December 24, 2012

My tribute to Leslie Claudius

My most vivid memories of Leslie Claudius have little to do with his prodigious hockey skills, those that won him four Olympic medals (three golds and a silver) and led to him becoming the first man to play 100 matches for the Indian hockey team. His playing days were long over by the time I came of age. His final Olympic Games – Rome, 1960 – occurred before I was born.

Nevertheless he was a presence in my life, as a boy and an adult. He was a family friend, and I count his son Brandon as a buddy. More than that, Leslie Claudius was a legend of Kolkata and a lion of the Anglo-Indian community. He was everything we aspired to be – successful, genial and unfailingly polite. “Yanka”, his term of affection for younger people – and at 85, almost everybody was younger than him – reflected his eternal avuncular spirit. He was not just “uncle Les” to me; he was everybody’s uncle.

My most poignant memory of him is from 1978. His young and brilliant son Bobby (Robert), not yet 20 and just back from playing for the country in the hockey world cup, was killed in a motorcycle accident. It would have broken anyone. Leslie Claudius took it with a stoic and grace I can never forget. Deep inside, though, he never forgot Bobby, not for one day.

Leslie grew up in a railway colony in Bilaspur, learnt hockey in Kharagpur – both cities being Anglo-Indian bastions back in the first half of the 20th century – before settling in Kolkata. Here he worked and played for the Customs. Old habits die hard. So often I would see him at the races, taking a keen interest in horses but dressed impeccably in a white shirt and white trousers. I guess this was a throwback to his Customs days. I’d like to believe it also reflected the colour of his heart.

In January 2013, a world Anglo-Indian reunion is taking place in Kolkata and members of the community are coming from across the planet. Anglo-Indian achievers representing several disciplines are being honoured. Talking to the organisers I suggested they also honour an “Anglo-Indian of the Century”. The choice was unanimous: Leslie Claudius. We weren’t honouring him; he was honouring us by accepting.

Leslie had been ailing but seemed to be better when I met Brandon at the Dalhousie Institute on Wednesday (December 19) for Carol Singing Night, the informal inauguration of the Christmas season. His brothers, Leslie Jr. and Richard, would be home from Australia by 11.00 pm on Thursday evening, he said; “And by Christmas Eve we’ll all be having a drink.” Leslie’s boys would be home for Christmas. It must gladden the old man’s heart, I told myself.

It was not to be. On Thursday, at 3.30 pm, while his sons were en route, Leslie passed away. A man presented the Padma Shri in 1971 and the Banga Bhushan earlier this year had to answer to the Longest Whistle.

May he meet Bobby in the Field of Dreams.

December 13, 2012

Tax concession for acid attack victim Sonali Mukherjee

Acid victim Sonali's plea for tax rebate raised by me in Parliament today

A Thomson Reuters survey in 2011 says that India is the fourth most dangerous place in the world for women to live in, as women can be easy victims to cruel forms of violence and disfigurement such as acid attacks. The easy and cheap availability of acid has contributed to the rise of such attacks in the country. The story of Sonali Mukherjee who had acid thrown on her face while she was sleeping has captured the conscience of the nation. This shameful incident occurred in the year 2003 in the state of Jharkhand. Since then, the laws related to such heinous crimes have been relooked at.

It has been a tough battle for Sonali Mukherjee. However, I am happy to report that the victim Sonali Mukerjee has won prize money amounting to Rs. 25 Lakhs from Kaun Banega Crorepatia popular television show, hosted by actor Amitabh Bachchan. Under Section 194B of the Income Tax Act, 30 per cent tax is deducted on any prize money in excess of Rs. 10,000 and other winnings from games, lotteries etc.

As a rarest of rare case, on humanitarian grounds please consider the customary 30% tax assessed on the prize money to Sonali Mukherjee.

News that doesn't make headlines

On Wednesday, December 12, just before Question Hour was disrupted in the RajyaSabha, important work got done for some 30 minutes. Of course, this period didn’t make it to the media headlines, only the disruption and the din did.

There was one piece of information Minister of State for Home R.P.N. Singh shared that requires careful thought and cogitation, not just in New Delhi but across the country. In answer to a question he detailed the numbers of those killed, state by state, in violence related to Maoists in recent years.

Consider the figures for West Bengal. In 2010, 300 people were killed in the state in Maoist-caused violence. A massive 223 of them were civilians, 35 comprised members of the police and security forces and 42 were Maoists or suspected Maoists. In 2011, this number fell dramatically to 50, 43 of these being civilians. In 2012, with two weeks left for the year to end, the number of those killed in Maoist-affected violence in West Bengal is just one. Yes, just one.
This is not me saying it, not the Trinamool Congress saying it, not the West Bengal government saying it. These are figures shared in Parliament by the UPA government and the Union Home Ministry. The run up to Christmas is often called the “Good News Season” and on Wednesday I felt the warmth of this good news.

It cannot be a coincidence 2010 was the last full year of CPI(M) governance in West Bengal and 2012 the first full year of Trinamool governance in West Bengal. It cannot be a coincidence peace in Jangalmahal – where the CPI(M) government fought a civil war and oppressed even political opponents in the name of anti-Maoist operations – and amity in Darjeeling, which was seeing disaffection of another kind, were Mamata Banerjee’s priorities when she took charge as chief minister in the summer of 2011. It cannot be a coincidence these are today considered among her richest achievements.

She has reached out to people who felt marginalised or felt they had cause to be angry with the state, the government and the system. She has been tough on those bent upon breaking the law, come what may. The result is a much smaller Maoist problem than previously imagined, and a model for the rest of the country to follow as it seeks to fight and address left-wing extremism.

Unfortunately, these are not reports and stories the national media will tell you. These are not the themes you will hear when it comes to reportage about West Bengal. Never mind. Sensationalism is temporary; sense and sensibility is longer lasting. In 2012, Mamata Banerjee established this. Those statistics speak for themselves.

Jai Hind, Jai Bangla, VandeMataram. Long Live Ma Maati Manush.

November 28, 2012

FDI in Multi-brand Retail

Can the Government Explain its Unseemly, Illegal Hurry?

And Can it Stop Cheating on Rule 235?

1. In the past few days, there has been a debate in Parliament, in the media and in the public sphere about whether the discussion on FDI in multi-brand retail should be conducted under rule 193 (a short-duration discussion with no voting) or rule 184 (with voting) of the Lok Sabha rules. The government says it has finally agreed to a discussion under rule 184 and agreed to a vote. It pretends it has done the opposition, the country and the world a favour.

2. Typical of the conduct of the UPA government, the spokespersons, ministers and parliamentary majority acquirers of the Congress are resorting to untruths and half-baked logic. They are disguising facts. They are insisting that FDI in multi-brand retail amounts to a purely executive decision and does not require parliamentary sanction or approval.

3. This is a bogus reasoning and flies in the face of evidence before us, including as validated and upheld by the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court of India. Every action of the government, of any government, can be scrutinised by Parliament, which is the embodiment of the people of India and their sovereignty. However, in the case of FDI in multi-brand retail, not just is a change in the norms amenable to placid parliamentary scrutiny but also to vigorous parliamentary sanction.

