By Gopalkrishna Gandhi
They are becoming a rarity, walking sticks are. And by walking sticks I mean, of course, those good old lengths of wood, the gift of trees, groves, forests. The kind our grandparents, and those of their and earlier generations used when they went out and, on returning home, carefully placed in a chosen corner between two walls, or in their own very special stands. Their users were not necessarily old or infirm. They just felt good having that appurtenance on them.
Shepherd’s crooks are among the earliest forms of this fascinating contrivance, curled to a point at the handle, to guide flocks of sheep and to protect them against predators and also help the shepherd maintain balance on hillsides, sheep’s favourite grazing terrain. Christ, in his shepherd’s role, is depicted holding one. And William Blake has illustrated his tender poem, The Shepherd, by a shepherd holding his crook, surrounded by a gathering of fleece.
At the other end of the pole is the lathi, notorious for the ‘charge’, meant to scare and capable of worse.
That too is a cousin of the walking stick.
Men, rather more than women, have used walking sticks. Why this imbalance I cannot understand but there it is. Proving the rule, exceptions in India include Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who carried one very gracefully, as did her niece-in-law, the other ‘lotus’, Padmaja Naidu, in her later years.
That walking stick, a thing of beauty and utility, is in retreat, being replaced by the vastly more efficient, firmer, lighter metal tube with ‘features’ like extensions, straps, adjustable grips, lights, wheels, and, most importantly, four feet. But great as these appliances are, in terms of practical use, they are devoid of personality. Each is like the other, manufactured by a machine, mass-produced, steel-cold. The walking stick, on the other hand, is part of the user’s personality. And it acquires something of that, itself. Some of the fancier ones used to have secret recesses to hold a peg of alcohol, tobacco, perfumes, all reflecting the owner’s personality traits and, withal, their hidden indulgences. Good for the user!
Monks use them in Buddhist, Jaina and Hindu tradition, perhaps as part of the accoutrements of renunciation, like the begging bowl or kamandala. Swami Vivekananda’s staff is integral to our image of that transformational being. He used it with zest in his travels, including that to the United States of America. When he left the Woods’ residence in Salem, Massachusetts, in August 1893, Vivekananda, then just 30, gave his staff, described as “his most precious possession”, to his host and his blanket to Mrs Woods, saying: “Only my most precious possessions should I give to my friends who have made me at home in this great country.”
And monarchs have, as well.
Queen Victoria who needed and used a cane, was gifted many of them by her doting subjects so that, The West Gippsland Gazetteer (Australia) reported on October 4, 1898 there was in her palace one room entirely filled with walking sticks. Her Majesty, however, used but one cane being, the Gazetteer reported, “one of great historic value having been presented to King Charles II… cut from on oak tree”. The report went on to say, citing Court sources, that the cane had a gold head “which was rugged and apt to hurt the hand” and so Her Majesty had it replaced. What with? “An idol which graced the temple of an ill-fated Indian prince… an exquisitely wrought affair in ivory… The eyes and forehead are jewelled and on the tongue is the rarest of rubies.” By the description, one can guess who the ‘icon’ was — or is.
The cane was used famously by her great counter-point in India, Lokamanya Tilak. His cane, ever with him in statues of the great man, is no ordinary cane. It is him. It symbolizes his defiance, his dignity. One can imagine him thumping the ground with it while proclaiming, “Swaraj is my birth-right and I shall have it.” In the famous 1910 picture of the Lal-Bal-Pal trio, none of them old by any means, seated, Lala Lajpat Rai (45) holds a slim cane elegantly at its collar, Lokamanya Tilak (54) holds his sturdier one at the handle, only Bipin Chandra Pal (52) for some reason does not carry his. (He used one, as other photographs of his show.)
Did Rabindranath Tagore use a walking stick? Tagore scholars would know. Be that as it may, his poem At the Last Watch, has immortalised that artefact: “Suddenly I found you had left behind by mistake/ Your gold-mounted ivory walking stick./ If there were time, I thought,/ You might come back from the station to look for it,/ But not because/ You had not seen me before going away.”
