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EDITORIALS

Credibility, the best asset
Supreme Court should accept RTI
T
HE reports indicating that some Supreme Court and High Court judges on their own are likely to disclose their assets are most welcome. These judges may voluntarily make their assets public, or ask the Chief Justice of India to do so. If all the judges agree to disclose their assets in conformity with a 1997 Supreme Court resolution, it will tone down an avoidable controversy.

For ever on a holiday
Babus in Punjab need to work more
I
F the number of holidays in Punjab is anything to go by, there is not much work to do in sarkari offices. If there was, how could it be that government offices could remain closed for 126 days in a year? That is not all. There are also two restricted holidays to choose from a list of 19. Then there is also casual leave, privilege leave and medical leave to be exhausted.



EARLIER STORIES

Obama on Pakistan
January 23, 2009
Words to remember
January 22, 2009
Metro is not for Maytas
January 21, 2009
President Obama
January 20, 2009
Adieu, George Bush
January 19, 2009
Making TV a scapegoat
January 18, 2009
Miliband’s ballistics
January 17, 2009
Terror under arrest
January 16, 2009
Friends or foes?
January 15, 2009
Losing sheen
January 14, 2009


For the elderly
They need all the help
I
NDIA has more than 76 million people above the age of 60. Their number is expected to swell to nearly 200 million by 2030. There being virtually no social security net for them from the government’s side, they are solely at the mercy of their children and legal heirs.

ARTICLE

Crimes against humanity
Israel is getting away with impunity
by Punyapriya Dasgupta
O
F all the statements from international organisations concerned with the effects of Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza, the words used by the International Committee of the Red Cross are particularly significant. This Geneva-based universally respected institution, very careful not to apportion any blame for any conflict, has spoken out this time in condemnation of Israel’s conduct in Gaza.

MIDDLE

In service of science
by A.J. Philip
A
WRITER alone knows how badly he needs a word of praise for his writing. Let me confess, I feel miserable if the two or three readers, who regularly send me short mobile messages (SMS) of praise on my middles, fail to do so because they did not like them.

OPED

The Satyam saga
There are other business frauds also
by Arun Kumar
Business fraud is nothing new in India. Businessmen are known to go to great lengths to make money through legitimate and illegitimate ways. Clever accountants and lawyers are employed to devise ways to generate higher profits for businessmen.

Small men and glamorous wives
by John Lichfield
B
OTH will be remembered as vertically challenged men in a vertiginous hurry. Both were helped into power by beautiful wives, with whom they quarrelled. Both believed that they had a destiny to rebuild France and, above all, to change the way the French think of themselves. Both are known for a weakness for kitsch and anything that glitters.

Death for contaminating milk
by Maureen Fan
A
Chinese court on Thursday sentenced two men to death for their roles in a deadly contaminated-milk scandal that embarrassed the government and prompted hundreds of families to sue for compensation. The woman in charge of the dairy company at the heart of the crisis was sentenced to life in prison.





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Credibility, the best asset
Supreme Court should accept RTI

THE reports indicating that some Supreme Court and High Court judges on their own are likely to disclose their assets are most welcome. These judges may voluntarily make their assets public, or ask the Chief Justice of India to do so. If all the judges agree to disclose their assets in conformity with a 1997 Supreme Court resolution, it will tone down an avoidable controversy. Clearly, the issue took an unseemly turn after the apex court took the unprecedented step of appealing to the Delhi High Court against a Central Information Commission order asking judges to disclose their assets under the Right to Information Act. The High Court not only admitted the appeal but also stayed the CIC’s order. It appointed noted jurist Fali S. Nariman to act as amicus curie (friend of the court) in the case. However, Mr Nariman — always a man of principle — refused to undertake the responsibility, maintaining that as he had taken a stand against the judges on the issue, it would not be proper for him to accept the offer and assist the court on the vital question.

In his letter to the Delhi High Court, Mr Nariman referred to his letter to the Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune under the title, “Chuck it, My Lords”, published in the newspaper of January 20. In the letter to The Tribune, Mr Nariman has made a strong case for judges declaring their assets. “For judges of the highest court to litigate whether or not they should disclose their assets is as bad as judges going to the court on whether it was lawful for income-tax to be deducted from the salaries they get!”, he wrote in elegant candour he is known for.