4. Change in FDI regulations can be made only by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in turn changing regulations in the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) of 1999. From time to time, the RBI issues notifications making such changes in or amending the regulations. Section 48 of FEMA mandates that all such changes be laid on the Floor of the House; such changes are called “subordinate legislations” as per the Constitution of India.

5. Rule 234 of the Lok Sabha rules has laid down that every regulation made under any legislation – and this includes “subordinate legislations” – should be placed on the Floor of the House, if so required by the legislation, as soon as it is made. So far every regulation and amendment made by the RBI under FEMA has been placed before Parliament.

6. For example, the RBI amended FDI regulations on August 22, 2008, when it came to introducting FDI in sinlge-brand retail. The regulation was published in the Gazette of India no. 896 [E] on December 30, 2008, and placed on the table on the Lok Sabha on February 18, 2009. This too concerned Section 48 of FEMA.

7. On October 19, 2012, the RBI amended regulations to allow FDI in multi-brand retail. This was published in the Gazette of India no. 795 [E] on October 30, 2012. It should have been put on the table of the House at the beginning of the Winter Session. Why has this not happened?

8. Under rule 235 of the Lok Sabha rules any member can seek an amendment to the regulation and ask for a vote that will bring back FDI in multi-brand retail to Annexure A (sectors in which FDI is prohibited) and not approve its transfer to Annexure A (FDI permitted). This is the right of the House.

9. A vote can be demanded under rule 235 and the Speaker has to fix a time and date for putting the amendment proposed by the MP to vote. Parliament NEEDS TO THINK about the option of rule 235 much more closely.

10. The government, devious to the very end, is seeking to hoodwink Parliament, deprive it of its due right and is attempting to explain away the changes in FDI rules as merely an “enabling framework”, a milk-and-honey expression that means nothing. This is semantic jugglery. Enabling framework or no enabling framework, we are discussing legislation here – and legislation comes under the purview and superintendence of Parliament. No more, no less.

11. This government cannot be trusted with the FDI in multi-brand retail issue. It has a dubious history on this count and seems determined to allow in foreign chains for some ulterior motive. When the RBI did not initially notify the amendment to the relevant regulation in October 2012, a petitioner moved the Supreme Court – writ petition 417/2012 – saying the due process was not being followed in case of multi-brand retail.

12. On October 15, 2012, the Supreme Court heard the petition and got a commitment from the Attorney General that the due process would be followed. It advised the petitioner to wait till the end of the Winter Session of Parliament to ascertain where the new regulations allowing FDI in multi-brand retail had been placed in both Houses of Parliament.

13. It has been a week since Parliament convened. We are still waiting for the government to come good on its promise and indeed its Constitutional obligation.

14. The Trinamool Congress and its leader, Ms Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, have been the original and unstinting crusaders in the matter of FDI in multi-brand retail. Other parties have periodically jumped on and off the issue. Some of them are seeking deals with the government, others are seeking publicity. Only the Trinamool Congress has a consistent and principled opposition to FDI in multi-brand retail at this stage of India’s development.

Jai Hind, Jai Bangla, Vande Mataram, Long Live Ma Maati Manush

November 06, 2012

Dateline UN | October 26, 2012

Click to end digital divide.

Day Ten: They say I’ve been lucky. My 10 days at the United Nations yielded five statements to various Committees of the General Assembly, one address to the full General Assembly and a stint at the Security Council. Even though MPs from India visit the UN Headquarters every year, few are privileged with such a rich experience. Maybe I was fortunate there were only two of us for most of the period I was at the UN.

One of my final engagements was making a statement before the Third Committee of the General Assembly — the Social, Cultural and Humanitarian Committee.

I was speaking on the subject of media and urged digital media, including social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, be treated as equivalent to traditional media — or the fourth estate as we know it — in the privileges and legal protection accorded.

“It is important,” I said, “not to treat the digital media, which in many countries caters to a different segment of society, differently from the traditional media.” To treat it differently “would be divisive”. I felt this intervention was relevant to the debates we have had domestically, in India and in West Bengal, in the recent past.

There was piquancy to my concluding bit of work at the UN. I helped prepare a statement on human rights that I was meant to deliver on India’s behalf. As it happened, the schedule changed and the statement will now be read out by another MP in the following week. A text drafted in consultation with a Trinamool Congress MP will be read out by either a Congress or BJP or CPM MP! When you’re part of Team India, party affiliations don’t matter.

I left New York on one of the last flights before Hurricane Sandy. As we drove to the airport, I was contemplative. I’d visited the city many times but this trip had been different. The UN was such a transformational experience; it opened so many windows in my mind. After checking in at JFK airport, I sent chief minister Mamata Banerjee — or Mamata Di as I’ve always called her — a text message: “Dear Mamata i… I’ve been on many stages and in many studios. Thank you for giving me the biggest stage of my life.” The reply was instant: “Okay. Phire esho (Come back).”

Postscript: As an MP, I’ve interacted with civil servants very often and very closely. The UN visit was my first extended interface with our foreign service.

Just before I flew out, I was chatting with senior diplomats at India’s Permanent Mission and asked them if politics back home affected them.

They spoke of the continuity of Indian foreign policy and the general pattern of a government keeping to international commitments given by its predecessor. “Many secretaries in New Delhi are changed when a new government takes charge,” one of the officials told me, “but not one foreign secretary has been changed. The IFS has that privilege.” It retains a certain aura, sequestered as it is from domestic politics.

The official recounted the one time a foreign secretary left his job prematurely. It was in the 1980s when something the then foreign secretary had said was contradicted by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. “Almost immediately,” the official told me, “the foreign secretary resigned. He was A.P. Venkateswaran. I had worked with him, one of our finest diplomats since Independence.”

The conversation ended there. Hours later, I was on the Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi to New Delhi, the second leg of my journey home. The passenger next to me was a middle-aged lady, soft-spoken and polite, and we got talking. I gathered she had once lived in India. “So did you go to school in Delhi?” I asked.

“For a while, yes,” she said, “I went to school in many cities. My father was in the foreign service.”

“Really? What’s his name?”

“A.P. Venkateswaran.”

Thirty-five thousand feet above the earth, you could have knocked me down with a feather.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Tuesday, November 06, 2012]

November 03, 2012

Dateline UN | October 25, 2012

Catching up with AB!

Day Nine: The day began with a statement to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly — the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee — on the subject of child rights. The focus of my speech was to urge that nurturing the demographic dividend — both India’s and the world’s — be seen not merely as a social obligation but also an economic need.

“I come from India,” I began, “where one in every five of the world’s children lives. I come from India, where 400 million children and young people below the age of 18 live; this is larger than the population of America, Argentina and Australia put together. I come from India, which manufactures 40 per cent of vaccines used in universal immunisation programmes across the world, protecting small babies and little children from disease and death. I come from India, where investing in the future of our country’s and our world’s youngest citizens is recognised as not just an economic necessity but a moral imperative.”

The evening had a different taste to it, literally. I had my second great Indian dinner of the week, this time at the residence of Ambassador Hardeep Puri, India’s permanent representative to the UN. Puri is among India’s best-known diplomats, on extension to see through India’s two-year term at the Security Council. He is one half of the consummate New York power couple. His wife, Lakshmi, was a member of the Indian Foreign Service but left for a job at UN Women. She is today among the most senior Indian employees of the UN.