The cane has been used assertively. Tagore, in his short story, “Didi”, has this passage: “…From time to time Jaygopal tried to interrupt, but the Magistrate, flushed with anger, snapped at him to shut up and, pointing with his cane, directed him to stand up from his stool…” (translated by William Radice).
If we cannot conjure Churchill without his cigar, we cannot imagine him without his cane either. One auction put up a walking stick for sale with an indistinct inscription: “Once owned by Sir Winston Churchill, Home Sec”. The most famous British prime minister had been home secretary from 1910-1912. His successor, Clement Attlee, was a walking-stick user too, as was the man who could have become a great Labour prime minister if only he was not so far to the Left, and not so deliberately wind-blown in his appearance, Michael Foot. The great socialist’s grand-nephew, Tom Foot, wrote in The Independent, shortly after Foot’s death: “The support of his wife, the film-maker Jill Craigie — and, after she died, of her friend Jenny Stringer, who came every day to check on him in his final 10 years — were perhaps matched in constancy only by this gnarled larch staff.” The Michael Foot cane was most appropriately auctioned for a stone bench memorial in Plymouth, in the Devonport constituency he represented.
Gandhi’s plain staff is famous, as is Maulana Azad’s sharp-ferruled cane now on view in the Azad Museum in Calcutta, and that of Babasaheb Ambedkar. V.K. Krishna Menon was a user and collector of walking sticks. One anecdote has Menon, enraged by an impudent question at a press conference in London, hurling his walking stick at the journalist.
Perhaps the most famous of all canes is the screen Charlie Chaplin’s seemingly elastic bamboo cane, symbolizing everything about it — utility, beauty, eccentricity. When I was working in Oslo, I used to make it a point to gaze at an adorable statue of the great man whenever I crossed Majorstua, and in particular at the bent-to-breaking cane. I was dismayed one day to find the cane gone. A vandal had broken and removed just that bit of the statue. Never has that lord of laughter looked so woebegone as that Charlie.
But ‘stealing’ happens in many ways. Or does not happen. As a district officer in Tamil Nadu, I once saw from my jeep an old man walking across a dusty field, holding a gnarled walking staff. It was made, obviously, from a tree branch. I got down to speak to him. He looked at me, startled, through his thick dust-laden lenses.
“Ayya, Vanakkam… Nothing… nothing… Just saw that walking stick of yours… It is lovely.”
“Must be very old.”
“Can you… I mean, can I… ask you if you can… please… give it to me… I am trying to collect used walking sticks.”
He was uncomprehending. I had to repeat my request. He then laughed, bending over. I thought I had struck gold or rather, wood. But, no. He straightened up and, looking with a mixture of self-pride and utter contempt at me, my jeep, my liveried attendants, said, “Swami… I would not part with this for anyone… It is not a stick… It is my life.” I scrambled back to my jeep feeling like dust, the dust under his proud staff.
The walking stick is much more than what its name suggests. It is a symbol of its user’s determined dignity in self-reliance.
To end with a ‘missing’ walking stick. I asked that personification of dissent and independent-mindedness, that nonagenarian, Acharya Kripalani, why he did not use one. “I am short-tempered, that is why.” May his non-existent walking stick hover over all those who trifle with individual and collective liberties!
Either way, the news is bad for Pakistan
By S.Akbar Zaidi
When Asad Umar, Finance Minister of Pakistan, returned from Washington after attending the Spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank a few days ago, the first task he had in front of him was to deny the strong rumours that he was being demoted to be the petroleum minister. The rumours died down at that moment, but on Thursday, he was sent packing. He was, indeed, offered the petroleum ministry, which he has declined. (Dr. Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, a former Adviser under General Musharraf, has been named the adviser on finance, adding to the growing list of the Musharraf Cabinet in this current government.) At a moment when Pakistan’s economy is facing a major crisis, it also has no finance minister now. Whoever will take the new job will have to face challenges they may neither be prepared for nor experienced enough to deal with.