While the reported rethink among some judges augurs well, a split on this vital issue will put the judiciary in a poor light — a development which the CJI and his colleagues should better try to avoid. As the Delhi High Court will hear the Supreme Court Registry’s appeal on February 11, an adverse order will further embarrass the judges. The CJI was known to be in favour of the RTI’s application to the judiciary’s functioning — certainly on the administrative side. Some other judges have been simply opposed to the idea. While transparency and accountability are fundamental to a democracy, it will be wise of the Supreme Court not to be found on the wrong side of the argument. The judges instead should be on the side of the principle encompassed in the people’s right to know. Attempt to escape the light the RTI focuses on public functionaries, arouses avoidable questions which ideally the judges should not face. Openness improves the image, not diminishes it. In no way, disclosure of assets should embarrass the judges; not doing so certainly will. The respect the court enjoys from the people ultimately depends on the credibility it has with them and the nature of justice it dispenses.

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For ever on a holiday
Babus in Punjab need to work more

IF the number of holidays in Punjab is anything to go by, there is not much work to do in sarkari offices. If there was, how could it be that government offices could remain closed for 126 days in a year? That is not all. There are also two restricted holidays to choose from a list of 19. Then there is also casual leave, privilege leave and medical leave to be exhausted. That means that an employee will have to attend office for only 180 days in a year. That means that he will be lazing it for more than half of the year. Things do not stop even there. If the past practice is anything to go by, the government may also be ordering half-day holidays several times for “shobha yatras” and religious processions etc.

While all that will mean a lot of fun and frolic for the lucky employees, it will translate into a lot of trouble for the people who have to get some work done in a government office. Since almost all have to have a brush with bureaucracy, virtually everybody would be put to inconvenience. To make matters worse, at times there will be three consecutive holidays in the offices. That means that if somebody has an urgent work in a government office on January 24, he may have to wait till January 27. And if the babu in question proceeds on leave that day, woe betide the public!

Politicians never tire of talking about administrative reforms. But when it comes to enhancing the number of working days, they move in exactly the opposite direction. As if babus have got tired of hard work, the Badal government on coming to power liberally added more holidays on flimsy pretexts. Could the government say “Araam, Haraam Hai”!

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For the elderly
They need all the help

INDIA has more than 76 million people above the age of 60. Their number is expected to swell to nearly 200 million by 2030. There being virtually no social security net for them from the government’s side, they are solely at the mercy of their children and legal heirs. The term “dependant” acquires a very ironic hue when those who should lend them a helping hand in their twilight years prove to be undependable. Unfortunately, there are far too many such senior citizens. Any step to ameliorate their lot is welcome. It is heartening that Punjab has become the fifth state in the country – after Tripura, Maharashtra, Goa and Himachal Pradesh — to enforce the Maintenance of Parents and Senior Citizens Act that provides for efficacious provision of maintenance of elderly people. This social security legislation can indeed provide security to the neglected parents.

But, as in the case of every law, much will depend on how sincerely and seriously it is implemented. The responsibility of disciplining errant children who neglect their parents will be on sub divisional officials. Most of them are already burdened with routine bureaucratic work. Here is hoping that they will be more approachable and considerate towards the elderly than they are towards the general public. Most abandoned parents are victims of neglect. It will be a shame if they receive similar treatment from the officials too. So, the government will have to ensure that each and every officer behaves in a compassionate manner.

Then there is the problem of social norms. In India, it is very uncommon for the parents to seek state intervention when their wards are involved. Just look at Himachal Pradesh where the law in this regard was implemented much earlier. There have been almost no complaints so far. As such, state officials will have to keep their eyes and ears open towards the plight of the abandoned parents. In any case, neglect is not only physical but also emotional. The state should strive to inculcate right impressions in the minds of children right from school so that they treat their parents as an asset and not as a burden. India is yet to reach the stage where a parent can be satisfied just because his children pay for his or her stay in an old-age home.

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Thought for the Day

Advice is one of those things it is far more blessed to give than to receive.

