MUMBAI, Oct 9 (Reuters) – India’s government faces an
electoral test in three state polls next week that could help
dictate how fast the ruling Congress party pushes ahead with
reforms and measures to revive economic growth.
The polls on Tuesday in the western state of Maharashtra,
Haryana in the north and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast
will be the first popularity test of the left-of-centre
government since its landslide win in a May general election.
Last week, a college in Mangalore in India banned a student wearing a burqa from attending class. The principal told local media the college had a policy of not allowing symbols of religion.The media did not say if there were students on campus with a ‘bindi’ (dot) on their foreheads or crucifixes around their necks or turbans on their heads, other symbols of religion one commonly sees in India, besides the ubiquitous “Om” scarves and t-shirts.Mangalore, a cosmopolitan city, is no stranger to controversy; it was recently in the news for attacks on bars and women by a fundamentalist Hindu outfit that declared they were against Indian culture.Nor is the controversy over headscarves and burqas limited to India. UK’s Jack Straw sparked a heated debate when he asked Muslim women in his constituency to remove their veils to promote better relations between people.Turkey last year lifted a ban on women wearing headscarves at universities, ruling it violated the country’s secular constitution.More recently, French president Sarkozy said burqas have no place in the country because they are a symbol of the subjugation of women. The issue has divided France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, over how to reconcile secular values with religious freedom.A 2004 French law bans students from wearing “conspicuous” signs of their religion in state schools, prompting Sikhs to launch a protest to allow them to keep their turbans on.Sikhs have also fought in some countries for the right to carry the “kirpan”, a dagger mandated by their religion and have called on the U.S. Army to end a ban on men with turbans.How about India, a secular country which allows its citizens the right to follow any religion of their choosing? Can a college or a workplace impose its own rules about religious symbols? And who gets to determine what’s conspicuous or not?
The toll in India from the H1N1 pandemic rose this week, but a look at the screaming TV headlines and graphic visuals in newspapers would suggest a country under siege from something akin to the bubonic plague.Dramatic headlines and graphic visuals in the media; reporters looking alarmed behind their masks; commuters with handkerchiefs and scarves around their mouths; and long lines of people outside screening centres, imagining the worst.Even as the health minister and state officials appealed for calm and warned against hoarding masks and flu drug Tamiflu, the red splashes of breaking news and the tone verging on hysteria were unabated.The World Health Organisation estimates the H1N1 swine flu could affect 2 billion people globally, and experts consider the pandemic to be moderate.That hasn’t stopped the breathless media coverage, selling of masks and sanitisers at several times the usual price and panicky schools shutting down.In fact, new U.S. guidelines discourage early closure of schools because the benefits of closing schools are outweighed by social costs such as unsupervised children and missed education.Some newspapers did play down the hysteria: The Hindustan Times daily said many deaths could be attributed to late diagnosis and other complications, and reminded readers that 16 people died of malaria in Mumbai in the last two days alone. During the monsoon, gastroenteritis is a bigger threat than swine flu.So how about some perspective and some calm?[Join the Great Debate on whether India is ready to tackle swine flu ; for slideshow click here]
Lost in the clamour over our cricketers defying WADA over the “whereabouts” rule in drug testing, was a tiny news item in the Hindustan Times daily last week about women boxers washing dishes and serving tea to visitors at the National Institute of Sports.Sports Minister MS Gill, when questioned about it in India’s upper house, said the practice was “a normal courtesy extended to distinguished guests”.There was no clarity on what made a guest distinguished or whether this was a courtesy that only women were called on to extend.The boxing federation, which has enough on its plate already, then sent out a press release, papers said, saying: “Haven’t we all grown up seeing our mothers, sisters and ladies of the house looking after the guests, right from our childhood. Are they doing demeaning jobs?”Clearly not in Gill’s mind.Isn’t it bad enough that every sport besides cricket gets the short end of the stick in India? Do we need to further humiliate our sportspersons — our sportswomen — in this fashion?Would you imagine the uproar if budding bowlers at the Chennai academy were made to wash the cars of distinguished guests as a normal courtesy?Harbhajan Singh and Murali Kartik were apparently disciplined some time back because they complained about the quality of the food at the cricket academy.The contrast could not be more stark: while our superstar cricketers throw tantrums over food and their considerable weight over rules, our other sportspersons have no voice, and our sportswomen, in particular, who fight against conventional notions of what a woman must be, are reminded they haven’t come very far at all.Most unsporting, isn’t it?
