Of Missed Calls and the Resurrection of Manmohan Singh

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh couldn’t reach political ally Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata, West Bengal, on the phone; and, in turn, Mamata reportedly didn’t get a response from Congress President Sonia Gandhi to an SMS she sent.

As Delhi, Kolkata and the rest of India argued about the merits and demerits of a hike in diesel prices, a cap on the number of subsidised cooking gas cylinders, foreign direct investment in the retail sector, Mamata’s Trinamool Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) finally parted ways. This left the Manmohan Singh government in a minority.

In the breaking TV drama last week, firebrand Mamata, chief minister of West Bengal, claimed she had sent a text to Sonia Gandhi that the recent increases were unacceptable, to which she didn’t get a response.

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, on his part, said Manmohan Singh called Mamata twice, but her calls were not returned. Mamata, on her Facebook page, said Chidamabaram’s claims were “concocted”.

In this modern age of communications, where mobile phones, both smart and stupid, Twitter and Facebook, have made it so, so easy to reach people, the lines between Delhi and Kolkata seemed to have been down.

Forget Ministers and Prime Ministers, legislators and parliamentarians, even ordinary you and me have now the privilege of keeping in touch with the world while stationary and roaming.

Even Indians and Pakistanis can Skpye each other, not to talk about calling each other on mobile. It’s possible for a Lahori to speak to a Lucknowite.

But, top UPA and Trinamool leaders, with all the resources at their command, just couldn’t reach each other. It appeared that address books had been wiped out, text messages weren’t getting through and aides didn’t know the importance of a call made on behalf of the Prime Minister.

Truth, be told, it just wasn’t about dead batteries and address books.

It was about the absence of will – both the UPA and the Trinamool seemed to have given up on their political marriage, but wanted to lay the blame for the divorce on the other.

And, at such sour moments, the easiest thing to do is to blame the absence of response by one party or the other rather than engage in the serious business of dialogue to salvage a bad situation.

Though officially an ally, the Trinamool Congress had effectively been playing the role of an opposition party from within the ruling fold. Just about everything the central government suggested or proposed was being opposed by the West Bengal party.

There was a sense of paralysis as far as decision-making was concerned – no decisions could be taken by the Prime Minister unless approved by Mamata Banerjee.

Under attack in Parliament on corruption charges following the publication of a report by the country’s Comptroller and Auditor-General for the allocation of coal blocks, the ruling party watched as parliament adjourned without conducting any major business on September 7.

The foreign media, too, picked on the government for its inability to deliver on key measures to reform the economy, lending to the overall sense of non-performance of the Congress-led UPA government.

“Under Singh, economic reforms have stalled, growth has slowed sharply and the rupee has collapsed. But just as damaging to his reputation is the accusation that he looked the other way and remained silent as his cabinet colleagues filled their own pockets,” the Washington Post wrote on September 5.

Just over a week later came a clutch of decisions, which pleased Indian and foreign big business immensely. Other than allowing 51 per cent foreign holding in multi-brand retail and 100 per cent foreign investment in single-brand retail, 49 per cent overseas investment in the civil aviation sector was also permitted.

Suddenly, a weak and indecisive Prime Minister was hailed by big business – Indian and foreign as reformer once again. The turnaround was sudden and the praise was lavish.

With the media, too, awaiting the crumbs of advertisement from these decisions, it appeared that Manmohan Singh was suddenly the same man who had led India to economic liberalisation as finance minister back in 1991.

The uncertainty whether the Prime Minister would go down fighting, as reportedly mentioned by him at a meeting to decide on the new reform measures, appears to have ended for the moment with Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party saying that their support for the government was not in doubt.

The question that lingers is a simple one: what’s the political price Mulayam will extract for his support to Manmohan Singh?

Watch this space.


Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan.



Heritage in a Shambles

My piece in The Telegraph http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120923/jsp/7days/story_16007854.jsp#.UF_jJI0gcmE

Hampi, the spectacular ruins of the kingdom of Vijayanagara, is a World Heritage site. Yet the museum there is a picture of neglect and disrepair, writes Amit Baruah
Pics: Amit Baruah

The City of Bidjanagar [Vijaynagara] is such that the pupil of the eye has never seen a place like, and the ear of intelligence has never been informed that there existed anything equal to it in the world.

