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Two Wrongs isn't Right

Two Wrongs isn't Right

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: India Today
Date: April 9, 2001

Introduction: Norms set by the secular Taliban are governing the BJP's actions.

It is entirely possible to look at the almighty fuss over the National Film Awards as a real-life variant of the Pinky and The Brain show on Cartoon Network. A group of left-leaning aesthetes were offended by the jury's genuflection before Bollywood commercial cinema and promptly detected a conspiracy by the Hindutva brigade to take over the arts world by honouring a starlet who made a fleeting appearance at a BJP election meeting in Delhi's Chandni Chowk two years ago. The charges were lapped up by the Sahmat-supporting classes because the villains included the editor of the RSS weekly Panchajanya, a nondescript BJP MLA from Orissa, and Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj's election agent in Bellary-hardly the types the beautiful people in Malcha Marg barsatis would want to sup with.

The problem of the ancien regime resisting the encroachments of a wannabe Establishment is a very familiar one. In recent times, there have been pitched battles between the rival camps in the Indian Council for Historical Research and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and less publicised skirmishes in other institutions where the Government has a say in appointments. At the heart of the controversy is not a grand clash of ideologies, but what Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi evocatively described as ''It's our turn now''.

On the face of it, Joshi's contention is unexceptionable. For much of the past 50 years, the Congress-Left establishment perfected an elaborate patronage system at the taxpayers' expense. Whether it was the boards of the public sector ITDC and Air-India or the more humble telephone advisory committees, political appointments were the norm. Every section, from academics and film stars to petty racketeers came under this gigantic embrace. In the high noon of Indira Gandhi's socialism, S. Nurul Hasan and P.N. Haksar handled the left academics and intellectuals, I.K. Gujral managed the media and Pupul Jayakar patronised the arty crowd. It was an incestuous world, whose cosy ugliness has been vividly described by Raj Thapar in her book All Those Years.

Tragically, that is the world the BJP seems determined to inherit. It is one thing to dismantle the Congress-Left patronage system. However, to replace one gravy train with another makes a complete mockery of its claim to being a ''party with a difference''. The recklessness with which some BJP ministers are proceeding to pack various institutions with their own set of unworthies has not only corrupted the party, but made life very difficult for those ministers who have tried to be different. In the Prime Minister's Office, this use of discretionary patronage has touched ridiculous levels. There is, for example, mirth in the corridors of South Block over the case of one notable who was found to be so completely useless in his job that he may be pensioned off as India's ambassador to Denmark.

After last month's National Executive, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee spoke about the need for introspection and L.K. Advani referred to the Tehelka scandal as a ''wake up call''. But try telling party loyalists that the rewards of power don't mean a berth in the Atya-Patya Federation or cadging off the National Bal Bhavan. Good politics involves bulldozing a process of depoliticisation of national institutions, not emulating the cronyism of the secular Taliban. Two wrongs don't make a right.

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