Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘India’

The Lunchbox

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 20th April, 2014

dabbawallahsLunchboxThe dabbawallahs of Mumbai, who deliver tiffin or light lunch to clients in their workplace, usually from their home where the wife has prepared the meal, have a record of many decades of reliability behind them. Indeed, academic studies have been made about the extraordinarily efficient system of various means of transport, but normally involving a train, that collect the meals in layered tins in the morning and then return them empty in the afternoon, and I occasionally include them in a case study in my course at SOAS. But Ritesh Batra’s feature film “The Lunchbox” (which I saw at my local Genesis Cinema in Stepney Green this afternoon) starts with the nice conceit that one delivery of tiffin, made with special care by a wife worried that her husband is no longer interested in her, gets delivered to the wrong person, an insurance claims clerk who is a widower on the verge of retirement. The same mistake happens day after day and the two start sending each other increasingly intimate notes in the tiffin tins, even playing with the idea of eloping together to Bhutan. I shan’t give any more of the plot away, but all the acting is superb, not least Irrfan Khan as the widower, Nimrat Kaur as the beautiful but frustrated wife and Nawazuddin Siddiqui as an irritatingly ingratiating office trainee. There are some lovely little in jokes redolent of Indian society, such as the wife’s auntie living in another flat upstairs who communicates entirely by shouting out of the widow or lowering things in a basket, and there is a delicious bit of role reversal of “Eve teasing”, the all-too-common fate women travelling on crowded trains and buses in India experience of having men press their bodies against them; in this film, it is the man who gets groped on his commute by a fat, toothless old crone. There are none of the song and dance routines that characterise so much of Bollywood; instead, it is a meticulously designed and executed social drama centering on a universal phenomenon: the bitter-sweet sensations of an impossible love.

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Britain’s Soft Power

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 11th February, 2014

Sir Martin DavidsonVictorian Britain was associated with gunboat diplomacy and there are still some people in this country who think of power in terms of military might. But since the Second World War, Britain’s “soft power” has been more in evidence, not least through the work of the British Council and the BBC World Service. The Council’s Director, Sir Martin Davidson, was the guest speaker at a Global Strategy Forum event at the National Liberal Club this lunchtime and underlined how the teaching of English abroad and the fact that so many foreign students come to the UK to study both help this country’s economy as well as its global  presence. Without overtly criticising the Government for not increasing the Council’s presence around the globe (in stark contrast to China’s Confucius Institutes, for example) Sir Martin did nonetheless point out that the negative coverage in the Indian Press of the immigration and visa debates in the UK had directly led to a fall in the number of students from India applying to study here. I asked him what the British Council is doing or could be doing to counter the pernicious influence of the Daily Mail, Daily Express and UKIP on our reputation not just in India but globally, without getting an entirely satisfactory answer; but of course to be seen publicly to criticise influential British media might be difficult in Sir Martin’s position. Politicians and journalists need not operate under such constraints, however, which is why I spend so much of my time offering an alternative British narrative to that served up in the right-wing red-tops or the Faragistas’ pubs. The UK does still have a degreee of soft power, though it is redcued because of reductions to the budgets of the British Council and the ludicrous decision to integrate the World Service into the main BBC new and current affairs output. That soft power is increased by our membership of the European Union and is often a force for good in the wider world, which is why those of us who believe that need to stand up and say so.

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Danny Alexander’s Diwali Dish

