It’s been quite a weekend. India’s finance minister Pranab Mukherjee presented a desperately ineffectual and unimaginative Budget on Friday, and then failed to turn up at India Today magazine’s annual conclave yesterday (Saturday) morning, where he was billed to be the first speaker.
He withdrew not because he was too busy or had lost his Budget nerve, but because he did not want to attend the same event as Salman Rushdie (below), the famous fatwa’d and Booker prize-winning Indian-born author who withdrew from the Jaipur Literature Festival two months ago because of alleged death threats.
Apparently Mukherjee was worried about being criticised by Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, for being at the same event as an author accused of insulting the prophet Mohammad with his 1988 novel, Satanic Verses.
Banerjee has been using her Trinamool Congress party’s role as a small minority member of the governing coalition to wreak havoc on policies, and Mukherjee did not want to give her a new weapon. She has for the past few days been trying to block very small increases in rail fares and tonight (Sunday) has forced Dinesh Trivedi, the railway minister who belongs to her party, to resign.
So Mukherjee stayed away, as did Akhilesh Yadav, the new 38-year old chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP) fearing, conference sources tell me, criticism from older members of his party who would like to trip him up in his new post. Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, also stayed away, though he insisted to me in sms messages that he had a potential problem to deal with in his state. Both chief ministers have big Muslim populations
These withdrawals followed a much more interesting and headline-catching boycott by Imran Khan, the veteran Pakistani cricketer, who hopes his Tehreek-e-Insaf party will win the next Pakistan election with right-wing support from the army and Islamic parties. Imran was billed to be the speaker at the conference’s closing dinner last night, and his absence meant that Rushdie was promoted from a lesser afternoon slot to take his place.
Sir Salman Rushdie (to give him his full title) did little in his 30-minute speech (video here) and 50 minutes of questions and answers to build on his reputation as a serious literary figure, but instead generated world-wide publicity for often cheap remarks that will no doubt help sales of his books..
Im the Dim
Much of his speech, which was generally well received and good entertainment, was a music hall act aimed mainly at insulting Khan. He even asked his audience whether they had “noticed a physical resemblance of Imran Khan and Gadaffi”. He followed that by suggesting the cricketer-turned politician was a “dictator in waiting” and repeated a joke, which has been circulating in Pakistan for years, that he was known in his London socialite days as “Im the Dim”.
Rushdie then turned on the Indian government for keeping him away from the Jaipur festival, which was a gross over-simplification of what happened when his appearance on the festival programme became tied up with the UP election campaign. He also mocked Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent head of the Gandhi political dynasty, whose leadership of Congress’s UP election campaign was a disaster.
Significantly, the Islamic activists who effectively blocked Rushdie’s visit to the Jaipur festival did nothing to stop him appearing yesterday – just as they did not object when he spoke at the same India Today conference two years ago. This underlines the belief that political parties, including Congress, used the Rushdie controversy in January to woo Muslim votes in UP. That led Rushdie to say that Gandhi had spent “years and years of kneeling down in front of every mullah you could find, and it did not even work”.
“Here in India a combination of religious fanaticism and political opportunism and, I have to say, public apathy, is damaging the freedom on what all freedoms depend: freedom of expression,” said Rushdie in one of his more serious moments.
A far more thoughtful and reasoned speech was made earlier in the day by Vince Cable, Britain’s commerce minister, on whether “capitalism can be compassionate”. Reflecting battles he has had as a minority coalition member of the UK’s Conservative-led government, he said “financial capitalism is potentially toxic unless regulated”.
A headline in the India Today group’s Mail Today newspaper yesterday morning said “Pranab Plays Party Pooper”. It referred to the Budget, where Mukherjee increased indirect taxes and laid out unrealistically over-optimistic hopes for controlling India’s economy.
But the headline writer must have known that Mukherjee was also dropping out of the conference – an action that showed the government is not its own boss, having ceded that role long ago to its minority coalition partners.