Dinner at their place was a magic mix of great food and great company. It began with mini idlis and fish flavoured with southern spices, among the most unusual starters I’ve had. Over the evening, the food and especially the kebabs got even better. There is a story to be written on the quality of and spin given to Indian food in New York, but that’s for another day.

At the Puri residence, I met an old, old friend. I had known Ajay Banga 20 years ago in Calcutta, when he was at Nestle. He was in fact one of those I consulted before setting up my company. Ajay later moved to Citibank and is now president and CEO of Mastercard Worldwide. He is also chairman of the United States-India Business Council (USIBC), widely regarded as the most important bilateral business forum. An IIM Ahmedabad alumnus, he is one of a growing cohort of Indian corporate achievers in the US.

Ajay and I, and the others at the party, chatted about the two big Indian diaspora stories of the moment: the sentencing of Rajat Gupta for insider trading and the resignation of Vikram Pandit as chief executive of Citibank. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal all that my conversationalists told me; cocktail party chatter and newspaper copy must be strictly sequestered! Nevertheless it did strike me that with the departure of Pandit and the diminished legacy of Gupta, Ajay Banga is perhaps the leading Indian face in corporate America at this juncture.

We discussed his role at USIBC and the future of West Bengal. There was interest and curiosity among the guests about Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamul Congress government.

We had a tentative chat about Ajay heading a USIBC delegation to West Bengal in 2013. US trading ships were visiting Calcutta as far back as the early 19th century, famously bringing a cargo of American ice, for instance. In 1794, the US sent a permanent envoy and commercial agent to Calcutta and set up what has become among the State Department’s longest-surviving diplomatic stations. It’s time to give the US-Bengal relationship a new momentum. Maybe Ajay Banga and USIBC will take us to the next frontier.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Saturday, November 03, 2012]

October 24, 2012

Dateline UN | October 24, 2012

Flavour of Puja-time Bengal

Day Eight: “Nomoshkar. Aaj Durga Puja, Banglar priyo utsav. Ei shubho dine aapnader shokolke janai abhinandan ar subhechha… (Nomoshkar. Today is Durga Puja, Bengal’s most cherished festival. On this auspicious day, I’d like to wish all of you the very best...”) As I finished the opening sentence, I could see delegates reach out for their earphones and the instant translation service. They relaxed as I switched to English. I relaxed too. The initial nervousness was gone. My address to the General Assembly had begun.

I woke up early in the morning and had my cup of coffee watching the sun rise over New York. My thoughts were mixed and contemplative. I’ve had my ambitions in life but not in my wildest dreams had I considered addressing the General Assembly at the United Nations. The walk to the UN Headquarters was brisk (it’s October and the weather is changing in the United States) but the news there didn’t do much for my nerves. My speech had been postponed from early in the morning to 3pm, after lunch, not the best time to address any audience.

The opening line — I’m not certain but I believe I’m the first Indian delegate to speak in Bengali at the UN — had come to me over the weekend, as I was wrestling with ideas of how I could give the speech a taste and smell of home. Once the speech began — I was slotted after the American delegate — the nervousness vanished. I had actually been more tentative when making my first speech in the Rajya Sabha. In Parliament you address the Chairman or the Speaker, right from where you’re seated. At the General Assembly you make a more conventional address, facing the entire audience of delegates. Maybe this made a difference.

My speech itself was on a spate of recent UN summits related to economic and social challenges and including the Rio + 20 Summit. I also addressed gaps that remained in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. I was required to touch upon issues as far apart (or as related) as gender equity and infant mortality, climate change and poverty. I had to urge, as India always has, a coordinated global approach.

“Our commitment to tackling infant and maternal mortality and augmenting women’s empowerment,” I said, “remains absolute and unflinching. It is part of our nation-building tradition.” I chose to quote Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar — “One of the foremost minds of 19th century Bengal, a pioneer of modern India and among our country’s great champions of gender rights, female emancipation and girls’ education”. It was deliberate. I’ve often felt Vidyasagar is one reformer from the Bengal Renaissance who doesn’t get his due.

Towards the end I invoked the internationalism of another of Bengal’s greats. “Space scientists,” I said, “call our Earth the Goldilocks planet — not too hot, not too cold, just right for life. Indeed, in keeping with that imagery, humankind’s evolution and prodigious attainments in the millennia that have passed have been nothing short of a fairy tale…. Our challenges are many. But given what we have achieved… what we are left with is, frankly, only the last mile.With our collaborative effort and collective will… we can fashion a better world for ourselves — and as a legacy for our children.”

Here I turned to my favourite lines from Rabindranath Tagore: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy/I awoke and saw that life was service/I acted and behold, service was joy.” “Let us,” I said, “as a global community, awaken to service. And to joy.”

I had been given 10 minutes but had taken 12. The first to congratulate me was the Bangladeshi delegate, a polished man who has memories of Calcutta, where he served as deputy high commissioner. He had also seen my quizzes on TV, as had, I was humbled to learn, the Indonesian delegate.

The entire team from the Indian Permanent Mission had turned up for moral support. They had helped me shape my speech. As one of the diplomats told a delegate from another country, the visits by MPs were a useful Indian innovation at the General Assembly. They imparted not usual diplomatic messages but “a flavour of India”. In my case, it was a flavour of India and of Puja-time Bengal.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Thursday, November 01, 2012]

October 23, 2012

Dateline UN | October 23, 2012

Quiet weekend before big day

Day Seven: Weekends at the United Nations seem to follow a pattern, especially for diplomats and delegates visiting for a short period. They are spent taking the train to Washington, DC, for consultation with fellow diplomats there or for one or the other social cum professional engagement. More often than not the visit to the General Assembly is combined with a round of meetings at the State Department, with the individual country’s (in my case India’s) embassy in the American capital, and confabulations with the several think-tanks in the Beltway, as Washington’s inner ring is called.

I skipped the trip to DC because there was nothing pressing for me to do there. I’d already gone there earlier and done my share of meetings. Instead, I spent my Saturday at the UN attending that other New York institution: the charity ball.

Organised by Children’s Hope India, an NGO run by Indian-origin women and raising money for underprivileged children in India for several years now, the charity ball I went to has long-established its credentials. It is an annual feature on the city calendar, usually coinciding with the General Assembly session. Each year, Children’s Hope India raises half a million dollars or thereabouts to assist 250,000 children in India. It has been doing this for the past 20 years, and providing financial support to institutions from Ballygunge to Borivili.

One of the features of the charity ball —hosted at the Chelsea Piers Complex —was an auction to raise money. The highlight item was a cricket bat autographed by the Indian team that went for US$ 15,000. There was also a painting by Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, which depicted purple flowers and was labelled, appropriately, “Flower Power”. It was picked up by a New York art dealer for US$ 3,000. I tried to talk to him and thank him after the auction, but he left as soon as it was over — and my ungainly sprint was to no avail.

Sunday was spent rather quietly — a short walk around the neighbourhood and then an afternoon of study in my hotel room, going over my speech for the following morning. The thought of addressing the General Assembly on Monday morning, on issues related to the Millennium Development Goals, had me both excited and nervous. I must have rehearsed my speech at least three times, and edited it maybe a dozen times, and even called my office in India for an appropriate quote. This is the Big One!

