Saturday, November 29, 2003

Election fever spreads
Khushwant Singh

Like the mausami bukhaar, it is a seasonal fever. It is not caused by intake of contaminated air, water or food, but self inflicted by healthy people living in healthy surroundings because they believe that periodic bouts of electoral fever are good for the health of their country. When it comes on, it takes epidemic proportions, sparing no one. The strange thing about this malaise is that besides being predictable and self-inflicted, we have a medical officer known as Chief Election Commissioner who announces in advance when and where the fever will break out, prescribes what parts of the body it will affect, and the day when it will reach its highest pitch before it will begin to subside. Mercifully it is not a terminable disease; on the contrary, it gives us a new lease of life.

We are in the midst of this mausami bukhaar in five states. A carnival atmosphere pervades as at a grand tamasha or dangal — wrestling tournament. Drums beat as contenders leap into the akhaara slapping their thighs and beating their chests to display their bravado. They make loud claims of their prowess as world beaters and hurl abuses at their adversaries before they grapple with each other. The CEC acts the referee and sees that they do not break the rules of the game. The crowds that throng the ringside decide on the winner by casting votes. The CEC endorses their decision. And the tamashaa is over.

Elections are expensive business, costing the country thousands of crores or rupees each time they take place. Quite often they do not honestly reflect the views of the people because contestants mislead them with false propaganda and meaningless manifestoes. A sizeable proportion of entrants use deception, bribery and brute force at the hustings to gain victories they do not deserve. We may well ask ourselves, are elections worthwhile? Can’t we find better ways of eliciting the will of the people and give them the kind of government better suited to their needs and aspirations? The answer is that so far we have not found any alternative method of eliciting people’s will: flawed elections are better than no elections.

The Birla connection

The Life & Times of G.D. Birla by Medha Mudaisya (OUP) landed on my table with the request that I review it in the column I write for The Hindustan Times. I was embarrassed. As Editor of the paper, I ate the salt of its proprietor K.K. Birla: I have traditional belief in being true to one’s salt. I continue to write the column for the paper’s present owner-manager Shobana Bhartia who is K.K. Birla’s daughter. In Calcutta I enjoyed the hospitality of K.K.’s younger brother Basant Kumar and his wife Sarala and basked in the affection of their daughter Manjushree Khaitan. At her instance, I wrote a book on Calcutta to mark its second centenary. Anything I write on the founder of their industrial empire would per force be Birla-biased. So I decided to do the critical appraisal of the book for The Outlook and make passing reference to the family here.

The Birlas are Maheshwari Marwaris from Pilani (Rajasthan). Their ancestors were modest traders till G.D. Birla’s father Raja Baldeo Das acquired wealth, and like many other Marwaris, set up business houses in Calcutta and Bombay. Initially their income came from trading in opium and silver. They added jute and textiles to their enterprises. Then sugar, chemicals, tea and much else till they became the richest family of India. At the same time, they had a passion for building temples: Birla temples are to be seen in many Indian cities.

G.D. Birla was the first of the family to take interest in political affairs. To start with, he was drawn towards Bengali terrorists, he had to go underground for three months to avoid being arrested. He then came under the influence of Pandit Malaviya and Lala Lajpat Rai and ultimately became a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and financier of the Congress party. Birla Houses in Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay were given over to Bapu when he visited these cities. On his assassination, the family gave the house to the nation.

Birlas were, and are, a very close-knit family and do not marry outside their sub-caste. They are strict vegetarians and teetotallers. They are a strange amalgam of the traditional and the modern, of enormous wealth and courtesy towards people they employ.

Psalm of hate

The 137 Psalm is one of the most lyrical of the psalms. of the Old Testament. It is about old Babylon, present-day Baghdad. D.S.V. Rao has parodied it to suit the present plight of the Iraqi capital.

Old version

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.

We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it.

For there those who carried us away captive required of us a song

And those who plundered us required of us mirth. Saying ‘sing us a song of Zion’

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her skill.

If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth.

Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom. The days of Jerusalem, who said ‘Raze, raze it to its very foundation’

O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed.

Happy shall he be who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock.

Psalm 137: Rao’s version

By the rivers of Babylon, there we got bogged down. Yea, we wept, when we remembered to do the dirty work for Yankees and Tommies.

But how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange Muslim land?

If I forget thee, let my left hand throw a grenade.

If I do not remember thee, let my right hand throw a super grenade.

Remember, O Lord, we shall destroy Basra and Baghdad with missiles and

Crush the Babylonian civilisation.

O Daughter of Babylon who art to be destroyed, our Dick Cheney will

Get all contracts to rebuild them; your sons will be re-employed.

Happy shall we be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against stones.

But give us control of oil: and for bread and butter, you need not toil.

We did not find any weapons of mass destructions under the culverts Meanwhile we shall swim happily in Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

By the rivers of Babylon, O Lord, our cars have enough petrol to drive on and on!

Political tragedy

One day suddenly surfaced a top-secret video

About a Minister — name was Dilip Singh Judeo

Screaming headlines in a national newspaper

Exposed what seemed a bribe-taking caper

As per the pictures, Judeo was on the make

He, of course, shouted that it’s a total fake

Congress chanted "Arrest him! Put him in Tihar!"

BJP replied "Frame-UP! Below-the-belt war."

People were confused; thought some ‘charge is right’

‘chance to proves his innocence, not very bright’

The fact remains however, it is not very moot

‘He took the money’ was really sach or jhoot

Tragedy is that our politics has fallen so low

We will believe that Mr X, Y, Z or Mr Judeo

Is most probably guilty whatever be his name

Or political party, he’ll always be to blame.

(Courtesy: Rajeshwari Singh, New Delhi)

Note: Khushwant Singh is indisposed. There will be no column next week.