— Carolyn Wells

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Crimes against humanity
Israel is getting away with impunity
by Punyapriya Dasgupta

OF all the statements from international organisations concerned with the effects of Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza, the words used by the International Committee of the Red Cross are particularly significant. This Geneva-based universally respected institution, very careful not to apportion any blame for any conflict, has spoken out this time in condemnation of Israel’s conduct in Gaza. The provocation was the discovery of four small Palestinian children, severely weakened by starvation, huddled over the dead bodies of their mothers. Nearby also lay some other dead and wounded. The ICRC said “the Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded”. Not only that, “Israel refused to allow medical teams to tend the wounded.”

As if to reinforce the accusation of the Red Cross, the Israeli daily Haaretz has quoted Israeli soldiers confessing that they are warring with particular ferocity in Gaza this time.

Israeli bombs from the air took 43 lives inside a school in Gaza run by the UN Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA). The dead included some terrified civilians, among them women and children whom UN staff had carefully screened. An excuse advanced by the aggressor that Hamas militants were operating from the school compound was proved false by the UNRWA head in Gaza and Israel then revised its words and argued that the militants were active in the vicinity.

This rings a bell. Twelve years ago Israel trained artillery on a UN Force (UNIFIL) compound in the South Lebanese village of Qana and killed four UN soldiers and 106 Lebanese refugees. This massacre ultimately cost Boutros Boutros Ghali his position as UN Secretary-General in the sense that he failed to get the five-year second term his predecessors in office usually had almost as matter of course .The Egyptian Secretary-General had done many of Israel’s biddings routed through Washington but this time it was just not possible to suppress the official report on the Qana incident.

Israel went on to commit another massacre in the same village 10 years later. The present Secretary-General, Ban ki-moon from South Korea, must also be feeling where the UN head’s shoe pinches. He was taking extra care to keep on the right side of Israel and US and blaming the Palestinians for something whenever he had to criticise Israel for anything. But this time, on Gaza, he kept his balancing act aside and simply condemned the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) for its firings on UN aid convoys. He said that UN’s (forced) inability to provide assistance in this worsening crisis was “unacceptable”.

Israel just shakes off every accusation against it like water off a duck’s back. Amnesty International has implored the UN Security Council to ensure full accountability for Israel’s war crimes. Reporters Without Frontiers branded the Israeli refusal of entry of the international media into Gaza as “unacceptable”. Even inside Israel eight human rights organisations have requested the Supreme Court for a prohibition of IDF’s targeting medics. As many as two dozen Palestinian medics have already been killed. A little before Israel’s assault of Gaza began the Vatican compared Gaza to a concentration camp reminiscent of the horrors of the Nazi era. Israel was angry because it still uses Jewish suffering under the Nazis as its monopoly capital.

It is amazing that Israel has so much gumption as to just pooh-pooh a UN Security Council resolution ordering an immediate ceasefire. Resolution 1860 was passed by 14 yes votes, none against. After vetoing some 30 resolutions in as many years to protect Israel, the US abstained this time. The pro-Israel international media reported that Hamas too had rejected it. Hamas does not come into this particular picture. It is not really relevant whether non-State Palestine or any part of it led by Fatah or Hamas — none a UN member — accepts or rejects any UN directive. For Israel it is a double fault. All of UN’s members are legally obliged to carry out Security Council resolutions. And Israel is the only State in the world admitted to UN membership on an explicit condition that it would be obedient to the world body.

Israel also cynically violates almost all prohibitions enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. It wilfully kills or causes great suffering, not only destroys property, directs attacks against civilians, humanitarian workers, UN peacekeepers, builds settlements on occupied territories, uses poison weapons (e.g. depleted uranium), uses civilians as shields. Some of these are also crimes against humanity under the Nuremberg rulings. Yet Israel is never really called into account. Ilan Pappe, an Israeli academic, has summed this up as “Western immunity to Israel’s impunity.”

Orwell famously wrote: “War is peace.” What this Newspeak phrase means when put into practice is being demonstrated in all cynical and ruthless detail in the siege and punishment of Gaza by Israel. The Israeli military action has ended with well over 1000 people killed and some 4000 wounded — about half of them women and children — in this a tiny East Mediterranean coastal strip assaulted from the air, land and sea. The Gazans have not a single aircraft, warship or tank, no heavy weapon, nor any way open either from getting aid or retreating. The territory is blockaded by Israel for the last 18 months causing acute lack of food, water, power, medicines. This is punishment of 15 lakh people for the temerity of choosing, after an internationally-certified honest general election, to be ruled by the Hamas.