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Monday, October 30, 2012]

October 22, 2012

Dateline UN | October 22, 2012

One week done at the UN... one more to go.

Day Six: This morning I walked into the Kuwaiti Permanent Mission to the United Nations by mistake. It had the same ornate door as the Indian Mission and was in the same neighbourhood. For a stranger, it was easy to get confused. I wonder who copied whom! It’s a brisk, seven-minute walk from the Indian Mission to the UN Headquarters. About half the 193 permanent missions are situated within walking distance of the UN building. Diplomats from the 100 other countries have to drive down and negotiate the impossible New York traffic. In fact, UN diplomats have a reputation for parking illegally in the city and not paying fines, citing diplomatic immunity.

The annual trip to New York for the General Assembly session is normally popular among Indian MPs, no doubt for a variety of reasons. This year, however, domestic compulsions and the hot-house politics of New Delhi seem to have trumped the appeal of the UN. Congress MPs are missing entirely. The buzz is not one of them is willing to leave the capital, in case they get that call from Rashtrapati Bhawan on the eve of the expected ministerial reshuffle. Thankfully, I have no such fears, worries or expectations. Being in an opposition party can be blissful.

Being in opposition doesn’t preclude you from representing India, of course. Minister of State for External Affairs Preneet Kaur read out a statement on behalf of India at the Security Council. I was sitting right behind her, with Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s permanent representative to the UN, next to me. We’re not alliance partners in New Delhi anymore – the Trinamool Congress and the Congress are not – but when you’re at the UN you’re part of Team India. Nothing else matters.

My exploration of food options at the UN continued. R. Ravindra, counsellor at the Permanent Mission and my liaison officer, suggested I try a cafĂ© called Vienna, located within the UN complex. It was an inspired recommendation. I had a splendid lunch comprising clam soup, cod fish, rice and mashed potatoes. This was rounded off with cupcakes, making for a quintessentially American meal. It was light and filling, perfect for a working-day lunch.

Then it was back to work. I read a statement on universal jurisdiction before the Sixth Committee – the Legal Committee. My statement dealt with “procedural technicalities” in relation to international crimes where there may be confusion or conflict between the party offended by the crime and the national jurisdiction of the offending party (criminal). This is common in cases of piracy, for instance.

Shortly after I’d made the statement, I was told there was a chance I may get to address the General Assembly for 10 minutes in the coming few days. There’s no certainty yet, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. If I do address the General Assembly, though, it would be worth the sacrifice of a Puja away from home.

Wherever She is, the Goddess is blessing me.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Monday, October 22, 2012]

October 19, 2012

Dateline UN | October 19, 2012

Yearning for Puja in a heady ‘UNiverse’

Day Five: When asking a question in a quiz, I like to be on top of the subject. I make it a point to get a bit of background and digest peripheral information. The reason is simple enough — in case of an argument or an interjection, I can defend the answer I am providing. There is no point being an actor who reads out somebody else’s words. If you’re found out, you could be severely embarrassed. In politics and public life too I try and write my own speeches, with research material I may have found or which has been made available to me for study.

Speaking before the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly — this is the Legal Committee, which deals with international legal issues — I ran into a very uncomfortable moment. I was due to make a statement on the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law or UNCITRAL as it was called. Despite the best efforts of the diplomats at the Permanent Mission, I’m afraid I didn’t fully comprehend the text before me, with its arcane legal parlance; its reference to “arbitration institutions and other interested bodies with regard to arbitration under the UNCITRAL arbitration rules, as revised in 2010”; its stress on the “continued work of the Commission to ensure monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, 1958 (the New York Convention)”.

My discomfort must have shown. As I readied to speak, the delegate from Malaysia caught my eye and said, “Oh India ... Sub kuchtheekhaina? (All okay?)” I stuttered: “You know Hindi?” “Haan, haan (Yes, yes),” he responded, “Shahrukh Khan … KuchKuchHotaHai…” With that opening, I began my statement on UNCITRAL.

The two-hour lunch break at the United Nations Headquarters is an indulgence. Four of us — Ambassador Sujata Mehta, India’s permanent representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament, Geneva, Ambassador Manjeev Singh Puri, India’s deputy permanent representative at the UN, BJP MP Ananth Kumar and me — went to a restaurant called Tulsi, located roughly halfway between the UN and the Indian Mission. It was a Michelin star Indian restaurant that richly deserved its accolade. I had a variety of kebabs, among the best I’ve ever eaten. Why the management at Tulsi had to spoil their excellent and varied menu with Gobi Manchurian was, of course, beyond me!

The conversation was engaging. Mehta and Puri are two of the best officers in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). Being at the UN, they swim deep in the oceans of multilateralism. They spoke about the domestic sources of foreign policy, and the gradual evolution from local concerns to representing India overseas to contributing to building global governance. Indeed, as one of them joked, perhaps it was time to “rename the ministry of external affairs the ministry of global governance”.

It was all in good humour, but also served as a wake-up call for me. While no doubt important, global governance and multilateralism form only a small part of the MEA’s portfolio. From dealing with neighbours to promoting bilateral relations with big powers or facilitating trade and visa issues, the meat and bones often lie elsewhere. However, it is easy to lose sight of this in the heady, all-consuming universe of the UN, where the rest of the world almost doesn’t exist.

There was a message here for me as well. The UN experience has been overwhelming but it is only an adjunct to the real politics back home. Midway through my UN sojourn that thought made me nostalgic for the political theatre of Lutyens’ Delhi, and the smells and sounds of the approach of Puja in Calcutta.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Friday, October 19, 2012]

October 18, 2012

Dateline UN | October 18, 2012

Kid in a candy store at ‘high table’ of planet

Day Four: However old we become, there is still inside us that child wanting to reach to that candy behind the store window. As I sat there at the horseshoe-shaped Security Council table, I was transfixed by the voting button in front of me, itching to touch it, feel it, press it. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the issue didn’t come down to voting!

Nevertheless I had a real-life, real-time experience of the Security Council. All those political science lessons Father Huart, the forever-smiling Jesuit, had taught us in classes XI and XII at St. Xavier’s came rushing back, as if I were in a reverie. Except of course, this was not a political theory lecture — this was the real thing.

The 15-member Security Council was discussing the “Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. The Palestinian case for full membership of the United Nations is supported by 132 of 193 countries. Of the 61 naysayers, Israel is expectedly the most prominent. Seated at the two ends of the horseshoe (in the second-last seats to the left and the right) were the contending parties, the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The 15 members of the Security Council (five permanent, 10 — among them India, elected for two-year terms) and 50 countries from the General Assembly made submissions on the issue being discussed. They spoke from chairs placed at the ends of the horseshoe table, sitting next to either Palestine or Israel. There was no controversy this time, but in the past even seating arrangements at the Security Council have caused problems. An Iranian delegate once refused to make a presentation because he was seated next to the Israeli delegate and wanted his seat changed. It was only when he was threatened with forfeiture of speaking opportunity that he quietened down. Thankfully there was no such drama this time.

The Security Council meets from 10 to 1 and then from 3 to 6. The two-hour lunch break is an indulgence that I used to discover the food options in the UN Headquarters but more on that in another piece. I heard the submissions of various countries with rapt attention. To my mind, the best, most forceful and articulate voice was that of the Bangladeshi representative. I was tempted to go up to him and congratulate him in Bengali.

