Sunday, December 27, 2009

Waxing Crescent, waning Cross

Google came up with a rather intriguing, if not ingenious, logo for Christmas this year: A stooping date palm decorated with fairy lights straddling one of four islands with sail boats dotting the blue sea which formed the backdrop. There was much excited tweeting on Google’s Christmas logo. I thought it was ghastly that someone somewhere should have supplanted the traditional Christmas tree with a date palm. Others pleaded it was creativity at work. Creativity my foot, I argued; you can’t take liberty with tradition and icons of faith, never mind that the Christmas tree as we know it was most probably part of ritual winter solstice celebrations in pre-Christian Europe: According to one version, the evergreen conifer was a symbol of fertility for the pagans which has survived the ‘civilising’ impact of Christianity. A friend suggested that it was a Judean date palm and thus an apt motif for the occasion; after all, Jesus was born not in Europe but in Judea and date palms are a common sight in Samara.

Google had another explanation for the visual accompanying its ‘Happy Holidays’ message: It was a picture postcard from a tropical island and meant to convey warmth and good cheer. However, the warmth and good cheer disappeared when a second picture postcard showing three snowmen was superimposed on the earlier visual a couple of days later. That was followed by a third postcard, showing a lakeside house lit with fairy lights, a pier, a boat and snow-capped mountain peaks in the background. Even as I write this column on Christmas eve, a fourth picture postcard, depicting a Tolkienian landscape with fireworks in the sky, has surfaced. Google, no doubt, will justify this tomfoolery, but I find it distasteful if not downright subversive. Just as I find being politically correct and wishing people ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’ obnoxious. There’s no reason to be mindful of the Crescent when it’s the season of the Cross. If someone were to send me a card wishing me ‘Happy Holidays’ on Basant Panchami, Vijaya Dashami or Deepawali because being secular is fashionable, I would promptly throw it into the wastepaper basket and probably look through that person the next time I met him or her. The last time I was in London I bought a piggy bank simply to thumb my nose at those who find it offensive to Muslim sensitivities. Tolerance cannot be reduced to pandering to bigotry, nor is there any reason why we should bother whether the OIC is displeased. Similarly, if celebrating Durga Puja in Rome offends the Vatican, so be it.

The issue, however, is far more important than bogus secularism and fake concern for those who wallow in manufactured grievances and imagined victimhood. Europe, which is slowly waking up to the threat posed by assertive Islam — the Swiss vote against the construction of Islamic minarets and the rising popularity of Dutch politician Geert Wilders are manifestations of the fear of Eurabia becoming a reality — would do well to ponder over Pope Benedict XVI’s homily delivered during Christmas Eve midnight mass in St Peter’s Basilica. “There are people who describe themselves as ‘religiously tone deaf’. The gift of a capacity to perceive god seems as if it is withheld from some. And indeed our way of thinking and acting, the mentality of today’s world, the whole range of our experience is inclined to deaden our receptivity for god, to make us ‘tone deaf’ towards him,” the Pope said, adding, “…For most people, the things of god are not given priority, they do not impose themselves on us directly. And so the great majority of us tend to postpone them. First we do what seems urgent here and now. In the list of priorities god is often more or less at the end. We can always deal with that later, we tend to think.”

The Pope was not exaggerating but merely pointing out the reality as witnessed, most noticeably, in Europe where faithlessness has become the leitmotif of modernism and the public expression of faith is frowned upon as militating against the principles of a secular state presided over by its deracinated elite which is more comfortable with Prada than religiosity and believes spirituality is so much hocus-pocus meant for the gullible, unwashed masses. The smart set which reads newspapers on Kindle would rather invest millions in the stock markets than donate money to the local church. The plate is still being passed around at Sunday mass, but the pews are increasingly empty. Christmas stories are no longer about reconnecting with — and rediscovery of — faith, but falling sales of Barbie dolls. That Britons throw away food worth 60 million pounds during Christmas tells the story of Britain’s moral decline; it’s symptomatic of all of Europe.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Church of England should find itself in penury. It has been deserted by adults and is shunned by teenagers. The Daily Mail says the Church of England now plans to “target children as young as two in a desperate recruitment drive… Senior bishops have privately admitted they are comprehensively failing to connect with teenagers and children”. My friend Daud Haider, the dissident Bangladeshi poet who lives in exile in Berlin, had recently come home for dinner. He told us amazing stories of how churches are being leased out on weekends to serve as night clubs as there are no congregations to cater to and no funds to keep them from falling into disuse and disrepair. Materialism and the concomitant death of spiritualism, coupled with a strange craving to be seen as endorsing ‘multiculturalism’, which has come to mean repudiation of one’s Christian identity 1 hence ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’ — have extracted a terrible toll. The crisis of faith is, in essence, the existential crisis that Europe faces today. A limp-wristed, notionally Christian Europe is now confronted by muscular, robust Islamism and doesn’t quite know how to respond.

The crisis is not Europe’s alone. A similar crisis is beginning to take shape in India where urban elitism bereft of values and ethics rooted in faith is seen as both trendy and politically correct. With Wendy Doniger telling The Hindus An Alternative History and Kancha Ilaiyah proclaiming that 2009 marked the arrival of Post-Hindu India, and the commentariat lavishing praise on both, we could be headed the same way as today’s Europe. The Pope may have described Christians who have strayed from their faith as the “religiously tone deaf”, but the expression is equally applicable to Hindus who are persuaded by the bunkum that has brought Europe to its knees. If there is no cause for immediate alarm it is because the vast majority of Indians neither need Wendy Doniger to ‘interpret’ Hinduism for them nor do they believe that they live in post-Hindu India.

[This article originally appeared as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer.]

Monday, December 21, 2009

A challenge for BJP’s GenNext

On a late spring evening more than a decade ago, some of us had gathered at Pramod Mahajan’s apartment — he hadn’t moved into a Lutyens’ bungalow till then — to discuss ideas for the 1996 general election campaign. Mr LK Advani had already declared Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and there was a palpable surge of support for the party which corresponded with the waning of the Congress. Despite the framing of Mr Advani and other senior leaders of the BJP in the Jain hawala scandal by a desperate PV Narasimha Rao (he even turned on his colleagues in the Cabinet who in turn turned against him and resigned from the Congress) there was great enthusiasm among party cadre. Mr Advani had seized the moral high ground and converted what Rao had thought would be a disadvantage into a clear advantage. In that election, Mr Advani was the non-playing captain though he led his team from the front.

Over chai and samosas ordered from an eatery downstairs, ideas were tossed around on how to package the BJP’s core message — good governance — and portray it through the persona of Mr Vajpayee. Till then, the BJP had not projected any single leader in any election; it was always the party’s ‘collective leadership’ that was projected as an alternative to the Congress’s dynastic leadership. The tragic assassination of Rajiv Gandhi midway through the 1991 general election had forced a break in the Congress’s tradition, catapulting Narasimha Rao to power. Since the Ram Rath Yatra days, Mr Advani had emerged as the most prominent face of the BJP; to suddenly weave a campaign around Mr Vajpayee posed a challenge to even Pramod Mahajan who was never short of ideas, especially when it came to election campaigns.

Among those invited for that meeting was an impetuous young man representing a big advertising agency which had offered to help plan the campaign — as had some others. This man suddenly said, “It would have been a lot easier had Mr Vajpayee been a younger man.” There was stunned silence. Obviously ignorant of the esteem in which Mr Vajpayee was — and still continues to be — held in the party, he had clearly upset everybody. Pramod Mahajan looked at him coldly and bitingly said, “This isn’t America where young upstarts are elected to high office. We value experience and we respect age. Please tell your agency we aren’t interested in its services.” The poor sod was halfway through his samosa and didn’t know what to say. “Ab aap jaaiye,” Pramod Mahajan added, literally asking him to leave the meeting.

I don’t recall whether anything concrete emerged from that particular meeting, but over the following weeks a campaign was painstakingly put together centred around Mr Vajpayee and based on the theme, ‘The man India awaits’, which, incidentally, was the headline of an interview-based article I had written at that time. That election saw the BJP emerge as the single largest party and form a Government led by Mr Vajpayee. The Government lasted for a fortnight, but it helped the BJP come to power two years later. The rest, to quote a cliché, is history.

The reason I cite this particular incident is to highlight the point that too much is made of a leader’s age by the New Delhi-based commentariat, more so when it comes to the BJP. Voters are less persuaded by a candidate’s age than by his or her perceived ability to deliver on promises. It is the sum total of a leader’s qualities that matters, not his or her age. Equally important is a leader’s ability to connect with the masses, to strike a rapport and secure their confidence.

Mr Vajpayee was not a young man when he became Prime Minister, nor was Mrs Indira Gandhi in the prime of her youth when she swept back to power in 1980. If Mr Manmohan Singh is widely respected at home and abroad, it has nothing to do with his age but his ability to project himself as an earnest and humble person of unimpeachable integrity. And, the BJP’s defeat in last summer’s general election was more on account of a poorly planned campaign and shoddy political management than either Mr Advani’s age or his leadership which has been variously described as ‘uninspiring’ and ‘jaded’ by his critics within and outside the party. But for bogus pollsters, stupidly brash aides and a ‘war room’ whose most creative contribution was the astounding promise of gifting every family living below the poverty line with a smart phone, perhaps the results would have been vastly different. Nor can we overlook the Congress’s surge in States where the BJP is at best a marginal player.

