Posted by: John Elliott | March 18, 2012

Rushdie rubbishes ‘dim’ Imran Khan while Pranab Mukherjee plays ‘party pooper’

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.

Party Pooper

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.


  1. What is really a sad reflection on the state of Indian politics and indeed society today is the failure of courage on the part of those who preferred not to oppose Rushdie by taking him on in a public argument but to stay comfortably at home cringing about possible criticism. These days debates of substance issues seem to be increasingly replaced by sound bites destined to secure votes.

    And I don’t know what this weekend’s Elephant’s comment will be, but with one more corruption debacle on his watch, isn’t it the last chance for Dr Manmohan Singh to stop hiding behind the veil of staying on as PM in the interest of the state and to resign while he still retains a shred of reputation for personal integrity?

  2. Fascinating blog. Interested to hear your views on Vince Cable (Britain’s commerce minister). He is regarded with some suspicion here in the UK as being anti-business and possibly a hindrance to growth but is that a political smear?
    Recommend today’s leading article in the Daily Telegraph by Boris Johnson (mayor of London) as he starts his re-election campaign to see a very different approach to that in India.

  3. The author and some of the comments here seem to indicate that liberalism should somehow be tolerant of extremely stupid ideas or should not offend. Liberalism has its foundations in being seemingly directly “offensive” but actually being refreshingly truthful and direct. What is the problem with being offensive against absolute evil? The author here does not argue whether what Rushdie said was wrong but instead has a problem with the tone of his comments or that he was not politically correct. That says it all. The author’s comment that the commerce minister’s speech was more thoughtful is hilarious. Its the sort of thing pseudo-secularists or champagne socialists would say.

  4. These comments are on The Independent (UK) newspaper website where this piece also appears


    By insulting Khan with cheap remarks, Rushdie did not do himself any favours. He lost the moral high ground. Otherwise he would have continued to win sympathy and Khan berated for not attending the event for the reasons stated. Sadly, it seems Rushdie insistence on free speech is to indulge in the right to hurt and be divisive. I condemn any society that does not allow free speech and dissidence, alas, even if it is the bile that Rushdie spews.
    In the case of Rushdie – Don’t hate the game, hate the player.
    7 hours ago

    Rushdies entire career and his ability to make headlines seems to have been reliant entirely on causing offence to people. While ultra liberal sympathy is understandable, for a writer to have relied entirely on that and Muslim rage for his rare emergences into the limelightover the last few decades is sad. His work and his rants and juvenile outbursts are getting increasingly tedious. Khans mistake was to allow himself to be prevented from participation in this event, which afforded this has-been more importance than he deserved. Boycotts are lost opportunities – if Khan expects to be taken seriously as a politician, he needs to realise the importance of these opportunities to showcase Pakistan as something more than a failed state its perceived to be.
    8 hours ago

  5. To be fair to Sir Salman he gave it the way it should have been given..after all he has been on the receiving end and can’t always be used as an excuse for delinquents and cowardly politicians.he may have carried his tirade against Imran a bit too long but he was on the ball about the shrinking space for dissent in India. And the apathy of civil society to this. We need to wake up if we are to produce provocative and thinking art, literature, films or even society.

  6. Apart from the “ineffectual” budget or rather “Baajet” as Pranabda would have it, it was insipid and boring! He has done little to bridge the “deyphisheet” which is glaring to say the least. I wonder how he can hope to pin down inflation to single digit figures!

    I agree with Vince Cable that capitalism cannot be compassionate since the very character and essence of the philosophy demands predatory growth and competition to kill and not to share or co operate. Yes it becomes toxic if allowed a free rein as economic history is replete with such examples the Wall Street meltdown being the latest sage. The age old and raging conflicting between the individual’s efforts to maximise his gains vis a vis the addition to the welfare of the society has yet to be resolved . I wonder what can be the solution since we have seen that both the models at opposite sides of the spectrum…Communism Vs. Capitalism have essentially failed to deliver.

    Biswajit Mohanty

  7. In today’s India nationalism is a dirty word. India of today looks more and more like an artificial union of states, too big to be governed by a bunch of incompetent, corrupt and spineless politicians, who have no sense of history, and who are only capable of vote-bank politics based on pseudo-secularism. If this is allowed to continue, the day is not far when the Hindus of India will lose the democratic game of numbers and will have no choice but to live under Islamic Sharia Law.

    It is time for the right minded Indians to demand a separate Hindu state to be carved out of India, where the Hindus will be able to live with pride of being a Hindu, and where the minorities will also be allowed to live with dignity, but under Hindu rule.

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