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August - September 2009
Without Fear or Favour: Comments on Current Issues
by Satjit Singh
In defence of our MPs
Some years ago, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, the former Editor of the Sunday Telegraph wrote a book, In Defence of Aristocracy’. He argued that it had become fashionable to blame the ills of the country on the aristocratic classes. He went on to say out that whilst their lifestyles may attract envy, their contributions to the advancement of society and the well-being of the county’s citizens had been largely overlooked. I fear the same may be true of our parliamentarians.
During the last several weeks, the media has been full of details of MPs’ expenses and how our elected representatives have been ‘playing the system’ and ‘ripping off the tax payer’. The relentless blaze of media publicity has ensured that politicians’ reputations are now mud. Whilst professing disgust, we have all gorged ourselves on these stories.
Recently I was talking to a businessman, who was scathing in his criticism of how MPs had behaved in relation to their expenses and how ‘diddling the taxman’ (his exact words), was rampant. “It is unacceptable” he thundered, adding for good measure that he was ‘disgusted’ at their behaviour. We later went on to talk about other things, during which he proffered me advice on reducing my personal tax liability - all strictly legal and within the letter, but certainly not within the spirit of the law. Clearly he saw neither a link between the earlier parts of his conversation and this one, nor indeed the irony of his sanctimonious position.
Jesus said “let who is without sin, cast the first stone”. Yet it neither stopped my acquaintance above, nor indeed all the hordes of commentators and indeed other members of the public hurling with all their might. As for journalists, they are hardly known to be shrinking violets when it comes to padding their expenses! In all this media frenzy about the ‘corrupt political classes’, it is sometimes forgotten that these politicians are part of the wider society in which we live. This is the society that wants gold-plated public services, but does not want to pay taxes for them. It is also one where many cheat the benefits system, pay cash to builders and other tradesmen so as to avoid paying VAT and are not above claiming personal expenses as business expenses. During the past three decades, we have become a ‘me first’ society, where personal well- being is paramount. This does not excuse the conduct of MPs; it merely points out that many of us are not entitled to the moral outrage on display!
The second issue is also about us as people. Poring over details of people’s expense claims, especially the more personal ones, was pure voyeurism. Is it really my business that an MP bought and claimed for prawn cocktail sandwiches, paid someone to do their ironing, or indeed clean their chandelier? My concern is that they represent my interests in parliament, are good constituency MPs, scrutinise proposed legislation and preserve the well-being of the country. As a taxpayer, I contribute to funding a system of parliamentary democracy. Like all systems, it is not perfect; to label it as ‘totally corrupt’ is, however, pushing it. If the system allows for something, it is human nature and not criminal to operate within the boundaries. What is at issue here is the legality, not morality of the claims. If an MP or indeed anyone, behaves illegally, I am all for the full force of the law being brought to bear on the person. Morality is however, a different matter. It says so much about the state of frenzy, that trials in kangaroo courts and lynching in the ‘court of public opinion’ have not received the press and public scrutiny they merited. Even the more level headed commentators have been afraid to speak out against this mob rule.
Finally, when the economy is in dire straits and terrorism is an ever-present threat, ‘Expensegate’, is a major distraction from dealing with what is truly important. Compared with other political elites across the world, our politicians are exceptionally and overwhelmingly honest and hard working. Most of them enter politics to make a difference to the lives of millions of ordinary Britons. By subjecting them to this relentless press scrutiny and humiliation, where most do not have an opportunity to defend themselves, we run the risk that they spend more time protecting themselves, than working on our behalf. I am concerned that the business of government could be sidelined because of our propensity to be sanctimonious; besides we also run the risk of putting talented people off entering politics.
It gave us a voyeuristic thrill to read about the expense claims of our elected representatives and it has already led to knee-jerk proposals from the key political parties to change the law. However, as the public slowly get tired of this news, the true cost of this frenzy will not be known for some time to come; the cost of lack of focus on the issues of government and the damage to the body politic. That is far more serious than a few million pounds of expenses.
It will need more than new legislation to repair that damage.
Defeat of BJP - a narrow escape
Not so much ecstatic, but relieved. The spectre of a Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) government in India which had haunted so many decent, liberal Indians, was at least for five years, laid to rest. The Congress-led coalition won a decisive and well-deserved victory.
