P. Chidambaram at Mysore Literature Festival

India’s former finance minister talks about his new book and about the state of the country today

Mysore, India, held its first ever literary festival this past Sunday. (They called it a ‘literature’ festival, but I think it should have been ‘literary’ festival.) I could not attend all sessions of the day-long fest but managed to reach just in time for the last one, a discussion with the Indian politician and former union finance minister, P. Chidambaram.

First, a little detour

That same evening, the local newspaper, Star of Mysore, ran a questionably written article that completely misread the spirit of the evening, so let this be a fair correction1.

Before I even begin, I should probably mention something about what it means to quote someone, for the benefit of the newspaper. When you say someone said such and such a thing and put it within inverted commas, you better quote them exactly; if you do not know what they said exactly, then paraphrase them and stop pretending like you are quoting the person.

For instance, Star of Mysore claims Mr Chidambaram said, ‘What is happening? I cannot talk to my own 16-year old granddaughter directly. The children do not talk to the parents, because there is so much of conflict. Instead of asking how many marks you got, ask who is your classmate? Go to her house, have lunch, find out what she eats, invite her to your house’.

I frankly have no idea where to begin: there should not be a question mark after the word classmate unless you put the phrase ‘Who is your classmate?’ within inverted commas; second, he never said he cannot talk to his granddaughter directly, rather, he said he cannot talk to her about the society she lives in and the status of the world today although she is well-aware of what is happening around her; thirdly, what conflict? Mental, physical, social? and, finally, this is what he really said2

You think our children don’t know what’s going on? Believe me, my sixteen-year-old granddaughter knows far more than I could even imagine I knew when I was sixteen. Except that what little I had I shared with my mother and we argued. The lot that she has she doesn’t share anymore. I think they talk among themselves. I don’t think they share with their parents. I don’t think they share enough. I’ve spoken to a number of parents, [a] number of grandparents. I think that children don’t share anymore because there’s so much conflict in their minds [that] they don’t know what to do. But don’t be under the impression that they don’t know what’s happening around them. Everyone knows whats happening, they’ve far more information today.

(About twenty minutes later, after addressing the Kashmir issue etc. outlined further down in this article.)

Reflect on it. Talk to your children. I know what we talk to our children. We talk to our children about what happened in school today, ‘What exam did you have today?’, ‘What are your marks?’ That’s important. I’m not [saying] that’s not important [but] there are more important things. At least once a week we must talk to our children, ‘Who are your classmates?’, ‘What’s her name?’, ‘Loretta? Oh. Which church does she go to?’ Ask her [these] things. ‘Where does she go?’, ‘What’s her father doing?’, ‘Have you visited their home?’, ‘Did they invite you [to] a movie one day?’, ‘[Have you] invited her?’, ‘Has she invited [you]?’, ‘What did they ask you to eat?’

I mean, these are the things which will tell our children that we are one country, but we are different at the same time. That [the] oneness and the differences make India. And everyone who has power must acknowledge the oneness and the differences of India if India has to hold together for several centuries more.

In other words, Star of Mysore took all of this, condensed it into a few (rather poorly written) paraphrased sentences, put it inside inverted commas and pretended like it was quoting Mr Chidambaram.

This makes me wonder how many other news stories that I am not witness to are being falsely, or at least misleadingly, reported in the newspaper and to what great extent. This specific case was simply a matter of wrongly quoting someone, which could probably lead to little more than false impressions about that person3; but printing wrong information outright and sparking a disinformation campaign, realistically speaking, is then not all too far and certainly not something any newspaper is incapable of.

I never had a great impression about the newspaper, but, if nothing, this observation has taught me to take my daily dose of Star of Mysore with a spoonful of salt. And if that gets distasteful soon, I will probably stop subscribing to this paper altogether so that I can avoid an overdose of salt4 for my own good.

And now back to the Festival

The session was located outdoors in a garden, beneath chirping birds and a continual, calming breeze. Mr Chidambaram’s talk circled around the idea that ‘if you have power, you are accountable’. This is something hard to disagree with. As a literary festival is all about books, authors and readers, it made sense that he would introduce his newest book, a collection of essays, published as a regular column in The Indian Express last year, titled Fearless in Opposition: Power and Accountability. It is worth mentioning here that, for all its talk of good journalism, Star of Mysore curiously makes absolutely no mention of this book anywhere in its reporting.

