In public life — and both the market and politicians are in public life — you need not only a thick skin but also a strong chin. You have to take the blow on the chin and keep standing. A totter is not a pleasant sight in public life.
Logic and politics are not necessarily incompatible. If you live by the sword, you die by the sword. If you live by market forces you die by market forces. Inflation is the most logical face of market forces. It is the market that sets the agenda. It is the market that raises prices based on its assessment of supply, demand and profitability. The market has no loyalty, least of all to government. The market has no social conscience: no food-trader ever died of hunger in the famine, or emerged out of the crisis with his bank balance depleted. The market is loyal to one concept, profit. The politician wants to win; the market wants to profit.
Their paths converge most of the time, but not all the time. When their interests converge they are the best of pals: see the width of Finance Minister P. Chidambaram's smile when, in normal times, the Sensex booms across the skyscrapers of Mumbai. But that boom follows its own laws, and not those of the government. If profits can be sustained then the Sensex will boom even during a period of high inflation, at least temporarily, when there is still purchasing power in the market.
When the interests of politicians and the market diverge, they can be obstinate in the protection of their own needs. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi would dearly love to wake up one morning and discover that prices had levelled off or were even showing a downward trend. If they could order businessmen to do so, they would have done it, for a general election cannot now be too far away. But the businessmen who cozy up to politicians in the privacy of drawing rooms, doling out large bundles of cash, will not take such orders even at the cost of hurting their political friends.
It is, to use an apt phrase, a trade-off. The market should not cry when the politician lets it down. The politician must not weep when the market betrays it. In public life — and both the market and politicians are in public life — you need not only a thick skin but also a strong chin. You have to take the blow on the chin and keep standing. A totter is not a pleasant sight in public life.
Inevitably, if not wisely, politicians rush towards the false comfort of alibis when under threat. The Indian consumer does not want lectures on whether food prices are rising across the world; he wants to know what the government has done about it. In any case, this phenomenon was evident at the beginning of last winter, and that is already six months ago. What did Finance Minister Chidambaram, or his economics-professor boss, Prime Minister Singh, do about it last November and December? If they had taken the measures that suddenly seem wise to them now, things would have been under some control today. Instead, they were cooling their heals and heating the market. Now the market is cooling its heels and lighting fires under the government.
Alibis can be cruel. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has already blamed the changing consumption pattern of the Indian poor for rising prices. Sharad Pawar has never blamed the bloated stomachs of the rich for rising prices — ever wondered why? He believes food to be the natural right of the rich, and an unnatural right for the poor. He does not quite put it like that, because that would be too direct, but that is the foundation of his thought process.
Mr Pawar has now some help from the Lord Protector of the World, American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She too blames the rise of food prices on the Indian poor. Has she ever paused a minute to think about the consumption pattern of pets in American households? They consume food worth over fifteen billion dollars each year, enough to stave off hunger among Africa's poverty-stricken children. I know this is an unfair world, and I don't believe that pets should suddenly be cut off their feed. But at least we should be spared pomposity from the privileged.
Prime Minister Singh seems to have a strange, hands-off look these days, as if he is not really responsible for the mess that has collected beneath him. Indifference may be the last alibi left, but it is not an answer. When the mask of indifference is punctured by incidents like the exposure of help given by the Prime Minister's Office to a less-than-honest minister like the DMK's T.R. Baalu, the search for alibis reaches panic-station because the image of a clean Prime Minister must be preserved at all costs. The explanations trot out, one after another. The PMO letters were "routine". There is nothing routine about a Prime Minister's Office recommending that gas supplies be made available to the industries of a Cabinet Minister's son. There is nothing routine in the fact that a reminder was sent within five days, the first of seven. In government snail-mail the first letter would probably not have reached its destination in five days. A second in such a hurry is not routine. Oil and Gas Minister Murli Deora suggested that there was nothing in helping a colleague. Really? Even at the cost of rules and regulations? And if there is nothing wrong, why was nothing done? The answer is simple: the bureaucrats in the ministry did not want to break the rules. That is why eight letters were needed. Clever Mr Deora wants to have his cake and eat it too. Difficult.
The Indian in the bazaar has a right to ask how many letters the Prime Minister sent his Finance Minister on inflation.
The Prime Minister is a calm man who hides his stress under a self-imposed blanket of resignation. He was the surprise choice four years ago, and his personality aroused hopes at street and village level. All that remains of that once-promising reputation is the belief that he is personally incorruptible. But what use is his personal integrity when all around him there is rampant corruption and mismanagement. Is there a friend of his who can tell him that there are many kinds of dishonesty in public life? Permitting Cabinet Ministers to feed from the corruption trough so that you may preserve your job also amounts to disservice to the people.