The problem with the BJP is three-fold: its Hindutva concept is confusing and even offensive, even to a substantial majority of Hindus, its agenda could lead to the break-up of India and its policies may lead India to the dark ages. The sophistication of the Indian aam aadmi (the ordinary man in the street) which was previously seen in 1977, when Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian government was rejected by the voters, was once again on display. These ordinary Indian voters are so often dismissed by middle-class, city elites as uneducated and ignorant.
The BJP’s philosophy has much in common with the British National party (BNP) in the UK. Both are hate-peddling, bigoted movements, whose membership reflects this. As Eric Hoffer, the American social writer and philosopher said, “To know a person’s religion, we need not listen to his profession of faith but must find his brand of intolerance”.
They say that you should judge people by the company they keep; the BJP’s two key allies are the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Akali Dal in Punjab. The former an extreme right-wing modelled along the lines of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in America and whose leader admires Hitler; the latter a religious party, which by definition has an exclusive, not inclusive ideology. Whilst its other allies come and go, these two are inseparable from the BJP.
The BJP’s rise in Indian politics has also coincided with the birth of regional politics. As I have previously argued in these columns in a previous issue, it has an agenda to break-up India to its pre-British days when no one had overall sovereignty over what is India. Hundreds of years of Mughal rule followed by over 150 years of British rule could not achieve what the BJP was poised to do. It may still happen, if Indians do not do more to consolidate the gains of these elections.
Finally, whilst India struggles to emerge from its recent dark past, to a world where, in the words of Tagore, “the mind is without fear and the head is held high” and “where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”, the BJP and its associated organisations, e.g. the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and others appear determined to keep India ignorant and firmly rooted in the dark ages.
Earlier this year the Sri Ram Sena, another BJP-sympathetic organisation, attacked girls in a pub in Bangalore, claiming the women were violating traditional Indian values. Two of the women were hospitalised. Their agenda is ‘Talebanisation’, obviously not in the sense of a strict Islamic society, but in the religious fundamentalist approach it adopts. A characteristic of religious fundamentalism is to perceive the world as an arena of continuous battle and to nourish it with anger and the desire for revenge. This is happening across so much of the Islamic world; it must not be allowed to happen in India.
To show how far, the BJP ideology has diverged from that of India’s founding fathers, I reproduce below, excerpts from two speeches:
“We are citizens of a great country on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action”.
“In course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State”.
The former were words were spoken by Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru on August 14, 1947 in a speech on the achievement of Indian Independence; the latter was part of Mr. Jinnah’s presidential address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August, 1947.
What this tells us that leadership is important. If India went down and stayed on, the secular road was in large part due to the leadership Nehru provided in this arena. Jinnah sadly died too soon for such ideals to take root in Pakistan, a country established in the name of religion. Unfortunately for Pakistan, there was a lack of leadership provided after his demise. Whilst such leadership was available in ample measure from the leaders of Indian independence. The rise of the BJP in the last two decades has shaken this secular fabric. In rejecting the BJP and all it represents, the ‘great unwashed’ in India have shown a maturity and liberalism that not many thought them capable of; they have taken a big step towards the preservation of the Indian union.
We owe it to them to keep India a liberal, secular democracy.
To regulate or not to regulate
Had Shakespeare been around today, instead of saying, as he did in Hamlet, “to be, or not to be: that is the question”, he could easily have said “to regulate or not to regulate…….”
The debate between those who want more regulation and those who want less, is never ending. After the Soham murders, the press and politicians criticised the system in which someone like Ian Huntley could find a job dealing with children. The tabloids had a field day and the government brought in legislation which would ensure that Criminal Record Bureau checks were undertaken on all those seeking to work with vulnerable people, be they children or older people. Acclaimed to start with, it soon resulted in delays to employing new staff as undertaking these checks was time consuming and the UK lacks a central data base (remember ID cards?). The critics were not slow to begin baying.
Another example is Health & Safety legislation. Every time there is a disaster like Hillsborough or a train or road accident, the cries for increasing safety, multiply. Regulations introduced, are initially welcomed, but later derided as being symptomatic of a ‘nanny state’ and businesses view it as yet another burden which reduces their profitability. Hard hats on building sites, norms about numbers of ambulances at major concerts and sports events, seat belts in cars, etc. have all been as a result of introducing such legislation.