India becomes president of the Security Council in November. It (and I) sat to the left of the Guatemalan representative, who presides over the Council in October. To my left was the gentlemen from Morocco, separating India and Pakistan as it happened. All in all it was a good day at the high table of the planet. Father Huart would be proud of me.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Thursday, October 18, 2012]

October 17, 2012

Dateline UN | October 17, 2012

Ma Mati Manush reaches UN

Day Three: The Indian Permanent Mission to the United Nations is located at 235 East, 43rd Street, New York. It’s not far from the East River, which flows past the UN Headquarters. The Permanent Mission is housed in a building redolent of Indian associations, and designed by the well-known architect Charles Correa. As you enter the reception area, a striking and massive painting, 20 feet high, captures your gaze. Painted by M.F. Hussain in 1993, it depicts the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

The painting, with the tragic episode it depicts, is apposite for the location, as the UN was set up to sequester humankind from the ravages of war, violence and bigotry. One of Husain’s most monumental works, it is also, the assessment goes, probably worth more than the value of the property it is displayed in!

One principle of the UN General Assembly is egalitarianism. This is the Lok Sabha of the world and all of its 193 members — with their flags displayed outside the UN building — have an equal voice and standing. You experience this enforced equality when you walk down to get your identity tag. It’s a short walk from the Indian Mission but it has to be done by everybody when he or she arrives at the UN as a delegate. You could be an ambassador or a minister, an MP or a civil servant, it doesn’t matter. You still queue up, and become part of the most multi-ethnic, multicultural and multinational single file you will ever be privileged to join.

My first statement at the UN was to the second committee of the General Assembly, the Economic and Financial Committee. Each committee meets in a separate chamber, with a capacity of about 200 people. Statements are made sitting down — a novel experience for me — and translated simultaneously into the many languages that the UN uses. I was speaking on issues related to “funding of operational activities of the UN development system along with Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review and the state of South-South Cooperation”.

It was a short statement, about 1,200 words, but I will leave you with the operative opening paragraph: “Poverty eradication still remains the overriding priority for developing countries and the greatest global challenge. It is therefore our considered conviction that poverty eradication should be at the heart of UN’s operational activities for development, as its primary objective. In Bengal, the region of India I come from, we call this humanistic philosophy one of ‘Ma, Mati, Manush’ — signifying an equilibrium of the universally caring Mother, the Earth that nurtures us, and the Human Beings who must be central to our developmental endeavours.”

I felt both humbled and satisfied as I finished my statement. I was humbled because I was speaking before the most august audience I had ever addressed. I was satisfied because I had managed to integrate the Trinamool Congress’ core philosophy into the message India wanted to give to the UN, and one which I believe is relevant to large parts of the developing world.

It was a reasonable beginning, but much remains to be done during my stint at the UN. As somebody else put it in a different America at a different time, “Tomorrow is another day.”

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Wednesday, October 17, 2012]

October 16, 2012

Dateline UN | October 16, 2012

Back to books at parliament of nations.

We’re staying at the Millennium Plaza Hotel, a short walk from the United Nations Organisation Headquarters, and known universally it would appear as “the UN Hotel”. Coming to this part of town has been exciting and different. I’ve visited New York several times but have never come to the UN building or its neighbourhood. It’s almost like you’re entering another zone. This is an uber cosmopolitan precinct even within the world’s most cosmopolitan city. It even has its own postage stamps! The UN complex is an imposing one, and one of its architects incidentally was Le Corbusier, the French urban planner who later gave us Chandigarh and Gandhinagar.

The business end of the visit begins on Monday. Depending on how you see it, I’ve been promised or warned I’ll get more speaking duties than expected. Part of the reason for this is the parliamentary delegation is smaller than anticipated. One of my colleagues, S.C. Misra of the BSP, has dropped out. That means the MPs who are here for the General Assembly session — Ananth Kumar of the BJP and me — will get more opportunities to speak than expected. I’m not complaining.

Our speeches are prepared in consultation with the Indian Permanent Mission at the UN. Even so, the Mission and its able diplomats provide only talking points and overarching statements of national positions. MPs have the right and the flexibility to redraft the text, adding political or broader philosophical ideas and thoughts that they may want to put on record before the Legislature of the Planet. Of course, these cannot contravene national positions, as the MPs are representing India and not an individual party. Nevertheless I have some plans to bring a bit of West Bengal into my submission on behalf of India.

Before I arrived in New York, I had been primed to speak before the Third Committee of the General Assembly — the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee. I felt this choice was appropriate, especially given the Trinamool Congress’ mandate and political charter. It now seems I may also have to give statements before the Second Committee (Economic and Financial Committee) and the Sixth Committee (Legal Committee).

The subjects before these committees range from challenges before the international financial system to the ambit of international jurisdictions on individual nation states. It is all very different from a TV debate back home, with its customary quota of one-liners. My weekend has been spent reading background papers and consulting a short manual on UN procedure. It’s been harder work than I imagined, but extremely educative. Watching me pore over documents on a Sunday morning, my wife muttered I resembled a nervous student. Well, the anticipation of speaking at the UN does do things to you!

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Monday, October 16, 2012]

October 15, 2012

Dateline UN | October 15, 2012

A boy from Calcutta bats for India!

Day One: This past fortnight's been hectic. It began with an emphatic rally at Jantar Mantar in Delhi and moved on to quiz shows in Singapore and Doha. Then, I bought my ticket to New York for the United Nations General Assembly session. I'm one of two parliamentary representatives from India who will be at the UN beginning on Monday. My colleague will be Ananth Kumar of the BJP. We will succeed L.K. Advani (BJP) and Dharmendra Yadav (Samajwadi Party).
As a young boy, I often dreamt of playing for India - at cricket but more at football. Of course, that remained a boyhood fantasy. I simply wasn't good enough. As such, it is more than a little humbling to contemplate I will be batting for India this coming fortnight, in the parliament of nations, the UN - and be reading statements on behalf of our country. I have represented my party and my state at political and legislative forums. It is my privilege that I have been allowed to make the leap to representing our country. These are not empty words. For an ordinary middle-class boy from Calcutta, this is a huge, huge honour.

The practice of an all-party delegation of MPs visiting New York during the first few months of the General Assembly session is believed to have been initiated by Jawaharlal Nehru, our first Prime Minister and a fervent advocate of internationalism. It says something about India that a practice begun by a Congress PM has been furthered in recent days by MPs from the BJP, the Samajwadi Party and the Trinamul Congress. For all our bickering and argument at home, there must be something our democracy has got right.

Indeed, the Indian tradition of sending MPs to the first few meetings of each session is unique. No other country does it. No other country sees a similar need for capacity building and education of its MPs or making them engage with the UN. As an idea it is a noble one. There is also a utilitarian purpose to it. During their visit, MPs attend deliberations of the General Assembly and its committees and get an insider view of multilateral diplomacy as it is undertaken.

We live in an era of diffused sovereignties, when the ambit of international legal and normative regimes has expanded enormously. This process ' the globalisation of a domestic polity, if I could coin an expression ' is here to stay. That is why an osmotic interaction between an ordinary MP, belonging to a party with its base in Bengal, and an institutional process that tempers national jurisdictions can be just so useful and educative. It brings the local and the global a little closer to each other.

