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EDITORIALS

Now it’s Canada
Need to tackle attacks on Indians
A
FTER a series of incidents of violence against Indian students in Australia over the last month, has come news of six Indians being attacked in Canada while they were playing tennis last Friday. The Canadian authorities managed to swiftly arrest the four suspects, all Caucasian teenagers, and book them for committing a racist-motivated crime.

A decade of NCP
Padamsinh Patil case adds to the party’s woes
N
OTHING symbolises better the current position of the Nationalist Congress Party than the fact that it has had to suspend from primary membership of the party one of its prime leaders, Padamsinh Patil, on the day it completed a decade of existence —June 10. Understandably, the celebrations were muted with most leaders choosing to stay away. The morale in the party is truly at a low ebb.



EARLIER STORIES

Vision for growth
June 11, 2009
Beware! It’s not milk
June 10, 2009
MP or a murderer?
June 9, 2009
Arrest of a terrorist
June 8, 2009
Terror Down Under
June 7, 2009
Washington has erred
June 6, 2009
President speaks
June 5, 2009
Pak flexes muscles, again
June 4, 2009
Treading the beaten path
June 3, 2009
Friends, or foes?
June 2, 2009


BJP in disarray
There is no sign of introspection
I
T was reasonable to expect that the stunning defeat that the BJP had suffered in the recent Lok Sabha elections would galvanise it into an introspective mode and it would own up the reasons which led to its decline. But quite the contrary is happening. A bitter blame game is on and factionalism is in full display in the party which – ironically – takes pride in its “discipline”.

ARTICLE

Unending crime-politics nexus
Issues raised by Osmanabad MP’s arrest
by Inder Malhotra
I
F it is possible to be shocked without being surprised that just about sums up my reaction to the news of the arrest, allegedly for conspiracy to murder, of the Nationalist Congress party MP from Osmanabad, Padamasinh Patil, described as a “close confidant” of the NCP supreme leader, Mr Sharad Pawar.

MIDDLE

Wedding-season blues
by Vivek Atray
T
HANK God the wedding season is some way off! Except for a sprinkling of wedding invitations that dot the calendar, there aren’t as many evenings at this time of year when one has to don formal gear, prepare an envelope with the mandatory shagun inside it, and to take a quick look at the route map.

OPED

Indo-Pak conflict overshadows economic cooperation
by Saroj Bishoyi
C
AN trade improve relations between hostile nations? Can economic benefits and cooperation overtake political conflicts? Are better trade relations between two nations possible only after a settlement of all conflicts? According to the Classical Trade Theory, international trade serves to reduce political conflicts.

Not quite a right turn in Europe
by Harold Meyerson
T
HE movement is everything; the final goal, nothing,” Eduard Bernstein, the great German social democrat — in many ways, the father of social democracy — wrote in the late 19th century.

The wounds of Gujarat
by Shakuntala Rao
O
N a recent flight from New York to the Middle East, I sat next to a sociable young man from Ahmedabad. Eager to talk, Ankesh Patel inquired if I had ever been to Gujarat and when I politely said no and that I did not agree with the current politics of Gujarat’s government, he was visibly agitated.





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Now it’s Canada
Need to tackle attacks on Indians

AFTER a series of incidents of violence against Indian students in Australia over the last month, has come news of six Indians being attacked in Canada while they were playing tennis last Friday. The Canadian authorities managed to swiftly arrest the four suspects, all Caucasian teenagers, and book them for committing a racist-motivated crime. Unlike Shravan Kumar in Melbourne who had a screwdriver mercilessly driven through his head, the Indians near Vancouver were lucky to get away with just racial slurs, a disrupted game and a rap on the head from a fence board flung at one of them. One hopes this is a one-off incident and will not be repeated in a multi-cultural country that has a legacy of welcoming immigrants and comprises a large Indian diaspora, especially from Punjab, some of whom have attained prominent positions in public service including those of a state chief minister and union minister equivalent.

