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Keeping it in the Family

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By Mahir Ali

At a state dinner in Ottawa in 1972, visiting US President, Richard Nixon, raised a toast to his host’s four-month-old son: “The future prime minister of Canada, Justin Pierre Trudeau.” The “prophecy” was obviously intended as no more than a friendly gesture towards the proud new parents; when the augury was fulfilled in 2015, it was the first time Canada had a prime minister whose father had held the same post. What’s more, the gap between Pierre Trudeau’s prime ministership and that of his eldest son was more than 30 years.
There are many other countries where party leadership, and sometimes power, passes seamlessly down the family line. That is obviously the norm in absolute monarchies such as Saudi Arabia (the only country in the world to be actually named after its ruling clan) and the Gulf kingdoms, routine in some dictatorships, but also common in a surprising number of democracies, half-baked or otherwise.
If these instances could be described as variations on the monarchical form minus the regal titles, it could also be argued that there are feudal undertones – often overtones, in fact – to the close association between particular families and leading political parties across South Asia.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first female prime minister not long after her husband, Solomon, was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959, and remained a fixture on the political scene in Ceylon/Sri Lanka thereafter. Her third term as prime minister – during which her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, was the president – ended just months before she died in 2000. Control of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party eventually passed from her family’s hands into those of the Rajapaksa brothers – but, luckily for the nation, they were not able to consolidate it.
In India, the Nehru-Gandhi lineage remains paramount in guiding the fortunes of the Congress, even though other party stalwarts have held the post of prime minister. It is intriguing to wonder what the nation’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, would have made of this tradition – which, one could argue, properly began with his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who was not even a minister when Nehru died in 1964, yet within two years she had succeeded him as the head of government – notwithstanding a number of rival (and considerably more senior) aspirants to the post. She groomed her younger son, Sanjay, as a successor, and when he died in a plane crash, she turned to her other son, Rajiv, a commercial airline pilot who apparently would rather have remained in the cockpit.
He was propelled to the top when his mother was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 – and may well have returned to the PM’s post had he not been blown up by a Sri Lankan Tamil suicide bomber in 1991. The Congress then turned to his Italian-born wife, Sonia, who eventually succumbed to the pressure but has generally preferred to remain low key. At the end of last year, the presidentship of the Congress passed into the hands of her son, Rahul – the great-great grandson of early 20th-century Congress stalwart Motilal Nehru – who is now seen by some as the man most likely to halt Narendra Modi’s Hindutva juggernaut. For the moment, one is inclined to rate his chances at around the same level as those of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
Neighbouring Bangladesh, meanwhile, stands out as a nation where for several decades now the top political posts of Prime Minister and Opposition Leader have alternated between a pair of women – the daughter of the father of the nation, Hasina Wajed, and the widow of a military dictator, Khaleda Zia. Their respective parties seem to be stranded in the family-association rut.
India’s Congress, though, seems to exemplify in particular the tendency towards a family name covering up for failures or uncertainty in the sphere of a coherent political philosophy, viable policies or a record of vote-winning accomplishments. The phenomenon is, by no means, restricted to India or the Congress, of course, but the point is that all too often it represents a diminution of democracy, or at the very least a lack of political ideals or imagination.
That is certainly not to suggest that there ought to be some kind of law against children or other family members of party or national leaders aspiring to scale the same political heights. It is hardly uncommon for children to follow one or both their parents into the same vocation, and it is perfectly possible for political talent to extend down the genetic line. The problem arises when parties or posts are regarded as family fiefs and nepotism becomes a substitute for new ideas.
There are scores of examples one could cite from every continent of political dynasties in the era of democracy, but the circumstances differ from one country to another. Progeniture should not hold back genuine political talent from emerging, even if the family name contributes in some measure to their vote bank – the Canadian instance of Pierre and Justin Trudeau is a case in point.