It would, therefore, be self-defeating for the BJP to believe that with Mr Advani standing aside for the next generation of leaders to take charge of the party’s affairs, the 2014 general election will be a cakewalk. Today’s ‘young’ leaders will be five years older when India votes to elect a new Lok Sabha, which means they will be pushing 60. If between now and then those who find themselves propelled to the frontline are unable to tackle the many illnesses that plague the party and fashion an alternative agenda distinctively different from that of the Congress and in tune with the aspirations of today’s voters, the BJP’s tally could dip below the 100 mark. The battle for votes has always been a battle of ideas; in 1996, 1998 and 1999, Mr Advani and Mr Vajpayee had the right ideas largely because they went with their instincts. It’s only when they allowed their ideas to be swamped by the mumbo-jumbo of courtiers and time-servers that they faltered and fell.

Contrary to what is being claimed, the BJP’s main problem is not the RSS but the BJP itself. Last week’s transition will be meaningless unless it is accompanied by a tectonic shift in the way the BJP sees itself. It can either choose to position itself as the only alternative to the Congress by being distinctly, ideationally and ideologically different, or it can persist with fashioning itself as a clone of the Congress, a holdall party with neither beliefs nor commitments but driven by the cynical pursuit of power as an end and not the means to an end. Mr Vajpayee had vision; he was the ‘big picture’ man who couldn’t bother about the details. Mr Advani had ideas; it was his job to fill in the details of Mr Vajpayee’s vision. What the BJP needs to regain its position as an unassailable foe of the Congress is a new generation Vajpayee and a new generation Advani, if not a leader who can combine the qualities of the two stalwarts who still tower above everybody else in the party. Age won’t be a criterion in deciding who qualifies as the new generation Advani or new generation Vajpayee. Nor can the choice be limited to Dilli4.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Mosques as barracks, minarets as bayonets...

Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was being faithful to his creed when he declared, “Mosques are our barracks, minarets our bayonets, domes our helmets, the believers our soldiers.” Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, a fascist Sunni imam with a huge following among those who subscribe to the Muslim Brotherhood’s antediluvian worldview, was more to the point when he thundered at an event organised by London’s then Labour mayor Ken Livingstone, “The West may have the atom bomb, we have the human bomb.” Sheikh Qaradawi, who is of Egyptian origin, frequently exhorts Muslims not to rest till they have “conquered Christian Rome” and believes “throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the Jews people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler”. Islamic schools in Britain funded by Saudi Arabia use textbooks describing Jews as “apes” and Christians as “pigs”. Theo Van Gogh, who along with writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali produced Submission, a film on the plight of Muslim women under sharia’h, was shot dead by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim, in Amsterdam. Rallies by radical Islamists, which were once rare, are now a common feature in European capitals with banners and placards denouncing democracy as the ‘problem’ and Islam as the ‘solution’.

Such crude though accurate assertions of Islamism, coupled with the relentless jihad being waged overtly — exemplified by the London Underground bombings and the riots in Parisian suburbs — and covertly as exposed by Channel 4’s stunning investigation in its Dispatches programme titled ‘Undercover Mosque’, have now begun to raise hackles in Europe. The first signs of an incipient backlash came in the form of French President Nicolas Sarkozy demanding a ban on the burqa (the sharia’h-imposed hijab is already banned at public schools in France). Any doubts that may have lingered about Europe’s patience with Islam’s rage boys running thin have been removed by last Sunday’s referendum in Switzerland where people have voted overwhelmingly to ban the construction of minarets which are no longer seen to be representing faith. For 57.5 per cent of Swiss citizens, the minaret, an obligatory adjunct to a mosque which is used by the muezzin to call the faithful to prayers five times a day, is now a “political symbol against integration”. They view each new minaret as marking the transmogrification of Christian Europe into Islamic Eurabia. The Islamic minaret, according to Swiss People’s Party legislator Ulrich Schluer, has come to represent the “effort to establish sharia’h on European soil”. Hence the counter-effort to ban their construction.

Last Sunday’s referendum and the massive vote against Islamic minarets is by no means an unexpected development, as is being pretended by Islamists and those who find it fashionable to defend Islamism or are scared of taking a stand lest they be accused of Islamophobia, which Christopher Caldwell, author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, describes as a “standing fatwa” against Islam’s critics. Resentment against assertive political Islam has been building up in Switzerland for almost a decade, triggered by refugees from Yugoslavia’s many civil wars seeking to irreversibly change the Swiss way of life to suit their twisted notions of Islam’s supremacy. For the past many years the Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union, both avowedly right-of-centre organisations, have been trying to initiate an amendment to Article 72 of Switzerland’s Constitution to include the sentence, “The building of minarets is prohibited.” After doing the cantonal rounds, both the parties set up a joint Egerkinger Committee in 2007 to take their campaign to the federal level. The November 29 referendum is the outcome of that campaign.

The resultant vote — 57.5 per cent endorsing the proposed amendment to the Constitution with 42.5 opposing it — provides some interesting insights. For instance, the Swiss Government and Parliament, which are opposed to the amendment, clearly suffer from a disconnect with the Swiss masses. The voting pattern also shows that the spurious ‘cosmopolitan spirit’ of Zurich, Geneva and Basel, where people voted against the ban by a narrow margin, is not shared by most Swiss. The initiative has got 19.5 of the 23 cantonal votes — Basel city Canton, with half-a-vote and the largest Muslim population in Switzerland, barely defeated the initiative with 51.61 per cent people voting against it. This only goes to show that the Left-liberal intelligentsia may dominate television studio debates, as is often seen in our country, but it neither influences public opinion nor persuades those whose perception of the reality is not cluttered by bogus ‘tolerance’ of the intolerant.

Daniel Pipes, who is among the few scholars of Islam not scared to be labelled an ‘Islamophobe’, is of the view that the Swiss vote “represents a turning point for European Islam, one comparable to the Rushdie affair of 1989. That a large majority of Swiss who voted on Sunday explicitly expressed anti-Islamic sentiments potentially legitimates such sentiments across Europe and opens the way for others to follow suit”. As always, Pipes is prescient. An opinion poll conducted by the French Institute for Public Opinion after the Swiss referendum shows 46 per cent of French citizens are in favour of banning the construction of minarets, 40 per cent support the idea, while 14 per cent are indecisive. “That it was the usually quiet, low profile, un-newsworthy, politically boring, neutral Swiss who suddenly roared their fears about Islam only enhances their vote’s impact,” says Pipes. The post-referendum opinion poll in France shows that one in two French citizens would not only like to see minarets banned, but along with them mosques, too.

The ‘sudden roar’ heard in Switzerland has found a resonance in countries apart from France. A comment on the Swiss vote that appeared in the mass circulation German newspaper Bild reflects the popular mood in Germany which is remarkably similar to that which prevails in Switzerland at the moment: “The minaret isn’t just the symbol of a religion but of a totally different culture. Large parts of the Islamic world don’t share our basic European values: The legacy of the Enlightenment, the equality of man and woman, the separation of church and state, a justice system independent of the Bible or the Quran and the refusal to impose one's own beliefs on others with ‘fire and the sword’. Another factor is likely to have influenced the Swiss vote: Nowhere is life made harder for Christians than in Islamic countries. Those who are intolerant themselves cannot expect unlimited tolerance from others.”

Yet, it may be too early to suggest that the tide of Islamism will now have to contend with the fury of a backlash. Governments and organisations that find merit in toeing the line of least resistance have reacted harshly to the Swiss vote; rather than try and understand why more and more people are beginning to loathe, if not hate, Islamism, a case is being made all over again for the need to be tolerant with those whose sole desire is to subjugate the world to Islam. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, who is yet to utter a word about the suppression of freedom and denial of dignity in Islamic countries or the shocking violation of human rights by jihadis, has been scathing in her response, describing the Swiss vote as “a discriminatory, deeply divisive and thoroughly unfortunate step”. The Organisation of Islamic Conference has warned that the vote will “serve to spread hatred and intolerance towards Muslims”. The OIC’s complaint would carry credibility if it were to demand tolerance towards non-Muslims in its member-countries, especially Saudi Arabia, and denounce Islam’s preachers of hate. That, however, is unlikely to happen. On the contrary, the OIC will continue to defend, even while accusing others of intolerance and hate, the denial of religious, social and cultural plurality in Islamic countries as also the repudiation of the core values of a modern democracy by those Muslims who find themselves living in one. The absence of ‘multiculturalism’, which Muslims demand in non-Islamic countries, is one of the defining features of any Islamic country, including those touted as being ‘moderate’ and ‘modern’, for example, Egypt and Turkey.

It is amusing that Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, whose salary and perquisites are paid for by the Government, should feel upset over the Swiss vote: “This proposal ... is not considered just an attack on freedom of beliefs, but also an attempt to insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside Switzerland.” In his own country, Coptic Christians live in increasing fear of Muslim attacks with anti-Copt violence fast becoming a regular feature. No less amusing is Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s response to the Swiss rejection of Islamic minarets. Mr Davutoglu finds the proposed ban on the construction of minarets “reminiscent of the sectarian wars of the Middle Ages” and has warned that the move could “incite clashes on a global scale if sufficient measures are not taken”. Had he been honest, Mr Davutoglu would have added that the posters exhorting Swiss citizens to vote for the proposed ban were inspired by his leader’s vivid description of Islamic minarets as Islam’s bayonets.