He put forth several examples, both from his own experiences and from recent news. He talked of how India has not extended the same independence to the Kashmiri government as it has done, for instance, to Nagaland, or like it is insisting that the Sri Lankan government do for Tamil regions in that country. He also drew from the example of Phelu Khan among others and pointed out the growing, disturbing trend of religious intolerance in this country.

Phelu Khan was a Muslim man living in the Indian city of Alwar, Rajasthan, about 150 km from New Delhi. He was lynched by a vigilante mob that accused him of smuggling cattle. The incident is a famous example of growing religious intolerance and right-wing vigilantism in the country and drew furious criticism against the mob that waylaid Mr Khan and beat him to death. Atop this, Mr Khan’s sons were charged with ill-treating cattle but have since been acquitted by two courts. Only some of the victim’s assailants have been arrested till date.

He talked about his idea that the survival of this country, which is arguably more diverse than any other in the world today, is due to a ‘thread of tolerance’ that has existed at the heart of India. I liked this because this is a view that I have, myself, maintained: than an educated man can tolerate the fact that others may not think or be like him, but that civil debate with others is still a valid exercise. (This is from an essay on education that I wrote over a year ago. It has since been republished thanks to its continued relevance today.)

Mr Chidambaram then moved on to issues of poor credit and declining investment in the country. (His question as to how many people have, in the last couple of years5 invested more in this country or have even found a reason to do so returned no show of hands.) He criticised the demonetisation as a scam that resulted in a temporary surge in bank account usage in India and stated not only that it would have fewer long term benefits but also that it would prompt an increase in disadvantages to the lower strata of society.

P. Chidambaram introducing his new book, ‘Fearless in opposition: Power and accountability’, at the Mysore Literature Festival.

P. Chidambaram introducing his new book, ‘Fearless in opposition: Power and accountability’, at the Mysore Literature Festival.

The predominant notion among progressives has remained that Prime Minister Modi’s decision to withdraw existing bank notes of certain denominations and issue new ones in their place (a plan that was executed with far less efficiency and smoothness than it should have) has been a poor one that just might hurt this country or, at least, will do nothing to benefit it. It did not help strengthen the BJP’s case that, just a few days earlier, a massive 0.9% fall in India’s GDP had made rounds in the news, prompting renowned economists to suggest a ‘serious slowdown in the economy’.

Despite criticising the ruling party in a civil debate, Mr Chidambaram responded to a questioner who declared that all currently elected ministers were corrupt by saying, right off the bat, that this was untrue. That he went on to say that he and others in the opposition knew (even if not personally) of many BJP politicians who were ‘clean’ drew him huge points with the crowd. He stated that although some were certainly corrupt, it would be unfair to state that everyone was so.

He also admitted that his own party needed to regroup and reorganise and said that it would happen effectively in due time. He admitted that his government did not, perhaps, effectively account for their actions in their last term and therefore, according to the ‘wisdom of the people’ ended up losing the last general election.

Victory or defeat, ‘we accept both’, he said, and then added, ‘I accept both.’ This was good. It was the foundation of a good democracy. And it was good to hear that the foundation of the world’s largest democracy was intact.

This was also a subtle reminder to me that, despite the growing intolerance (which must be curbed seriously as it stands against every belief India was built on), the cogs driving India are, perhaps, still somewhat sound. (As opposed to the American president, Donald Trump, who once refused to state that he would accept the results of the national election.)

In a nod to his book, Mr Chidambaram ended the pleasant evening with one final thought about what India could work on today: most leaders in the country seek power, he pointed out, but nobody wants to be accountable. But the two are not mutually exclusive. If you want power, you have to be accountable. This is a good idea for the leaders of any country, really; it is also a fair motto to live by.

  1. I am not even going to bother talking about how the newspaper misspelt Venezuela as ‘Venezula’. There is no country called ‘Venezula’. Also, Mr Chidambaram never claimed there was Fascism in Venezuela; indeed there is no Fascism in Venezuela besides some Falangism and a Nazi community that had been formed way back, around the second World War. [return]
  2. Trust me, I recorded almost his entire speech, which is something you would expect a journalist to do if he plans to quote a public speaker. [return]
  3. Which is not to say such misquotes are tolerable to any extent. [return]
  4. Please forgive all the puns. [return]
  5. That is, since the BJP government currently ruling came to power. [return]