"India's future: An ugly little man with a lap-top"

1999

The "ugly man" regardless, perhaps we should feel privileged that the Independent, a British newspaper, has at least put the above headline on its front page at a time when most publications rarely mention the elections taking place in the world's biggest democracy.

So who's the "ugly man with a lap-top"? Described by a political rival as a man who looks "like a pickpocket at a bus stop", he is none other than Andhra Pradesh's Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. As anyone who has been to India recently will know, Naidu's achievements are becoming somewhat legendary in urban circles. In a short space of time, he has given Bangalore, the hitherto undisputed Silicon City of India, a run for its money by turning Hyderabad into Cyberabad. He has enticed the likes of Oracle, IBM and Microsoft to his state. Roads are being widened and repaired all over the state, and Hyderabad has got 34 new flyovers.

Mercifully enough, Mr Naidu is also very aware that nearly 60% of his people are illiterate, and only by transforming the prospects of the poor farmers can he hope to change things. He has created a "people-centred development process" to make the government sensitive to the needs of the smallest village.

However, Mr Naidu faces a huge challenge in the current elections. His reformist zeal, so beloved of the World Bank (it approved a loan of $540 million to the state, the first to India after sanctions were imposed following the nuclear tests), has resulted in higher taxes, higher bus fares, higher water and electricity charges and lower subsidies for farmers. No wonder the Congress promises the opposite - free power, cancellation of unpaid bills and other political gimmickry. Further, by aligning himself with the BJP, Mr Naidu has alienated the Muslims.

Peter Popham, the author of the article, was travelling in Mr Naidu's helicopter on the campaign trail. And it is in Naidu's hands, according to Mr Popham, that India's future rests. Why so? Because, "if hope [ie, Naidu] loses, India will remain India and the eternal connoisseurs of muck and mysticism can sleep easy". And if hope wins, "all India may start to change in the same way: the enormous vessel will ponderously begin to alter course".

In what was a fairly balanced article, the only problem was the headline: "an ugly man with a lap-top". Is the issue what he looks like? Can you imagine a western newspaper describing its own politician as "ugly"? Just in case you were wondering, the Independent is not a tabloid that it has the dubious privilege of indulging in imbecilic name-calling. And moreover, if the person in question was female, can you imagine the headline instead, "an ugly woman with a lap-top"?

- Chetan Dhruve in London

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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