In the US, the Kennedys and the Bushes (the author Gore Vidal distinguished between the latter two by referring to George H.W. as Bush and George W. as Shrub) count among the more prominent family firms in the business of politics – although the incumbent present fully intends to bigly outdo them. But America may well have benefited from a second Kennedy presidency. And it is unlikely that Bush Sr’s one-term inadequacies were the mainspring behind the elevation to the White House of his son, who turned out to be a two-term disaster. Jeb Bush was at one point deemed the likeliest Republican nominee in 2016, but never came close, and the prospect of any sort of Clinton dynasty was destroyed by Hillary’s loss to the worst possible candidate anyone could have dreamed up, let alone drummed up.
In faraway Kenya, meanwhile – the birthplace, Donald Trump long insisted, of his predecessor, Barack Obama – the two most prominent political personalities, Uhuru Kenyatta and RailaOdinga, are the sons of their counterparts at the time of their nation’s independence almost 55 years ago. And in another example from the same continent, Joseph Kabila immediately succeeded his assassinated father, Laurent Kabila, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and has put off elections that he feared might unseat him.
In the Philippines, the Marcos and Aquino clans both remain active in politics, although only the latter succeeded in staking a claim to the presidency more than once. In Indonesia, the end of the Suharto dictatorship was followed shortly afterwards by the empowerment of his predecessor’s daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri.
In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the nation’s venerated independence leader, Aung San, put herself forward as a champion of human rights and democracy during her long years as a symbol of resistance to military dictatorship, but embraced the state’s ruthless repression of minorities as soon as she was allowed a foothold in the portals of power.
Elsewhere in the continent, in many of the Central Asian republics that have emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, family dynasties are generally the rule, in most cases spawned by former Communist Party stalwarts. North Korea stands out, though, as the only country that still pays lip service to communism where the power structure is purely hereditary.
There are instances of the phenomenon in Latin America – the Perons in Argentina, the Freis in Chile and the crisis lately spawned in Nicaragua by a once progressive leader, Daniel Ortega, who is married to his vice-president and is often compared these days, including by supporters of the Sandinista revolution, to the Somozas, who ruled the nation with an iron fist for more than 40 years in the mid-20th century.
There are fewer examples of ruling dynasties to be found in Europe’s recent history, although that could change as its constituent nations turn rightwards, sometimes sharply. There was something ominous about the control of France’s fascistic National Front passing from Jean-Marie Le Pen to his daughter Marine; neither of them, thankfully, succeeded in their attempts to secure the Elysee Palace, but they came too close for comfort. Three generations of Papandreous, on the other hand, served as democratically elected prime ministers of Greece. Perhaps the most bizarre instance of family rule in an ostensibly democratic context was provided, though, in 2006-07 by Lech Kaczynski and Jaroslaw Kaczynski serving simultaneously as president and prime minister. They were not only brothers but identical twins – potentially capable of substituting for one another without very many people noticing.
Readers might have noticed that in many cases the supposed right of political inheritance – whether immediately invoked or substantially delayed – springs from assassinations. And claiming such inheritance occasionally entails dreadful consequences, as witnessed in India and Pakistan. But perhaps the most bizarre recent instance of political heredity gone awry occurred in South Korea, after Park Geun-hye was elected the country’s first female president. Her father, Park Chung-hee, ruthlessly exercised power during some of South Korea’s bleakest years, from 1961 until he was killed by his own intelligence chief in 1979.
Park Geun-hye was not really expected to answer for her father’s legacy some 35 years on (although she defended his coup). But she quickly established a rather more unusual one of her own involving a Christian cult, Viagra, influence-peddling and abuse of power. By the time she was impeached by the national assembly in 2016, her popularity rating had dwindled to low single digit figures. The constitutional court upheld it the following year, thereby removing her from office. On April 6 this year, she was sentenced to 24 years in jail.
There was no vendetta involved in her descent from the presidency to prison, merely a sense of repugnance. Sometimes, democracy indeed is the best revenge for an unearned sense of entitlement.