Hence, those who are crying foul over the Swiss vote and those who are pretending disquiet and anguish are perfectly at ease when Saudi Arabia ruthlessly deals with the faintest expression of faith in any religion other than Islam or Malaysia pulls down Hindu temples. Nor have Ms Pillay and those who blithely cite her criticism of the Swiss referendum to absurdly insist that the vote “represents a fundamental threat to millions of Muslims” ever bothered to protest against the discrimination meted out to Copts in Egypt or the raucous, coarse anti-Semitism of Iran whose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad misses no opportunity to reiterate his threat of “wiping Israel off the map of the world”. Closer home, Muslims are not known to have disowned those of their co-religionists whose murderous campaign to cleanse Kashmir Valley of all Hindus resulted in 250,000 Pandits fleeing their ancestral land and being reduced to refugees in their own country. Nor were anguished voices heard when Muslims took to the streets to prevent the construction of temporary shelters along the Amarnath Yatra route for Hindu pilgrims, although Muslims in India and abroad would see any move to curtail facilities and subsidies for Haj pilgrims, which are paid for by non-Muslims, as a “fundamental threat” and a manifestation of Islamophobia. We are yet to be told by Muslims who demand equal rights and more in non-Islamic countries – for instance, public funds for schools in Britain where children are taught Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s hate agenda and madarsas in India which excel in bigotry -- what they have to say about Hindus being asked to pay jizya to Islamist thugs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or the abduction and rape of Hindu women under the Jamaat-e-Islami’s supervision in Bangladesh. What we have heard, most recently in India, are exhortations for Muslims to stand apart from the national mainstream, to maintain their separate Islamic identity, to banish women from public places and to reject all secular statutes.

Instead of indulging in manufactured rage and pretending imagined victimhood, Muslims across the world would do well to ponder over Bild’s pithy comment: “Those who are intolerant themselves cannot expect unlimited tolerance from others.” As for the limp-wristed Left-liberal intelligentsia, it is welcome to be tolerant of Islamic intolerance, but it should not expect the vast majority to meekly subjugate itself to Islam – if that is Islamophobia, so be it. The time to feign tolerance so as to be seen as ‘secular’ is over. The age of dhimmitude is drawing to a close. That is the real significance of the Swiss vote.

(This is an expanded version of my Sunday column 'Coffee Break' which appears in The Pioneer.)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

El Dorado runs out of gold

In glittering, glimmering, gleaming Dubai the temperature would never be high enough to suspend work at construction sites or stop partying in night clubs with exotic names. The merciless desert Sun would often make it impossible for labourers, many if not most of them from India, to continue work, but contractors had impossible deadlines to meet and their virtual slave labour had families waiting for the monthly remittance back home. The unbearable heat, of course, would never scorch Dubai’s well-heeled elite — high-flying executives with fantastic expense accounts, investment bankers spoilt for a choice of lucrative deals, sheikhs who casually gifted Rolex watches as tips to waiters, playboys who thought nothing of cavorting with million-dollar-escorts flown in for the night on their $ 60 million-dollar-Gulfstreams — as they raced from home to office to nightclubs in their Bugatti Veyrons.

Meanwhile, this once-upon-a-time Bedouin outpost with a creek from where dhows laden with contraband gold would sail forth for Mahim on India’s western shore (a trade immortalised by innumerable Bollywood films and on which Mumbai’s Mafia thrived till protection became a more lucrative business) transmogrified itself into an amazing city of skyscrapers, chrome-and-glass malls, fabulous office blocks and breath-taking hotels. The Maktoum family, breaking ranks with other Arab rulers, decided to aim high and create a modern Emirate which would emerge as the commercial hub of West Asia: Towards this end, everything had to be the biggest, the tallest, the largest, the swankiest — and, the most expensive. As Dubai ran out of oil, the Government’s focus shifted on grafting on the barren sands of the emirate a service-and-tourism based economy that would flourish as nowhere else.

The Maktoum family almost succeeded in achieving that goal. The decade-long boom was nothing like the world had seen before. Dubai was the new El Dorado and investors rushed in with open cheque books. Where else in the world would Tiger Woods be paid a million dollars for inaugurating a hotel, as he was when he teed off from the helipad of Burj Al Arab Hotel in March 2004? Those were heady days when giddy with success, the Government would announce a new project every day, each more fantastic than the one before, as investors clamoured for a stake in them. With the construction boom came job opportunities and Indians jostled with Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and others for a slice of the pie which just kept expanding. Land was sold, houses were mortgaged, jewellery was pawned, money was borrowed at exorbitant rates of interest to grab a job and buy a one-way ticket: Dubai was the happening place.

Dubai World was floated as an investment company by the Government to oversee the emirate’s super-speed transition; its corporate slogan encapsulated the ruler’s megalomania: “The Sun Never Sets on Dubai World”. Nakheel, a fully-owned subsidiary of Dubai World, became the envy of every real estate developer across the world as it went about reclaiming land from the sea and creating magnificent housing destinations like its awe-inspiring palm-shaped chain of islands called Palm Jumeirah off Dubai’s coast. Exclusive villas with manicured lawns came up on these islands of reclaimed land — not anybody who could afford the price tag buy them; ownership was by invitation and only power celebrities figured on the list of those who qualified. Among them were Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, footballer David Beckham, Hollywood megastars Brad Pitt and Denzel Washington, super model Naomi Campbell, business barons, tech billionaires and, hold your breath, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai.

If Palm Jumeirah dazzled human imagination, Burj Dubai was meant to defy it: The world’s tallest building would be at the centre of 30,000 exclusive homes, nine drop-dead luxury hotels, nearly eight acres of rolling, lush green parkland, a 30-acre manmade Burj Dubai Lake, the amazing Dubai Mall and 19 residential towers. Burj Dubai would be more than just the world’s tallest building. It would showcase the world’s first Armani Hotel, “designed by Giorgio Armani himself”, with “160 guestrooms and suites, a luxurious Armani Spa, a private club, two gourmet restaurants and a nightclub” spread over 40,000 square metres. All this and more by way of “144 exquisite Armani Residences all furnished in the designer’s ‘homes brand’, Armani Casa”. But Burj Dubai was not meant to be just a profitable business venture worth thousands of millions of dollars; the world’s tallest building would also restore Arab pride that was lost in 1311 when Lincoln Cathedral loomed taller than the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

Burj Dubai, which was designed as the towering symbol of Dubai’s heady rise, could well become the symbol of its equally dizzying decline. The building’s scheduled opening in early-2010 now seems unlikely. All of a sudden, Dubai seems to have gone broke. The economy of the emirate had begun to flounder soon after the American sub-prime crisis heralded the global financial meltdown: All construction activity came to a halt (59 unfinished buildings in which $ 50 million had already been invested now dot the cityscape), property prices crashed by a whopping 50 per cent, jobs disappeared and expatriates began fleeing Dubai in droves, abandoning their apartments and dumping their cars in the airport parking lot, unable to pay the mortgage on either. El Dorado had run out of gold. The Government insisted the downturn was a minor hiccup, and Dubai would rise and shine again.

Last Thursday, Dubai World let it be known to creditors that it was not in a position to service its $ 59 billion debt and needed time till May next year. Simultaneously, Nakheel declared it was in no position to honour $ 4.05 billion in sukuk or Islamic bonds that it held as investment in its real estate projects. A frantic Government could rustle up $ 2.5 billion in long term bonds from two UAE banks, but that was clearly not sufficient to shore up investor confidence: Markets across the world felt the tremor as reality sank in on Friday morning. What has come as a stunner is Dubai’s inability to pay $ 3.5 billion, its immediate debt-servicing commitment, which even a couple of years ago would be considered loose change by Dubai World.

Such are the pitfalls of state-controlled capitalism. What was real yesterday could turn out to be no more than a mirage today. Dubai may yet recover, but it won’t ever be the same again. The Government of India says our economy won’t be impacted. That’s bunkum. We can look forward to Indian workers returning in hordes from Dubai and a sharp dip in remittances. Is anybody planning for the fallout? Or is our Government living in denial as usual.

(This originally appeared in The Pioneer as my Sunday column, 'Coffee Break'.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Visa no problem for terrorists

Apart from my responsibilities as Director of the Maulana Azad Centre in Cairo, I was given the task of dealing with the Egyptian media and intelligentsia, which turned out to be an enriching experience. There were pro-establishment journalists, writers, musicians and artists who would passionately defend the Government and each of its decisions and actions, even when they were patently wrong. They almost convinced me that democracy and development can’t go hand-in-hand, that development must precede democracy.

There were liberals and leftists who could see nothing right about the Government or its policies and, sprawled out on the rattan chairs in the balcony of my apartment overlooking the Nile, they would pour their hearts out late into the night over extra-large measures of whiskey. The next day they would nurse a hangover at work, meekly toe the editorial line laid down by the Government, and call my secretary to check with him when was the next party.

Then there were the sour and dour closet Islamists who worked for small newspapers and magazines that were barely tolerated by the Government. The sods were not only amazingly ill-informed about the world beyond Saudi Arabia (which they would stylishly refer to as ‘KSA’) but nursed a deep grievance against everybody, beginning with Gamal Abdel Nasser and ending with Mr George W Bush. But these members of the Mohammed Atta Fan Club had two redeeming qualities: They were extremely well-networked with the Muslim Brotherhood and, therefore, could effortlessly set up meetings with those whom the Government didn’t want you to meet.

The Government’s local intelligence wing, popularly known as ‘Mukhabarat’, would keep a close watch on all journalists and intellectuals, and monitor their movements. Through an old employee, who had been around since Nasser’s time when the centre was called India Tea House and kept a faded photo of his (he insisted the gawky teenager in the frame was him) shaking hands with Jawaharlal Nehru in his wallet, I met a young officer of the Mukhabarat who became quite a good friend. He occasionally dropped in for a chat and chai at the centre, was an unabashed admirer of Mithun Chakraborty, and had a huge collection of pirated copies of Bollywood blockbusters, including Disco Dancer, which he offered to share with me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him Mithun was no longer in the business of swinging his hips to Bappi Lahiri’s music.

