Why I don’t care about Rushdie not going to Calcutta

February 1st, 2013

Unlike Ruchir Joshi, who wrote a fascinating open letter in The Telegraph, I really don’t care that West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee didn’t let author Salman Rushdie into Kolkata — or Calcutta, as l still prefer.

I really don’t care either, though I agree, that it’s pointless to debate whether Calcutta is still India’s cultural capital, as Firstpost’s Sandip Roy lucidly explains.

The city isn’t today, and it hasn’t been anywhere close to during my brief existence of 26 years, the cultural epicenter of the country.

We might still love to constantly — irritatingly — mention Tagore, Satyajit Ray and others from that revered clutch of Bengali cultural giants, but let’s accept it: they’re dead and gone, and few like them are likely to arrive anytime soon. (Although Mamata painting Duronto coaches was a first)

I don’t care for Suhel Seth’s terrible joke about Mamata thinking Midnight’s Children meant Communists. Or how Sagarika Ghose finds it “wonderful to be in Mumbai, sip coconut water and watch the sea” while feeling “so so sad that Salman Rushdie not allowed in Kolkata lit fest.”

Instead, I am massively amused by this wave of outrage — because you should feel “so so sad” about what is happening in that city, and the entire state, in its entirety. Not because a Muslim cleric purportedly made a phone call to the chief minister asking her to stop Rushdie from landing in the city.

(Rushdie probably did a good thing by skipping the city altogether. For more on that, read postscript.)

Because the same anger about Mamata’s call must also be there for what is happening in Tamil Nadu with Kamal Hassan. But Mamata, and rightfully so, is infinitely easier to criticise — and so, as the weekend arrives, get ready to be told that the ‘nation wants to know’ how it came to this.

Yet, that is unfortunate — and more evidence that, after all, we, the middle-class holders of morality, are blind or elitist or hypocrites, or all three.

Because what I do care about is how the chief minister has quietly hiked the electricity tariff in the state for the fifth time since coming to power. About how the state’s economic growth is at a standstill; about how the finance minister, once feted for his connections in New Delhi, has delivered next to nothing; about how ‘Bengal Leads’ turned out to be a stage musical with industrialists belting out tunes, not investments and about why the state’s single largest industrial investment is still stuck.

I do care about how Pariborton has changed a city, once thought safe for women, so dramatically in the last few years that I worry about my women friends being out late; about why the police chief who cracked the Park Street rape case was shunted (never mind Trinamool’s Dinesh Trivedi); and about why the politicians of the ruling party continue to slander the victim without provocation.

I do care about how advertising whiz Bodhisatwa Dasgupta can’t raise his daughter in the city that he grew up in; about why, as Dasgupta writes, “Calcutta may have its love; But Delhi has the money”, and about why it is unlikely to change anytime soon. About why despite loving much about this flawed metropolis, for most young people there aren’t enough jobs to go around, no careers to be made. About why college students are called Maoists on national television, and about why their professors are jailed.

I do care about Bengal’s hinterland, which has seen among the slowest growth in infrastructure and consumption nationwide in the last 10 years. About why the growth in penetration of automobiles per household in West Bengal has been the one of the lowest in India, below that Odisha, Bihar and Communist-ruled Tripura in the past decade. About why only about half the state’s households use electricity has the main source of lighting; and about why less than half of West Bengal’s families access banking services.

And that is why I don’t care much about Rushdie not coming to Calcutta.

True, curtailing culture and restraining its exponents must be unacceptable.  But as with everything else, this, too, must be put in context. West Bengal’s problems are much, much bigger — definitely more important than the cancelled itinerary of one of the world’s most controversial and gifted writers.

If only some of the outrage about the Rushdie episode has elicited could be on display for all the other failings of West Bengal’s rulers, then maybe — just maybe — a semblance of actual Pariborton could arrive on the muddy banks of the Hooghly.

That, however, will probably never really happen. Just like how Calcutta never really became London.