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th November, 2013

Diwali dinnerFor the British United Indian Liberal Democrats (BUILD) Diwali is a movable feast, and the fact that tonight’s dinner in the excellent Seasoning north Indian restaurant in Fulham took place long after most other Diwali celebrations were over in no way dimmed the light of the occasion, organised by my indefatigable fellow London LibDem Euro-candidate Anuja Prashar. In fact the timing was perfect, in that the keynote speaker, Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, recently went on his first ever visit to India to help promote British trade, and duly loved the place (his colleague Vince Cable, incidentally, is virtually an old India hand). The way some UKIP and Tory Eurosceptics spin things you’d think the UK would need to leave the EU to do trade promotion with India effectively, but the opposite is true. Danny is of course also a thoroughbred Europhile, having worked in the not too dim and distant past for the European Movement, which means that both LibDem members of the Coalition Government’s core quartet (the other being Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, of course) are completely on message when it comes to the Liberal Democrats being the party of IN so far as the EU is concerned. In his speech, Danny did a fine balancing act, on the one hand justifiably claiming LibDem credit for helping get Britain in a healthier economic shape than it was in 2010 as well as bringing in fairer policies such as raising the tax allowance to £10,000 (as it will be in April), and saying that for all their obvious policy disagreements he gets on with the Chancellor, George Osborne well. But on the other hand Danny came out strongly on differentiation from the Conservatives, not just on Europe — though that is increasingly self-evident — but on a range of issues, as the Conservative Party is being tugged to the right by many of its backbenchers and Labour is once more being cosy with left-wing trade unions. We are the party of the centre ground, Danny declared — though I personally prefer one of Charles Kennedy’s old sayings: that we are neither left nor right but centre forward. Danny usefully trailed the ALDE (European Liberal Democrats) Congress which will be taking place in Canary Wharf later this week (which I will be attending) and at which he will of course feature, along with other UK government stars and some heavyweight delegations from across our wonderful, diverse continent.

Photo of Danny Alexander, Jonathan Fryer, Anuja Prashar and Geoff Payne (by Merlene Emerson)

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Turkey and the Arab Awakening

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 11th January, 2013

Kerim BalciMiriam Francois-CerrahEver since the revolutionary train swept across North Africa and the Middle East (MENA) pundits have been asking whether Turkey could offer a model for post-Revolution Arab states to follow, so maybe it was not so surprising that the Turkish Review (for which I occasionally write) should highlight the issue at its UK launch at the House of Lords earlier today. Three very diverse speakers were on the panel (chaired by the LibDem peer and former President of Liberal International, John Alderdice): the journalist Kerim Balci, the young Oxford academic and political writer Miriam Francois-Cerrah and Gulnur Aybet, who teaches at the University of Kent, as well as in Turkey and the United States. Each put a Gulnur Aybettotally different slant on the subject, Kerim Balci claiming (with some justification) that the so-called Arab Spring actually started earlier than in Tunisia in December 2010, in Kyrgyzstan, and that it is mirrored in various parts of Central Asia, China and India. What we are dealing with has a universal dimension, he argued. Miriam Francois-Cerrah declared that the majority of Arabs do see Turkey as a role-model, largely because it is a secular state that has nonetheless accommodated a variety of parties, including the AKP, with its Islamic origins. Gulnur Aybet emphasized that Turkey is seen by the West as a strategic partner in dealing with the MENA region, which maybe leads to a certain degreee  of wishful thinking as to how much of a model it can be. More a source of inspiration, stated Miriam Francois-Cerrah, echoing a line I have often taken. But in the meantime Turkey has itself all sorts of internal contradictions to overcome; Gulnur Aybet deplored the growing polarisation she has noticed. Certainly Turkey has an enviable economic growth rate and has many things going for it, but it is by no means a perfect state that others might necessarily try to emulate.

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Why the EU Needs to Integrate More