The Gazans may have elected their representatives to administer their democracy but so what? Such an election is not acceptable to Israel and therefore of the US, the pro-US Arab states and even EU. These powers all refuse to see Hamas as anything but “terrorist” because it would not recognise Israel. And that is what matters internationally. In spite of the fact that Hamas offered Israel a 20-year peaceful coexistence, honoured last year’s six-month ceasefire, even offered to renew it although Israel had abducted 27 Hamas members of the Palestine Authority’s legislative council and killed some others.

Israel did not carry out its part of the six-month ceasefire conditional on its lifting the siege. Defence Minister Ehud Barak admitted that this pause was used by Israel to prepare for the assault on Gaza. The excuse was the rocketing of Israeli territory from Gaza before the half-year ceasefire. Hamas had taken to rocketing only after the Israeli killing of several of its leaders. The home-made rockets exacted only a token revenge, killing only about 10 Israelis in three years. Israel’s Prime Minister Olmert was frank last year and said that the people of Gaza would suffer for electing the “terrorist” Hamas. And this is the latest phase in Israel’s relentless march towards the ultimate goal of taking over everything from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea.

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In service of science
by A.J. Philip

A WRITER alone knows how badly he needs a word of praise for his writing. Let me confess, I feel miserable if the two or three readers, who regularly send me short mobile messages (SMS) of praise on my middles, fail to do so because they did not like them.

The same psychology must have been at work when Jay Raina, a colleague at The Hindustan Times in the nineties, sought my comments on the profile of a celebrity he did. It was not a difficult question as cartoonist Sudhir Tailang and I were in charge of the weekly Profile column and we had slotted it for the next issue.

“Yes, it was a good piece,” I told Raina. “Mr Philip, what is the point in telling me that it was a good piece?” I was taken aback when he responded in this off-putting manner.

Soon, with his thumb pointing to then HT Editor H.K. Dua’s office, he said: “You should go and tell Mr Dua that the piece was good. That will make your comment useful to me”. Since I did not know how to respond, I merely smiled and moved on.

That was Jay Raina, a special correspondent with the HT. We were not particularly fond of each other and would meet occasionally in the office corridors or at the Delhi Press Club. He enjoyed doing profiles of personalities, many of whom he treated as his personal friends. Of course, I had no clue whether the celebrities concerned treated him the same way.

I remember when Tailang wanted to be a member of the capital’s elite India International Centre, it was Raina who signed the papers for him. He did it on the express condition that Tailang would give him a treat at the IIC. It is a promise the cartoonist could not somehow honour.

Raina could never reconcile himself to his abrupt departure from The Hindustan Times, which he considered as the alpha and omega of English journalism. It is indeed doubtful whether he even sought a job outside of the old lady of Kasturba Gandhi Marg. Like a soldier, he had virtually faded into the night.

Last week I heard about Raina again when a colleague told me that he was no more. Memories welled up in my mind but they were not strong enough to prompt me to do a middle. But I changed my decision when I spoke to his wife Shirin, associate professor at Delhi University, to offer my condolences.

She told me that Raina had died of a massive heart attack, the second in a fortnight. What struck me most was her revelation that his body was donated to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) for research and studies.

“It was a very painful decision for me to honour my husband’s wish. He used to tell me that as Hindustan Times’ Science Correspondent, he was always writing about science. So he wanted his body to be of some use to science”.

As a science correspondent he knew that in a country of over one billion people, medical colleges are woefully short of bodies because few people donate them for religious and other reasons. They get only bodies of beggars which are, often, not well-formed and, therefore, unfit for certain studies.

That is why Jay Raina decided to be “useful” to others even after his death. I have never come across a journalist who donated his body to a medical college. And that is precisely why I decided to write this piece in honour of Shirin and her teenage sons Sahil and Imroz, who stood by his decision.

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The Satyam saga
There are other business frauds also
by Arun Kumar

Business fraud is nothing new in India. Businessmen are known to go to great lengths to make money through legitimate and illegitimate ways. Clever accountants and lawyers are employed to devise ways to generate higher profits for businessmen.