PS: Rushdie probably did a good thing by skipping the city altogether: The airport is like the biggest air-conditioned wholesale market in the country; Calcutta’s roads aren’t much better; and the literary fest, as they mostly are, would probably be a mediocre talking shop, with some booze thrown in for free. At best, what he missed is Calcutta’s food. But that’s unlikely to change his life or mine — and that isn’t the point anyway.

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India’s cruelest joke: The Naxal war

July 24th, 2012

“All war is deception,” said Sun Tzu, the Chinese military general and philosopher, around 500 BC. Nothing could more accurately describe the Naxal conflict burning through India’s hinterland today.

It has been some time since I travelled to south Chhattisgarh, the heart of the ultra-Left revolution. There, I toured cities, towns and remote villages. I met key actors: the tribals caught in the crossfire, the chief minister, bureaucrats, the police brass, activists and many a journalist. All, except the rebels themselves.

The single, most-important takeaway was simply this: the Indian government and its agencies on the ground are fighting a nearly invisible enemy. Even though they clearly knows who exactly they should actually be fighting.

This is by no measure a ground-breaking discovery. For well over a decade now, the Indian state has recognised this complexity in its fight against the Naxals. It has admitted the sheer difficulty in distinguishing between an innocent tribal villager and an armed, motivated insurgent.

The problem is, despite years of fighting this bloody fight, the Indian government can do no better today. The storm that has erupted over the killing of 19 persons in Dantewada at the end of June is evidence of this. It has shown once again, with deadly consequences, that the security establishment is operating within a haze; and that once again, it is the people who have had to pay the price for this incompetence.

Across south Chhattisgarh, much of the security forces remain holed up in roadside camps surrounded by rings of barbed wire and sentry posts. These are men and women of exceptional courage, no doubt, but they are as good as aliens on a hostile planet. Those that freely operate outside, the erstwhile Special Police Officers, have built a reputation that few agree with. The highly-trained special forces contingents are few and far between.

The tribal villagers, caught between a government that promises to spend on them (but not without harassment) and a Naxal leadership that promises to keep the government out, often side with the latter. The government’s reach here is precarious, therefore its promises unreliable.

That’s not to say that the Naxal movement has delivered either. Those that have gained access say it is all the same, sometimes even a little worse. But, years of governmental apathy and heavy-handedness must have some manifestation. Also, those who have sided with the government have gained little; they live like virtual prisoners in well-protected camps, away from their forests and often their families, too.

Effectively, therefore, the Indian state, having spent crores of rupees and thousands of lives, has only a semblance of an intelligence network. For the security forces, finding an insurgent is not like looking for a needle in a haystack. Rather, it’s like looking for a specific needle in a sack of sharp needles.

So, all this talk about standard operating procedures (under the direction of the home ministry), procuring mine-proof vehicles, augmenting troop numbers and creating cutting-edge counter-terrorism schools is as good as useless. Unless, of course, collateral damage is the objective.

Instead, the government needs to reach the people. It must listen to them carefully and deliver development. It cannot anymore ignore years of misrule and not correct what it has done wrong. It shouldn’t try and push in big business before bringing in the most basic of services.

But most importantly, it must stop building a security machinery that doesn’t even know its precise target. It has to build trust through governance, to be then able to create a system that delivers reliable intelligence. It needs to gain control over information. After all, there can be no deception without information.

Otherwise, hundreds will continue to die as the Naxals quietly smirk under the shadow of the government’s ineptitude.

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The state of Bengal: Ma, Mati, Morbidity

March 28th, 2012

There was no lack of prophecies when Mamata Banerjee stormed Writers Building, West Bengal’s administrative centre, last year. Yet, few of those soothsayers would have been able to predict the reign of randomness that Ms Banerjee has unleashed upon the state (and the nation) since taking office.