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 3rd January, 2013

José Manuel BarrosoIt’s 40 years since Britain joined the EU and siren voices among UKIP and the Tory right are arguing that it’s time to turn the clock back and pull out. They couldn’t be more wrong. On the contrary, this is the time for the EU to integrate more — as the eurozone now seems destined to do — and Britain should be an enthusiastic participant. In the 1950s it was clear to the Founding Fathers (sorry, ladies, they were all men) of what developed into the EU that a degree of economic integration, notably between France and Germany, was necessary to make wars between western European states impossible. That goal was so smoothly achieved that European peace is taken for granted, especially by the young. A second huge victory since 1989 has been the absorption of formerly Communist states of central and eastern Europe ino the EU. This year, Croatia will be the next. But there is an urgent reason why EU integration should move ahead, namely the way that the global economy is developing, with the rise of new heavyweights including Brazil, Russia, India and China — the BRICs. As EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso has rightly pointed out, by 2050 not a single individual European country will be among the world’s top 10 economies* — not even Germany. So in order to compete — indeed, to survive as an economic force — Europe must unite further and start operating more as not just a single market but also a single economic force. It would be madness for Britain to stay out of that, condemning itself to a form of offshore irrelevance. It is not the Europhiles in Britain who are unpatriotic, as some of our critics allege, but rather UKIP and the Europhobic Tory right who want to consign us to the role of an historical theme park. 

*A new entry at number 10, however, could well be Turkey, which makes it all the more important that Turkey be embraced into the European family.

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Lynne Featherstone’s African Remit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 13th November, 2012

During her two years at the Home Office, Lynne Featherstone did great things to promote the equalities agenda, even if she and Theresa May did not always see eye to eye. The Equal Marriage consultation was a real win for the LibDems within the Coalition, and to his credit David Cameron “got” the issue, even if some of his backbench headbangers didn’t. So there was initially some disquiet among LibDems when Lynne was moved in the ministerial reshuffle earier this year to the Department for International Development (DfID). However, as Lynne made clear at an informal briefing to the International Relations Committee (IRC) of the Liberal Democrat Party in Westminster this evening, she has taken equality issues along with her (with the PM’s blessing), and it is especially important that she is able to champion the central role of women in development. She has just returned from a mission to South Sudan, which was rather jumping in at the deep end, though other states she has visited this year include Kenya and Uganda, and Africa is now central to her remit. DfID has of course been directed to phase down its involvement in India (now one of the BRICs) but Africa remains a main area of concern, not only for the traditional problems of famine and disease (including HIV/AIDS) but also for the way that women are excluded and often oppressed within many African societies, including through the persistence of female genital mutilation (FGM). It was interesting that FGM was a major topic in the discussion after Lynne’s presentation at the IRC, but then it is a quintissentially Liberal issue, relating to human rights and gender matters as well as to health. Lynne was a shadow International Development Minister some years ago, so she is not entirely fresh to the field. But it is clear that Africa is offering her a steep learning curve, from which both she and Africa’s development should ultimately benefit.


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Jeremy Browne the Golf Club

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 21st March, 2012

Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne has increased his empire recently, adding India to East Asia and Latin America. But as he told a meeting of London Liberal Youth and others which I chaired at SOAS this evening, there is logic to this, in that he is now broadly responsible for emerging economies (outside the former Soviet Union). These are now ranked, reasonably, in FCO terms in three bands: the top one including China, India and Brazil; the second, countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Colombia et al; the third, the Philippines and others. He used some inventive analogies in his talk and during the subsequent Q&A, saying that at Foreign Affairs question times in the House he often feels like that oddly-shaped golf club which a player almost never uses, but you are jolly glad to have with you when the need arises. Almost all questions tend to be about Europe, the Middle East (including Afghanistan) and North Africa, with the United States being a recurring point of reference. But he is on to a good thing (my editorialising) by concentrating on countries that are on their way up. Europe, including Britain, is shrinking both in its share of global population and in its share of the global economy. But the EU is still the world’s largest economic bloc, and Britain still maintains considerable influence over ideas (through the Financial Times, the Economist, the BBC, etc). So providing Jeremy remains a reasonably long time in his job, he’ll be performing at question time in the House not so much as a chipper but as a wood.


