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Of Nano, jingoism and the right question

By Shyam G Menon
March 27, 2009 11:56 IST
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For long, I found it difficult to admire former finance minister P Chidambaram because everything he said seemed to kill individuality and nudge the country towards worshipping money.

In fact, it seemed to me that the word 'corporate' had less to do with companies and more with the rise of an army dedicated to the pursuit of wealth. On Monday, March 23, however, as home minister, Chidambaram earned my respect.

Monday had two halves. The second half would best serve as the first chapter. At the Crystal Room of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, the press conference to announce the launch of the Tata Nano was underway.

The media has transformed considerably in the decade of economic management by Chidambaram and Yashwant Sinha: it has become corporate.

More than a dozen questions from journalists were prefixed with congratulations to Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata for making the car.

World over the automobile industry is famous for its extended reach into the media. But this was more than just industry outreach. It was a reflection of the media's jingoistic happiness.

Thirty (or forty?) million pre-launch hits on the Nano Web site and years of lauding the industrial perspective as the right perspective has blunted old fashioned journalistic scepticism. It had also established in the mind of the media, a notion of correct and incorrect.

So, there was a clear villain that more than one questioner wanted to bait Ratan Tata with. Tata merely wished Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, 'Good afternoon,' and said that he hoped some day in the years to come, the company would be able to re-establish a Nano factory in eastern India.

West Bengal's loss had been Gujarat's gain. In a massive swing across the geographical and ideological spectrum, the Tata Nano project landed in Sanand (in Gujarat) from Singur (in West Bengal).

The far left in politics and the far right are similar in their admiration for individuality over achievement. In this contest between two cadre-driven governments to host an intelligently swung capitalist dream, the Communists lost. And as the example of China shows, money simply goes where its wants are met.

Earlier, as I left for the press conference, the streamer on TV news had flashed Chidambaram's response to oblique criticism by the Indian Premier League forced to shift overseas due to domestic security concerns.

The first remark I saw on the streamer was spot on, terribly honest for someone who led the corporate army till three months ago -- Chidambaram said the IPL was a shrewd combination of business and sports. At one stroke it exposed the tournament for what it actually was. Lawyers get their language right and Chidambaram had said it accurately and to the face of all those film stars and industrialists crying in the name of the common man.

True, it is the duty of the government to provide security for the genuine desires of citizens, sports included. But this is not the juncture to force a debate on that topic into a gamble on the ground. Then the ticker on the screen landed a punch: Chidambaram had countered Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's description of the IPL's shift as a national shame by asking if there was no national shame in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

'Finance minister' Chidambaram tracking return on investment would have probably seen Gujarat in different light. Home Minister Chidambaram was still wearing his old glasses, but suddenly they seemed bereft of tint.

Late evening, I took a walk on Marine Drive. There was a crowd trying to glimpse the proceedings at the Parsi Gymkhana grounds where the Nano's formal launch was on. Going by the vehicle specifications cited at the press briefing the Tatas appeared to have an interesting car on their hands. Their challenge would be the sales numbers.

At the press briefing a lone query on potential road congestion was vaguely answered with emphasis on village roads holding promise. A few Western journalists, meanwhile, continued their search for the auto industry's Holy Grail -- how could India make such a low-cost car? The Nano story stayed enigmatic.

When a car gets mixed up with national pride, just as journalism, economy and cricket have, questions are condemned to be still-born.

That's why on Monday, I liked Chidambaram. At least he asked a question.

The author is a freelance writer based in Mumbai.

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