True, it may be far too early to conclusively decide whether Ms Banerjee’s turn at helming a state that was run to the ground by over three decades of Communist rule is going to end badly. Indeed, when it comes to the Knockout Lady from Kalighat, there is little that is ever conclusive.

But the way in which events in the past few weeks — let’s take just three issues: the staunch denial of the rape on Park Street and subsequently putting the blame on the Left, the fascinating series of incidents leading up to the dismissal of Dinesh Trivedi as Railway Minister and now, the absurd decision to provide a list of newspaper that the state’s 2,482 libraries are allowed to keep — have panned out, evoke a feeling of fear and delight in equal proportions.

After all, such incidents are unprecedented, even in the wildly subjective annals of Indian democracy. No Railway Minister has been asked to resign just days after delivering what was widely thought to have been a realistic budget after many years; not in the recent history of liberal West Bengal has the government decided what patrons of its libraries must read; and rarely has a chief minister told a rape victim that she wasn’t actually raped, while a junior minister simultaneously questioned why the lady in question was at a night club by herself.

And that is precisely where the mirth ends and the trepidation takes over. During her term as Railway Minister, Ms Banerjee promised much but delivered little, except that even after leaving office she has ensured that passenger fares remain illogically suppressed.

Despite that unenviable track record, she was greeted with much enthusiasm after a landslide electoral victory, a result that she had assiduously fought for through her political career. But all that goodwill, especially concerning Bengal’s industry and industrialists, now stands eroded. The miserable handling of the AMRI fire episode merely added to the slide.

In the heartland, where the Trinamool Congress (TMC) was able to dislodged a deeply entrenched CPI(M) party machinery, some of Mamata’s magic may be eroding, too. Her complete denial of farmer suicides was a case in point, and the decision now to limit library newspapers is unlikely to go down well is the many bhadraloks that frequent these institutions. There are also reports of infighting within the TMC ranks.

The middleclass, which swung away from the Left, is disillusioned with how nothing has really progressed. If anything, having the state’s governor come out and talk about how West Bengal was once safe for women is instructive. The intelligentsia, once ardent supporters of Ms Banerjee, are now having second thoughts. The IT industry is in limbo since the TMC’s manifesto expressly states that it isn’t against any SEZs, but the government of course is willing to provide SEZ-like benefits, only that it can’t be called a SEZ.

But the most scathing indictment that I have come across was from a taxi driver —one of the many thousand immigrants from Bihar who drive Kolkata’s iconic yellow cabs —on a recent visit to the city.

“We used to come here for jobs back then,” he said, taking a turn near the massive Eden Garden stadium, “but now, it seems that Nitish has made Bihar better than Bengal. What can Didi do for you now?” For a man from Bihar who moved to Kolkata to make a living some two decades ago, that’s saying a lot. And for West Bengal’s chief minister, that’s a tall order to meet.

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Sibal, look at Singapore!

January 16th, 2012

Is India trying to do what the smaller but technologically-adept Singapore has attempted at, but nominally given up: control the Internet?

Because if the campaign for “screening” content on social media websites began late last year with Kapil Sibal’s charge that images and statements could stoke instability, violence and religious hatred in the country, the recent decision of the courts to take up the matter and summon some 21 Internet companies on similar grounds raises serious questions about the extent of free expression allowed in India.

As fundamental as the freedom of expression is, this latest attempt at exercising control over the Internet also reveals the clear lack of adequate thought on part of the government, additionally having not looked into the experiences of countries like Singapore; and the judiciary’s statement that India, too, “like China” can block websites, sounds like a grim warning by a newly-appointed schoolteacher yet to truly understand the rules of the playground.

No doubt the Internet isn’t a saintly domain. It hosts, breeds and disseminates an incredibly wide cross-section of opinions, criticism, information and disinformation. And it is this unregulated, collosal nature of the Internet, and its often unpredictable reactions to events (political, social or otherwise), that makes it the incredibly powerful medium that it is.