— Abdur Razak, envoy from Herat to the court of Devaraya II in 1443

A world heritage site deserves a world-class museum. So, after wandering around the city of Hampi in modern Karnataka, which the United Nations says bears “exceptional testimony” to the vanquished civilisation of the Kingdom of Vijaynagara (1336-1565), one would expect to see an exceptional museum.

In parts, the Kamalapur museum of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is certainly exceptional. You will see headless replica statues of Krishna Deva Raya and his wife, an exceptional model of the ruins of Vijaynagara and some fantastic works of art that adorn the museum.

Sculptures of Virabhadra, Bhairava, Bhikshatanamurti, Mahishasuramardini, Shakti, Ganesha, Kartikeya with his consorts, and Durga are also on display.

Another gallery displays assorted antiquities such as arms and armoury, copper plate grants, gold and copper coins of the Vijayanagara dynasty in different denominations, as well as some manuscripts, the ASI website says.

You might be excused for not knowing what is what in the Kamalapur museum because the labels on many of the sculptures have simply fallen off. There is no description of what a manuscript might contain.

But that’s just the beginning. Outside, in the garden of the Kamalapur museum, hundreds of statues lie unattended. Some of them find pride of place in the main lawn while others are placed closer together for lack of space at the rear of the museum building.

Monumental mess: Stains on priceless artefacts. Pictures by the author

Again, many of these are without labels. When this writer walked around the lawns, he could see piles of wooden rubbish. Whitewash marks — side effects of cleaning done at some point of time — can be seen on the priceless statues. One statue, possibly of Ganesha (and one can’t tell, because there is no label), had a stream of water flowing underneath.

“It is a fact that the museum does not have sufficient space… to store all these fragmentary specimens because it is also used for storing other stores,” says the ASI’s director of museums, Urmila Sant, in an email response to specific queries.

The state that the exhibits are in is not new to the ASI. In a note to Sant, the assistant superintending archaeologist P.S. Sriraman says as much. “…the [museum] building is in a dilapidated condition owing to bulging reinforcements and chunks of plaster concrete falling frequently. This office had informed the superintending archaeologist Bangalore Circle for appropriate action,” he says in a note which was forwarded to this writer.

The presence of the marks, however, surprises Sriraman. To the best of “our knowledge none of the sculptures has been whitewashed”, he says.

He, however, admits that some drops may inadvertently have fallen on sculptures when adjacent walls and masonry pedestals for the sculptures were being whitewashed.

“The [whitewash] marks are unrelenting to normal and simple cleaning. However, they will be removed immediately… in consultation with the science branch,” the email continues.

The ASI also claims that no sculpture is lying in the middle of rubbish. “A few of them, broken and fragmentary pieces, are randomly stacked around the reserve collection building. These will be restacked in a proper manner very soon,” Sriraman adds.

The richness of the sculptures is undisputed — both in the museum and atop the many temples that dot the ruins of Hampi in Karnataka. Whether these sculptures have survived in full or fragment, they need to be protected and kept away from the elements.

The ASI, however, argues that displaying sculptures on the lawns of the museum is considered a safe practice and these are “likely to withstand the vagaries of nature”.

For the thousands of tourists — Indian and foreign — who throng Hampi, a visit to the Kamalapur museum is often part of their itinerary.

They certainly deserve better — better management of the museum as well as protection and conservation of the existing riches that once adorned the palaces and temples of the Vijaynagara Empire.

Instead, what they see is a sheer assault of a treasured heritages.