I can’t recall the exact date, but sometime in either late-2003 or early-2004, the Indian Union Muslim League sent an invitation to one of the closet Islamists who used to work for an Arabic rag and posed as an ‘intellectual’ to attend a youth conference in Kerala. He applied for his visa along with a copy of the invitation letter. An alert local employee in the visa section informed me about the invitation that had been extended to this man with particularly rancid views on India and his track record as an India-baiter. I checked with my friend in the Mukhabarat and he told me how this journalist was a frequent visitor to the Pakistani Embassy and would often be spotted hanging around with a chap called Babar who we all thought was a low-level ISI agent and for whom the Pakistani Ambassador had utter and unhidden contempt.

Meanwhile, the Counsellor in charge of consular affairs asked me about the background of this ‘intellectual’ and I sent him a rather long note, giving all details and arguing why he should not be granted a visa, but nor should his application be rejected outright lest he gets to know that we know about him and his activities or asks the organisers of the IUML conference to intercede on his behalf. The Counsellor did precisely that — he kept the application pending. A couple of days before the man was scheduled to travel, the private secretary of a Minister of State in the then NDA Government called the Ambassador and wanted to know why the Embassy was delaying the visa. The Ambassador asked him to speak to the Counsellor, who in turn was told that Mr E Ahmad of the IUML was repeatedly calling the Minister and getting increasingly aggressive. Could he please expeditiously issue the visa? The Counsellor promised to do his best, did nothing, and the man could not attend the IUML conference.

I had almost forgotten about this incident till I read news reports this past week how the Consulate General of India in Chicago had issued multiple entry visas in October 2008 to a suspected Lashkar-e-Tayyeba terrorist and Canadian citizen of Pakistani origin, Tahawwur Hussain Rana, and his wife, Samraz Rana Akhthar, in what appears to be blatant violation of standing instructions issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs — that all visa applications received from people of Pakistani origin must be forwarded to the Ministry for its clearance. Amazingly, the Consul General issued the visa under his ‘discretionary quota’.

Irrespective of whether the FBI is able to substantiate its charges against Tahawwur Hussain Rana and his accomplice, David Coleman Headley, an American citizen of Pakistani origin who was christened Daood Gilani and is the son of a ‘prominent’ Pakistani diplomat, who have been accused of plotting terrorist strikes in India, we need to know how were they able to secure visas without any trouble. Who took the decision? On what basis? Was a background check done? Were rules violated? And, more importantly, will officials who were sufficiently careless about their job to facilitate the entry of potential terrorists into India be punished? Or will the Brotherhood of Babus get into the act and ensure that no action is taken?

This week, on November 26 we will observe the first anniversary of the fidayeen attacks on multiple targets in Mumbai, in which at least 173 people were killed and more than 300 wounded, that were planned and executed by the LeT from its base in Pakistan. The Government of India claims that several measures have been initiated to make it difficult, if not impossible, for terrorists to enter India. That would mean loopholes have been plugged and barriers raised to keep out unwanted and undesirable visitors. Yet, we are now told that a Consul General of India issued visas from his ‘discretionary quota’ to a man who was plotting terrorist attacks on high profile targets in this country. Did he use his ‘discretion’ and exercise his judgement? Or was he asked to issue the visas? Did he by any chance get a call from someone in New Delhi? As my experience in Cairo shows, this cannot be ruled out entirely.

Instead of lighting candles, we should be asking these questions and demanding replies from the Government. That would be a fitting tribute to the victims of 26/11.

(This originally appeared in The Pioneer as my Sunday column, 'Coffee Break'.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Still waiting for Koda’s arrest!

Last Sunday (November 8) officials of the Income Tax Department and Enforcement Directorate were waiting to arrest Madhu Koda as soon as he was through with his ‘loose motion’. Newspapers and news channels breathlessly informed us that “Koda’s arrest is imminent”. Seven days later, Koda remains a free man, unrestrained by either the Income Tax Department or the Enforcement Directorate. Meanwhile, stories about how the former Chief Minister and his associates looted Jharkhand, invested the money in real estate, hotels and mines at home and abroad, and lived the high life — designer jeans, SUVs, holidays at exotic locations — have disappeared, first from the front page and prime time news bulletins, and then altogether.

It’s almost as if a decision has been taken — and such decisions can be taken only at the ‘highest level’ — not to pursue investigations into the mind-boggling cash-and-carry plunder that kept Koda busy during the two years he was Chief Minister of Jharkhand — or, at least, to go easy with the inquiry. Nothing else explains the sudden dip in the enthusiasm with which officials were raiding various premises (76 establishments in eight cities were raided in a matter of days), following up on leads and briefing mediapersons.

If there were popular expectations that Koda would be arrested (as is usually done with great fanfare in cases involving financial fraud and corruption of far lesser magnitude) they have been belied. Officials of the Enforcement Directorate have tamely handed over a ‘sealed’ brown paper envelope to Koda while repeating meaningless warnings to his two absconding associates, Binod Sinha and Sanjay Chaudhary, that they should behave like model citizens and turn up for a tete-a-tete.

A week ago we were being told how Koda and his associates had amassed anything between Rs 2,000 crore and Rs 4,000 crore in ill-gotten wealth; how nearly Rs 1,000 crore was taken out of the country through the hawala route to Dubai; how as Chief Minister he never allowed files related to granting leases for mines to accumulate in his office; and, how huge sums of money were paid to Bollywood starlets, ostensibly for the onerous task of ‘promoting’ Jharkhand. Koena Mitra probably wouldn’t be able to point out the State on the map of India. There are no more such delightful tidbits about the life and times of Madhu Koda to break the monotony of everyday news.

There are various stories doing the rounds as to why the official agencies are now dragging their feet. One story has it that the Congress, which thought exposing corruption in high places would help varnish its tattered image in Jharkhand, which goes to the polls beginning later this month to elect a new Assembly, discovered to its horror that Koda was not the only one partaking of the tainted lolly. Ranchi is awash with rumours that brakes were applied after investigators stumbled upon evidence that suggests Koda shared his riches with certain senior Congress leaders of the State. According to another story, officials had seized a diary in which Koda had made meticulous entries about whom he had paid how much and whose details, if they came to light, would embarrass the Congress leadership.

A senior journalist based in Ranchi told me that Koda, while recovering from ‘loose motion’ in the hospital where he had checked in immediately after the raids began, had called up certain Congress leaders in Delhi and told them bluntly that he would tell all if push came to shove. That did the trick and push never came to shove. Rather than risk a blowback before the coming election, the Congress appears to have decided that discretion is the better part of valour. In a country of a million scams, people would soon forget about Jharkhand’s latest plunder. Others caught with their snouts in the trough have settled their accounts by paying income tax, so too can Koda at an opportune moment.

Having sufficiently recovered from his tummy ache and ‘loose motion’, on Friday Koda left Ranchi halfway through his chat with Income Tax Department officials to participate in the election campaign. He was last spotted at Patahatu, his home base, where he shall remain for the time being. Officials of the Enforcement Directorate, who were scheduled to ‘interrogate’ him today, have rescheduled it for November 19. Seven days is a long time in politics.

Sensing that he has the Congress by the short and curly, Koda is now playing the victim of a conspiracy to harass and humiliate a tribal leader who has worked his way up the ladder and who is popular enough to be re-elected more than once as a legislator and as an honourable member of Parliament in last summer’s general election. Faced with arrest after being held guilty of committing murder, Shibu Soren, the hugely corrupt JMM leader, had tried the same trick: “I am being punished for fighting for Jharkhand and standing up for the rights of tribals.”

Koda used the same tribal card on Friday when he said, “There is a threat to my life. There is a conspiracy to annihilate me. I know who are doing all this. Whatever is published in the media is baseless. And, I am being harassed as I am a tribal belonging to a poor family.” Who is to tell him that it is he who has cheated the poor families of Jharkhand where 54 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line? That those whom he favoured with mining licences which allowed them to denude the State of its natural resources so long as they paid him a ‘fee’, that those who were given contracts to build roads and facilities which were never built, the Binod Sinhas and Sanjay Chaudharys of Jharkhand, have nothing but contempt for tribals living in gut-wrenching poverty?

Fed on relentless propaganda of the diku as the exploiter, Jharkhand’s moolvasis, the tribals whose interests Soren, Koda and their corrupt-to-the-core ilk claim to represent and protect, have become blind to the enemy within. Tribal loyalties invariably get precedence over better judgement and that explains why the tainted are elected time and again. Good governance and integrity are at a discount; if it’s caste preference in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, it’s tribal kinship in Jharkhand that plays a significant role in elections. That is the tragic reality of this wondrous land of ours.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised if the six ‘Independent’ candidates who will be contesting the Assembly election from Kolhan region with Koda’s support are elected. And if it is a fractured mandate, Koda’s MLAs, among them possibly his wife Geeta, will play an important role in Government formation. After all, that’s how he became Chief Minister. Politics, as PV Narasimha Rao was fond of repeating, is the art of the possible.

[This appeared as my regular Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on November 15.]

Monday, November 09, 2009

Proud to sing Vande Mataram

There is understandable disquiet over the resolution adopted by Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind during its 30th general session at Deoband from November 1-3. “The grand session of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind while expressing concern over communal hatred and violence exploiting the issue of Vande Mataram, condemns the provocative activities in this connection,” the resolution says, “We can love and serve our country, but cannot elevate it to the status of Allah, the only one worshipped by Muslims… The fatwa of Darul Uloom (Deoband) is correct… This house demands that the issue of Vande Mataram not be deliberately raised for causing communal discord and threat to law and order.”