With such unbridled power, as Singapore’s government has learnt in recent years, come new risks. In a country where the majority of print and television news outlets are state-owned and assiduously monitored, the Internet has emerged as the new medium not only for the distribution of information but also as a forum for volatile political debate.

With one of the highest rates of Internet penetration in the region, the emergence of the medium as a possible game-changer in last year’s General and Presidential Elections could easily have provoked the city-state’s authorities to firmly pull on the censorship blanket.

Instead, the government has seemingly chosen to use the Internet, and specifically social networking sites like Facebook, as a way of reaching out to the citizenry, especially many young Singaporeans who share less in common with the older generations that created a First World nation out of a tiny port-dominated territory and resultantly, are less connected to the ruling People’s Action Party.

Politicians in Singapore use Facebook, for instance, to engage with their electorate and although there is often venomous, harsh, and sometimes personal, criticism, the underlying logic is that favourable opinion can be shaped if adequate and robust information is provided to the average Internet user.

The Singapore experience also effectively negates the propagated logic about how the Internet can cause social discord, particularly between ethnic and religious groups. Despite a small population of 3.8 million citizens — with 74 per cent Chinese, 13 per cent Malay and 9.2 per cent India, and with Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism as major religions — Singapore doesn’t place the onus with Internet entities such as Google, Facebook or Twitter to filter content and maintain social stability.

Quite conversely, the overt censorship that it exercises relates mainly to pornographic content, regulated through Internet service providers, while individual sites (and not social network like Facebook, Twitter) which may risk escalating religious tensions can be and have been banned.

At the same time, individuals users responsible for posting racist comments or any statement or graphic that could incite tensions are liable to prosecuted, which probably means that, in a broad sense, while social networks are expected to maintain internal standards with regard to the content being posted, the eventual responsibility lies with individual users to temper the content they put up.

As has been already written about extensively, the Indian government’s position of asking Internet companies to regulate or screen content will require a small army of people to filter all posts, a proposition that is nearly untenable. Instead, the government could do well to look at the Singapore model, if it is indeed so uncomfortable about the negative powers of the Internet, and place the onus on the individual user, rather than the website.

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The Great Vietnamese Balancing Act

October 18th, 2011

 So there have been threats, and veiled threats. Then there have been warnings, covert warnings and, if may I add, overt warnings. There have also been confrontations, demands, posturing, assertions and increasing aggressiveness.
In fact, the waters of the South China Sea have seen more action in the last three months than any other littoral zone in the Asia Pacific.
Starting with the report of an Indian naval vessel, the INS Airavat, being “confronted” by an unidentified Chinese ship (thereafter conveniently branded as a Chinese warship) off the coast of Vietnam in August, sections of the Indian media have hee-hawed at every instance of Beijing making a statement about the disputed waters.
After years of near-complete neglect, the Indian press literally wiped the dust off its maps of the region and Vietnam suddenly returned to the news agenda. Almost overnight, there was a magical mass realisation of the country’s pivotal position in India’s Look East policy and the economic (and historical) ties that exist between the two nations.
And if Foreign Minister SM Krishna’s visit to Hanoi revived interest, Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang’s arrival in India stoked further curiosity.
It’s an almost forgotten matter that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee have made separate trips to the country in the last 12 months. Chief of the Army Staff General VK Singh, too, dropped by last year, the first by any Army chief in the last 15 years.
But in all the excitement over India’s purportedly rediscovered partnership with Vietnam, one crucial development has been virtually overlooked: the Great Vietnamese Balancing Act.      
Almost at the same time that President Sang made his pitch for closer cooperation with New Delhi, Hanoi despatched Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, essentially the country’s top leader, to Beijing.
And as President Sang reinforced his country’s interest to continue its economic relations with India, particularly oil and gas related exploration activities in the South China Sea, Secretary Trong settled on a six-point agreement for creating a mechanism to try straightening out the maritime dispute between Beijing and Hanoi.
Days later, all the diplomacy of the previous weeks is now seemingly forgotten. Xinhua, China’s official state news agency, reports that Beijing wants “other countries to respect its agreement with Vietnam on maritime issues” after the Philippines, also a party to the South China Sea dispute, demanded a multilateral resolution.
And the India media has not only jumped on a commentary in China’s Global Post newspaper that denounces India’s interest in energy assets in the waters off Vietnam, Indian correspondents from Beijing report that Chinese state-controlled media is making a case for Vietnam to backtrack on its recent oil and gas deal with India.
So there: we are back to the threats, and veiled threats. And Vietnam continues to walk a fine line.