As you may expect, I'm looking forward to my apprenticeship at the UN. I hope to come back wiser and intellectually richer.

Do wish me luck.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Monday, October 15, 2012]

September 18, 2012

Mobile Phone Mayhem!

Let me begin this week's column by giving you my mobile phone number. Here it is: 98300... wait a minute! That is so silly of me. Really silly. Why would I want to share my cell number with 60 lakh readers of this iconic newspaper!

If I did, some of you would call me, and the phone would have a really tough day on Monday going kring-krriinngg-ring... never mind!

How many times have you changed your caller tune in the last 5 years or more?
I am sure most of you have. My 17 year old daughter (like most teenagers) changes her caller tune about once a month - maximum two.

Let me share something with you. I have had the same caller tune for the last many, many years. Since the time the movie Kal Ho Na Ho released... yes, lyrics by Javed Akhtar and the haunting melody created by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. You have guessed it right! It is Kal Ho Na Ho - has been for many years, and I do not intend to change it in a while. Lovely song, na.

After reading all those stories about how excessive use of the cell phone may damage health, one has started using headphones. The truth is I lose so many of these ear sets that one often goes back to the bad habit of talking on my cell phone with the instrument placed on my ear. Not good! And what is worse is when people use the mobile phone when crossing the road. Let us take a pledge to NEVER EVER talk on the cell phone while crossing the street.

Stay safe!

[This is the English translation of the Bengali article in Anandabazar Patrika's Knowledge Darpan | Monday, September 17, 2012]

September 04, 2012

"If you are passionate about what you are doing you will never retire from doing it."

Gone are the days when children dreamed of  becoming (and  parents wished  that their children would become) doctors, engineers or pilots. I have the deepest respect for doctors (my wife is one) and engineers (many of my friends are) and those professions that are considered traditional. More power to all those who want to become doctors, engineers or pilots – we definitely need them.

But today’s youth are now looking at other avenues. There are a whole lot of alternate careers out there that are not only exciting and interesting but also offer a comfortable packet at the end of the month. Institutes have mushroomed across the country, offering diploma and certificate courses in anything and everything from Radio Jockeying to Wildlife Photography. If you are health conscious and into body building you could plan on becoming a personal trainer or a dietician. The artistically inclined are going in for diverse courses like landscape designing or jewellery designing. Cookery shows and dance reality shows on television have many making a beeline for courses in hotel management and choreography. Then there are TV anchors, wedding planners, celebrity managers, personal groomers, and a load of other alternative careers to choose from.

I was lucky that I had the opportunity to make my hobby into my profession. I remember, I would get the funny look whenever I would write ‘Quiz Master’ against ‘Profession’ while filling in an official form.  I know people who enjoy their jobbies (hobby that has been turned into a job) so much that they don’t need to take a holiday. They even work 16-18 hours a day, not because they are workaholics or because they have to, but just because they enjoy what they are doing so much. If you are passionate about what you are doing you will never retire from doing it.

But a word of caution. Don’t take up an offbeat or alternative career just for the sake of it or just to be different. Go for it if and only if you are truly passionate about it. Else you could find yourself in big trouble!

[This is the English translation of the Bengali article in Anandabazar Patrika's Knowledge Darpan | Monday, September 03, 2012]

August 15, 2012

The O'Briens of India and Pakistan

Thoughts on Independence Day

Each year, on August 15, I find myself thinking of my great-grandmother – my father’s paternal grand-mother, Nellie Bella, as she was named when born into a well-to-do Bengali Christian family. She lived at various times in Jalpaiguri, Dharamtalla and finally in Jamir Lane (Ballygunge) where she built what was to be our family home and formed part of my earliest memories. She died in 1969, when I was a small schoolboy. Yet even by then she had come to represent an influential figure for me – the familiar matriarch, caring but firm, who taught the three of us, my brothers and me, to speak Bengali.

To my young mind, Nellie Bella O’Brien, as she became on marrying a second-generation Irish settler (Anglo-Indian) in India – symbolized history. She was a walking, talking monument of history. To my innocent eyes, she seemed to stand for Mother India: a venerable and iconic figure who shed a silent tear in August 1947 when one country became two nations, and a composite society was split forever.

Nellie Bella cried in August 1947, she cried every day from 1947 to 1969. She cried for the line in the sand that Partition drew. She cried for Patrick, her first-born, her beloved son who stayed on in Peshawar and later in Lahore.

The narrative of Partition has been written in terms of the subcontinent’s Hindus and Muslims. Christians have had only a small role. Anglo-Indians – the community I belong to and which makes up a minuscule section of India’s Christians – have had just a walk-on part.

Yet Partition had a dramatic impact on my extended family. My paternal grandfather, Amos – Nellie’s second son – was one of three brothers. The eldest of them, Patrick, was  a civil servant who worked in Peshawar and Lahore, and served as personal assistant to Sir Olaf Caroe, governor of the Northwest Frontier Province and later Sir George Cunningham. Much of the rest of the family was in Kolkata, including my grandfather.

One day, without quite realizing its implications, these wings of the O’Brien family became citizens of separate countries. Within months India and Pakistan were at war. Patrick, the son who had stayed on in Pakistan, had a large family – one of his daughters married a fighter pilot, who stayed on in the Indian Air Force. His brother, also a fighter pilot, opted for the Pakistani Air Force.


Imagine Nellie’s plight, and that of her granddaughter in India – my father’s cousin. Night after night she stayed up, I’ve been told, wondering if her husband would come home or if her brother in-law, was safe – or if these two men, comrades and brothers in the same air force till only a few weeks earlier, would battle each other in the eerie anonymity of the skies.

Thankfully neither died in that war, but a distance emerged.  Father and daughter, sister and sister, cousin and cousin, my Indian grandfather and his Pakistani brother, Nellie and Patrick – they lost touch.

My brothers and I grew up in a very different environment. We were the only Christian family in a middle-class, predominantly Bengali-Hindu neighbourhood in Kolkata, living, in one of those ironies that make India just so captivating, in a lane named after a Muslim. We lived in the house Nellie had built in 1938. She was  widowed early, left with three sons to bring up and bravely took up the study of medicine. Her training as a doctor – she was among the earliest women to enter medical college in Bengal – came in useful and she established a fulfilling practice, the earnings from which financed the house which became our family home.

In the mid-1940s, during the Great Calcutta Killings and the pre-Partition riots, she would walk down by the railway lines, from Sealdah to Ballygunge, tending to the injured. She was never harmed, not by Hindus and not by Muslims. The stethoscope around her neck established her credentials; the determined walk established her purpose. She would not be stopped, she would not be moved.

Nellie Bella O’Brien died at the ripe old age of 78 in 1969. She was surrounded and mourned by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. All of Jamir Lane, it seemed, turned out for her funeral.  She wasn’t just my father’s grandmother, she was everybody’s. The only one missing was Patrick, the son the mother had not seen for 23 years.


Time passed. In 1984, my brother Andy, then a sports journalist, travelled to Karachi for hockey’s Champions Trophy. He was determined to trace the lost O’Briens of Pakistan.  Eventually he found them and renewed contact. My father’s uncle Patrick was dead, but the rest of the family was still there and greeted their Indian cousin very warmly.  They continued to refer to the Jamir Lane residence in Kolkata as “home”.  Nellie was a legend for her grandchildren there as well.