The situation Down Under is, however, still far from settled. Attacks on Indian students are continuing. After weeks of being in a state of denial and of downplaying the attacks on Indian students, the Victorian police Chief Commissioner has finally admitted that some of the attacks were “clearly racist in motivation”. The police in Melbourne have finally mounted patrolling operations in the localities where many Indian students live and it is hoped that this will have a deterring effect on both racist and other criminals engaging in hate attacks.

Significantly, there is also disturbing news of Indian students forming vigilante groups and engaging in retaliatory attacks in Melbourne and Sydney. This is unacceptable. Indian students must not take the law into their own hands and resort to violence. Not only will this spoil their case but it could also cause escalation of violence. There is also the danger that it will jeopardise the safety of the two lakh Indian-origin settlers in Australia who are known to be law abiding and hard working. The Indian students must let the Australian federal and state governments tackle the situation. It will also help if some members of the Indian community settled in Australia step forward to restrain and counsel the students.

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A decade of NCP
Padamsinh Patil case adds to the party’s woes

NOTHING symbolises better the current position of the Nationalist Congress Party than the fact that it has had to suspend from primary membership of the party one of its prime leaders, Padamsinh Patil, on the day it completed a decade of existence —June 10. Understandably, the celebrations were muted with most leaders choosing to stay away. The morale in the party is truly at a low ebb. Party leaders had been strongly defending Patil who is facing charges of a double murder three years ago, contending that he would be deemed innocent till proven guilty. But party strongman Sharad Pawar and other frontline leaders realised that failure to take action against Patil could affect the NCP’s fortunes in the Maharashtra assembly elections which are due in three months. The clamour for action against Patil had been growing with sections of the Congress and the NCP as well as the BJP and the Shiv Sena lending support to it and the NCP leadership sensed that it was risky for the party to stick its neck out on the issue.

Ironically, the Padamsinh Patil controversy has broken out at a time when the NCP is faced with an identity crisis. The party had been formed on the issue of Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin but with Sharad Pawar acquiescing in her leadership subsequently and co-founder Purno Sangma recently apologising to Mrs Gandhi for having raised the issue leading to the break with the Congress in 1999, many in the NCP are questioning the rationale of maintaining the separate identity of the party. With elections to the Maharashtra assembly round the corner and the Congress seriously considering the option of going it alone, the clamour for the merger of the NCP in the Congress can only grow.

The NCP is indeed at the crossroads. Until the results of the Lok Sabha elections came out, its supremo Sharad Pawar had been seeing visions of donning the prime ministerial mantle with the support of a plethora of regional parties and the Left. Today, he is at the mercy of the Congress in the UPA. It would be interesting to see what would be his next move as he approaches the assembly elections with his party’s prospects seeming none-too-bright.

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BJP in disarray
There is no sign of introspection

IT was reasonable to expect that the stunning defeat that the BJP had suffered in the recent Lok Sabha elections would galvanise it into an introspective mode and it would own up the reasons which led to its decline. But quite the contrary is happening. A bitter blame game is on and factionalism is in full display in the party which – ironically – takes pride in its “discipline”. Instead of soul-searching and stock taking, personality clashes are the order of the day. The latest to raise his voice of revolt is Jaswant Singh, who seems cut up over the elevation of Arun Jaitley as Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. So are Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie. Voices against L.K. Advani are likely to grow louder in the days to come. Much of the dirty linen is being washed in public. In fact, Sudheendra Kulkarni had written a newspaper article openly blaming the RSS for the poll debacle. He accused the Sangh of making a “strong” leader like Advani look weak. Some speculated that he was acting as Advani’s proxy but the latter dissociated himself from the outburst.

Ironically, instead of candidly fixing responsibility and carrying out a thorough post-mortem, BJP president Rajnath Singh has formed a secret committee of three to take stock of the situation. It is not clear who its members are. With so much secrecy, it is not clear how the committee would elicit everyone’s view. Its fate may be no different from that of the committee formed to submit a report on the loss in Rajasthan’s assembly poll last year about which nothing was heard later.