Not be deliberately raised? This is truly astounding. Without any provocation whatsoever, Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind adopts a resolution endorsing a fatwa against Vande Mataram issued by Darul Uloom, Deoband, and urging India’s Muslims not to sing the National Song lest it defile Islam. Yet it wants the resolution to be seen as a warning to those “causing communal discord and threat to law and order” — a not-so-thinly veiled reference to Hindus — by “deliberately” raising the “issue of Vande Mataram”.

The resolution apparently refers to a fatwa reportedly issued in 2006 by Darul Uloom, Deoband, instructing Muslims not to participate in the celebrations planned by the Ministry of Human Resource Development to mark the centenary of Congress adopting Vande Mataram as the National Song on September 7, 1906, as it would require the singing of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s soul-stirring immortal lines. The mullahs of Deoband need not have worried. Whoever had given the idea to Mr Arjun Singh had got his date wrong. The planned celebrations turned into a fiasco after historians pointed out that the Congress never met in September 1906, so it could not have possibly adopted Vande Mataram as the National Song on that date.

On that occasion, too, Indians, including Muslims, were outraged by the Deobandi fatwa reported by media. But was there really a fatwa? On September 4, CNN-IBN reported that no such fatwa had been issued by Darul Uloom, Deoband. According to this news channel, the seminary wanted to “steer clear of the issue” and insisted that it had no “role to play” in the controversy. Darul Uloom, Deoband “categorically stated it had not issued any fatwa on Vande Mataram, nor had it directed Muslim children to skip classes on September 7”. After the mandatory finger-pointing at “communal forces”, Mohatamim Maulana Margoobur Rehman told CNN-IBN, “Darul Uloom is being unnecessarily dragged into the Vande Mataram controversy.”

The official website of Darul Uloom, Deoband, does not list the edict instructing Muslims not to sing Vande Mataram which has been cited by Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind. But the website of Darul Ifta, the fatwa division of Darul Uloom, Deoband, lists a fatwa (385/358-B/1430) dated April 7, 2009, which says Muslim children “should avoid hymning it (Vande Mataram)” as it is “against our creed of tauheed”. A classic example of taqiya? Was the April 7, 2009 fatwa meant to set the stage for the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind’s November resolution? Why was it issued after Deoband vigorously distanced itself from the “Vande Mataram controversy”? And, what prompted Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind to revive the rancid debate over whether it’s haram for Muslims to sing Vande Mataram? Was the purpose to provoke a backlash and then claim victimhood?

In a sense, any discussion on the repudiation of Indian nationhood by Islamic fanatics who view India’s National Song not as a celebration of the concept of motherland as defined by our civilisational ethos but as Hindu idolatory is meaningless. There’s nothing startlingly new about the vitriolic denunciation of Vande Mataram by Maulana Mahmood Madani and his ilk who believe “bringing women into the mainstream will create social problems and issues including their security”, want India’s Muslims to “don their Islamic identity”, say salam instead of namaste and live in a joyless, dark world of ignorance where sharia’h will apply to girls as young as 10 years old.

We have heard similar denunciation of Vande Mataram with the explicit purpose of hurting the sensitivities of India’s majority Hindu community and rejecting India as a nation earlier too. And the attack has not been restricted to our National Song. Maulana Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (better known as Ali Mian) of Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama, the other famous Islamic seminary, was unrestrained by such considerations as Hindu sentiments.

“Cow-slaughter in India is a ‘great Islamic practice’, said Mujaddid Alaf Saani II. This was his farsightedness that he described cow-slaughter in India as a ‘great Islamic practice’. It may not be so in other places. But it is definitely a great Islamic act in India because the cow is worshipped in India,” Ali Mian said in an address to a congregation of Indian and Pakistani ulema in Jeddah on April 3, 1986. Ali Mian and his fellow ulema on the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, which lacks legitimacy yet holds Muslims in thraldom, were to later issue a fatwa against the singing of Vande Mataram by Muslims.

Issuing fatwas against Vande Mataram can be traced to Congress’s willing capitulation in the face of opposition by those who place faith over nation. In 1923, the Congress met at Kakinada and Maulana Mohamed Ali was brought to the venue in a procession led by a raucous band. As was the practice, the session was scheduled to begin with a rendition of Vande Mataram by Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. When Pandit Paluskar rose to sing what had by then become the anthem of India’s freedom movement, Maulana Mohamed Ali protested, saying music was a “taboo in Islam” and, therefore, singing Vande Mataram would “hurt” his religious sensitiveness. Pandit Paluskar retorted that the Congress session was an open gathering and not a religious congregation; and since Maulana Mohamed Ali had not found the band that led his procession as “taboo in Islam”, he could not object to the singing of Vande Mataram. He then went on to sing Bankim’s composition which Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi associated with “the purest national spirit”.

It is this national spirit which bothers those among us who are loath to see their identity linked to the identity of India. At the far end we have the likes of Maulana Mahmood Madani with their separatist agenda, but that does not mean every Muslim is persuaded by the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind’s bunkum. My respect for Mr Shahid Siddiqui has gone up by leaps and bounds for thumbing his nose at the mullahs and declaring that he not only sings Vande Mataram but sings it with pride. Mr Siddiqui is not in a minority of one — there are many Muslims who will lend their voice to him because they are proud to be Indian.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Loot of Jharkhand: Blame it on koyla?

The former Chief Minister of Jharkhand, Mr Madhu Koda, who these days represents Chaibasa constituency in the Lok Sabha, has done what others who have been caught with their snouts in the trough have been known to do: He has checked into a hospital where obliging doctors have found a bed for him in the intensive care unit. According to a health bulletin issued late Tuesday evening by Abur Razzak Memorial Weavers’ Hospital, whose doctors obviously hold the Hippocratic Oath in utter contempt, Mr Koda is suffering from a stomach-ache. Cynics would gleefully point out that it’s a case of indigestion caused by Mr Koda stuffing himself with too much lolly, but such frivolity need not distract us from the offences he has been accused of committing.

Nor should we hold Mr Koda’s humble beginnings — he was a welder and before that a mine worker till the late-1990s — against him. Others have risen from rags to riches by doing ‘social service’, which is how politicians describe their profession in their bio-profiles, and not all of them went to the right school, college and university. Indeed, politics offers a level playing field for those who have no compunctions about acquiring ill-gotten wealth. Perhaps that’s the way it should be — after all, there is no reason why those from the ‘masses’ should be at a disadvantage compared to those from the ‘classes’ when it comes to sharing the proverbial loaves and fishes of office.

Yet, Mr Koda’s alleged transgressions, ranging from illegal mining operations to kickbacks to money-laundering, are stunning because of the scale of the loot and the speed with which it was conducted. They also show that with the right determination and cunning, a nondescript milkman and the son of a chewing tobacco vendor can become the ‘business associates’ of a Chief Minister and front for him while negotiating ‘investment deals’ in places as far and wide as Dubai, Liberia and South Africa. But for their association with Mr Koda, neither Mr Vinod Sinha, who used to supply milk at homes in Ranchi, nor Mr Sanjay Chaudhary, whose father would hawk chewing tobacco (better known as khaini) from the carrier of his ramshackle bicycle, would have been among India’s most-wanted men today.

Mr Koda and his associates who are on the run would tell you that it’s all about seizing the right opportunity when it comes knocking on your door and not turning it away. For Mr Koda, who had contested and won the Assembly election on a BJP ticket, it came with the creation of Jharkhand in November 2000, a State carved out of Bihar ostensibly to ensure better governance and development for what was then considered a neglected tribal-dominated region. Statehood was considered fulfilment of the long-standing demand to protect tribal interests by delinking their fortunes from those of Bihar.

Mr Koda became Minister in the first Government of Jharkhand headed by Mr Babulal Marandi; he retained both his job and portfolio — Mines and Rural Engineering Organisation — after Mr Arjun Munda took over as Chief Minister. In 2005, Mr Koda was denied a BJP ticket, but that did not deter him from contesting the election as an ‘Independent’; he won with a handsome margin from Jagannathpur.

In a hung Assembly, Mr Koda and four other ‘Independent’ MLAs played a crucial role, first in helping the BJP to form a Government (in which they became Ministers) and later in pulling it down at the behest of the Congress, the RJD and the JMM. That was Mr Koda’s second opportunity: He manoeuvred himself into the Chief Minister’s office in September 2006 and remained in power till August 2008, when Mr Shibu Soren pulled the plug on him.

Apocryphal stories abound in Ranchi about how Mr Koda acquired huge wealth and clout in less than a decade. His iron ore-rich constituency became the hub of illegal mining: Trucks would be loaded and despatched across the border with Orissa to Paradip Port from where the ore would be shipped out to foreign destinations. A senior journalist in Ranchi recounted how industrialists were delighted when Mr Koda became the Chief Minister: He ran a ‘single window operation’ whereby those wanting to short-circuit the tedious process of submitting tenders and competing with others would pay him directly. Apparently, he had fixed ‘fees’ for favours — for example, he would charge Rs 1 lakh for every acre of mines being leased out; whoever paid the ‘fee’ got the lease.

It is, therefore, not surprising that he should have amassed assets worth Rs 4,000 crore, which is almost a fifth of Jharkhand’s annual budget, as is being claimed by the Income Tax Department. What is, however, surprising is that he should have thought of investing the slush funds in diverse businesses, including hotels, apartment blocks and shopping malls across nine cities. It is also a measure of the ingenuity of his two close associates, Mr Sinha and Mr Chaudhary, that they should have set up a bogus investment firm, Balaji Bullion and Retailers, in Mumbai, which funnelled money — according to one estimate, as much as Rs 990 crore — to a Dubai-based ‘investor’ called Abdul Bhai.