In more recent times, the excesses that led to the failure of the financial services sector led to calls for greater regulation. The press, public and politicians of all hues rounded on the government, asking why there were not stronger regulations in place. Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England (‘the Bank’), a man not shy in the self-promotion stakes, joined in, arguing that regulation of this sector was the preserve of the Central Bank, and not the Financial Services Authority FSA) as is the current system. The Opposition, sensing a chance to lay into the Government, sided with Mr King. The Chancellor is stuck between keeping light touch regulation in order to maintain London’s pre-eminence as Europe’s financial hub and protecting the sector through appropriate controls. It appears that he can do not right; regulates and he is damned, if he dies not, he is still damned
The Bank argues for greater regulation and demands this role for itself. An article in the Times of 9 July argues that given the experience of different countries, there appears to be no correlation between a successful financial services sector and one where the Central Bank is the regulator. It is not to suggest that success is associated with systems where the Central Bank is not the regulator. The USA and Canada have different regulators but have both experienced the same problems. It would appear that success is agnostic to who regulates; it is the nature of regulation that determines success or failure.
So it comes back to a choice between light touch and strong regulation. If the Chancellor goes with the former, the public, press and politicians will flay him; if he opts for stronger regulation, the financial services industry, press and politicians will crucify him. Damned if he does…….
The answer lies possibly in our knowing what sort of society we want to live in. In the light touch regulatory society (across all sectors), there are risks in letting rogues get away with crimes; yet there are rewards. In the examples above, recruitment to jobs would be quicker, the costs to business of health & safety compliance would be reduced and, London would attract investment attracted by a less-strongly regulated financial services sector. If however, we opt for a more tightly regulated society, we reduce risks, make society safer but less nimble, less flexible and certainly less profitable. The problem is that we want the advantages of both, without the costs of either. Perhaps my grandfather was right when he often repeated the following quotation (origin unknown) to me:
“Man is strange,
When it’s hot, he wants it cold,
When it’s cold, he wants it hot,
Always wanting what is not”.
Amen to that.
Finally, something heart warming:
Just when you think that life sucks and that there is no hope for this world, something comes along and restores your faith in human beings.
A heart-warming report in the Times of India states that a 900-year old Shiva temple situated on the banks of the icy Lidder river, is the only Hindu shrine in Kashmir valley with Muslim priests. Built by Raja Jai Suria, this temple was once a stopover for pilgrims going to Amarnath. After the migration of Kashmiri Pandits from a nearby village, two Muslim priests - Mohmmad Abdullah and Ghulam Hassan kept the doors of the Mamalaka temple open.
We not only took care of temple but also hold ‘aartis‘ everyday,” Ghulam Hasan told a correspondent. In addition to assuming responsibility for the safety of the 3-feet-long black stone “Shivaling“, Abdullah and Hassan not only maintained the temple but also ensured that it remains fully functional, despite threats from the militants. During the last four years, the number of Hindu devotees to the temple has increased slightly; these include some visiting Kashmiri Pandit families that had left the area.
It just shows that in all the bigotry and hatred that characterises Hindu-Muslim relationships in Kashmir, there are still some who are able to rise above it all and shame the rest of us. If for nothing else but the valour and character of these individuals, both communities need to stop and reflect that violence and hatred solves nothing. Both communities feel aggrieved and claim ‘right’ to be on their side, but this attachment to one’s cause without regard for others has not brought peace; only bloodshed.
India’s strength lies in its diversity and tolerance for all faiths. This tolerance has been tested many times; it has often been shaken but never felled. By their actions, these two Muslim priests have shown a greater commitment to humanity and tolerance than all Kashmiri politicians, on both sides of the border. With this act, they have shown themselves to be good Muslims and have also demonstrated the compassion in Islam. They, not militant Islamists, are of the faith.
It is time for community leaders of all faiths to take a leaf out of Addullah and Hassan’s book and work together for peace. We owe it to them, to our children and, to the thousands of families who have lost loved ones during the troubles in the region for the past sixty years. Peace in our time, perhaps? Insha’Allah.