The tragedy of the BJP is that it has no clarity on sensitive issues like Hindutva. Instead of realising that it is losing out because of the exclusivist agenda that it adopts, it is toeing the Parivar line that it lost because it could not fully satisfy “Hindu” aspirations. Under the circumstances, there is no scope of changing to a modernist image. Instead, men like Narendra Modi and Varun Gandhi continue to be its mascots. Men who were responsible for its defeat have been rewarded. It will be no surprise if it suffers further erosion in its popularity.

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Thought for the Day

On earth there is nothing great but man; in man there is nothing great but mind.

— William Hamilton

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Corrections and clarifications

  • In the headline ‘State preparing data of youths in Oz’, (Page 5, June 9), it should have been youth, not youths
  • The story ‘Should N-E be declared no-posting zone for women civil servants?’ (Page 5, June 9) states ‘…this order was reversed again..’. The word again was erroneous. It should have read ‘…the order was reversed…’.
  • In the report “HC doesn’t favour export target scheme” (Page 3, June 11), the expression “has not found favours with the …” is wrong. It should have been “has not found favour”.
  • In the report “NCP suspends tainted Patel” (Page 17, June 11), “lose his membership” has been mis-spelt as “loose his membership”.

Despite our earnest endeavour to keep The Tribune error-free, some errors do creep in at times. We are always eager to correct them.

We request our readers to write or e-mail to us whenever they find any error. We will carry corrections and clarifications, wherever necessary, every Tuesday & Friday.

Readers in such cases can write to Mr Kamlendra Kanwar, Senior Associate Editor, The Tribune, Chandigarh, with the word “Corrections” on the envelope. His e-mail ID is kanwar@tribunemail.com.

H.K. Dua
Editor-in-Chief

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Unending crime-politics nexus
Issues raised by Osmanabad MP’s arrest
by Inder Malhotra

IF it is possible to be shocked without being surprised that just about sums up my reaction to the news of the arrest, allegedly for conspiracy to murder, of the Nationalist Congress party MP from Osmanabad, Padamasinh Patil, described as a “close confidant” of the NCP supreme leader, Mr Sharad Pawar. Mr Patil was Home Minister in Mr Pawar’s government in Maharashtra in 1994 but had to resign after another Congressman and Mr. Patil’s cousin, Mr Pawanraje Nimbalkar, had reportedly “exposed” a massive scam involving him.

On June 3, 2006, Mr Nimbalkar and his driver were shot dead on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. As the confessional statements before a magistrate by both an alleged killer and the man who reportedly recruited him claim, the crime allegedly took place at the instance of Mr Patil. Here it is necessary to emphasise that the Osmanabad MP has only been arrested and remanded to custody. There is yet no charge-sheet against him and a trial has yet to take place.

Yet there are some very disturbing revelations already in the public domain. The most depressing is that for more than two years the investigations by the Maharashtra police made no headway although the needle of suspicion did point towards Mr Patil. On the contrary, two successive Home Ministers of the state, both belonging the NCP, gave the Osmanabad MP a “clean chit”, an expression that is fast being debased.

In October 2008, the Bombay High Court, after hearing a petition by the slain man’s wife, described the Maharashtra investigations as “one-sided” and ordered that the CBI should take over the case. Meanwhile, in a routine raid the Maharashtra police had arrested one Parasmal Jain who allegedly revealed that he had recruited the sharpshooters from UP, one of whom Dinesh Tiwari was also arrested. A joint commissioner of the Mumbai police crowed that with the arrests of Jain and Tiwari, the Nimbalkar murder case had been “solved”. The CBI took over the investigations in March this year the outcome of which became manifest on June 6.

While the law would take its course, the present case has turned the spotlight yet again on the deathless nexus between crime and politics in this country. Criminalisation of politics and politicisation of crime has become a leaden cliché.

