Monday, November 10, 2008

Snippets / Mail Today, November 10, 2008

THE alumni roster of St John’s College at Cambridge University would read like a listing of world leaders and statesmen but the college must have a special fondness for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who graduated from the Class of 1957. That’s hardly surprising since on a visit to the university two years ago, Manmohan had acknowledged the role the university had played in shaping his life saying “ Cambridge made me”. Last year, the university reciprocated the sentiments by instituting three doctoral scholarships for Indian students to pursue Ph. D courses in science, technology and social sciences. At 35,000 pounds, the scholarships are no small change. Doubts linger though. Rarely are scholarships granted in the name of those living; what’s more the scholarships in the Prime Minister’s name are sponsored by two major British firms that have vast business interests in India. Ah, the corporate connection again, albeit with a foreign twist.

Wine is curse of the political class
LOTS of things are going wrong that call for urgent government attention but our ministers not only get their priorities wrong but are even duplicitous. A senior minister told me that last week, the Cabinet burned the midnight oil debating the “ propriety” of setting up a Wine Board in a country where the directive principles of the Constitution encourage all states to encourage prohibition.
The proposal for its creation on the lines of the Coffee Board, Tea Board, Coir Board, Spices Board etc came from the Food Processing Minister Subodh Kant Sahay, who said it will go a long way in monitoring the production and processing of grapes for the manufacture of wine. His argument was that 82 per cent of fruit produced in the country goes to waste for lack of storage and processing facilities. With the numbers of wine imbibers growing at 30 per cent per annum and domestic wines making inroads into the foreign markets, he believes it is only a matter of time before India begins to compete with the best in the world.
Already, farmers in large parts of the country are taking to cultivating grapes as an alternate cash crop and as such Sahay’s instincts were perhaps in the right place. But the Cabinet meeting witnessed heated arguments, with the most vocal opposition to the proposal coming from a few ministers from a handful of states that ironically account for more than half of all the liquour – hard liquor, not wine mind you – sold in the country. It was left to Finance Minister P Chidambaram and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar to play the role of mediators. There will be no Wine Board. Efforts are on for a compromise and the frontrunner is the Grape Processing Society under the Food Processing Ministry. Even the most obfuscatory babu will find it hard to better that.

THE last few years have seen New Delhi and Washington cosying up to each other so much that it will be a while before our bureaucrats and diplomats – including retired ones – manage to rid themselves of Uncle Sam phobia. The N- deal is done, signed and delivered; the White House will have a new resident in January who is on record that Pakistan’s problem comes not from India but from within. So why is former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, the N- deal’s chief navigator, rustling up carpets in search of a piece of paper for assurance – where none is sought – that the deal will have full backing from the incoming Barack Obama administration.

Last week, when the world was celebrating the Obama landslide, Saran spent anxious moments searching for the letter that Obama had written to Manmohan Singh a couple of months back assuring the Prime Minister of his support for the deal. As the PM’s special envoy on the N- deal, Saran had met Obama who is said to have given him a stern lecture. Now that the deal is through, Saran deserves the nuclear enthusiasts thanks for his untiring work in pushing through what was once believed to be a lost cause. But the former foreign secretarty, now the prime minister’s special envoy on climate change would do better concentrating on his new assignment, which incidentally is a subject very very close to the president- elect’s heart.

Cracking glass ceiling
THE TICKET distribution process for elections in six states due from next week is over and all political parties have given a raw deal to the huge pool of female talent within. The line up is again so male dominated that some of the most talented politicians in the country will be nothing more than unpaid campaigners. No wonder the women are seething with rage. The Congress list gives the impression that the party’s Central Election Committee feels a woman at the top of the party is one woman too many. At the BJP, dharnas outside its offices have become order of the day.

The feisty Sushma Swaraj, a vocal proponent of 33 per cent reservation for women could guarantee no more than four out of the 70 seats in Delhi for them. Rajasthan has a woman CM but less than 10 per cent of BJP candidates are women. Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan together account for 584 seats but between them, the Congress and the BJP have handed out less than five per cent seats each to women. It is clear when the odd woman gets one, it is more because of ideological proximity to leader than party.

Kusum Rai, close to former UP CM Kalyan Singh, had issued threats of revolt. The BJP gave her a Rajya Sabha seat which will be vacated by no less than party chief Rajnath Singh. As I said, she is the exception and the glass ceiling will not be broken easily.

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