 

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Opinion

THE COMPLEX MR BHUTTO

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By Ammar Ali Qureshi

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at the country’s helm for more than six and a half years, was a transformative figure in Pakistan’s history. Romanticised and demonised in equal measure, even decades after his death, he remains — with the sole exception of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah — arguably the most popular and charismatic, albeit also the most controversial and divisive, politician in the country. His dramatic rise and tragic fall, according to Shamim Ahmad’s balanced and thought-provoking book Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: The Psychodynamics of His Rise and Fall, can be explained best by his complex psychological personality.

Ahmad is a retired senior civil servant with a degree in psychology and interest in literature and is the author of the interesting and informative book Torment and Creativity: A Psychoanalytic Study of Literature and Literati that profiles famous literary figures from the East and West.

 

Analyst Eqbal Ahmad explained the paradox of Bhutto and his enduring mystique quite well: “Z.A. Bhutto, the dynasty’s founder, was a feudal chief from Sindh, where serfs are still incarcerated in their lords’ private prisons. Yet millions of disinherited peasants and workers saw him as a defender of their rights. He was an authoritarian figure whose formative years in politics were spent in the service of a military dictator. Yet he rose to power as a champion of democracy. He moved the multitude with an extraordinary repertoire of patriotic gestures and populist rhetoric. Yet he contributed significantly to Pakistan’s defeat and dismemberment. He moulded the army and bureaucracy to serve as instruments of his personal power, but fell victim to his creations. His failure to fulfil his promises turned large numbers against him. But from his incarceration, trial and execution by a hated military dictator rose the legend of a hero and martyr. When Benazir inherited his mantle, an unlikely dynasty was born.”

Brilliant, erudite, articulate, indefatigable and charismatic, Bhutto had a razor-sharp mind, photographic memory, sense of history and a wonderful political antenna. He studied at Berkeley and Oxford before training as a barrister in London. Along with his political rival Mumtaz Daultana, he possessed the best personal library in the country and was very well-read. He wrote 18 books or monographs during his life — he was hanged at the age of 51— more than any politician in Pakistan’s history.

Bhutto was extremely energetic and worked 18 hours a day in office as he told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. Polygamous — he had three wives — and known for his love affairs, in his interview with Fallaci he defended himself against the charge of philandering by saying that a politician has to be a romantic.

Although Gen Yahya Khan and the military junta were mainly responsible for the military operation in East Pakistan and the 1971 war with India that led to the breaking up of Pakistan, Bhutto’s role in the East Pakistan crisis, by refusing to accept the results of the 1970 elections, was highly discreditable. Once sworn into power, in his inaugural speech he resolved to pick up the pieces and build a new Pakistan.

His monumental achievements include promulgating the 1973 Constitution, the signing of the Simla Accord with India, hosting the Islamic Summit in Lahore in 1974, starting the nuclear program, re-orienting Pakistan’s foreign policy towards China and the Muslim world, introducing land and labour reforms and implementing civil service reforms. He also facilitated the export of Pakistani labour to the Gulf countries after the 1973 oil boom, changed the consciousness of the working class and promoted art, literature and culture by setting up institutions such as the Pakistan National Council of Arts and the Academy of Letters etc.

His mistakes and missteps, both deleterious and costly, were nationalising the economy, banning the National Awami Party and incarcerating opposition leaders, dismissing the elected government in Balochistan and launching military operations, amending the Constitution repeatedly and whimsically with the help of a rubber-stamp parliament, appeasing the religious right by accepting their demands such as declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim etc, forming the Federal Security Force (which acted like a goon-squad, roughing up Bhutto’s senior colleagues and was also accused of carrying out assassinations of political opponents), neglecting the party machine and mistreating old comrades and holding early elections in 1977 which were not considered free and fair.

French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot aptly summed up Bhutto’s contradictions and their consequences: “Less a democrat than a populist, more an authoritarian than a parliamentarian, more a centraliser than a federalist, and as much a socialist as a product of his social background, he turned his back on parts of his platform — and thus on the middle and working classes that supplied much of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leadership — to co-opt the landowning elite. Most of all, having little respect for basic freedoms, including that of the press, he denied Pakistan free elections in 1977, giving the army, already reinvigorated by military operations in Balochistan, the arguments it was waiting for.”

Bhutto, the author argues, developed a sense of insecurity, anxiety and even inferiority because of the déclassé status conferred on his beloved mother by the feudal milieu … it inculcated in him hubris, megalomania and arrogance, which resulted in paranoia, persecution mania and a compulsion to humiliate others.

Bhutto was the most powerful civilian ruler, initially as president and later as prime minister, in Pakistan’s history. Within months of assuming power, he dismissed Gul Hassan Khan and Rahim Khan — the army and air chiefs respectively. Gen Tikka Khan, known for his ruthless crackdown in East Pakistan, was selected as the next army chief and is now remembered as the most subservient of all army chiefs in Pakistan’s history.

