Thursday, April 12, 2012

From Chief Minister to Chief Censor

By A. G. Noorani

THE HINDU, Published: April 11, 2012 02:48 IST  

Mamata Banerjee's edict on selection of newspapers is a violation of the citizens' right to know and is an insult to libraries. 
Around 1967, Warren Unna of The Washington Post asked Shiv Sena boss Bal Thackeray whether he read any books. He received a stunning reply: “I don't want to mix my thinking with that of others”. The same arrogance, bred by insecurity, explains the order of March 14 made by the West Bengal government headed by Mamata Banerjee: “In public interest the government will not buy newspapers published or purported to be published by any political party, either national or regional, as a measure to develop free thinking among the readers”. The affinities between the two leaders are striking — populism and intolerance of dissent.
However, Mr. Thackeray's preference concerned him alone. Mamata's affects 2,463 government-aided libraries, 12 government libraries, 7 government sponsored ones and the State Central Library. All English language dailies were barred. Initially, a mere eight survived — Sangbad Pratidin, Sakalbela, Dainik Statesman, Ekdin, and Khabar 365 Din in Bengali; Sanmarg (Hindi) and Akhbar-e-Mashriq and Azad Hind (Urdu).
Two of the Bengali dailies are headed by two Trinamool Congress MPs of the Rajya Sabha. The Hindi and an Urdu daily are headed by Rajya Sabha MPs of the same party. Sangbad Pratidin, for example, is owned by Srinjoy Bose, a party MP. Its associate editor Kunal Ghosh was elected recently to the Rajya Sabha on the Trinamool ticket to give the owner company. After an uproar, five more papers were added on March 28; namely, Himalaya Darpan (Nepali), Sarsagar (Santhali periodical), The Times of India, and two others.
‘First instance'
There is another aspect, besides. The right to select papers belongs to the management of each library depending on the demand among the readers in that particular area. A central edict is an insult to them. Ms Banerjee's order also flagrantly violates the citizens' right to know. It is not for any Minister to prescribe a select bibliography to the Indian citizen. An official acknowledged on March 28: “This is the first instance of such a circular. The management boards of libraries have so far been the final authority on deciding which newspapers and periodicals to offer, on the basis of readers' demands”. Now the readers are asked to read what Kolkata deems fit for their minds; “in public interest”, of course.
Arbitrary orders are invariably defended by absurd and contradictory explanations. On March 29, Mamata Banerjee and her Sancho Panza, Abdul Karim, Mass Education and Library Services Minister, explained: “We will promote local and small newspapers”. Some dailies on her approved list will not be flattered by this decision apart from the impropriety of State funding of the press.
There is a judicial ruling directly on point by a judge of eminence, Lord Justice Watkins, in the Queen's Bench Division on November 5, 1986 (R. vs. Ealing Borough Council, ex. p. Times Newspapers Ltd. (1987) 85 L.G.R. 316). He quashed decisions by some borough councils in the U.K. to ban from public libraries within their areas newspapers and periodicals published by Times Newspapers and News Group Newspapers for the duration of an industrial dispute between them and their employees. This was done as a gesture of support to the employees. The court ruled that the authorities had taken into account an irrelevant factor and abused their powers as library authorities under the Public Libraries and Museums Act, 1964. In India, the Constitution itself will render such an act invalid as being an abuse of state power.
The petitioners, represented by Anthony Lester, Q.C., relied on Section 7 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act, 1964, which reads thus: “(1) It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof; (2) In fulfilling its duty under the preceding subsection, a library authority shall in particular have regard to the desirability — (a) of securing … that facilities are available for the borrowing of, of reference to, books and other printed materials, sufficient in number, range and quality to meet the general requirements and any special requirements of both adults and children …”
The abuse of power was blatant. The councils had but one purpose, namely to punish Rupert Murdoch for his stand in the industrial dispute. The ban was clearly for a purpose ulterior to Section 7. The violation of Section 7 was deliberate and wilful.
India's written Constitution repairs the omission of any such statute. As H.M. Seervai pointed out in his workConstitutional Law of India, Article 294 vests the assets and properties in the Union or the State Governments, respectively, for the purpose of the Union or the State, in short, for a public purpose.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1884 that “the United States does not and cannot hold property, as a monarch may, for private or personal purposes. All the property and revenues of the United States must be held and applied, as all taxes, duties, imposts and excises must be laid and collected, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States” (Van Brocklin vs Anderson; (1884-85 U.S. 117 U*S.151 at 158). Arbitrary expenditure unrelated to public purpose also violates the fundamental right to equality (Art. 14). 
Landmark ruling
The Supreme Court of India's landmark ruling in the International Airport Authorities Case in 1979 opened another avenue of challenge. Justice P.N. Bhagwati held: “The Government cannot be permitted to say that it will give jobs or enter into contracts or issue quotas or licences only in favour of those having grey hair or belonging to a particular political party or professing a particular religious faith. The Government is still the Government when it acts in the matter of granting largesse and it cannot act arbitrarily. It does not stand in the same position as a private individual...
“It must, therefore, be taken to be the law that where the Government is dealing with the public, whether by way of giving jobs or entering into contracts or issuing quotas or licences or granting other forms of largesse, the Government cannot act arbitrarily at its sweet will and, like a private individual, deal with any person it pleases, but its action must be in conformity with standard or norms which are not arbitrary, irrational or irrelevant.”
These tests render the order of March 14 a nullity on the very face of it. The Courts can strike it down suo moto or on the petition of any citizen.
They will render high service if they did so. For, it will provide a speedy and effective cure to a mindset which is completely out of sync with constitutional values and curbs. Ads have been stopped to “small” papers which depended on them for sheer survival. On Fools' Day, it was disclosed that the list of Banga Bibhushan awardees, who received Rs. 2 lakh each, included artistes, poets and writers who had campaigned for the Trinamool. Didi looks after her own, albeit at public expense. An Urdu saying casts her in a different light — “Halvai ki dukan par nanaji ki fateha (Prayers for the soul of grandpa at the sweet maker's shop, at his cost).