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Asia wants Anna

September 10th, 2011

Undoubtedly, I have jumped on the bandwagon horrifyingly late.

The Ramlila Maidan is now empty, the Centre is back in business trying to solve yet another act of terror and I finally have access to a particular news channel that features India’s most animated (and entertaining, if I may add) news anchor on the 9 p.m. slot.

But no excuse is good enough. After all, even from Straits of Singapore, Anna Hazare must have been unmissable. I must tell you that he indeed was. And how!

It wasn’t just restricted to my Indian friends, the gaggle of plugged-in local scribes that I meet occasionally or the subcontinent-focused academics in this city-state. A wider swathe of Asia, it would seem, was taken in by Hazare.

For all the admiration and disdain that has been lumped on this retired soldier since his movement picked up steam, one thing is certain: India hasn’t been this galvanised over a single issue, with the obvious exception of cricket, in a very long time.

And while India’s cricketing success, no matter how remarkable, has mostly gone ignored by much of Southeast Asia and China, Hazare’s movement has had a markedly different reaction.

It could well be the case of ‘everybody loves a good revolution’ in these heady days of regime change, but it isn’t merely the quality and quantity of coverage that this region’s media lavished on Hazare’s movement that has been surprising.

Rather, as an academic noted in a recent discussion at a local think-tank, Asian bloggers, including the prodigious community of Chinese micro-bloggers, have openly discussed the Hazare-led anti-graft movement.

From China’s Weibo, much like the English-speaking world’s Twitter, which has over 140 million users, conversations about Hazare and the campaign were picked up and reported, including by an Indian newspaper.

There was even a curious piece in a Tibetan news website that claimed the Chinese government had “banned 6,600 sites following growing numbers of netizens in China discussing a possible movement in China against corruption”, as a result of the “Anna effect”.

Conjecture apart, much of Asia suffers from the same ailments that drove millions of Indians on to the streets backing Hazare’s movement, asking for cleaner governmental administration. And this peculiarly-Indian movement has found resonance in parts of this region where people lack the space, both political and social, to vocally complain against the system.

Instead of theorising or judging the Hazare-led movement in India, the academic claimed, some in Asia are simply asking: “Where is our Anna?” After all, institutionalised corruption is a fact of life in this part of the world, whether it is China, Vietnam, Indonesia or in other countries of Southeast Asia.

As Asia’s emerging powers, China and India are relentlessly compared on nearly every parameter, starting from the size of their economies to the reproductive prowess of their population.

Our neighbours, as do many others, have much that we don’t. But “Anna is India, India is Anna”, as the refrain goes.

Nonetheless, this isn’t a comment about the man or the movement. This is about the conditions and systems that spawned them, but also provided them the space in which to protest.

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Thailand’s political conundrum

July 1st, 2011

‘Politics-proof’ is how Thailand’s economy is sometimes described, reflecting the continued growth of business despite the presence of a deeply-divided, and sometimes violent, political landscape. The country’s economy is slated to grow 4-5 per cent this year.

But as 67 million Thais go to vote this weekend, the dangerous chasm between the elite and the masses may be exposed again. And it could mean yet another phase of uncertainty in Thailand, after more than half-a-decade of turmoil.