Disregarding all advice, after Gen Tikka’s retirement Bhutto promoted Ziaul Haq, a junior general of fawning behaviour, as the next army chief. Gen Zia had all the disqualifications for that senior appointment except one: flattery and sycophancy. It turned out to be a fatal mistake as Gen Zia launched a coup against Bhutto in July 1977, following disputed elections and protests by the opposition. After the coup, Gen Zia jailed Bhutto, who was subsequently hanged in 1979 following a guilty verdict by the court in a murder case, but the verdict is generally regarded as judicial murder.

Bhutto, according to Ahmad, exhibited a classic split personality which can be ascribed to his parents’ marriage: his father was a landed Sindhi aristocrat who fell in love with a Hindu dancing girl. After converting to Islam, she became his second wife, but was not accepted by his family. The humiliation and rejection his mother faced in the Bhutto household left deep scars on young Bhutto’s psyche. He imbibed egalitarianism and empathy for the downtrodden from his mother and inherited the arrogance of a feudal from his father.

Bhutto, the author argues, developed a sense of insecurity, anxiety and even inferiority because of the déclassé status conferred on his beloved mother by the feudal milieu. (A flaw in Ahmad’s book is the scant information about Bhutto’s mother whose tribulations were the source of Bhutto’s own fatal flaws.) On the one hand, these attributes spurred him to work harder and strive for perfection and superiority as he tried to redress the deficiency of his birth. On the other hand, it inculcated in him hubris, megalomania and arrogance, which resulted in paranoia, persecution mania and a compulsion to humiliate others — especially those who were well-born — when he was in power. Both his brilliant and stellar achievements and his weaknesses should be viewed in the light of his psychological make-up.

Ahmad also finds signs of Bhutto suffering from the Phaeton Complex — emotional pain from a lack of attention from a parent, in this case his father — and maniac depression/bipolar disorder. His Phaeton Complex explains his mercurial temperament, his sense of insecurity and an urge to succeed and prove himself. His refusal to accept the second position in a united Pakistan under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman after the 1970 elections can also be attributed to this complex. A number of highly successful and great leaders in world history — such as Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln etc — are known to have suffered from bipolar disorder, exhibiting qualities of empathy, resilience, realism and creativity in addition to many symptoms contrary to these values.

In a provocative chapter, Ahmad, a former chairman of the Central Board of Revenue, also posits that, contrary to popular opinion, economic performance under Bhutto (growth rate of 4.8 per cent) was not that poor and was close to the average growth rate of five per cent in Pakistan’s 70 years’ history. Bhutto achieved this despite the loss of East Pakistan (both market and essential foreign exchange earnings), the nationalisation of the economy, quadrupling of international oil prices, bad crops and floods during his tenure. More importantly, he laid the foundations of heavy industry in Pakistan and his facilitation of manpower export to the Gulf countries benefited the economy in subsequent decades.

Using psychoanalytical theories and tools to explain the contributions and contradictions of his subject, Ahmad pens a balanced and psychologically plausible portrait of Bhutto. He notes that Napoleon Bonaparte was Bhutto’s all-time favourite hero and, in an insightful chapter, the author analyses Bonaparte and Bhutto’s other heroes such as Mao Zedong, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Giuseppe Mazzini, Count di Cavour, Chou En Lai, Jean Jacque Rousseau, Joseph Stalin, Alexander, Hannibal and Genghis Khan, examining how, like his heroes, Bhutto craved conquest and absolute power and demanded docility from everyone around him, brooking no criticism or disobedience.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: The Psychodynamics of
His Rise and Fall
By Shamim Ahmad
Paramount, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9696375432
284pp.

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Opinion

The growing religious divide:

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By George Abraham

As the election season is winding down and the nation is anxiously looking forward to the results, one cannot escape but witnessing India’s slide towards complete polarization based on the politics of religion. Prime Minister Modi’s ascension to power has resulted in growing Hindu intolerance of Christianity and Islam. Radical elements within his party are pushing an agenda to marginalize these two groups whom they consider ‘foreign’ and would like to see them disappear!

Although Indian constitution guarantees the freedom of religion to all its citizens, the political dogma of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the parent organization of BJP, enunciated by its erstwhile leader and theoretician M S Golwalker is still mostly the guideline for many of its loyal adherents. In fact, he argued in the book ‘our nationhood defined’ that as long as the Muslims and the Christians failed to abandon their own religion and culture they cannot but be only foreigners in this country and if they stayed here without losing their “separate existence” they might be treated as “enemies”, at best as “idiots”. His arguments tilt more favorably towards treating all Christians as “hostiles” who are agents of International movement for the spread of Christianity.