The dismal news from Maharashtra should be read together with the report that there are no fewer than nine ministers in the new Manmohan Singh government who have criminal charges pending against them. Seven of them belong to the Congress and one each to the Trinamul Congress and the Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). This conclusion is based on a responsible NGO’s analysis of the affidavits that the individuals concerned filed along with their nomination papers. The overall number of members with a criminal record in the 15th Lok Sabha is only marginally lower than that in the previous House. To use a singularly inapt expression, “honours” between the Congress and the BJP in this respect are “even”.

Many would remember that in 2004 the BJP had boycotted an entire session of Parliament on the issue of “tainted ministers” in the good doctor’s Cabinet. That there were equally tainted ministers in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Cabinet (1998-2004) did not deter the saffron party.

This is one of the two roots of the problem that makes criminals —even with heinous charges like murder, rape, extortion, kidnapping, etc, against them — flourish in Indian politics and adorn not only parliamentary seats but also ministerial chairs. The second root cause of this lethal malaise is that whatever other democratic norm the Indian polity tramples under foot, on one principle it remains committed steadfastly: “innocent until proved guilty.”

This has become a boon for the criminal-politicians because investigations can always be manipulated and notorious judicial delays ensure that even the worst criminals are not convicted for decades. Mercifully, the convicts are barred from contesting elections. By refusing permission to actor Sanjay Dutt to take part in the election because his appeal against the sentence to him is pending, the apex court has at last shut this escape hatch, too.

The simple solution, therefore, is that instead of accusing one another of harbouring criminals, all political parties should unite to pass a law to provide that anyone against whom a court of law — not the prosecution or the executive — has framed criminal charges would also be ineligible. Unfortunately, it might be easier to secure a collective declaration of atheism from a conclave of cardinals than to persuade the Indian political parties to enact such a law.

As was only to be expected, Mr Patil’s arrest and the accompanying disclosures have raised a virtual firestorm in Maharashta, to some extent in Delhi. The state has to elect its assembly in September-October, which has driven the Maratha strongman into a very tight corner. In the assembly in Mumbai on Monday there were demands that Mr Patil must resign from the Lok Sabha and Mr Pawar must explain why he and his party have been protecting Mr Patil for so long.

Ironically, Mr Pawar is having trouble not only from his opponents but also from his usually tame flock. This is so because for his party the current crisis has come at an embarrassing time. The Congress, much the senior partner of the NCP in the United Progressive Alliance, had gone to the polls in the key state of UP alone and reaped rich electoral dividends. The party, therefore, feels that in Maharashtra, too, it should contest the assembly elections on its own.

The Congress message to Mr Pawar, therefore, is that he should better merge with the Congress. Especially, because the issue of Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s foreign birth over which he had parted company with the parent party is now a non-issue. To compound Mr Pawar’s misery the second most important NCP leader, Mr Purno Sangma of Meghalaya, has already apologised to Ms Gandhi and made up with the Congress. His daughter, Ms Agatha Sangama, is a Minister of State in the new government and the youngest member of the ministerial team.

In this context, NCP stalwarts are tying themselves into knots. Some wanted Mr Pawar suspend Mr Patil’s membership of the party which has now happened. Others are screaming that their man is being “framed” to force on the NCP merger with the Congress. They are demanding, therefore, that Mr Pawar should resign from the Manmohan Singh Cabinet and say goodbye to the alliance with the Congress.

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Wedding-season blues
by Vivek Atray

THANK God the wedding season is some way off! Except for a sprinkling of wedding invitations that dot the calendar, there aren’t as many evenings at this time of year when one has to don formal gear, prepare an envelope with the mandatory shagun inside it, and to take a quick look at the route map.

Seasons of weddings bring in a lot of harassment to us hapless attendees. Artificial smiles, upset stomachs and parking woes that are part and parcel of such occasions, mean that a wedding-goers’ lot is not easy. Especially if one is careless!

Consider the perils one can be subjected to, especially if due care is not taken while reading the invitation. On occasion my wife and I have landed up at the venue of a wedding late in the evening when the party had actually been earlier in the day, over lunch, and were forced to make a hasty retreat.