Although few expect any extraordinary impact of the polls on the country’s economic scene, especially since both major political parties have a similar agendas, mainly comprising big ticket infrastructure investments and schemes that will support rural spending, there is a feeling that prolonged disorder may just dent investor confidence.

On Sunday, the Puea Thai Party, effectively led by the country’s fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawantra, which has put up Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck as its candidate, is widely expected to win. And in spite of the likelihood of incumbent Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat party ending up on the losing side, not many feel it will give up without a fight.

At the heart of Thailand’s political conundrum is the deep division between the country’s elite, including the Army and the bureaucracy, who continue to back Vejjajiva, and the wide swathes of rural masses, where Thaksin remains widely popular, in part due to the pro-poor policies unveiled during his time in power.

Given the forecasts for these polls, trust is at a premium. In particular, the stance of the Army has been questioned — they forced Thaksin out of the country after a coup five years ago — even though the country’s top general has sought to downplay such fears.

It is another matter that General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army, has had an uneasy relationship with Thaksin and played a major role in the 2009 and 2010 military crackdowns on pro-Thaksin ‘Red Shirt’ campaigners when more than 90 were killed.

Another part of Thailand’s political puzzle is the role of the ageing monarch, 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who continues to be highly regarded in the country and is seen as a unifying factor amidst the turbulence.

With the world’s strictest lese majeste laws, where any insult to the royal family can mean imprisonment, the Army has remained steadfast in its support of the crown, a fact that may have its own ramifications in the post-election scenario.

For India, Thailand is crucial to its ‘Look East’ policy and an important part of the 10-member Asean bloc. With over $6 billion in bilateral trade, a figure slated to double by 2014, and about $1.5 billion of Indian investments in the country, there is a distinct economic perspective to the relationship.

However, the creation of a stable and democratic Thailand, in an extended neighbour rife with threats and opportunities, could mean much more for New Delhi as it seeks to forge a distinctively liberal partnership with Southeast Asia.

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The politics of social media

May 11th, 2011

Singapore’s well-regarded foreign minister George Yeo is on his way out of office, and politics, after last week’s elections in the city-state where the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) ended up with the worst electoral performance in its history.

But this is not about the PAP. Or Singaporean politics, for that matter, which will see the Opposition control the maximum number of seats in Parliament: Six out of 87 seats.

Rather, this is about social media and the recurring representation of its influence on contemporary politics starting, possibly, from the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.

Even Obama, it would be fair to say, would not have perceived the dissymmetric impact of social media, first in the uprisings in Iran and subsequently, the Facebook-led political renaissance of sorts in Egypt.

The electoral results in Singapore, however, are a more pragmatic representation of the weight that can be assigned to social media, especially in a country where mainstream news organisations are regulated.

It was in these recent hustings in the island-nation that social media was allowed as a legitimate platform for the first time, and Singaporeans, with a known penchant for everything technology, look to the internet with unusual gusto.

In conversations with locals, I have been made to understand that the internet, or more specifically social media, has emerged as a sort of liberated zone for political discussions.

The Agence France-Presse today reported that “Nicole Seah, 24, who lost as an opposition candidate in Saturday’s election, had close to 97,000 “likes” on her public Facebook page on Tuesday, overtaking a page set up by supporters of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, 87.”

Seah, the report added, has gone back to her day job in advertising, but even Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is said to have acknowledged the role of social media in shaping an electoral result that marks a “distinct shift” in the country’s political landscape.

Incidentally, in the run-up to the vote, Prime Minister Lee had even hosted an hour-long Facebook chat.

For India, where the internet finally emerged as a platform in the last general elections, there are lessons to be learnt.

Moving beyond the perfunctory blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts, Indian politicians would do well to consider social media as a medium for interaction rather than mere new-age compulsion.

Given India’s demographics, and newly-discovered affinity for technology, the internet provides the option of a continued political dialogue, and not just the usual forceful dose of rhetoric weeks before a vote.