 

It is important to note that RSS gurus have been inculcating the idea of bigotry and hate to the mindset of many generations for the last 95 years. It is no surprise then that Modi’s rise to power has now led to an explosion of anti-Christian attitudes and fiery speeches creating an environment conducive to even physical attacks on Christian Institutions and its leaders. Prejudice against the minorities, especially Christians and Muslims, are a growing trend in the Indian society and for the BJP, it means electoral gains and seats of power! They couldn’t care less about the political instability, whether it wreaks havoc across the country or the negative impact it may have on the economic health of the nation.

According to news reports in the National Review magazine, during the 2017 Christmas season alone, there were 23 incidents. Most dramatic was the arrest of 30 priests and seminarians singing Christmas carols in Madhya Pradesh state. They were accused of violating the State’s anti-conversion law, which has been on the books since 2013. Similar legislation is in force in seven other states. Eight priests who came to the carolers’ aid were physically assaulted, and their vehicles were set on fire. Police officers reportedly stood by without intervening. That scenario is all too common. By some accounts, hundreds of anti-Christian incidents have occurred in the past year.

“We are losing confidence in our government,” said Cardinal Baselios Cleemis of Thiruvananthapuram, former President of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India (CBCI). He added that “the country is being divided on the basis of religious belief” which he labeled a threat to the “democratic credentials of our country.” The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently released an annual report and its key findings include the observation by the Supreme Court of “deteriorating conditions for religious freedom in some states in 2018, stating that “certain state governments were not only not doing anything to stop violence against religious minorities, and in extreme cases, impunity was being granted to criminals engaging in violence.

The report also highlights Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on these issues, saying he “seldom made statements decrying mob violence,” and noting that “certain members of his political party have affiliations with Hind extremist groups and used inflammatory language about religious minorities publicly.” The report notes that in 2018, Minister of State at the Ministry of Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir told Parliament that 111 people were killed and 2,384 people were wounded in 822 communal clashes in 2017. By contrast, in 2016, 86 people were killed, and 2,321 were injured in 703 clashes, the report offers, later adding that independent organizations that monitor hate crimes found that 2018 saw more than 90 religion-based hate crimes that resulted in 30 deaths and many more injuries.

There is also a secret war being waged against Christian NGOs (Non-Governmental Organization) that are engaged in welfare work for the very poor in rural India. By throwing out the ‘Compassion International USA’ that housed and educated 145,000 destitute children and shutting down of the work of the ‘Caritas International’ that works with 360 NGOs across India that boasted about a force of 25,000 volunteers are good examples of Government’s authoritarian agenda that works in concert with whims of the Hindutva militants to marginalize the Christian Community and remove them from being a visible and positive force from the public’s eye.

In Modi’s India, Christian Institutions are being strangled by denial of FCRAs, freezing of the bank accounts, unending investigations, frequent auditing and harassment of principals who are in charge. These moves appear to be consistent with the Hindutva philosophy that the Modi government has embraced to advance the saffron agenda that challenges the very idea of India as a multi-cultural and pluralistic society. Modi appears to pay lip service to Gandhiji’s concept of India upon his visits abroad but remains silent when Institutions that are supposed to promote those principles come under attack back home. It should also be noted that Christianity came to India in A.D. 52, long before Ireland or England have embraced that religion. To judge the Indianness of its nationals only through the prism of one’s faith is not only just unfair but preposterous!

While the BJP Government is hard at work restricting Christian NGOs from receiving funds from abroad, no such limitations are placed on the Sangh Parivar organizations that collect millions of dollars from western democracies. Another report from USCIRF states that “while the Indian Government continues to use the FCRA to limit foreign funding for some NGOs, Hindutva supported organizations have never come under the scrutiny of FCRA. With the amendment championed by the Modi government, the foreign-based radical Hindu organizations will be able to send funds to India, without restriction, to support hate campaigns. Under the revised definition of FCRA, so long as the foreign company’s ownership of an Indian entity is within the foreign investment limits prescribed by the Government for that sector, the company will be treated as “Indian” for the purpose of FCRA.”