Worse, we once landed up on the wrong date, a full 24 hours late! A quick call home and a directive to our elder daughter to read out the wedding invitation carefully divulged the horrifying detail to us on the last mentioned occasion. My wife was of course quick to blame me, and I had to pacify her by taking her to a newly opened restaurant for dinner!

Another potential hazard is to have to attend multiple weddings on the same evening. On such days, one usually ends up slipping in and out of wedding pandals, while in the interim quickly greeting the host, exchanging cold handshakes and plastic smiles, munching a few tidbits and ultimately driving home to eat some sandwiches!

Alternatively, I’ve learnt to eat at home and fill my tummy before going to a wedding. That’s the only way to resist the lure of temptresses like panir-taka-tak and methi-malai-kofta. If you’re a vegetarian, that is. Else there would be even more deadly temptations to combat.

Another invaluable lesson learnt is that the man of the house should start getting dressed for the occasion only when his wife announces, after many hours, that she’s ‘almost ready’ for the evening!

A third important nugget is to expect the Baraat to be at least two hours late, and to arrive at about 10 pm, especially if you’re on the boy’s family’s list of invitees. And the most important one is of course to read the wedding invitation very carefully!

All my experience came to naught, however, when I went to a ‘wedding’ recently and found that I had duly arrived on the correct date, at a fashionably late time and at the right venue. The only problem was that my envelope containing the shagun proved to be a white elephant, as the invitation turned out to be for a farewell party!

My best wishes to all those who plan to get married in the coming months. I just hope that they don’t send me an invitation!

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Indo-Pak conflict overshadows economic cooperation
by Saroj Bishoyi

CAN trade improve relations between hostile nations? Can economic benefits and cooperation overtake political conflicts? Are better trade relations between two nations possible only after a settlement of all conflicts? According to the Classical Trade Theory, international trade serves to reduce political conflicts.

Trade between two nations accrue gains to both while the loss of existing trade ties, resulting from a political conflict between the two nations, implies a loss of economic benefits. Two countries trading with each other, therefore, make an effort to avoid conflicts in order not to suffer such a loss.

For instance, China and Japan have shown they can have good trade relations despite having differences over important political issues.

In the case of India and Pakistan, the political conflict over Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) seems to be holding free trade hostage.

Greater economic cooperation could, however, provide mutual economic benefits, such as lower prices for consumers, much-needed revenue for the governments, and cost-effective gas import to India via Pakistan.

Indo-Pakistan relations are grounded in the historical, geographic, demographic and economic links between India and Pakistan, two of the largest and fastest-developing countries in South Asia.

The two countries share much of their common geographic location, and religion (most notably Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism), yet diplomatic relations between the two are defined by numerous military conflicts and territorial disputes.

Peace talks with Pakistan reached at the lowest point in their five-year history after a spate of bombings at the country’s embassy in Kabul and the Mumbai blasts. The blasts had “affected the future” of negotiations between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

While the Kabul and the 26/11 Mumbai attacks have been the main reason for the diplomatic downturn in the peace process, however, Indian concerns over its relations with Pakistan have predated the deadly bombings. Several times, India has conveyed its concerns over ceasefire violations on the LoC, and the sudden and quite public resurgence of banned militant groups in Pakistan to the new government in Islamabad through diplomatic channels. They were also communicated at the political level to Islamabad.

At present, two problems confront the peace process that makes the coming months a very crucial period for India-Pakistan relations: a weak government in Pakistan that is unable to assert its political will for peace with India over the “establishment”.

The newly elected Indian officials who have started interacting with the government in Pakistan too say the main worry now is that the set-up is too weak and unstable to give any assurances that it can rein in “the elements” which have been chipping away at the peace process, whether it is on the LoC, the attack in Kabul or Mumbai.

Therefore, these recent developments have further raised questions about the ongoing peace process between the two countries and the prospects of their bilateral economic cooperation.

Even though India and Pakistan are currently entangled in political and economic deadlock, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) has recently suggested measures, i.e. increasing bilateral trade in the fields of banking, freight transport and goods like tea and rice, promoting people-to-people contact and raising businessmen’s stake, etc to achieve the target of Indo-Pak two-way trade to $9 billion in the next few years.

