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March 15, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Rajeev Srinivasan

President's rule, 'chaste Urdu' and other diversions

It has been an eventful few weeks for the Indian government. I am still reeling somewhat from the combined effects of the Budget, bus diplomacy, and the imposition (well, attempt to) of President's rule in Bihar. At the end of the day, though, Prime Minister Vajpayee seems to have suddenly found his stride -- or, in the quaint and archaic Victorian English of the Indian media, is he flattering to deceive?

Is it indeed possible that, despite the much-trumpeted "Sonia wave", the Vajpayee government is not tottering? After all, when it counted, as in the Bihar debate in the Lok Sabha, its temperamental allies did support the government. And then there is the increasing desperation in Opposition ranks, as demonstrated by the CPI-M's repeated calls to Sonia Gandhi to topple the government. Strange bedfellows, these, but I shall leave it at that.

Speaking of the Budget first, I haven't gone through the details; the first thing that struck me is the fact that personal income tax has gone up from 30% to 33% (effectively) -- and that of course hits the pocketbook directly and reverses the trend of the last few years. This caused me to cast a jaundiced eye on the rest of the provisions, sops to the IT industry notwithstanding.

After couple of weeks, however, it is beginning to appear that the Budget wasn't that bad -- or at least the stock market thinks it isn't, as demonstrated by a solid run-up of 15% or so. In particular the FIIs have been buying up a storm. This may also be related to yet another bull run on the American bourses, where the Dow Jones seems to be heading inexorably towards that psychological 10,000 mark.

Furthermore, it appears that the swadeshi crowd has been reined in: for, this budget really isn't throwing too many crumbs their way. As a neo-liberal, I think this is the right direction -- despite concerns about rapacious multinationals, it is important to not get caught up in the protectionism that leads to gross inefficiencies and the pathetic Nehruvian Rate of Growth of 2 to 3% that India endured for 50 years.

As for the drama concerning President's rule in Bihar, I think the Congress was nicely checkmated by the BJP. Despite the general tendency of governments at the Centre to misuse Article 356, it is evident that the law-and-order situation has indeed become intolerable in Bihar. We have to condemn both the Ranvir Sena and the Maoists for turning the place into a charnel-house. And clearly Laloo Prasad Yadav is unable to control the chaos.

When the Centre announced its intention to table the Bihar bill in the Lok Sabha, the Congress was caught in a dilemma: on the one hand, they have wielded Article 356 to their heart's content in the past, so it would be hypocritical to oppose it now, especially when there is a strong case that meets even the cautious President Narayanan's standards.

Furthermore, the Congress have their eyes on the dalit vote bank. Therefore, Madame Gandhi the Younger could not afford to be perceived as somehow condoning the massacres of Dalits. On the other hand, of course, is the Congress's overwhelming desire to topple the government or at least embarrass it, by any means available.

Thus the Congress was in a dilemma. Damned if they do and damned if they don't. Initially, their sense of the electoral calculus prevailed, and they made noises about supporting the government. But then, for whatever reason, they backtracked. Punters have made various educated guesses as to why, none of them redounding to the Grand Old Party's credit.

This volte-face is making the Congress look bad, while the BJP now can say, legitimately, that it is they who tried to protect the interests of the dalit community in Bihar. They can also play the martyr: after all, the Opposition prevented President's rule by vowing to defeat it in the Rajya Sabha. They can blame the Congress for continued misrule by the RJD in Bihar. Score: Vajpayee 1, Sonia 0.

The bus diplomacy business has also gone off surprisingly well. Agreed, it was mostly about photo-ops, and nobody expected anything substantive to come out of it. Nevertheless, as with Nixon in China, it was a potent symbol of what might actually be achieved especially on the economic front if the two subcontinental neighbours abandon some of their sabre-rattling rhetoric.

It is a truism that only a conservative government -- one whose nationalist credentials are not questionable -- could make any progress with Pakistan. Will we have peace in our lifetime? Who knows? Nevertheless, Vajpayee comes out smelling of roses. Not bad for someone who had been written off by the English-language media. Is this man India's own "Comeback Kid"?

Nevertheless, I am extremely sceptical of a sudden improvement in relations with Pakistan, partly based on my encounters with Pakistanis on the Internet. These were affluent, upper-class people, mostly students in the US. I used to have a general air of benign tolerance towards Pakistanis, despite 1948 and 1965 and 1971, but once I encountered them on newsgroups such as net.nlang.india and soc.culture.indian, I began to have misgivings.

If these people are representative of Pakistani thought processes, then there is little hope: they are brainwashed beyond repair by malicious propaganda and plain hatred. I remember a particular individual named Asim Mughal, whose contribution was generally the following: he would reply to any posting on any topic by quoting the thing in its entirety, and then adding the pithy postscript, "Indians suck" or "Hindus suck" or something equally profound!

And that brings me to my pet peeve about Indo-Pakistani negotiations. It is that the people from the Indian side are a) usually too caught up in some imaginary greatness of Urdu shayaris and ghazals, b) often former refugees from the Punjab who have some sentimental ties there.

I keep seeing reports about how Indians go to Pakistan and recite poetry: for instance, the Indo-Pak Parliamentary Conference in Islamabad had people reciting from "Sheikh Ibrahim Zariq, Iqbal, Ali Sardar Jaffery, Neeraj and Ahmed Faraz". I am sure they are decent poets, but excuse me, who gives a rat's ass?

And what is this nonsense about "chaste Urdu", as in "Vajpayee addressed them in chaste Urdu"? Urdu couldn't possibly be "chaste" (dictionary meaning: "abstaining from sexual intercourse; pure, virtuous; simple in style, unadorned"). Urdu is a) highly ornate, b) the bastard child of Farsi, Arabic, Bhojpuri, Maithili, and god alone knows how many other dialects, c) based on a camp-follower pidgin created by soldiers. No high pedigrees there, believe me.

It also irritates me when the usual suspects turn their noses up at a highly-Sanskritised Hindi. For most South Indians, Sanskrit words are understandable, as the vocabulary exists in our languages; whereas a highly Urdu-ised Hindi is well-nigh incomprehensible.

For some unfathomable reason, a lot of North Indians are convinced that Urdu poetry is the ultimate in human achievement in the subcontinent. Hardly -- for that, we have to go to Sanskrit, Pali and Tamil, the great classical languages of India. A South Indian like me looks on bemused -- to us, Urdu poetry does not seem to be particularly wonderful. As General Magnus Malan said, infamously, "It leaves me cold."

Therefore, India should always send a South Indian to negotiate with Pakistanis. Imagine me, or much better, the DMK's Muthuvel Karunanidhi, as the envoy. We would endure the yammerings of the Urdu guys, declaim a few verses from Kumaran Asan or Subramania Bharati, and then briskly get on with business. No moist eyes, no heartstrings being tugged at, just the facts, ma'am. (I am indebted to my thoughtful friend Bapa Rao for this insight into how Indians keep losing their shirts in Indo-Pak negotiations and a way to avoid the same.)

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