The Satyam affair stunned everyone when its supposedly “honest” chairperson admitted to committing fraud over the last several years.

Apparently, Satyam has been defrauded of Rs. 7,000 crore but the final tally could be larger. The loss to the shareholders and employees would be by a multiple of this sum.

In comparison, the Harshad Mehta episode in 1991-92 was estimated by the Jankiraman Committee to be of the order of Rs. 3,900 crore even though others claimed it to be eight times bigger.

Ketan Parekh’s manipulations led to massive losses for the entire community of stock investors.

The collapse of Global Trust Bank, the Telgi scam and other such cases have erupted from time to time.

By one count, by the end of the 1990s, 2,500 companies that had raised money in the Indian stock markets had disappeared with the shareholders’ money.

The government did not act against these fraudsters and this emboldened the owners of businesses to commit more frauds.

Mostly, managements declare lower profits to escape paying taxes and that is how black incomes are generated. What is curious about the Satyam affair is that according to its Chairperson, Mr Raju, it was supposedly doing the opposite, showing higher profits.

That means Satyam was paying more taxes than it needed to have — a double whammy for the shareholders. Not only was their company less profitable than they thought it to be but it lost money because of excess tax payments.

However, analysts have argued that Satyam could not have been showing higher than actual profits. If Mr Raju is to be believed, Satyam was operating with margins of 3 to 4 per cent and this cannot be correct since the margins of comparable software companies are in the range of 25 per cent.

So many believe that Mr. Raju is lying under the garb of telling the truth. The puzzle is that Satyam should have had higher profit margins but its owner, Mr. Raju is claiming that it had lower margins and willingly implicating himself in a fraud. Is he trying to cover up a bigger fraud?

Why would an owner show higher profits? First, to manipulate the share price since it rises as declared and expected profits rise. This helps in raising the credibility of the company and its management and thereby enables it to raise more funds for further expansion of the company.

Secondly, when there are concessions in taxation on profits, it may pay to divert profits from a company not entitled to tax concessions to a company that is entitled to tax concessions and thereby save on tax payments.

There was concession under 80 HHC on profits earned in exports and later it was available under Section 10A for exports from special zones. Since these provisions were/are for exports, exports have to be over invoiced.

Hence, more foreign exchange has to be brought into the country than was earned and this way black wealth held outside or profits of other companies siphoned out of the country through havala are brought back — i.e. reverse havala.

Finally, Mr Raju could be siphoning out funds from Satyam to sister concerns that were dealing in real estate. One can conjecture that given the recent collapse of real estate prices and slowdown of investments in this sector, the sister concerns were in need of funds and possibly in trouble.

The purchase of the sister concerns at high and inflated prices would have meant that the fictitious accounts worth Rs. 7,000 crore would have been drawn down and money transferred to the owners of the sister concerns, that is, to themselves and then there would have been no one to ask where is the money.

So, by book transfers, the earlier siphoning out of funds would have been covered up and the false entries of the bank balances and fixed deposits reversed/set right.

Mr Raju thought that his prestige as the pride of Andhra and his political clout would enable him to commit the brazen act. These factors had earlier enabled him to obtain the silence of chartered accountants and the independent directors on the board of Satyam.

The Satyam story would perhaps have not broken out as yet but for the crisis resulting from the failure of the attempt to buy the two sister companies.

The forced reversal of the decision to buy the sister companies and the investment bankers’ approaching SEBI with the story of the non-existent balance in the banks was the trigger to the realisation that the game was up. There was little time to bring back other black funds and perhaps due to the global crisis they had got stuck.

Since the funds did not exist in the Satyam bank accounts he had to cover up by saying that the actual profitability of Satyam was lower and that he had been inflating profits for years — an attempt to portray honesty while committing a fraud. This line may also help in the cases in the US courts to reduce the severity of the fraud and penalties.

The involvement of managers of banks where the non-existent funds were supposedly held is likely. Similarly, the auditors may have looked the other way rather than questioning why so much cash was being held in bank accounts.

The independent directors should have asked why Rs. 5,000 crore was held in savings accounts when in fixed deposits Rs 400 crore could have been earned.

The board consisting of management gurus, former bureaucrats and businessmen could not have been so naïve as to not realise that something was amiss.