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Being Untouchable

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 14th June, 2011

There are an estimated 170 million Dalits or ‘Untouchables’ in India, despite the fact that the country’s constitution prohibits the formalised discrimination inherent in India’s traditional caste system. Even the British tried in vain to overcome this situation during the Raj.The current Indian government has endeavoured to advance Dalit rights, including giving them quotas for university places. And indeed some Dalits hold high public office or are MPs. Yet the everday reality of most of their fellows is miserable, even disgusting. One task performed by many is so-called ‘manual scavenging’, whereby Dalit women, usually, have to clean public toilets with their hands, taking away human excrement in baskets on their heads. Dalits are also often the victims of violence. A powerful small exhibition of photographs by Marcus Perkins — which opened this evening in St Paul’s Cathedral, London — documents the suffering of those who have been beaten, abused or had their pitiful homes burned down or who live with leprosy. There is one particularly striking image of a seven-year-old girl, Kamlesh, who received horrendous burns to her right arm and leg when she was pushed into a burning pile of rubbish for daring to walk along a path reserved for higher castes. No wonder some Dalits have rejected Hinduism, which they feel has rejected them, instead turning to Christianity or, more recently, Buddhism. St Paul’s Cathedral is hosting the Perkins exhibition to draw attention to the systematic human rights violation of untouchability and is collecting money to help provide plastic surgery for little Kamlesh. The exhibition runs until 6 July.

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Nick Clegg, the Economy and the Environment

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 8th January, 2009

Nick Clegg, Susan Kramer (MP for Richmond Park) and the environmental campaigner Tony Juniper attracted a full house at the Duke Street Baptist Church in Richmond (Surrey) this evening, for a Question Time on the economy and the environment, chaired with characteristic panache by ‘University Challenge’s’ Bamber Gascoigne. This was a variation on the town hall meetings that Nick has been doing up and down the country, reaching out to many thousands of electors. Richmond being Richmond, it was all very well behaved (apart from the slight irritation of the three young women helpers of Richmond Conservative candidate Zak Goldsmith sitting immediately behind me, who chattered throughout the whole event).

Opp0sition to the third runway at Heathrow (in which Susan Kramer has been hyper-active) not surprisjngly surfaced as an issue almost immediately, but soon the evening settled down to a serious discussion of how we can marry economic and social justice with environmental responsibility at this time of financial retrenchment. Tony Juniper was particularly eloquent in expressing how proper environmental management (including house insulation) and changing one’s lifestyle can actually improve one’s quality of life, even when economic conditions are tight. Nick rightly endorsed Tony’s comment that we need to show China and India how to develop more environmentally by example, rather than by finger-pointing.

One questioner asked why the three main political parties don’t work together on vital issues such as climate change, to which Nick responded that the LibDems had in fact encouraged this as a strategy, but it failed. The only agreements possible were on the lowest common denominator, whereas the LibDems, as the most environmentally-friendly of the mainstream parties, wish to set higher standards. Altogether, the evening was a worthwhile exercise, which may well be repeated elsewhere in Britain, not necessarily with the same subjects (though they are two of the core themes of the forthcoming European election campaign).

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Eurozone Meat for the G7 Skeleton

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 12th October, 2008

The leaders of the 15 eurozone countries are meeting in Paris today, to discuss emergency measures to deal with the financial crisis. France currently holds the presidency of the European Union, and the French Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, says the summit will put ‘meat’ on the ‘skeleton’ of the agreement reached by the G7 group of major industrialised nations in Washington on Friday. The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, would not normally be involved in the eurozone meeting, as Britain has not adopted the single currency. But French President Nicolas Sarkozy has invited Mr Brown to be present for part of the meeting, so he can brief everyone about Britain’s attempted rescue plan. This is indicative of just how seriously the situation is being viewed; the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, warned earlier this weekend that rich countries have so far failed to restore confidence, and that the world’s financial system is teetering on the brink of systemic meltdown.

Looking at things more optimistically, one thing that might emerge from this crisis could be a firm commitment in Europe to coordinate relevant policies and strategies more closely in the future. But as far as the global situation is concerned, we probably need another Bretton Woods. The IMF and the World Bank were not designed for the needs of the 21st century, and new big players including China and India need to be brought on board.

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