Rewind to Hampi: My diary in Outlook Magazine

An Affordable Microcosm

I was born in Trivandrum, worked for a Madras-headquartered daily for 19 years, travelled a reasonable distance as a foreign correspondent and my mother’s family is from Hyderabad, but have still seen very little of south India. So, in my current free bird status, I set out to realise my childhood dream of visiting Hampi—a lens through which to look at the great south of India. In my mind, Hampi, or the site of the mighty Vijayanagara empire, is akin to Machu Picchu. Google tells me that Hampi and Machu Picchu have one thing in common—both were thriving in the 15th century, but that’s an aside. The route I took from Delhi to Hampi was not a classical one. After spending some time in Pachmarhi and taking the beautiful ride on the Khandwa-Mhow section of the Akola-Ratlam Fast Passenger, I travelled by three-tier AC from Bhopal to Hubli on the Yeshwantpur Sampark Kranti Express. For a journey of 1,453 km lasting a little over 24 hours, I paid Rs 1,173; less than a rupee a km. After spending the night at the Ananth Residency hotel in Hubli, I took the Hubli-Tirupati passenger to Hospet—a journey of 144 km that cost Rs 90. But Saeed, my auto driver from Hospet to Hampi, charged Rs 200 for a 12-km ride.

Pompeii Of The Tropics

The Portuguese traveller Domingo Paes wrote around 1520 that the capital of the Vijayanagara empire seemed “as large as Rome” to him and that in one broad and beautiful street “live many merchants, and there you will find all sorts of rubies, and diamonds, and emeralds, and pearls, and seed-pearls, and cloths, and every other sort of thing there is on earth and that you may wish to buy”. Nearly 500 years on, modern Hampi is a mish-mash of demolished guesthouses, functional cyber cafes, travel agencies and currency exchangers. But the ruins of Vijayanagara are spectacular. On my first day, I went to the not-so-touristy Achyut Raya temple, built in the reign of Achyut Raya (1530-42) and found I was the only person there. It was peaceful and serene. No one else to disturb the carefully sculpted gods and goddesses; it was a communion to be enjoyed as a light monsoon rain fell from the skies. Most visitors make a beeline for the superb Vitthala and Virupaksha temples and tend to avoid the lesser known ones, such as the Gangitti Jaina temple on the Hampi-Kamalapur-Kampili road.

Distempered Hanuman

Trying to get information about Hampi in Hampi is a tall order. The tourism office in the Virupaksha temple has info on the rest of Karnataka and its rich heritage sites, but nothing on Hampi. When I entered the office, a little after noon, the gentleman in charge said I should try at the Archaeological Survey of India museum in Kamalapur, a Rs 6 bus ride away. Bang opposite the tourism office, a hawker had a little informative booklet called, simply, Hampi, published by the ASI. This was to be my guide as I walked around the spectacular Hazara Rama temple, the many-domed Elephant Stables and the Lotus Mahal. The ASI museum was another story. The display of riches, including headless statues of Raja Krishna Deva Raya and his wife, and scores of statues of gods and goddesses are out of this world. However, many have no descriptive labels, blank spaces indicating that the museum once did possess them. There are precious manuscripts, but not even a one-liner on what they contain. Outside on the lawns were many more statues of India’s heritage. Some with generous quantities of whitewash, a few were lying in piles of waste wood and there was a Hanuman statue with water washing its underside. Interestingly, there were no officials around, but I did write about my concerns in the visitors’ book giving my e-mail address and went to the ASI’s office in Kamalapur.

Drive-In Nirvana

People come by all modes of transport to Hampi. By bicycle and tractor, by bus and car—I saw vehicles bearing the number plates of AP, MH and KA of course. The vehicles are allowed to drive in close to the Hazara Rama temple through to what is called the Royal Citadel. My observations: Indian tourists and Indians in general hate walking. They will see what can be accessed easily by driving. Foreign tourists, on the other hand, can be seen walking or on bicycle even in places that are a little difficult to access. I asked a bunch of French girls how they had reached a place where I saw almost no north Indians around. “Our friends told us about Hampi. It’s a real special place,” one of them said. Some locals, however, are making good use of the temples. I found one young man, comfortably ensconced with his books, a bottle of water and a mobile phone, studying for his B.Ed exam inside the Sarasvati Mandir. Hope the Goddess of Learning helped him through.

On My Travels,

I saw many brilliant signboards. One in the Virupaksha temple read, ‘Please Respect Temple Customar and Tradition. Please Wear Fully Respectable Dress.’ But my favourite was: ‘Garden Paradise. Guest House. Multi Cousin Restaurant. Art Gallery.’

Journalist Amit Baruah is South Asia Studies fellow at Gateway House, a Mumbai-based think tank; E-mail your diarist: abaruah AT gmail.com