How could they approve the purchase of two family companies at such exorbitant prices when it was apparent even to the layman that something was amiss?

Why did they keep quite as cash in banks piled up? Perhaps, through cozy relationships, they benefited in political and financial terms.

It is now coming out that even employment was being fudged and profits so generated were siphoned out. Shady land deals and support from the various chief ministers are being talked about. How many skeletons will tumble out is not clear.

The Satyam affair points to the sharp practices adopted by crooked Indian businesses — siphoning of profits, fudging of muster rolls, cosy relations with politicians and bureaucrats and finally, manipulating bankers, `independent’ auditors and `independent’ directors.

All this is well known in the context of the rampant black income generation. Mr. Raju’s admission has brought into question the notion of a `respectable’ or `honest’ businessman.

As the global crisis deepens and more frauds surface, more reputations maybe dented. In India we are used to wrongs of the high-ups emerging with great regularity and then to having amnesia about them — perhaps a cynical view but not far from reality.

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Small men and glamorous wives
by John Lichfield

BOTH will be remembered as vertically challenged men in a vertiginous hurry. Both were helped into power by beautiful wives, with whom they quarrelled. Both believed that they had a destiny to rebuild France and, above all, to change the way the French think of themselves. Both are known for a weakness for kitsch and anything that glitters.

Both came from non-French, minor aristocratic backgrounds and despised the Parisian elite. Both had, from the start of their career, an obsession with image and grasped the importance of controlling the media.

Physical stature alone has inevitably encouraged comparisons between Napoleon Bonaparte and Nicolas Sarkozy. President Sarkozy is almost exactly the same height as L’Empéreur, about 5ft 6in, which was, in fact, respectably tall in Napoleon’s day.

Most of the Napoleon/Nicolas comparisons made since M. Sarkozy became President 20 months ago have been brief and insulting, especially in Germany, a country which can stomach neither Napoleon nor “Nicoleon”.

France’s most subtle and readable political commentator, Alain Duhamel, has now explored the interesting parallels between the two men at book length (La Marche Consulaire – Plon).

France remains schizophrenic about Napoleon’s character and legacy. The street-map of Paris is littered with tributes to the emperor’s generals, victories, armies and treaties but it has no grand avenue or boulevard named after Napoleon himself.

A critical book then? No, not really. Duhamel’s book is, on balance, positive about both men. But, crucially, it limits the period of its comparison to the “Bonaparte” years between 1799 and 1804, when the young Corsican general imposed order on the post-revolutionary muddle.

As “First Consul”, Bonaparte laid down the framework of the modern French state, from the code civile, to the franc, to the Légion d’honneur, to the colleges for training an “elite”.

Duhamel skirts comparison with the “Napoleon” years, from 1804-15, when Bonaparte crowned himself emperor and entered a tyrannical and megalomanic spiral which ended at Waterloo.

“The sixth President of the Fifth Republic resembles the Premier Consul, bold and enigmatic, devastating and vulnerable, inspired and tormented, rather than the Emperor, searing and imperious, brutal and irresistible, glorious and tragic,” Duhamel writes. The early Bonaparte, he says, tried to reconcile the need for order, beloved of the royalists and the right, with the need for movement or progress, demanded by the revolutionaries and the left. “Bonapartism”, Duhamel says, successfully combined order and movement for the first time in French history.

M. Sarkozy, authoritarian and iconoclastic, morally conservative and politically reformist, is therefore a 21st-century reincarnation of the First Consul: a “Bonaparte in a suit”.

“They both set out to make sure that France was never the same again. Both see themselves as the rebuilders of a great but fragile nation... It is up to them, alone, they believe, to rebuild confidence, to restore order but above all to modernise, to reform, to innovate... “They are fighting against time, waging a permanent battle against blockages, resistance, conservatism.”

There are other, less flattering, points of comparison, Duhamel admits. Like Napoleon, M. Sarkozy is impatient and nervous, with strange physical tics. Both men fly into unreasonable rages with their subordinates. Both have an inordinate, but tasteless, love of the trappings of wealth and power.

Both meddle in the smallest details of policy: Napoleon wrote and dispatched an edict on the future of the French national theatre from a blazing Moscow in 1812. M. Sarkozy found himself exchanging insults with trawlermen when he tried to solve a minor fisheries dispute in 2007.