Their trade, as per current estimates, has touched around $2 billion and its potential will grow manifold as their interdependence on the economic and trade-related issues leapfrogs in future, thereby burying deep down Indo-Pak political differences, says ASSOCHAM president Sajjan Jindal.

The Indian Council of Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), New Delhi, in its recent study also said that India and Pakistan have a trade potential of Rs 46,098 crore, but the two neighbours need to take proactive measures to exploit untapped areas of economic cooperation.

Once the two countries’ leaders decide to start a political dialogue, however, expanding trade could become a useful adjunct to the political process, instead of being hamstrung by it.

With an improved security and political environment and a resolution of the long-standing Kashmir conflict, citizens of both countries would be able to reap a large peace dividend.

It would come not only through more trade in goods and services, but also from joint ventures and investments in each other’s country, improved coordination of economic and financial policies and from financing investments in human capital and economic infrastructure by releasing budget resources that are now committed to defence and security.

Both countries, therefore, need to make an effort to avoid conflicts in order not to suffer such a welfare loss. The development of trade relations between India and Pakistan will serve to resolve their political conflicts.

It is strategically more prudent for the two leading states of South Asia to move forward to take advantage of the opportunities and take on the challenges.

The writer has done research on South Asian security issues.

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Not quite a right turn in Europe
by Harold Meyerson

THE movement is everything; the final goal, nothing,” Eduard Bernstein, the great German social democrat — in many ways, the father of social democracy — wrote in the late 19th century. Ironically, Bernstein remains one of the few socialist leaders who achieved his final goal, which was to persuade his fellow socialists to reject the fatal illusion of revolutionary transformation and to embrace instead the cause of day-to-day social democratic reform of capitalism.

Marching, cautiously, under Bernstein’s banner, the socialist, social democratic and labor parties of Europe managed over the subsequent century to create the continent’s welfare state — capitalism mitigated by universal benefits and worker rights.

But what happens to social democracy when, having long since abandoned the final goal of socialist transformation, it also has lost its sense of movement? The answer to that question may be apparent in the results of last weekend’s elections for the European Parliament. In voting across 27 nations, virtually all of Europe’s social democratic parties took a pasting, no matter whether they were in office or in opposition in their respective countries.

In Britain and Spain, where they control the government, the Labor and Socialist parties, respectively, got clobbered. In Britain, Labor turned in its worst performance since it became a major party in the early 1900s, and the tenuous survival of Gordon Brown’s government has turned into a daily soap opera. The parties of the left also lost big in France and Italy, where they are in opposition, and in Germany, where they are the junior partner in a conservative-led government.

As my colleague Anne Applebaum noted on this page this week, you might think that a crisis of world capitalism would help the parties of the left, especially in Europe, where their long-standing critique of the laissez-faire American economics that both built and brought down the global house of cards has clearly been proven right. And yet, in the middle of the first systemic breakdown since the 1930s, the parties of the left are, at least for now, being left behind.

In one sense, the parties’ problem is that the capitalism they humanized so well at the national level is no longer national. The creation of an effectively borderless European Union and of a global economy has made it harder for those parties to expand, or even defend, their achievements.

Many of the factory and construction workers who were their historic constituents found themselves competing with lower-wage workers who either came to their countries or to whose countries European companies relocated their plants.

Moreover, as the middle class grew in Europe and the proportion of factory workers declined, the electoral base of the leftist parties changed accordingly. Some parties, following the Third Way policies of Tony Blair, sought to scale back their welfare states somewhat, thereby opening a rift between themselves and their longtime union stalwarts.

Moreover, during the past three decades, many hitherto ethnically uniform European nations have become home to sizable populations of non-European origin, which has led to a continent-wide rise of vicious anti-immigrant parties that have also eaten into social democracy’s onetime base.