Please, someone tell Mamatadi she is Chief Minister

By Smita Gupta

THE HINDU, March 27, 2012 00:05 IST

Ten months after her massive mandate, the West Bengal Chief Minister continues to be in election mode, obstructing difficult decisions by the Centre and rejecting unpopular advice from State officials.

On March 19, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee swept imperiously into Parliament House to “persuade” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to appoint Mukul Roy as railway minister, and roll back much of the increase in rail passenger fares, just hours after she had forced Dinesh Trivedi to put in his papers. That accomplished, she pressured the Congress to withdraw its candidate for a Rajya Sabha seat from West Bengal, enabling her to push four instead of three of her nominees into the Upper House, before flying back to Kolkata. What did the Congress receive in return? Yes, the Trinamool Congress didn't back the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s amendments to the President's Address on the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), but its MPs, ministers included, only embarrassed the UPA government by walking out of both houses of Parliament.
Embarrassing the UPA
It was all part of a familiar pattern. Last year, Ms Banerjee torpedoed the Teesta Waters Agreement with Bangladesh, embarrassing the Prime Minister; halted the government's efforts to introduce FDI in retail; and after backing the Lokpal Bill in the Lok Sabha, opposed it in the Rajya Sabha. This year, she joined opposition Chief Ministers to railroad the NCTC and, for good measure, got MP Ratna De to shred the general budget proposals in the Lok Sabha. “It's called compulsive populism,” an exasperated State official told The Hindu.
If the Trinamool out-opposes the real opposition in Delhi, Ms Banerjee plays Chief Minister and Leader of the Opposition, by turn, in Bengal.
On March 3, four days after Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee led a procession through Kolkata in an open jeep, she followed suit, bringing the city to a halt, accusing the Left of maligning her government.