It is also common knowledge that Christian church leaders from the United States have a harder time obtaining visas to visit their fellow faithful in India or attend a conference while no such restrictions are placed on Indians based on religious affiliations. It is hypocritical for India to deny a religious conference visa to an American citizen while shedding crocodile tears for a reduction in the number of available H1B visas that could take jobs away from American citizens. The recent cancellation and court-ordered restoration of OCI card of an Indian American Christian who was accused of proselytizing while working as a physician volunteer in India during summer months have sent shock waves to the community. It once again shows the wanton disregard for fairness and due process by the bureaucrats who are so eager to please the current policy makers!

Meanwhile, India’s 180 million Muslims are affected as well by mob violence on suspicion of having eaten beef or slaughtered a cow, animals sacred to Hinduism nationwide. The recent election campaign by all parties show the reluctance of the leadership across the board to overtly court Muslims or seek their votes in public forums. Modi’s rule also emboldened Hindu extremist elements to translate their religiously ordained contempt and hatred for Dalits into systematic violence against that community as well often lynching them on suspicions of transporting cows for slaughter. According to a report in the New York Times, Indian courts have consistently acquitted most perpetrators of massacres of Dalits. Conviction rates in violent crimes against Dalits and indigenous tribes are a mere 28.3 percent and 16.4 % compared with 40.2 percent in general criminal cases.

India has a religion problem, and it should be given careful attention by policymakers in Washington as it can have long term repercussions towards the future. It appears that the sectarian line-up of political conflict is going to dominate the political landscape of India as long as BJP retains power. History has taught us that if the salience of the State is undefendable, regionalism or tribalism may become rampant and weaken a nation-state. Religious oppression is a clear sign of instability for any nation, and as the US is eyeing India as a strategic partner against the rising threat of China, an increasing level of communal tensions or sectarian conflicts in the sub-continent may not bode well for that relationship.

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Opinion

No questions please

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By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

Watching Narendra Modi’s television ‘interviews’ confirmed my suspicion that this is not a medium for our part of the world. Perhaps it isn’t Modi’s fault that the organizers handed him the platform on a platter, but, obviously, he was delighted. Whether or not the Election Commission chooses to take note, each interview meant a blaze of publicity; each question provided a peg on which to hang a long speech while the silent interviewer smiled ingratiatingly and nodded acquiescence.

In the absence of meaningful follow-up questions, Modi set the agenda. There was little pretence of the cut and thrust of interrogation. It’s impossible to imagine any Asian country tolerating something like the historic encounter in 1969 between David Frost and the British Conservative politician, Enoch Powell, who had notoriously warned that unchecked Afro-Asian immigration would mean “rivers of blood” in Britain’s streets. It was a sizzling session with the two men standing up face-to-face at one point, straining at the leash. In an unprecedented move, the channel extended the programme to double its length. Television rating points here can only go up if the fare is similarly packed with exciting action. But would either subject or questioner allow such irreverent candour?

 

Since the former is by definition a public personality of consequence, it goes without saying that he/she is also arrogant. The latter’s diffidence (his livelihood depends on the media institution that employs him) is compounded by the self-interest that recognizes in the stellar subject a means of rising to greater heights. Unpalatable questions might blight that prospect. People are probably right about the private sector’s corrupting influence but government institutions have much more patronage at their disposal and are better placed to strike a deal with a complaisant media. The journalist who seems bravely to fly the independent media’s colours but is really an influential politician’s fifth column is common enough in our catch-as-catch-can society.

My first experience of a senior politician’s refusal to hold himself publicly answerable for his actions was with the legendary K. Kamaraj who was also the first Indian politician of consequence I met. Kamaraj had just resigned as chief minister of what was still Madras. The famous Kamaraj Plan had yet to be unveiled. Sitting immobile like the Buddha in an armchair in his austere room, Kamaraj received me cordially enough and indicated a chair next to his. Why had he resigned, I asked. To do village work, he said, and revitalize the Congress party’s grassroots support. Quoting from memory after 56 years, I then asked with the brashness of youth if this regeneration was necessary because the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam — not yet quite a household word — was boasting of taking over. “All bluff!” was his curt dismissal. When I persisted with the question, Kamaraj refused to continue the interview. Instead of the famous “Parkalam … Let’s see,” there was a blunt “I no talk” before I was shown the door.

