasty, which was ruled the Congress Party (and usually the country) since the 1930s. Should Chidambaram be appointed PM, he is unlikely to repeat Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s feat of replacing the Bandaranaike family’s control over the Lankan ruling party with that of his own clan. Congress office-bearers say that the Congress President’s instruction to her new Home Minister was simple: prevent another terrorist attack, so as to prevent the BJP from staging a comeback on the back of public insecurity.

Chidambaram, who in his other life is one of the country’s top lawyers, knows that he has to deliver, and his chosen way has been to reinforce the system of bureaucratic control that he had favoured while Finance Minister from 2004 to 2008. During that time, he ensured that sweeping powers were given to the Income-Tax Department, so that in today’s “democratic” India, any taxman can - in his subjective estimation - accuse a citizen of evading taxes by concealing income, and freeze bank accounts and take over property. Several such actions have been taken out of the purview of courts by modifications in the rules introduced by Chidambaram, not that the courts in India can be expected to deliver justice in a single lifetime. For example, the Bhopal phosgene gas leak caused 15,000 deaths and more than 117,000 serious illnesses in 1984. Only last week (26 years later) has a token sentence of 2 years in jail been awarded to the officers of Union Carbide, the US company that operated the Bhopal plant. Naturally, the convicted officers all got bail immediately after the verdict, and went home to their families, even as the Bhopal victims still writhe in pain and starve because several are physically unable to work.

Friday 4 June 2010

Communists face defeat in India (PO)

M D Nalapat

Visitors to China will go to book stores without seeing a single copy of the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the authors of the “Communist Manifesto”. In contrast, should they visit India, several bookstores carry the works of the two, while in cities in Bengal and Kerala, communist literature is plentiful. Jesef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin may have been tossed aside in Russia, but not in these two States, where even today, they are lovingly commemorated in conferences and even in curricula. Indeed, the first place where a communist party came to power in a free election was Kerala, which elected the Communist Party to office in 1957, only to have the central government dismiss it in 1959,after an agitation led by the Catholic Church that was backed by the daughter of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Congress President Indira Gandhi. Soon afterwards, in 1967, the Communists were back in power, not only in Kerala but also in West Bengal.

Nationally, the only time that Communists have held office was during 1996-97, when the Home portfolio was looked after by Indrajit Gupta. Indeed, there was even a prospect of India getting a Communist as Prime Minister, something that would have choked off the economic liberalisation that has powered this country’s ascent since the 1990s. Luckily for the economy, a section of the Marxist leadership sabotaged the chances for West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu to move to Delhi, thus clearing the way for the Karnataka leader H D Deve Gowda to take charge, although only for a year. After that, the high point of Communist and Marxist influence in the central government came in 2004,when the government led by Manmohan Singh was forced to depend on the 61 MPs of the Left to ensure a majority in Parliament. In the 2009 polls, the Red bastions fell, and today, the two Communist parties are once again sitting on the outside, except in Tripura, West Bengal and Kerala States. While the Communist parties (the pro-Moscow Communist Party of India and the pro-Beijing Communist Party of India-Marxist) have both won and lost elections in Kerala, in Bengal they have been continuously in power for more than three decades, a record of longevity only equalled by the Congress Party, which was in office in India from 1947 to 1977 without facing defeat. The long years of “Red Rule” have changed the culture and mindset in Bengal, pushing to the sidelines the courtly, aristocratic culture that has for hundreds of years been the hallmark of the Bengali. In days past, visitors to Kolkatta (then named Calcutta) would marvel at the charm and politeness of every local citizen he or she encountered, from taxi drivers to hotel receptionists to shop assistants. They were matched in good behaviour only by the old Lucknow aristocracy, which to this day retains the formal traditions of the Mughal Court.