For European social democracy, the cost of all these transformations has been the loss of a clear sense of direction, of mission, of Bernstein’s “movement.” Defending a social democratic island on a laissez-faire globe, the parties have found themselves alternately embracing and opposing the deregulations of the past quarter-century, with better results for some (the Scandinavian parties) than others. For most, it’s been two steps forward, two steps back. Some movement.

Electorally, however, their chief problem in this recession may be that the parties of the right, at least on the continent, defend the welfare state every bit as much as they do. Europe’s two preeminent conservatives, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel, extol their nation’s generous unemployment benefits, paid family leave and national health insurance systems as superior to America’s you’re-on-your-own economic arrangements, and as built-in buffers against the ravages of depression.

Indeed, in arguing for globalizing a regime of strict financial regulation, Sarkozy may have charted a course that the European left should follow — expanding their economic model to the global level rather than continuing to fight a losing battle to defend it country by country.

So is Barack Obama going against a global tide by trying to make American capitalism a bit more social democratic while Europe’s social democratic parties sputter and wheeze? Few on the European right would say so.

Even their conservatives view America’s deregulated economy not only as inhumane but also as a threat to global, and European, economic stability — a belief that the past year’s collapse has intensified. The nation that most needs that Bernsteinian sense of movement, of social reform, is the United States.

— By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post

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The wounds of Gujarat
by Shakuntala Rao

ON a recent flight from New York to the Middle East, I sat next to a sociable young man from Ahmedabad. Eager to talk, Ankesh Patel inquired if I had ever been to Gujarat and when I politely said no and that I did not agree with the current politics of Gujarat’s government, he was visibly agitated.

He was angry that Chief Minister Narendra Modi had been recently denied a visa by the US government to enter the country.

When I informed Ankesh that I had been one of the 100 American Indians who had vocally and actively lobbied with Senators, Congressmen, and the State Department to deny Modi a visa, Ankesh became irate.

In his stilted English, he whispered, “Like Modi Saab I have a lot of hate in my heart for those people.”

The story of well-known actress Nandita Das’ directorial debut film (she has also penned the screenplay), Firaaq is about giving a cinematic face to such self-professed hate and a fictional account of one of the worst genocides in post-independent India’s history: the Gujarat massacre of 2002.

Das’ purpose is not to turn the Gujarat killings into grist for escapist entertainment or a wishful revisionist scenario one often finds in Bollywood. She is also not interested in spinning a cathartic counter-narrative.

Given India’s jittery mood post 11/26 attacks in Mumbai, Firaaq is subtly measured but forcefully executed.

Firaaq is several vignette of people’s lives connected only by the presence of an orphan boy (Mohammad Samad), who is a silent witness to the lack of humanity that surrounded Gujarat during those days of programmatic killings.

Characters stoically reflect and perform: Ustaad Khan Saheb (Naseeruddin Shah) and Karim (Raghubir) wonder if the sound of a “raag” will ever reverberate again in their mohallah; Sanjay (Paresh Rawal), an unapologetic defender of the Hindu right, gets off, in equal measure, on looting shops and slapping his wife; a housewife (Deepti Naval) lives in nightmarish remorse for turning away a young woman who seeks refuge at her house from a mob which, subsequently, burns her alive; Sameer Shaikh (Sanjay Suri) is on the verge of fleeing to Delhi where he thinks he can escape the mark of his mixed marriage and parentage.

The brilliance of the film is that the parallel lives coalesce into a narrative of quests rather than closures.

Das is not the first to give us an incendiary story which takes on the battle lines of secularism and what it means for India’s present politics. Directors like Anurag Kashyap (Black Friday, Satya), Nishikant Kamat (Mumbai Meri Jaan) and others have started to portray India’s schizophrenic struggle with secularism.

When Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992 the shock in secular ranks was matched by the confidence that this was only a matter of a short sharp battle.

Over ten years down the line, with Gujarat behind us, secular India looks back on that shock as well as that optimism with disbelief – why was it taken so off-guard?

Why, to begin with, had the battle raging beneath the polished surfaces of Nehurvian secularism been invisible?

Filmmakers like Das are attempting to get to the heart of such troubling questions.

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