Sunday, June 03, 2007


Byline By M.J. Akbar : Speechless

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave a thoughtful speech at the annual session of the CII (Confederation of Indian Industry for all you yokels who do not know what the country's most powerful acronym stands for). He asked the captain, majors, colonels and generals of Indian business to remember that those who are not members of the CII are also Indians. The speech was overdue by about three years, but no matter. The poor are ever grateful for the smallest mercies. He also made the speech to the wrong group. He should have begun with an audience of one.

There is an exclusive telephone system in Delhi meant only for the Very Very VVIPs called RAX. It is an internal line for the highest of the high in government. Dr Singh should have picked up his RAX phone and called his finance minister for a cup of tea. Over tea, stressing each sentence till there was no room for misunderstanding, Dr Singh should have read this speech to finance minister P. Chidambaram.Mr Chidambaram has produced three budgets. How come no one told him that Prime Minister Singh was interested in the welfare of the poor, and that he had thought out a Ten-Point Charter to save the nation? Each one of the issues raised by Dr Singh could have been addressed in the national budget. None was. Why should the CII listen to the Prime Minister when his own Cabinet could hardly care less?

Let's start with executive salaries, which Dr Singh condemns as "excessive remuneration" which can lead to "social unrest". Let us say that the owner-chief executive of a major company pays himself around Rs 2 crores as salary for working hard, and delivering profits as chief executive. He pays the maximum-slab tax on this sum. How much does the government pay him for being the owner? The latest issue of India Today informs me that in just one year, 2006-2007, Dr Singh's government permitted the shareholders of 1,100 companies to pocket Rs 40,000 crores in dividends. Did they pay any tax on Rs 40,000 crores? Not a rupee. Take out a calculator and do the math.

Why preach about Rs 2 crores a year, with tax, when you have handed out an untaxed Rs 40,000 crores a year to the members of the CII?Does Dr Singh listen to himself?

Just after he finished scolding the CII about salaries, he went on to ostentatious weddings, because the expenditure on them "insults the poverty of the less privileged, it is socially tasteful and it plants the seeds of resentment in the minds of the have-nots".

Very noble. Could we know how many such weddings Dr Singh has attended as Prime Minister, when he could have sent a polite (perhaps even warm) letter to the couple being wed ostentatiously, wishing them a very happy future but indicating that he would prefer not to give legitimacy to such vulgarity by his presence?

Why preach about vulgarity when you do not have the courage to reject it?

The sixth point of this Social Charter should have been Message Number 1, given the heavy damage that the continuous price rise has done to Congress fortunes. Dr Singh has named at least one of the villains. I had better quote the strong words used by the Prime Minister to avoid any accusation of misrepresentation. "The operation of cartels by groups of companies to keep prices high must end… It is even more distressing in a country where the poor are severely affected by rising commodity prices. Cartels are a crime and go against the grain of an open economy. Even profit maximisation should be within the bounds of decency and greed!"

I hasten to point out that the exclamation is the Prime Minister's, and not an intrusive addition from the fevered brain of a mere journalist.

What do we learn from this searing paragraph?

1: Cartels exist and control prices.
2: They are willing to push up prices even of basic commodities, the bread line of the poor.
3: Cartels are a crime.

So what has Dr Singh's government, now in power for over a thousand days, done to punish this crime? Even one gesture, executive or legislative, would be worth knowing. When an ordinary thief steals, the majesty of the law imprisons him and the less than majestic baton of the police turns his back into a sore mess. When a criminal cartel of businessmen, probably all CII members, robs the poor of food, and exceeds the limits of decency and greed (the Prime Minister's words, not mine), all that the Prime Minister of India can do is plead self-restraint! (This time the exclamation mark is mine.)

Why preach when you are so utterly helpless?

There is a certain inevitability about Point No. 9 on Dr Singh's Social Charter, because everyone in public life tends to use this cane as a crutch. May I quote? "Nine, fight corruption at all levels. The cancer of corruption is eating into the vitals of our body politic. For every recipient of a bribe there is a benefactor and a beneficiary."

How true. So who is this mysterious recipient? Trust me, without a recipient, with hand outstretched and power in his eyes, no one would pay a bribe. No business enjoys giving a bribe. He would rather spend the money on creature comforts. So who does he give the money to?

The politician. What has Dr Singh done to curb corruption in his government? Nothing. His personal honesty can no longer disguise the fact that money is being made at a rampant pace by many of his ministers. He knows this and is silent.Why preach about the mote in the other's eye when there is a beam in your own?Point No. 10 has an inevitable ring to it as well. He asks industry to "finance socially responsible advertising". I hope you know what "socially responsible advertising" means. It means taking out acres of full-page ads, paid for by taxpayers' money, telling the world how wonderful the government is. With Dr Singh's picture at the top, of course.

"India has made us," says the Prime Minister. "We must make Bharat." That is a good two-sentence one-liner, which rather forgets to mention that Bharat is no longer in any mood to be patronised. Bharat is setting Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and Bengal and Haryana on fire. Bharat has trapped both the BJP and the Congress in Rajasthan. Bharat has decided that downward mobility might be more useful than upward mobility: there is no point aspiring to be the equal of a Brahmin when the illusionary job quotas are for the depressed classes. Bharat's young men are brandishing country pistols in preparation for civil wars over employment. Bharat is indifferent to good intentions, and impervious to statistics. Bharat is ready to torch the super highways being built for the vehicles of 9% growth. The capital of India is Delhi. The capital of Bharat is the home of the farmer who has committed suicide.

Dr Manmohan Singh has given us three budgets since he became Prime Minister. All three were budgets for India. He has only one budget left. The election process will have begun by the time his budget of 2009 is due. Perhaps he can make the next budget for Bharat. As we have noted, the poor are always grateful for small mercies.

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