Nevertheless there were sobering realities.  Most of the men of my father’s generation migrated to England or Canada, the women had converted to Islam.

Andy came home and told us the strange and somber story of the Muslim Anglo-Indian clan – or maybe it should be the Muslim Irish-Bengali clan – of Lahore and Karachi. We sat in silence, still digesting it. I thought of our life in India, the freedom to go to church, the freedom to pratise my faith, the freedom to be myself, the freedom that my country gave its minorities. I’ve never felt prouder of being an Indian.

I think about my cousins in Pakistan now and then. Would they be able to join a mainstream political movement, as I was so willingly accepted as part of Mamata Banerjee’s struggle? Would they find opportunity to go to Parliament as regular politicians?

I was fortunate, I guess. I was fortunate Nellie encouraged me to learn Bengali and help to be part of the para Saraswati Puja – “It’s a celebration of wisdom and learning” – and integrate with my larger community. I was fortunate India, and Bengal, allowed me to do this without making unfair demands on me. I was fortunate to have been nurtured by India’s Nellie – and Nellie’s India.

Happy Independence Day!

May 18, 2012

1100 words from Central Hall on 60 years of Parliament

It’s a ritual I’ve grown up with. Every Sunday, wherever I am in the country or the world, I go to church. I try not to miss church, irrespective of whether I’ve been out late on Saturday — a frequent occurrence in my younger years though, alas, not at 50 — or if I’ve come in on an early-morning flight on Sunday (a regular phenomenon in these travel-packed days).

Friends and acquaintances have often asked me why I go to church with such regularity and discipline. I attribute it to my childhood and my upbringing. We are a small family, and like so many other Indian parents — irrespective of religious background — my parents inculcated in their children a strong sense of faith and humility before God.

There was a secular reason too, I suspect. The Anglo-Indian community I belong to is a minuscule minority — actually a minority within a minority. We make up a tiny, decimal point percentage of Indian Christians, who by themselves make up only two per cent of India’s people. Going to church every Sunday was for Anglo-Indians not just a renewal of their covenant with God; it was also the invocation of a sense of community. It is no different for the Muslim who greets his co-religionists after the namaaz at the masjid; or for the Hindu who turns up with his family for the aarti at the local mandir every evening. Even when we pretend to be different, we Indians are actually quite similar.

I digress from my story. On Sunday, May 13, I didn’t go to church. I missed the priest’s sermon, the lesson for the day and the singing of the hymn. Yet, I did it knowingly and willingly and for a special reason. I had a date for the ages, an appointment I was confident I would tell my grandchildren about — a Sunday session called to commemorate Parliament’s 60th anniversary. It was the diamond jubilee of the first sitting of Parliament, on May 13, 1952.

I am a new entrant to Parliament, but an old devotee — and a person whose faith is renewed every day the House is in session. To go to Parliament is to experience the aura and magnificence, the tingling sensation and the deep, profound emotion that one can only experience in a place of worship. Parliament is indeed a place of worship: it is a shrine to the people of India.

Those are not empty words. I cannot adequately describe my first day there as an MP, my first hour, my first moment, just walking in. I’m not trying to prove a point, for there is no point to prove. Even I didn’t expect Parliament to have that impact on me. Nevertheless, when I walked in, when I looked at the array of faces and accoutrements — a sari worn in a particular manner, a turban from a specific region — heard the languages and the buzz around (no, not every parliamentarian speaks TV-studio Hinglish; most live in the real India), I was entranced.

Why? There are three reasons, though only one of them was obvious to me on that first day, and it was a personal thought. I am not the first Anglo-Indian in Parliament. Two seats in the Lok Sabha are reserved for our community. In the past a stalwart such as Frank Anthony, the great legal mind, has been part of Parliament. So have generals and educationists among Anglo-Indians and so was, for a short while, my father Neil ’Brien. Even so, I was — and am — the first Anglo-Indian to be elected to Parliament, albeit elected indirectly to the Rajya Sabha.

This is my achievement but in many ways, and in many greater ways, it is India’s achievement. An Anglo-Indian and a Christian, part of a tiny community that is probably smaller than the Gujarati population of Alaska, was deemed worthy of representing “Maa, Maati, Manush” of West Bengal in Parliament. Here he joined 800 other Indians — business tycoons who drive to Parliament in limousines, and poor, grassroots MPs who trudge up to the parliamentary bus; men from Puducherry and women from Punjab; the MP who brings with him the earthy richness of Kutch and the MP who brings the lush intensity of Kamrup.

We often speak of India’s incredible diversity and its inclusiveness. In Parliament, I have experienced it like never before. The very fact that I am an MP is stirring evidence of that all-embracing warmth of India, and of our democracy. Which other society can make such a claim? Which other democracy would have made place for someone like me, and done it willingly and wholeheartedly?

The second reason became apparent to me in my first week. Parliament is an education, a university from which you can never graduate — for you never stop learning. I have been part of debating teams in school. More seriously, I have been part of studio debates in which I have used arguments and clever lines to take on opponents. Nothing, believe me nothing, compares with Parliament. When M.S. Swaminathan stands up a seat in front of me and talks of the agrarian crisis, the problems of the Indian farmer and the acute scarcity of foodgrain storage facilities, there are no anchors, no ad breaks, no drama — just stubborn facts and grave wisdom.

The reservoirs of knowledge I find myself surrounded by are overwhelming. To listen to a fine exchange between two brilliant lawyers — one representing the treasury benches and the other the Opposition, dissecting the finer points of a proposed law, to hear the story of a village sarpanch who became an MP, is not just a process of education. It is a privilege.

My final reason is, again, a personal confession. There are moments in the House when I just switch off and stop being a participant. I become a spectator, a voyeur, a hungry devotee absorbing all around me. The debates, the exchanges, the earthy humour and at once the rigour, the bitter contest and yet the easy camaraderie, the portraits of giants in Central Hall, the burden of legacy and the privilege of being inside these hallowed rooms: I will ever be grateful for this.

As members of Parliament, we are not owners of its spirit; we are merely caretakers for the next generation. We hold it in trust. Let us ever be conscious of that; let us not let down that trust.

May 08, 2012

Love you Eden, love you Dada

Dear Miss Eden,

Pity we get to meet only once a year nowadays. There was a time I would have the pleasure of your company for five days in a row as we peeled oranges, flipped open plastic water bottles and devoured my ma’s chutney and cheese sandwiches. I was just 14 when I fell in love with you for the first time 37 years ago. I remember every moment. First ball West Indies vs India, Sudhir Naik caught Murray bowled Andy Roberts.

Hold on a second, let’s get all this mushy nostalgia off the sight screen and (square) cut to the first Saturday in May. My favourite teenager chooses to wear a purple T-shirt; I’m in an all blue kurta. You are looking beautiful as ever in your usual lush green. It’s 3 o’clock we are in early; so let’s ask you who are you supporting today? Blue or Purple? Come on be a sport, tell me?

Stop being coy... okay, if you want to keep that a secret, never mind. Who would ever say you’ve been a perfect hostess to ‘flannelled fools’ for 75 years? I like your new make-up: corporate boxes, bay windows, and LCD runners on the boundary. Little wonder even the kids think you are beautiful.