Pakistan’s economy has been ruined in the last eight months since when Imran Khan became Prime Minister and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) formed the government. Almost every indicator has deteriorated substantially. For example, inflation, at 9.4%, is at its highest level in five-and-a-half years and is likely to rise to double digits for the months ahead. The rupee continues to lose value every other day, which adds to further inflation especially with the oil price on the way up. More devaluation is expected over the next few months especially when the government gives in to yet another IMF programme. The fiscal deficit is about to hit more than 6% of GDP, and even a cut in development expenditure will not stop this rot, as defence spending and interest payments continue to rise. Pakistan’s exports which have been stuck at around $26 bn for years, despite the 35% devaluation of the rupee over one year, have barely budged. The government owes power producing companies huge amounts of money — known as the circular debt — which continues to accumulate, and interest rates are also going up making the cost of business even more uncompetitive. The State Bank of Pakistan recently lowered the expectations of the GDP growth for the current fiscal year to an eight-year low, to around 3.5%, an estimate which was reduced further by the IMF and the World Bank to a dismal 2.9% for the current fiscal year, and expected to fall further over the next three years.
The GDP grew by 5.8% in the last fiscal year, the highest in 13 years. By all accounts, Pakistan’s economy is in a dismal state.
A major reason why the economy has taken such a sharp plunge, with GDP growth being halved within a year, is on account of the mismanagement and incompetence of the current government and by its economic team. On top of that, there has been the hubris led by and manifested in Mr. Khan, once saying that he would rather commit suicide than go to the IMF, popular slogans when one is the main nuisance factor in the opposition, but quite embarrassing as Prime Minister of a country facing a major economic meltdown.
The economic problem Pakistan faces at the moment, has two aspects to it, and is a major case of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’. One reason why Pakistan’s economy is in such a mess is because the arrogance and bravado of Mr. Khan, which was mimicked by his economic and finance team, has come to haunt all of them. For eight months the economy has been mismanaged because of the fact that the then newly-elected government in August did not do what it should have. It was almost certain that whichever party would have won the elections of July 2018, it would ask the IMF for a major structural adjustment loan. At that time, there did not seem to be many alternatives. Mr. Khan’s strategy was to run to a few of Pakistan’s friends begging for money, and to not bow his head in front of the IMF. By not submitting to the IMF then, they now have no option but to submit almost a year later. A non-IMF policy and programme was always preferred and a better option in August last year, but the incompetence of Mr. Khan, matched with vanity, did not allow for reforms to be undertaken, and has only made matters far worse.
So, after having said that they won’t go to the IMF, that’s exactly where they are now. From finding (and failing at) alternatives to revive Pakistan’s economy, the finance minister has had to find ways to convince the IMF that Pakistan needs the IMF. The reasons for the rumours of him being dismissed from his post, should have been based on his poor performance of running the economy, but they shifted to how he wasn’t able to cut an IMF deal a few days ago when he was in Washington. The fact that he was not able to meet the U.S. Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, nor the IMF head, Christine Lagarde, on this visit, was seen as yet another sign of this failure by the Pakistani media. Nevertheless, the IMF deal is now a certainty, and although the finance minister has been replaced, there was probably no need for a replacement. When the IMF implements its strict conditionalities and adjustment programme, to which the finance minister and the country supposedly ‘agree’, the finance minister becomes redundant and is simply the bearer and front for bad news and tough conditions. The new finance Adviser will fit this role perfectly.
The new IMF programme, the biggest Pakistan is expecting to receive, to be between $6-$10 bn, which is almost a certainty now, is going to make things far worse for all Pakistanis, and especially for the working people already dealing with prospects of a marked economic slowdown and high and rising inflation. The IMF will further cut the minuscule development expenditure left, although defence spending will remain a matter of ‘national security’ never discussed in Parliament, hence, not to be touched. The IMF will ensure austerity, stabilisation and will cut the growth rate further. It will insist on further devaluation, or ‘adjustment’ of the rupee, as it calls it, causing greater inflation, and will insist on raising utility prices. In every respect, the people of Pakistan will face the prospects of fewer jobs, rising prices and an economy which is now the worst performer in all of South Asia.