But then, there is a flipside to being overtly connected. A certain Indian junior minister for external affairs will vouch for it.

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A nation of change

February 2nd, 2011

History, often, has a propensity for fading away. But when pushed by the human desire for transformation, the past can relegate itself with even greater speed.
In a mere half-century, a tiny island at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula has radically changed itself from a colonial trading port into one of the world’s major financial centres, with among the highest gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates globally in the last year.

The achievement is staggering; there are no two ways about that. But Singapore, except in very small zones, belies that sense of history that is invariably pervades the great erstwhile colonial cities of Asia. Kolkata in particular, and even Mumbai and Delhi, to an extent, conserve a certain old-world charm, which seemingly has been lost here in the Lion City.

That, though, is solely the physical appearance.

Over a meal recently, consisting of delectable Char Sui pork and rice, at a food court in one of the city’s countless malls, a relatively senior government official was kind enough to entertain my numerous questions about the city-state and its people.

In what turned out to be a rather extended session, Mr Chen, if I may call him so, rather unreservedly shared his perspective. But what struck me most, during this conversation, was a particular feeling of lamentation at the breakneck physical transformation of Singapore.

We were in the heart of the city. And the very mall we sat in, the gentleman described, was once a vibrant set of streets, known for its shopping options. Pointing at another direction, he recalled where his house stood and gesticulating again, at what was once his primary school. There was definitely a tinge of regret for what had been lost.

He wasn’t the only one. A real estate agent, of all people, once told me how in his youth he could not locate a particular street, known for its colourful evenings, as the entire block had been demolished and rebuilt in a matter of months.

Singapore, from the outside, mostly does seem like a contemporary construct where change, more than history, is a constant.

But to understand Singapore from the inside is another story. A nation, which consists of 74 per cent Chinese, 13 per cent Malays and the remainder formed of Indian and others, is not as easy to decipher as its architecture.

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The landed question

January 3rd, 2011

Winters in Kolkata are fascinating. Almost magically, just as ceiling fans become redundant during the nights, the non-resident Bengali intelligentsia, both authentic and imaginary, return to the city for great food, good music and copious amounts of intoxicants.

Last week, a noted city barrister, over dinner and sufficiently greased, recalled his last meeting with the CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury a few winters back. Clasping his wine — and in a manner typical of gentrified storytelling — we were told of Yechury’s plea to him for an assessment of what the Left has got right, and wrong, in West Bengal.

The barrister’s reply, essentially, was that the CPI(M)’s much-vaunted land reforms was possibly the worse policy that the party had implemented. And, of course, Yechury’s subsequent displeasure over the particular thought was why the story was told in the first place.

Admittedly, the merit of the argument is debatable, but the Left has inadvertently created a monster for itself by significantly reducing the size of the land-holdings in the state, thereby making it difficult to acquire large tracts at one go.

It was, ironically, the radical land reforms movement that created the electoral bedrock for the CPI(M) in rural West Bengal, although the question of land, and the rightful acquisition process for industry, has been the incumbent governments’ nemesis in recent years.

But if the Left hasn’t got it right on the land issue, what is the alternative? The state’s principle opposition party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which is widely tipped to topple the CPI(M) after over three decades in government, has itself put forward an ambiguous land policy.

Despite the fact that TMC chief Mamata Banerjee has vociferously pitched against the certain provisions in the Land Acquisition and Relief and Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bills, the ministry under her purview — the Railways — is going full steam ahead with land acquisition, even as she had repeatedly said that this will not be done ‘forcefully’.

Resistance, however, is bound to crop up when Banerjee attempts to secure land for industry, if and when she heads West Bengal’s next government next year, as both the masses and the Left will scrutinise every detail of her modus operandi.

Moreover, it will be fascinating to see how Banerjee deals with a demon of her own creation, and how the Bengali intelligentsia reacts to it next winter, when, as usual, the great and good of the clan shall congregate here again.

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