Both have a blind-spot for the importance of decorum. Napoleon seized the imperial crown from the Pope’s hands and crowned himself in 1804. M. Sarkozy invited France’s most foul-mouthed comedian to join a delegation to meet Pope Benedict in 2007.

Bonaparte was one of the first politicians to grasp the importance of propaganda and control of the media. Even as a young general, he created his own newspaper to trumpet and embellish his exploits in Italy. Only adulation was permitted once he was in power.

Nicolas Sarkozy has been accused of trying to bring state-owned media under his heel by giving himself the sole right to name the boss of France Televisions. As a result, both men, says Duhamel, are “either admired or detested. No one can fail to have an opinion”.

There is something elemental and driven about President Sarkozy which demands historical comparisons. And he has hit upon a bizarre comparison of his own. On several occasions, he has recalled publicly that France is a country which “turns on its leaders” and “guillotined King Louis XVI and his beautiful young, foreign wife”. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a “gut socialist”, is said to have been startled at being compared to Queen “Let-them-eat-cake” Marie-Antoinette.

President Sarkozy may also have found time to glance at another book, written by his close friend, the omnipresent, political wheeler-dealer and business consultant, Alain Minc. Une Histoire de France (Grasset) is a brilliant re-telling of 2,000 years of French history from the point of view of a 21st-century political fixer.

M. Minc is fiercely critical of Napoleon. He makes no comparison between the emperor and his friend, President Sarkozy. But he does point out that the “uncontrolled cavalcade [of Napoleon’s career], defined by a constant need for new actions, with no overall design or strategic vision”, was always going to be vulnerable to the tiniest defeat or failure.

Duhamel makes the same argument about M. Sarkozy. But can the Sarko myth survive the coming of the twin threats of recession and the publicity shadow cast by President Barack Obama?

— By arrangement with The Independent

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Death for contaminating milk
by Maureen Fan

A Chinese court on Thursday sentenced two men to death for their roles in a deadly contaminated-milk scandal that embarrassed the government and prompted hundreds of families to sue for compensation. The woman in charge of the dairy company at the heart of the crisis was sentenced to life in prison.

The punishments were the first meted out in the scandal, which broke in September. At least six children died and 300,000 were sickened by infant formula tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, and more than two dozen countries, including the United States, recalled or banned food containing Chinese milk products.

The Intermediate People’s Court in Shijiazhuang, where the dairy company is based, announced two other life terms and a suspended death sentence that is expected to be commuted to life imprisonment. Six defendants were sentenced to terms ranging from five to 15 years in jail. The court session was closed to the public and conducted under heavy security.

Tian Wenhua, 66, the chairwoman of the now bankrupt Sanlu Group, was the highest-ranking executive charged in the scandal. She pleaded guilty to charges of producing and selling fake goods and was fined $3.6 million. At her trial in December, she admitted knowing about the contamination for months before alerting officials.

The death sentences were given to Zhang Yujun, 40, for harming public security by operating an underground melamine workshop, and Geng Jinping, who ran a milk collection center and was convicted of producing and selling poisoned food.

Melamine, normally used to make fertilizers and plastics, was added to milk to raise its protein level in tests. Although harmless to adults, melamine can cause kidney stones in young children and animals. Investigations found that the trade in the illegal toxin was an open secret, with dairy farmers, milk collection centers and dairy companies often involved in efforts to disguise milk of poor quality as protein-rich.

Families of some victims said Tian had been made a scapegoat and was not as culpable as those who laced milk products with melamine. Others said she should have been sentenced to death but also accused the government of being more concerned about prosecutions than their still-recovering children.

“The government gave us only $300, and my son is still living with a kidney stone,” said Hu Shuixia, 38, from a village in Henan province. “Some people say that the government will never mention the Sanlu case again after sentencing these suspects to death. Rather than sentencing the criminals, the government should take care of our children.”

Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer helping 213 families trying to sue the government, said the penalties were too harsh for those who produced and sold melamine, arguing that they had no idea how harmful it was. “Most parents aren’t paying attention to this trial because what they need most is fair compensation, which has nothing to do with these sentences,” he said.

— By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post

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