Was Mr Koda operating all by himself? Or was there somebody else, apart from Mr Sinha and Mr Chaudhary, who was advising him how to salt away the money he had looted? A former mine worker may be sufficiently brazen to demand bribes for favours and run an illegal mining operation, but would he be clever enough to invest in Liberian and South African mines? Recall how Mr Shibu Soren, far more crafty than Mr Koda, went and deposited the money he got for voting with the Treasury Benches so that PV Narasimha Rao’s Government would not fall, in a bank from where it was later seized and used to implicate him and his party MPs.

We could, of course, ignore the possibility of a larger conspiracy to mint millions by defrauding the people of Jharkhand, whom Mr Koda and tribal leaders of his ilk insist they represent, and blame it all on coal which has proved to be a boon to the unscrupulous few and a bane to the many who still wait for deliverance from gruelling poverty in one of India’s richest States.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

No end to crisis: Reddys want BSY out

[Update: The so-called 'resolution' of the crisis in Karnataka is at best a temporary truce between the Reddy Brothers and Yeddyurappa. Shettar resigning from Speaker's office to join the Cabinet is only the first step; it's a matter of time before he decides to make a renewed dash for the Chief Minister's chair. The Reddy Brothers will not be satiated by sops like greater say in policy-framing, transfer-postings of bureaucrats (which speaks a lot about our babus and their links with 'businessmen') and easing of cases against them. By the way, since when has the BJP decided to short-circuit the law of the land to remain in power? And with what face will the party now criticise the Congress for short-circuiting the law to favour its own? I think it's a terrible idea to have two central leaders minding Karnataka affairs as it will lead to further groupism in both party and Government. But we will now have Arun Jaitley managing party affairs and Sushma Swaraj minding the Reddy Brothers -- the 'coordination committee' is so much hogwash and no more. The 'resolution' of the crisis only strengthens my contention that organisation now means nothing for those who have the clout to thumb their nose at the party's national leadership, such as it is with its moral authority lying in tatters. Why else would the Reddy Brothers have been allowed to set the terms of engagement via one individual over the party organisation?]

It’s been a week since the ‘Reddy Brothers’ of Bellary rocked the BS Yeddyurappa Government. Not much progress seems to have been made by those working on resolving the crisis and preventing the BJP’s first Government in a southern State from collapsing on account of infighting within its ranks and more than a gentle nudge from those who contested and won the last Assembly election on the BJP symbol but owe no allegiance to either the party or the RSS.

Some points that merit attention:

. Official denials notwithstanding, few are willing to discount media reports (confirmed by unnamed sources within the party) that a national leader of the BJP from Karnataka is involved in fomenting trouble for Yeddyurappa. Details of his reported meeting with the ‘Reddy Brothers’ and travel by a Congress legislator’s plane to meet leading dissident Jagadish Shettar, who is the Assembly Speaker and aspires to become Chief Minister, have not strengthened the image of the party’s central leadership.

. Yeddyurappa no doubt enjoys tremendous support among the people and his popularity is unquestionable. But this alone may not see the BJP through in a mid-term election. In the past, the BJP has lost mid-term elections despite the popularity of leaders like Kalyan Singh and Sunderlal Patwa; Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was barely able to scrape through. The BJP has lost in Himachal Pradesh despite excellent policies and programmes initiated by Shanta Kumar. This was more than a decade ago when the party’s organisation was strong, its central leadership carried credibility and its overall rating was high. None of these three factors obtains today.

. On Tuesday Yeddyurappa held out the proverbial olive branch to the ‘Reddy Brothers’ on their home turf by ‘acknowledging’ their ‘contribution’. But this has not cut any ice with the 'Reddy Brothers' -- till late Tuesday night, they were adamant that Yeddyurappa must go. If by 'acknowledging' the 'contribution' of the 'Reddy Brothers' Yeddyurappa was being pragmatic, he might as well have avoided a flash-point situation. I am no admirer of the ‘Reddy Brothers’, but having supped with them, perhaps Yeddyurappa needed to be more tactful if only to ensure stability of his Government.

. I am intrigued by the importance given to industrialist/entrepreneur Rajeev Chandrasekhar by the BJP Government. What exactly has been his contribution to the party? Does he subscribe to the Sangh’s ideology? Who are his backers? Raising these questions does not amount to questioning his abilities to supervise ‘Operation Lotus’ (the post-flood rehabilitation programme). But why is it that the BJP needs an ‘outsider’ to head a flagship programme?

. Some readers of this blog have outright rejected a Congress hand in the Karnataka shenanigans. I think there have been sufficient revelations since October 29 to bear out the contention that the Congress has been involved. The ‘Reddy Brothers’ are under pressure from the Congress on their mining operations in Andhra Pradesh. Let us not forget that they are businessmen first and politicians second; if push comes to shove they will gladly abandon Yeddyurappa if not the BJP.

. It is entirely possible that a power-sharing formula of sorts will be hammered out after Yeddyurappa arrives in Delhi on Wednesday and the Government will survive this crisis. But that is unlikely to ensure long-term stability. Cabals and groups will not be easily tamed. Having hugely damaged the party at the national level and lost when the stakes were high, these cabals and groups are now busy damaging what remains of the party in the States.Dilli4 is relentless!

As Henry Kissinger famously commented, when the stakes are low, the politics is high.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

BSY faces rebellion. BJP Govt in deep crisis

Who's to blame for Karnataka problem?
The BJP Government in Karnataka, by all accounts, finds itself in choppy, if not turbulent, waters.

Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa has declared war on the cash-rich and powerful ‘Reddy Brothers’ of Bellary, who, in turn, appear to be exerting to bring the Government down. The ‘Reddy Brothers’ virtually control all iron ore mining in Bellary and have similar ‘business interests’ in Andhra Pradesh.

The ‘Reddy Brothers’, Tourism Minister G Janardhana Reddy and his elder brother and Revenue Minister G Karunakara Reddy, have criticised Yeddyurappa for not being sufficiently alert to the woes of the victims of the recent floods. They have launched their own rehabilitation programme and propose to build 50,000 houses for the flood-affected people.

Yeddyurappa, apparently, demanded that they abandon their private project and contribute the money to the official rehabilitation programme. The ‘Reddy Brothers’ not only ignored the Chief Minister’s demand but also refused to invite him for the ‘bhoomi pujan’, apart from lashing out at him in public. They are being supported by Health Minister B Sreeramulu.

An incensed Yeddyurappa retaliated by transferring bureaucrats in the three Ministries and in Bellary who are believed to be close to the Ministers. He wants the party to take action against the three Ministers whom he wants sacked from the Government.

The ‘Reddy Brothers’ and Sreeramulu have retaliated by stoking further dissidence in the BJP legislature party; 15 ‘dissident’ MLAs have been flown out to Hyderabad where they have in put up in a hotel. Sreeramulu says five more will join them soon. The ‘dissident’ MLAs are incommunicado.

Meanwhile, Speaker Jagadish Shettar, a known Yeddyurappa-baiter, has begun flirting with the rebels. One story has it that the ‘Reddy Brothers’ want Shettar to be made Chief Minister. Another story doing the rounds is that Yeddyurappa, in an effort to win over Shettar, offered him the Deputy Chief Minister’s post, but that has been rejected.

Three questions arise:

a) Why did Yeddyurappa choose to precipitate a crisis at this point of time when there are enough fires burning in the BJP? To my mind, his reaction to the defiance of the ‘Reddy Brothers’ has been extremely churlish, if not cussed. He could have done without discovering merit in integrity for some more time.
b) How come the central leadership of the party was unaware of the unfolding crisis till it pushed the Government to the brink of losing majority? The crisis is by no means an overnight development. Does the answer lie in Dilli4 being clueless about what’s happening beyond south Delhi? Or was the situation allowed to drift because one member of the cabal that has converted the party into its fiefdom would like to see Yeddyurappa make an ignominious exit?
c) Who will the so-called national leadership of the BJP blame for the mess in which the party finds itself in Karnataka? Will it look for yet another scapegoat or will it, for a change, look into the mirror? A fish, as I have often said, begins to rot from its head.

The BJP leadership’s incompetence apart, there’s a conspiracy theory which raises an interesting possibility. Apparently Jaganmohan Reddy, said to be close to the ‘Reddy Brothers’ (over-lapping ‘business interests’ are being cited) is involved in the effort to bring down the BJP Government. If he is able to do so, or so the story goes, he will claim the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister’s post as his trophy from the Congress high command.

The situation at the moment, as the cliché goes, is extremely fluid. Arun Jaitley is camping in Bangalore and has been speaking to various groups to find a solution. The RSS is also trying to broker peace among the feuding factions. Yeddyurappa, however, is recalcitrant, as are the ‘Reddy Brothers’ and fellow dissidents, though they have said that they will abide by the decision of the party ‘high command’.

If the crisis snowballs, the BJP will lose its Government in Karnataka where it has been in power for 18 months. The BJP has 117 MLAs in the 224-member Assembly. That majority could disappear if the ‘Reddy Brothers’ walk out with 20 MLAs. Some say if push comes to shove, the number could go up to 40, thus reducing the BJP’s strength to less than 80 MLAs.

There was great jubilation when the BJP won the Assembly election in Karnataka. It marked the party’s coming to power in a southern State for the first time. But coming to power is only half of the power game. The other half is the ability to retain power.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

BJP savaged again.Party pays for drought of leadership!

Delhi cabal has its way: Vasu forced to resign.

Friday evening update:

It’s truly bizarre. Rather than ponder over the party’s defeat in Maharashtra and washout in Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh, the BJP’s central leaders [Dilli4 +2] spent all of Thursday and Friday hounding Vasundhara Raje, threatening to suspend her from the party if she did not put in her papers immediately as Leader of Opposition in Rajasthan Assembly.