In the State
Ten months after she won a massive mandate, ending 34 years of Left rule in the State, she remains in election mode, as determined to prevent the Centre from taking difficult decisions, as she is to reject unpopular, if pragmatic, advice from her officials. Instead, she has focused on the optics: after being anointed Chief Minister at Raj Bhavan last year, she walked to Writers' Building through a kilometre-long surging sea of humanity. Eight months later, Ms Banerjee, en route to attend Republic Day celebrations, alighted from her car at one end of Red Road — along which the parade passes — and walked to the Maidan, where she was to receive Governor M.K. Narayanan. She ambled down, waving to the cheering crowds: when she arrived, the Governor — in a reversal of traditional protocol — was waiting for her.
Today, Ms Banerjee still believes she only has to wave her wand, and Jangalmahal will be magically transformed into a rural paradise, Darjeeling into a land of smiling Gorkhas, Kolkata into London, and West Bengal into India's industrial giant. But the jackboots she wears beneath that fairy godmother costume peep out each time she cracks her whip to make civil servants and industrialists — like her Trinamool colleagues — jump through the hoops. In January, she forced a sheepish Chief Secretary and Director General of Police (DGP) to repeat her claims on developmental works in front of an audience in Maoist-affected Jhargram. A few days earlier, she reduced sharp-suited captains of industry and foreign diplomats to schoolboy status: naming them individually from her vantage point on stage at the “Bengal Leads 2012” business summit in Kolkata, she asked them “what their problem” was — why were they not investing in Bengal?
That script went awry on March 14: in full TV glare, Mr. Trivedi refused to reverse the hike in passenger fares, spotlighting not just disaffection in the Trinamool, but also Ms Banerjee's unwillingness — as demonstrated in this year's State budget proposals — to frontally address Bengal's economic crisis, the key challenge to her government. Currently, as she struggles to pay government salaries, a burden enhanced by 2,75,000 new jobs, State officials despair. “In her first few months,” said one official, “she should have increased resources through higher taxes and raised electricity tariffs. She was so popular she would have got away with it. The longer she waits, the tougher it will get.” This is, especially as Delhi has ruled out an economic bailout for Bengal.
Credibility at stake
She's also unwilling to admit that anyone in her party or government can err. Last year, she raised eyebrows when she marched into a police station to bail out Trinamool hoodlums; this year, her unsympathetic response to a young woman who was raped after leaving a nightclub on Kolkata's fashionable Park Street has become a watershed for the city's middle class, even as growing incidents of rape and political violence in rural Bengal in recent days have become grist for the Left mill.
As Ms Banerjee's personal credibility begins to take a beating, and there is little on the credit side as far as governance goes, her party colleagues are staining at the leash. Trinamool sources told The Hindu that Mr. Trivedi's demotion is fuelling discontent among its MPs, with Mr. Roy's elevation angering them further: they believe his unsavoury past will catch up with him and embarrass the party again. Of the party's 19 Lok Sabha MPs, Mr. Trivedi and poet Kabir Suman (who'd already gone public with his unhappiness), apart, Sudip Bandopadhyay, Kalyan Banerjee, Saugata Roy, Suvendu Adhikari, Sisir Kumar Adhikari, Sucharu Ranjan Haldar and Somen Mitra reportedly figure in the list of the disenchanted.
Ms Banerjee needs to stem the rot, keeping a sharp eye on the Muslim vote, before the panchayat polls next year when she will face her first electoral test after she came to power. In last year's Assembly elections, she broke the Left's hold over the 27 per cent strong Muslim population, pushing the latter's vote percentage in the State down to 41 per cent.
Not surprisingly, Rs.570 crore has been set aside for minority welfare in this year's State budget.
So, has the girl who clawed her way up from the slums of Kolkata to the seat of power done anything right? “Her inability to take no for an answer can work well occasionally,” a police officer admits. “Last year, when she wanted to recruit home guards from Jangalmahal, she was told the rules forbade recruitment from a specific region. When she remained adamant, a way out was found.” That's the flip side of her total disregard for rules, procedures, or indeed the law, if it comes in her way. But can she leverage her inclination to cut through red tape to remain a force in Bengal politics? For that will determine her ability to successfully scare Delhi about her imminent departure from the UPA — and extract what she wants.