This will be the 13th IMF rescue package for Pakistan’s governments and its elites in less than four decades. Each time there is an economic crisis created due to mismanagement, the elite remain under-taxed, the IMF and World Bank jump in to save them. Usually, Pakistan’s governments in the past, especially the military, leverage Pakistan’s so-called geostrategic position and situation and gain undue access, with the U.S. having been Pakistan’s biggest champion and supporter. As global power shifts and the region changes, so has Pakistan’s position in it. One of the stumbling blocks to the deal this time has been the IMF’s insistence that Pakistan reveal the financial deals made with China, including financial loans, as well as the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. If Pakistan doesn’t take the IMF loan, it is in a mess. If it takes the loan, it is in a bigger mess. Either way, the news is bad.
Modi & Shah are out to conquer the country
By Shekhar Gupta
In the course of my usual trawling of the Hindi media, I am struck by lyrics from a very distant, faded past. It was Kavi (poet) Pradeep’s dire warning to India to watch out for threats from traitors within. These deadly enemies, the song featuring mega star Rajendra Kumar and sung in Manna Dey’s stirring voice said, were hiding in our own homes, and menacing us over our walls: “Jhaankrahehainapnedushman, apniheedeewaron se/sambhalkerehnaapnegharmeinchhupehuyegaddaron se”. It goes on to warn the patriot in us: “Hoshiyartumkoapne Kashmir kirakshakarnihai” (awake, for you have to also protect your Kashmir).
This was for Mahesh Kaul’sTalaq, released and nominated for the Filmfare Awards in 1958. Why has this again popped up in the heartland chatter?
You will also find references that Nehru so disliked the song, as it insinuated that many fellow Indians were enemies, that he banned it. And of course, facing a war in 1965, LalBahadurShastri lifted the ban. Just see, the argument goes, how relevant is this song again today. When the enemy is at the gates, and millions of traitors hide within our homes. Never mind the facts, of course.
In 60 years, after winning two-and-a-half wars, dividing Pakistan into two and becoming a $2.7 trillion economy, you would have thought we were much too secure, prospering and optimistic to bring back paranoias of the past.
But, after traversing large parts of India, in the Hindi heartland and the South, I have to report with humility that the contrary is exactly what the BJP under NarendraModi and Amit Shah has been able to achieve. At a time when India should be feeling at its most secure, internally and externally, they’ve managed to convince large enough sections of the voters, especially the tens of millions of young who learn their history from WhatsApp and believe India came out of the dark ages in 2014 that the dangers of their grandparents’ era have returned. So, who else can you trust to fight these but a strong, aggressive and fearless leader who doesn’t think twice before sending commandos on surgical strikes or jets on bombing missions in enemy territory?
With the situation on the economy and jobs grim and the crisis so palpable that it couldn’t be “fixed” with propaganda, we had anticipated Modi-Shah turning this into a “deshkhatreymeinhai” national security election. We can now say they’re succeeding.
There are three pre-requisites to building a ‘national security’ election. The first, an aggressive, even paranoid redefinition of the national interest. Second, a formidable foreign enemy a true nationalist detests, hates and fears. And most important, a Fifth Column within, consisting of collaborators and sympathisers of the same enemy. Then, you go out and seek votes against those no one can morally or politically defend. To call this merely politics of polarisation is an understatement. It is enormously more diabolical, and effective.
The key to building such a popular concept of the national interest, you first need a sharp definition of identity. American strategist and Harvard professor Joseph Nye Jr., writing in Foreign Policy, calls the national interest a “slippery concept, used to describe as well as prescribe foreign policy”. He then goes on to quote Samuel Huntington in the same journal, arguing that “without a secure sense of national identity”, you cannot define your national interests.
I bet you have figured where I am headed. But, just in case you haven’t, that identity is Hindu and the core of Indian nationalism. What’s good for the Hindus is also good for India, and vice-versa had better be true. If it isn’t, it needs fixing. And non-Hindus? Of course, they will benefit similarly. But if they complain, or don’t conform, they risk being lumped with the Fifth Column, along with liberal bleeding hearts, questioning journalists, activists, ‘compulsive contrarians’ and ‘urban Naxals’. Remember Kavi Pradeep’s warning about traitors hiding in your bedrooms and kitchens.