Vasu was formally elected leader of the legislature party. She was not ‘appointed’ to the post by short-circuiting the rules laid down in BJP Constitution as has been done for Dilli4 and their mentors.

Vasu has been held responsible for BJP’s defeat in Rajasthan Assembly election and later the Lok Sabha poll. Vasu would have fetched victory had Dilli4 and their mentors not conspired to a)field rebel candidates and fund them; b)undermined her authority by appointing those opposed to her as party office-bearers; and, c)not played wretched games to pull her down so as to neutralise competition.

Dilli4 and their drum-beaters (including in media) would like the world to believe that Rajnath Singh alone is responsible for Vasu's sacking. This is not true. Dilli4 colluded in this shocking spectacle of a promising leader who has delivered for the party much more than the BJP's Sir Thomas Clifford, Lady Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley and Lord Lauderdale being humiliated.

Vasu has her faults and can be outrageously imperious when she chooses to. But those faults are far outweighed by her leadership qualities, her popularity and her ability to connect with the masses. Unlike Dilli4, she leads (or should it be led?) from the front. Most important, she is the 'modern', presentable, youthful face which the BJP needs so badly.

Strangely, not a single ‘national’ leader has stepped down from office despite leading the BJP to a humiliating defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll. If the party lost the election it is because voters rejected the BJP’s ‘national’ leadership. Ironically, those who led the party to its defeat have been handsomely rewarded.

Vasu refused to give her resignation to Rajnath Singh or Dilli4. On Friday morning she handed over her resignation letter to LK Advani. That is a measure of the authority and prestige that the party’s ‘national’ leadership commands today!

Not to go down without a fight, Vasu has written a letter, sent to each member of the parliamentary board, reportedly making the following points:
. She feels humiliated by the manner in which her resignation issue was handled.
. There is lack of inner-party democracy in the BJP’s functioning and there is no accountability within the organisation.
. Some senior party leaders created hurdles in her functioning as Chief Minister.
. There has been a continuous decline in the party due to lack of leadership. For example, the party’s decline and fall in Uttar Pradesh.
Who will Dilli4 and their mentors sack after they have sacked everybody else? Soon it could be the turn of the hapless peons, drivers and tea boys at the BJP Central Office!

The most absurd comment that I heard on Thursday, the day results for the Assembly elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh were declared, was made by BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad. “The results were unexpected,” he said, “but we accept them with humility.”

If only the BJP had been less humble and more robust, and had the party bothered to end its crisis (some would say drought) of leadership both in the States and at the national level, perhaps the humiliation of successive defeat could have been avoided. But neither is going to happen soon.

With Dilli4 firmly entrenched and the RSS stepping back, at least for the moment, the BJP will continue to wallow in denial. To protect its own vested interests, Dilli4 will insist on maintaining status quo.

If Bhishma Pitamah could have led an army into battle when he was more than 100 years old, there is no reason why, or so we are told, the BJP should look for youthful leaders who can feel the pulse of today’s India and with whom voters aged 40 and below can identify; more importantly, leaders who will be seen as leading the party (and the State / nation) into the future.

Now for the most misleading comment of the day: Congress spokespersons have claimed that the Assembly poll results are an unequivocal endorsement of the party’s policies and programmes. The party has also claimed that it has ‘defied anti-incumbency’.

That’s hogwash. The results of the Arunachal Pradesh Assembly election were predictable. In Haryana the Congress has been halted at 40 – six short of simple majority. INLD chief Om Prakash Chautala, with 31 seats, has vowed not to sit in the Opposition. In Maharashtra the Congress-NCP coalition may have reached the halfway mark, but ‘victory’ has been achieved through the expedient means of propping up Raj Thackeray’s virulently parochial MNS.

Nonetheless, the BJP should, if it is still serious about remaining in mainstream national politics, try and figure out why its seat share has declined in Arunachal Pradesh. The current nationalist fervour in that State should have been ideal for the party which claims to put nation first. If at all there is any introspection (the BJP says it will deliberate on the ‘road ahead’!) it should also include a frank discussion on why Kiran Rijiju left the party. That would necessitate some explanation on financial issues and the corrupting influence of certain ‘leaders’.

As for Haryana, Swapan Dasgupta has already raised some interesting and revealing points in his blog on why the BJP failed to enter into any meaningful alliance in that State. I think Dilli4 should be asked to explain why it got its sums wrong. There is, however, the view that an alliance between the BJP and INLD may not have worked to either’s advantage on account of Haryana’s caste arithmetic.

The most interesting are the results of the Maharashtra election. My personal view, as I have written in The Pioneer’s main editorial comment, is that the winner came second in this poll. Together, the BJP and Shiv Sena have secured 30 per cent of the total votes, down from 33.64 per cent in 2004. The Congress and NCP vote-share is 38 per cent, almost two per cent down from 39.81 per cent in 2004. The MNS has got six per cent.

Needless to say, the MNS vote has come from the BJP-Sena catchment area, especially in the Mumbai-Thane-Pune belt. The MNS may have won only 13 seats, and lost its deposit in 95 of the 143 seats it contested, but it has inflicted severe injury on the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance. Raj Thackeray wanted to spite his uncle and cousin; the Congress wanted to split the Opposition and anti-incumbency vote; their interests coalesced.

Yet, the decline in the BJP’s tally from 56 seats in 2004 to 46 seats in this election (the Shiv Sena has suffered greater loss: It is down from 62 seats to 44 seats) cannot be entirely attributed to the ‘MNS factor’. Nor is there any reason for the BJP to celebrate because it is two seats ahead of the Shiv Sena and hence will get to nominate the Leader of Opposition in the Assembly.

The BJP needs to explain as to why it has fared poorly in Vidarbha region, which saw most suicides by debt-ridden farmers, where Congress-NCP candidates have performed remarkably well. It must also look within to find reasons as to why in Marathwada the Congress-NCP coalition has doubled its tally of seven seats in the 2004 election.

A last point: I am increasingly veering round to the view that all high falutin talk of there being a co-relation between election results and quality of governance / agenda of governance is pure bunkum.

The quality of governance, if at all this word can be used, in Maharashtra over the past decade has been appallingly poor. This poll was contested against the backdrop of high inflation (CPI pegs it at around 14 per cent in both urban and rural areas), mounting agrarian crisis, industrial job losses, and a crippling power shortage.

Vilasrao Deshmukh was waxing eloquent on CNN-IBN as to how the voters had endorsed the good work done by him which was continued by Ashok Chavan. P Sainath asked him to list four good things done by the Congress-NCP Government. He couldn’t think of any. Finally it came down to Sainath asking him to name one achievement. Deshmukh pretended a disruption in communication and went off air.

In sharp contrast, the BJP had an excellent governance blueprint which touched every strata of society – from the pavement poor to those who live in Mumbai’s opulent palaces. The BJP-Shiv Sena Manifesto had some very good ideas. The BJP-Shiv Sena’s record in governance is nothing to be scoffed at, especially on the organised crime front as well as infrastructure development.

But I guess the people of India are least interested in what a Government can give them. What turns them on and swings their vote remains a mystery. Or perhaps not. It could just be something as simple as credible leadership – in the States, in New Delhi.

In my previous blog I had lamented that the BJP was unravelling rapidly yet nobody in the party seemed to be bothered. Between then and now, nothing has changed. Much as I hate saying this, it is unlikely to change in the coming days, weeks, months.

What do you think?



Total seats: 288
Results declared: 288
Party Seats Vote
Cong 82
NCP 62
BJP 46
SS 44
MNS 13 06%
CPM 01
Ind & others 48


Total seats: 60
Results declared: 60
Party Seats Vote
Congress 42 50%
Trinamool 5 15%
NCP 5 21%
BJP 2 5%
Others 6


Total seats: 90
Results declared: 90
Party Seats Vote
Congress 40 35%
INLD 31 27%
HJC 6 7%
BJP 4 9%
Independents 7

Thursday, October 15, 2009

BJP unravelling rapidly. Is anybody concerned?

The BJP just continues to get sucked deeper into the mire of deceitful and duplicitous faction politics. In the process, it continues to get pushed farther to the margins of national politics.

On Thursday evening what used to be the all-powerful but is now a pitifully emasculated Parliamentary Board of the party met for an emergency meeting after LK Advani and his group sought a rethink of party president Rajnath Singh's decision that Vasundhara Raje must resign as Leader of Opposition in Rajasthan Assembly. Rajnath Singh believes she should own up to the party's dismal performance in Rajasthan in the Lok Sabhal election.

It is another matter that not a single central leader of the party has as yet owned up to the party's total, absolute and humiliating rout in the Lok Sabha election. On the contrary, those who fashioned the party's election campaign, which proved to be an unmitigated disaster, have been rewarded. Dilli4 remains as powerful as ever, manipulating every twist and turn in the party's downward spiral.

Vasundhara Raje, who enjoys overwhelming support in the BJP legislature party, has refused to step down as instructed by Rajnath Singh who now finds himself in a minority of one in the parliamentary board. Even the West Bengal unit of the party appears to have cocked a snook at Rajnath Singh.

An unnamed 'senior' BJP leader has been quoted as saying "there are serious differences over the move to oust Vasundhara Raje". It's really now an issue on which Rajnath Singh has virtually no support in the parliamentary board.

At the end of three hours of discussions, the parliamentary board came to the decision that no action is to be initiated at the moment. Instead, status quo will be maintained till Rajasthan Assembly bypolls are over on November 7.

End result: Vasu is smiling; Dilli4 is grinning; Rajnath Singh is smarting. It also reflects on the RSS's say on BJP affairs -- whether it signals dwindling clout or shows confusion is for you to decide.