India’s law minister on Tuesday was forced to defer the introduction of the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill because of strong protests from the opposition as well as his own party members.For once, they raised their voices in unison against the provision that while judges are required to declare their assets before a designated authority, they are protected from public scrutiny and questioning.A hotly contested section of the Bill says: “no judge shall be subjected to any inquiry or query in relation to the contents of the declaration by any person”.Congress party’s own leaders have objected, saying the proposed law could violate the Right to Information Act that has empowered people and helped expose corruption.It has invited scorn from lawyers, too: well-known lawyer Ram Jethmalani has described it as “a conspiracy in corruption” that would make people suspicious of the judiciary and places the latter “on a higher pedestal than any other public servant in the country”.Law Minister Veerappa Moily has said the government was working on more comprehensive judicial reforms and that this was only a first step.But until then, should our revered judges deserve special treatment? Why should they be above the law that governs other people in power and, indeed, the rest of the country?
Anil Ambani on Tuesday used an annual shareholders’ meeting to lay into his older brother and the government for good measure, over the issue of gas pricing which is at the heart of the most recent spat between the fighting Ambani brothers.Anil charged Reliance Industries, India’s top private-sector conglomerate run by estranged brother Mukesh, had used every trick in the book, and some outside the book, to feed its “greed”, and was firing from the shoulder of the oil ministry that he claimed was being “partisan”.The 90-minute diatribe livened up what threatened to be an otherwise staid shareholders’ meeting, with accusations, pleas, emotions, tears and the inevitable invocations of the father, founder Dhirubhai Ambani, whose death helped bring the feud between the two brothers out in the open. All peppered with energetic cries of support from shareholders.The dispute next comes up for hearing at the Supreme Court on Sept. 1.Leaving aside the legal issues, was it right for Anil to have used a shareholders’ meeting to wash the family’s dirty linens and take potshots at the government? Certainly, there are implications for the company’s earnings and therefore shareholder value. But does that make it OK to discuss a matter that is sub-judice?The two brothers have fought before in the full glare of the media spotlight, and are quite likely to do so again. Anil has already given interviews to all major newspapers stating his stand, signalling that the gloves are off in this stage of the Ambani battle.Is this the start of a new season for shareholders’ meetings? We’ve often bemoaned the lack of shareholder activism in India, but clearly a big family business like the Ambani’s thinks nothing of using a shareholder meeting to air grievances against a sibling.Or is this just another example of India’s new-found affinity for voicing one’s thoughts in public? The parliament has debated whether this phenomenon – as seen in the TV show Sach ka Saamna – is against our culture, but is Anil’s outburst a sign that in corporate India at least, talking about your feelings, in front of shareholders and on TV, is acceptable?
Think Vespa, and images of Audrey Hepburn and rides down cobble-stoned streets immediately come to mind.How about families of four riding precariously on the choked streets of Mumbai or Delhi?Piaggio, the Italian vehicle maker that has made the Vespa since just after World War II, has made a big success of its three-wheeler auto rickshaws and commercial vehicles in India, and intends to relaunch the iconic brand here soon.Why now, when vehicle sales are sluggish, at best? Why now, when the two-wheeler market has moved pretty much decisively to motorbikes? Why now, when a certain low-cost car is close to actually rolling into homes of a lucky 100,000?But not so long ago, which middle-class Indian family didn’t aspire for — and wait months for — a Bajaj Chetak?Now, despite gravity-defying motorbikes endorsed by the likes of Hrithik Roshan and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, scooter sales are slowly but surely ticking up.Sure, many of these are the gentle, gearless variety so popular with the ladies. And yes, they cannot hope to match the numbers of their more macho cousins.But scooters are also enjoying a bit of a comeback in the west, particularly among college goers, celebs and eco-warriors, because of high fuel prices and the downturn, and a nostalgia that has revived such icons as Volkswagen’s Beetle or Fiat’s Cinquecento.In India too, scooter sales are ticking up as Honda, Bajaj and TVS explore new, stylish and more fuel-efficient options.Vespa — Italian for wasp, and named some say because of the high-pitched noise of its two-stroke engine or because of its shape — is no stranger to the Indian market: it was made by Piaggio and then LML in past years.Now, Piaggio’s wholly owned subsidiary will undertake the task of wooing the Indian masses with the Italian classic.All we need perhaps, is a scene, a la Roman Holiday or La Dolce Vita, in one of our Bollywood flicks, featuring the new Vespa, to kickstart a new generation of Vespa-lovers in India.Who would be our own Hepburn and Peck?
‘Archie proposes to Veronica!’
That headline sent shockwaves and started heated debates in many parts of the world this week, with most fans of one of the longest-running love triangles despairing that Archie Andrews has chosen the rich and glamorous Ronnie over the sweet and simple Betty.
But is it really that different a story from those dished out by Bollywood or the many TV serials? Perhaps the guy is rich. Perhaps the girl is wealthy and doesn’t tell the guy. Perhaps the guy has a wealthy father and doesn’t know it. But the end result is always the same. The guy/girl with the rich dad gets the girl/guy. Every time.