This is exactly how Modi-Shah have built this campaign. The opposition — with Nyay, Rafale, secularism, equality — is playing a very different game. It’s like one side is marching to martial music while the other is tuning the tanpura. All of those ideas are important as well, but then you see, none of it will be possible unless the nation survives. And since there are such grave dangers lurking, in whose hands would you rather place the nation? A proven, decisive and strong leader or a “Pappu”, whom now you see and now you don’t?
While an all-conquering nationalist wave isn’t here, it is strong enough to neutralise some of the economic distress and disaffection. In the deepest countryside, you find young, jobless and quite hopeless people saying yes, we have nothing to do and are hurting, but we can suffer a bit for the nation. It takes some campaign genius to get so many in distant places to succumb to such mass suspension of disbelief. We may find the idea ridiculous and abhorrent. But it won’t change the reality.
The other factor is identity. This wave is generally moderated, even blocked, where large sections of the population have a determinant of political identity stronger than Hindu faith. It can be caste, as with the Vokkaligas in Karnataka and the Yadavs in the heartland and Dalits generally everywhere. It can be language and ethnicity, as in the Tamil and Telugu regions. Or religion, as with Muslims and Christians. Wherever some of these factors combine, especially as in Uttar Pradesh, this upsurge can be broken.
This is why the Congress is the biggest loser. Unlike the many regional parties, it doesn’t have the hedge of alternate identities. Its Rahul-era idea of fighting hard, even militant nationalism with liberal pacifism is unconvincing, especially given its own record of running a brutally unforgiving hard state. If you think the counter to the BJP’s campaign against “enemies and traitors” is abolishing the sedition law, you have no idea what you are up against.
What the Modi-Shah BJP has succeeded in building among large sections of the younger electorate is more than a mere sense of paranoid nationalism. It is now a dangerous jingoism, and history tells us it never ends well. The enemies have been defined, and weapons earmarked: Jets and commandos for the Pakistanis, calumny and social media lynching for those within.
The dangers and the enemy Kavi Pradeep identified, and which we thought we had vanquished, have been conveniently resurrected, and the Hindi press is the first to see that trend. Sixty years later, the current mood has been captured by a young poet, although of a different generation and style: Rap.
Check out ‘Jingostan’ from the recent Ranveer Singh-Alia Bhatt hit Gully Boy: “Do hazaaratthrahai, deshkokhatrahai/hartarafaaghai, tum aagke beech ho/zor se chilla do, sab kodara do, apnizehreeli been bajake, sabkadhyankheench lo…” (It’s 2018, the nation’s in peril/we are all caught in a deadly fire/shout, scream, scare, play your venomous fiddle, divert everybody’s attention).
Because, as the rapper concludes, Jingostan is where we now live.
BJP taking a gamble?
By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
The BJP has become a force to reckon with in Indian politics, and its leaders feel they can indulge in calculated improprieties and get away too. One of the temptations of the right-wing Hindutva party is to thumb its nose at genteel liberals on the one hand, and on the other challenge other parties, from the Hindi heartland’s socialist parties, regional parties elsewhere and the Communist parties, that if they can field candidates with questionable reputations, so can the saffron party. The fielding of Pragya Thakur, who was inducted into the BJP overnight and given a party ticket from the prestigious Bhopal LokSabha seat, is calculated to ruffle feathers. And of course there is the Digvijay Singh factor. The Congress candidate in Bhopal, a practicing Hindu, has needled saffronites for decades. He is neither a secular atheist nor a secular agnostic. He is a typical example of that ideological oxymoron — the religious Hindu who is also secular. It cannot get more maddening and provocative. Mr Singh has literally driven the BJP to find an extreme figure who would match his strident ideological posture. The ochre-robed political Hindutva propagandist has turned out to be an ideal match for Mr Singh.