For all practical purposes, Rajnath Singh is now no more than a lame duck president whose writ doesn't run and whose decisions are being increasingly challenged if not ignored by top, middle and junior leaders in the central and State units of the party. The president's office stands denuded of power and authority.

Conclusion: LK Advani is not going anywhere. Rajnath Singh may have to opt out soon. Dilli4 remains untouched, unchallenged.

Irrespective of Maharashtra Assembly election results (the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance could suffer heavy reverses and losses and be left in the cold yet again)it is likely Nitin Gadkari will be brought in as president. He may want to put together his own team by bringing over young leaders like Manohar Parrikar. Whether he will succeed in doing so or be forced to become putty in Dilli4's hands is anybody's guess at the moment.

Bottom line: More than four months after crushing defeat in Lok Sabha election, BJP's entrenched discredited top leadership, including Dilli4, refuses to wake up to reality. After Thursday's meeting, I find the BJP resembling George Orwell's Animal Farm.

From here to oblivion could be a short journey, unless drastic steps are taken by the RSS. The BJP is fast resembling a tamasha, an embarrassing one at that. A shame and a pity.

The Sangh cannot, indeed must not, wish away its responsibility.

Monday, September 28, 2009

In Rome, Durga is not welcome

By Kanchan Gupta

What does it mean to celebrate Durga Puja in Rome? It means to be humiliated, harassed and hounded by city officials who happen to be pious Christians. Alright, I could be utterly wrong in presuming they are pious since I have no independent confirmation of their piety or otherwise. But let’s get back to the question with which I began. Late Thursday night I was at the park near my house where the local Bengalis organise Durga Puja every year. It’s a raucous celebration of faith and culture. The food stalls are invariably hugely popular and there I was with my nine-year-old daughter, standing in a queue for kathi rolls. After what seemed like an interminable wait, it was our turn to be served. Just then my BlackBerry beeped. Balancing the piping hot rolls, dripping oil, tomato ketchup, green chilli sauce and lemon juice, in one hand, I tried to read the e-mail on my handset.

No luck. I got shoved around, nearly dropped both rolls and my phone, and decided to let the e-mail wait. Later, away from the crowd, I checked the e-mail and it was a fascinating story. Since the identity of the person who had sent the mail is not really relevant, let me reproduce the text: “The Municipal Police authorities of Rome have today withdrawn permission, granted three weeks ago, to celebrate Durga Puja in Rome. The cancellation came a few hours before the Ambassador of India was scheduled to inaugurate the Puja at 8 pm local time. No acceptable explanation has been given. This has caused the local Indian community the loss of thousands of Euros spent in preparatory arrangements. The same thing was done in the same manner in 2008 also. Please monitor developments.”

Now that’s awful, I told myself, here I am having kathi rolls and there they can’t even celebrate their own festival. On Friday, I called a friend in Rome who provided me with the latest details. Our Ambassador, Mr Arif Shahid Khan, a feisty man who has in the past taken up the issue of Sikhs being forced to take off their turbans at Italian airports, campaigned throughout the day, calling up officials, including the Mayor of Rome, and contacting members of the ‘Friends of India’ group in the Italian Parliament, arguing with them why permission for the Puja should be restored. By evening, the authorities had reversed their order and permission was granted to celebrate Durga Puja, which will now begin on Saturday, Ashtami — a full 48 hours behind schedule. Provided, of course, there is no last minute cancellation, as it happened on Thursday. Mr Khan will inaugurate the Puja, an honour he richly deserves.

The story behind the cancellation needs to be told, if only to point out that Christian countries in the West, whose Governments so blithely criticise the ‘lack’ of ‘religious freedom’ in India, have no compunctions about trampling on Hindu sentiments at home. After last year’s experience, when permission for celebrating Durga Puja in Rome was abruptly withdrawn by officials who cited specious reasons to justify their grossly unfair decision, the organisers, led by Mr Rajesh Sahani, a Sindhi from Kolkata who speaks flawless Bengali, took ample precautions this year. They were given permission to organise the Puja at Parko Centocelle, a public park on Via Cailina, Torpignattara. Three weeks ago, permission was granted for the Puja at the park and necessary formalities were completed.

Early this past week, the Puja organisers were told they could not use the park as a crime had been committed there and the location posed security-related problems. The organisers agreed to change the venue. Another park was selected, permission was given to celebrate Durga Puja there, and the preparations began all over again in right earnest. Then, like a bolt from the blue, at 4 pm on Thursday came the withdrawal of permission by the Municipal Police. The organisers were bluntly told to pack up and leave hours before Durga Puja was scheduled to begin with Akal Bodhon in the evening. Why? No reason was proffered.

Some officials are believed to have told the organisers that the cancellation of permission at the eleventh hour, both last year and this year, was meant to be “retaliatory action against the persecution of Christians in India”. It may be recalled that the President of Italy, Mr Giorgio Napoletano, has been vociferous in demanding that Europe should do more in support of Christians in India and to help them ‘affirm their right to religious freedom’. The Government of Italy has in the past summoned the Ambassador of India to convey to him that it has “deep concern and sensitivity for the ongoing inter-religious violence... that has caused the death of many Christians.” The Pope has been no less harsh in denouncing India.

There could be another reason, apart from its “deep concern” about the welfare of Christians in India, for Italy’s callous disregard of the sentiments of Hindus in that country. Although the Italian Constitution guarantees religious freedom, under the Lateran Treaty with the Vatican, Italy recognises only the three religions of Semitic origin — Christianity, Judaism and Islam. All other religions are no more than paganism and are to be shamed and shunned. The Vatican would not countenance any open breach of the Lateran Treaty; Italy would not want to be seen as recognising Hinduism.

“It’s only natural that Italy should have a surfeit of churches. But it’s the rejection of any other faith than Christianity, Judaism and Islam that explains why there are so many mosques but virtually no temples in Italy although this country has a large Hindu expatriate population,” my friend told me while regretting the attitude of the Government and the local authorities. According to him, there are only three temples in Italy: One in a garage in Venice; another at Frescolo and the third at Reggio Emilia. These survive at the mercy of local zoning officials.

But for Mr Arif Shahid Khan’s pro-active involvement — most Ambassadors tend to stay aloof from community affairs — this year too there would have been no Durga Puja in Rome. (The picture appearing with this article is of the Durga idol used at this year's Puja in Rome.) Indians in Italy owe him a debt of gratitude. So do Bangladeshis who are equal participants in this annual celebration of dharma’s victory over adharma, of the triumph of good over evil. Cultural and linguistic affinities unite Bengalis, irrespective of whether they are from the west or east of Padma, during this autumnal festival celebrated around the world.

Meanwhile, let’s not get carried away by the West’s bilious and bogus criticism of 'lack of religious freedom' in India and indulge in self-flagellation. Let the West look at its own ugly, septic warts. If Christians can celebrate Christmas in New Delhi, Hindus have the right to celebrate Durga Puja in Rome. This is non-negotiable.

[This appeared as my column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on September 27.]

Friday, September 25, 2009

Tweeting is silly!

My Editor at The Pioneer, Chandan Mitra, disagrees with me on Twitter as the new platform for instant communications which could emerge as the medium of the future. I am grateful to Mr Mitra for sharing his views with the readers of 'Agent Provocateur'. I hope it will initiate a debate on tweeting, its significance and future.-- Kanchan Gupta.

By Chandan Mitra

I am rather amused by the huge controversy in India over twittering. India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, my good friend Shashi Tharoor, got into quite some hot water over an allegedly insensitive remark, for using the common term ‘cattle class’ to refer to economy travellers on aircraft. The Minister is entitled to his opinion but the question is whether people in high office should expose themselves to the risk of being quoted, sometimes out of context, causing acute discomfort to the Establishment. As of now, media reports suggest he is continuing to twitter although the postings have suddenly turned innocuous and thereby lost the fun element.

At the risk of being labelled grossly old-fashioned, I haven’t for the life of me understood why thousands should be interested in the daily itineraries of other people, which often contain utterly banal information such as “Had two eggs for breakfast today. Must keep watch on cholesterol level” or “Just had a cup of life-saving Starbucks coffee. Now to find a place to smoke”. These examples are second-hand because I am still not on Twitter despite considerable pressure from colleagues and my sons. I have only recently climbed onto the Facebook bandwagon. But it is obvious that a lot of people enjoy reading these inane posts. Social networking has acquired obsessive dimensions, often crossing boundaries of acceptable social behaviour. It has also begun to replace physical meetings and even verbal communication.

Arguably, sms and email has made life a lot easier and allowed people to maximise communication. A fair amount of official work gets done through text messages; saves time, cuts out on long phone calls and superficial exchange of pleasantries. The importance of emails in contemporary life is too big to merit reiteration. But I wonder what precise void social networking fills. Is it a fall-out of the immense loneliness of urban life particularly for young people? Is it because some people want to reassure themselves that there are friends ready to share joys and sorrows that maybe even their boy/girl friends don’t have time for? Or maybe it has opened an avenue to express thoughts and emotions to an entire community of known and unknown people and thus feel self-satisfied?

Whatever it may be, there is no doubt that social networking is here to stay. It has resulted in unanticipated changes in our way of thought and expression. Once we lamented the age of sound-byte journalism on TV, which forces people to say in 10 seconds what they would normally take three minutes. Twitter compels the user not to exceed 140 characters – a limit within which no meaningful idea can possibly be expressed. I have no issue with the proliferation of such forums, except that I fear they are increasingly acting as enemies of serious thought, adding to the insulation of the self from the real world and paradoxically intensifying the alienation of humans from humans.

[The impact of Kanchan Gupta's "cattle class" tweet exchange with Shashi Tharoor has been phenomenal. Check it out here.]