As it happened, the rumours I had picked up weren’t far-fetched. Kamaraj’s successor, M. Bhaktavatsalam, was the last Congressman. The charismatic C.N. Annadurai, already waiting in the wings, replaced him in 1967. Lee Kuan Yew once heard Annadurai at a public rally in Singapore, and not understanding a word of the DMK leader’s chaste Tamil, was nevertheless entranced by the crowd’s delirium and the knowledge that 40 million people in India (and more in Ceylon) were similarly captivated. Annadurai had cast his spell over both Sparta and Athens, Lee exclaimed in wonder. Tamil Nadu hasn’t looked back since then. As the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam played Cox and Box, with the Congress nowhere in sight, I wondered if it ever occurred to Kamaraj before he died in his sleep on the 12th anniversary of his resignation that my question which he spurned wasn’t so remote after all.

My more spectacular failure was with Zia-ur Rahman, president of Bangladesh, whom I had met briefly at the 1976 non-aligned nations summit in Colombo, when he was still technically No 2. The formal interview several years later got off to a bad start from the moment Daud Khan Majlis, his affable press adviser, took me into his chamber in Dhaka’s Banga Bhaban. Back from a busy round of canal-digging — his current fetish — Zia was gazing with narcissistic delight at a video of himself as the centrepiece of the day’s doings. Absorbed in the film, he didn’t even realize I was watching him watch himself until he suddenly noticed me, barked an order to Majlis to shut off the video, and turned to me. Barely had I opened my mouth than he snapped a question that had no bearing on India-Bangladesh relations but revealed the cultural complex that might impede them. “Have you been only to convent schools?” he demanded. In Colombo, he had referred enigmatically to “Calcutta Bengalis”.

Expanding on the theme, Zia turned to Majlis to mock visiting Indian Bengali diplomats who — so he said — couldn’t speak Bengali.

Irritated, I tried to steer the conversation from the personal to the political, and mentioned infiltrators in Assam. That enraged him even more. Delivering a stern oration about Bangladesh’s booming economy, Zia told me there could be no question of migration to any neighbouring country with a lower standard of living. But he was concerned about occurrences like the Assam disturbances because they imperilled his prosperous nation’s social and political stability. No sooner had he finished lecturing than the door burst open to reveal a young man in military uniform who shot off a stiff memorized spiel in execrable English. I barely followed what he said but realized Zia was being summoned. I am convinced he had pressed a hidden bell to signal the end of that fiasco of an interview. As I scrambled out, Zia loudly ordered Majlis in Bengali to treat me to “a very good cup of coffee”.

Those meetings failed because neither Kamaraj nor Zia would suffer examination. In their culture, politicians ordain and journalists broadcast their wisdom. Tom Wicker, a New York Times reporter, noted that whatever the American president says is news and must be reported. It’s the same with South Asia’s leaders. But if Modi comes across as monarchical, his interlocutors are at least as much to blame. No one told him when he thundered about the heresy of “two prime ministers in Hindustan” that he may not know but every province had a prime minister until 1950. No one forced him to confront his 2014 promises regarding job creation, farmers’ incomes and black money repatriation. Or asked why demonetization hadn’t snuffed out terrorism. Nor was any interviewer courageous enough to mention his bizarre theories regarding genetics and human transplants.

Any political leader who seeks public office in a democracy must face uncomfortable questions. If an adversarial role is not mandatory for the media, neither is the role of courtier. There’s a respectable third position where events and not emotions determine a responsible response. When a veteran Communist Party of India parliamentarian accused me of “inconsistency”, I tried to explain that barring considerations like national security or communal harmony, my consistency lay in trying to deal fairly with the situation in hand, not in serving some person or interest that the situation might affect. That is probably what makes me an uncomfortable participant in discussions with committed panelists and subservient anchors.

Journalists who mobbed the prime minister for a selfie didn’t care about compromising their integrity since they knew they were courting power. It would be more useful if, instead, we could watch people who matter being grilled by incisive interlocutors on matters of public concern. Precise and informed interrogation can bring unsuspected facts to light. Meanwhile, passing off command performances as interviews blurs the distinction between editorial and “advertorial” and should count as campaigning. Many interviewers deserve to be bracketed with election agents.

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