Just before the match begins let me share with you why I am on the Blue side today. Without being immodest, I have played a bit of sport in my time. Sure, sport is about technique, skill and precision. But that’s only half the story. True sport is also about passion, hunger and emotion. I can’t explain this to my favourite teenager, because she will quickly retort: “Baba, let me tell you frankly, with Dada there was only emotion and emotion, but we weren’t winning. And now look where we are on the points’ table”. I don’t have an answer.

I have never met the iconic owner of the Purple team, but would really appreciate if you would pass on a message. Actually some unsolicited advice to further build what he already has — a good brand, good players, good packaging. His team needs a little soul. Because Calcutta is a city with a soul. Bring on Dada... NOT as a player. Call him coach, call him mentor, call him chief architect, or call him whatever he chooses to be called... or just call the team ‘Dada’s Kolkata Knight Riders’ (that’s a free marketing idea!).

Miss Eden, my dear, let me end by making an honest confession. When Dada trudged his weary way back to the dugout, caught for 36, there was a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. No it wasn’t for Team Blue. I am not a big IPL fan. It was for a fellow Calcuttan, a fellow Xaverian, a fellow quizmaster and, without doubt, the greatest sportsman from Bengal to have walked on your front lawn.

Love you Miss Eden. Love you Dada.

With every good wish,

April 16, 2012

Maiden Speech in Parliament

Quiz shows on stage. Quiz shows on TV. Quiz shows around the country. Quiz shows around the world.

Do I ever get nervous before a show? Charged up, yes. Nervous, never.

And yet, I must admit I was nervous (very nervous) that warmish afternoon in March when I delivered my first speech ever in the Rajya Sabha.

This was no quiz contest; this was a humbling experience of making my maiden speech in Parliament. There were opportunities to speak in the first six months, but I preferred to sit, to listen, to observe, to learn. There was so much to learn here.

The first learning was that I ought to speak on a subject I would be comfortable with and familiar with. That is why I chose to speak on the Railway Budget. Before I became an MP I served as a Chairman of the Jatri Poriseba Committee of the Indian Railways. My two-year stint gave me the confidence and the 'foundation' to speak.

The second learning was that I should take the preparation seriously. Very seriously. It was important to study the facts, the figures and get to know as much as I possibly could on the subject. For this one had not only to refer to the research available but also speak to key people who understood key issues.

Thirdly, one had to apply the old rule for making a speech : make a few points only, but make them effectively. This was the tough part. Simply because there was so much to say but one had to decide which were the key points to be communicated. That is when you work out a framework for the speech to be delivered. A framework to a speech giver is almost like the bamboo structure an artisan uses to mount his work. The framework became my guideline, the flow of how the speech would go.

So I was all set then. Content. Preparation. Subject understood. Key points written down on a card. Rehearsal. Then after a long, long wait... the Vice Chairman of the Rajya Sabha announces: Mr. Derek O'Ber-- oi ... A fellow MP and former Chief Election Commissioner sitting to my left quickly (but respectfully) gets on his feet and tells the Vice Chairman "Sir, his name is Derek O'Brien", not Oberoi. The amiable gentleman in the Chair smiles. I smile back... what's in a name!

The nervousness has gone and I deliver my first speech in this august House. For the record it lasted 16 minutes. The following week as we bid goodbye to March, I deliver my second speech in Parliament. It lasts for ten minutes and the the theme is Operative Federalism and the Union Budget. After two speeches in that hallowed hall the nervousness has gone. The passion never will... with your prayers and your blessings.

February 20, 2012

This one's for you, Aan

My dear Aanya,

In the last 16 years Baba has hardly written any letter to you.

Now don't say : "Uff ho, Baba don't give me gyan now. I have loads to cram in the next few weeks... Class 10 board exams and all that!"

I know they are, hence this missive.

I could have told you all this on e-mail or on the phone or in your bedroom. But, no. Writing a letter to the most important girl in my life has a different charm. It does.

Almost like drinking freshly squeezed oranges; not those packaged juices from a Tetrapak.

So read this, Aanya, in between your math tuition and your revision of geography, maybe.

Actually read it any time you chose, because you are no more a gawky 10 year-old --- you're a young lady now.

You don't have much time before you take that first ICSE paper. So go ahead and give it all you've got.

That doesn't mean you have to study 12 or 14 hours a day. Why would you do that?

Even with exams creeping up, eight to ten hours is more than enough. Eight hours of quality study time in these last few days is better than trying to push your mind and body by doing a half-baked 14 hours a day.

Getting ready for exams is so much like cricket : better to bowl six solid overs perfect line and length to get wickets (marks) rather than bowl a 10 over spell peppered with full tosses and wide balls.

Guess that's what we will call Learning One: just focus.

Now don't laugh, at what I'm about to say.

Seriously, I want you to enjoy the moments. Yes, enjoy the prep for the exams.

Enjoy the subjects you study on your own. Enjoy the time you spend with your Bangla tutor at home. Enjoy the subjects you are weak in. Enjoy this whole experience of preparation.

They say you can never hope to do well in anything in life unless you enjoy the whole process.

That is really what I want you to do in these last few days as you get set for your first 'public exam'.

Let's make that Learning Two : truly enjoy the experience.

(Now I hope you have not called up your pal Anoushka by now to tell her : "My Baba has written this long letter to me giving me pre-exam gyan. Ha! Ha!)

Hey, I know you and your friends are all psyched up from now till March end. And nervous.

Cool. That's only natural. A little bit of nervous energy always helps. A little bit of confidence too.

The trick is not to let the nervousness overwhelm you.

The trick is never to let the confidence lead to over confidence. I am absolutely sure this is not an issue with you. Extra nervousness. Or over confidence. Nice.

Life, Aan, is a series of little tests. Mini exams. Some difficult. Some easy. You win some. You lose some.

All you need to always do is give it your best. Your very best.

So go out there to that dingy hall with a high ceiling and GO FOR IT!

That's all that matters.

Love you Aan,


P.S. And thanks for giving me the green signal to put this letter up as a blog. Suspect you gave me the permission because you wanted more people to be bored with Baba's gyan. XXX

January 24, 2012

North Eastern India

As you read this, I am spending a few days in Manipur.

Soaking in the atmosphere, meeting people, reaching out and being in one of my favourite places—all at the same time.

The schedule is a little hectic here but I still hope I can pull out the time and pay a quick visit to the Keibul Lamjao National Park, the world’s only floating national park. Really special.

The north east of India always has a very special place in my heart. So it is great to come back here.

Early in my career as a Quiz Master I would make many trips to the States that comprise the ‘8 Sisters’. In fact a few years ago we also did a unique North east TV quiz show featuring students from across the country.

We shot the 14 episodes by the Barapani Lake near Shillong and stayed for a week in a guest house in that beautiful setting in Meghalaya.

Nagaland and Mizoram are beautiful. Sikkim too! Even though I have only seen Gangtok and have not travelled to other parts of the State.

Of all the north eastern States it is Assam where I have quizzed the most.

I did my first open quiz in Guwahati way back in 1988. Gosh, that was 24 years ago!

It was an eventful day. Halfway through the preliminary round there was a minor tremor. The ground shook.

A minor earthquake… but that is another story.