In contrast, a parallel ceremony of innocence was being played out in the neighbouring capital of Lucknow, where Poonam Sinha, actress and wife of Shatrughan Sinha, joined the Samajwadi Party and was straightaway given the LucknowLokSabha ticket to fight the BJP’s candidate, Union home minister Rajnath Singh. It seemed the SP was quite aware that it does not have a strong enough political heavyweight to challenge the senior BJP leader, and that it would be better to field someone who would evoke surprise and interest, if nothing else. There was no cynicism in this as there is in the choice of Pragya Thakur in Bhopal. The BJP indulged in something of this kind of empty dramatic gesture when it fielded SmritiIrani, then a television actress, against Congress’ KapilSibal in ChandniChowk in the 2004 LokSabha election. That streak of innocence continued when the party fielded her against Rahul Gandhi in Amethi in 2014. Of course, in 2019, it has turned into a heated, even malicious, political battle between Ms Irani and Mr Gandhi in Amethi.
It is a gamble political parties are willing to take as they know they cannot field candidates in every constituency who would stand up to the stature of their chief opponent. And sometimes, the gamble even pays off. The party that tried this trick in the first place was the ever-cunning Congress, when it fielded Rajesh Khanna against Lal Krishna Advani in the 1991 LokSabha polls for the New Delhi constituency, when Mr Advani won by a whisker of 1,500 votes-plus. Similarly, in 2004, actor and political greenhorn Govinda defeated seasoned BJP leader Ram Naik in the North Mumbai constituency.
But Pragya Thakur’s case doesn’t fall into the same playful category as that of Rajesh Khanna, Govinda and Poonam Sinha. There is a cynical intent here, and it comes at the cost of tarnishing the image of the BJP, though many BJP leaders in the NarendraModi-Amit Shah era might believe it is legitimate policy. The complication for the BJP in the case of the ocher-robed Ms Thakur comes from the fact that she is an accused in a terrorism case. Had a Muslim accused in a terror case been fielded by any party, the BJP would have gone to town that the secular parties were hands-in-glove with Muslim terrorists. In fielding Ms Thakur, the BJP wants to score the polemical point that there’s no such thing called “saffron terror”. It is a difficult point to sustain because the BJP and its ideological mentor, the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS), and other Hindutva affiliates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal) believe in resorting to violence against other religious groups, especially Muslims and Christians, on the fallacious base that Muslims and Christians are trying to convert Hindus to their faith and therefore pose a danger to Hindus. This is the bare-knuckle ideological point. The Hindutva organisations tacitly believe that resort to violence and terror is justified in certain circumstances. They would not have Mahatma Gandhi’s moral courage of denouncing violence in all circumstances. The Hindutva folk then fall into the pit they dig for others when they unconsciously believe that terrorism is justified when they use it to protect their own faith.
Ms Thakur is just an accused so far, and it could be the case the court would acquit her, either because the prosecution fails to prove its case or the court decides, based on evidence, that Ms Thakur was not involved in the bomb blast in Malegaon. The BJP and other Hindutva organisations fail to recognise that even if Ms Thakur is acquitted, the tag of “saffron terror” is unlikely to vanish as they subscribe to violence in principle.
The Hindutva ideologues also do not have the cunning sophistication to argue that the use of violence against the enemy is the prerogative of the State, and not that of the individual. So the BJP’s knee-jerk reaction to Digvijay Singh’s “saffron terror” label remains unconvincing and ineffective. The unstated reason the BJP fielded Ms Thakur is that it did not have good enough leaders in the party in Madhya Pradesh to field in major constituencies like Bhopal and Guna. In the same way as the SP did not find a matching political leader from its ranks to field against Rajnath Singh, the BJP was at a loss about fielding a credible candidate from the party ranks to stand against Digvijay Singh. The decision to field Ms Thakur is not a smart one as the party leaders may want to believe. The BJP veers off from the political track and it doesn’t know what to do with the hotheads it has inducted into its own ranks. The party is also aware that people will not accept its Hindutva tantrums, and if it wants to attain political legitimacy it has to spurn its own variant of ideological frenzy. Ms Thakur doesn’t pose any challenge to India’s polity, but her presence threatens the BJP from inside. It must restrain its inner demons if it wants to govern the country. The joke then is on the BJP.