Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dancing with a Bear

Byline by M J Akbar:Dancing with a Bear

Instead of banning opinion polls during election time, the government should ban subversive academic organisations like Kolkata's IndianStatistical Institute (ISI). Opinion polls and exit polls are way off the mark, so why bother? A ban only betrays the nervousness of a government anxious to come back to power, but uncertain about how this will happen.

It is true that the slightest shift in the electoral demographic could send a government from the heaven of office to the hell of irrelevance. But does the Cabinet of Dr Manmohan Singh and the partyof Sonia and Rahul Gandhi actually believe that the Indian voter sitsbiting his nails before a television set in order to make up his mind about how he will vote?

The really accurate psephologist is not a pseudo-scientist available on hire, but the social scientist whose name you do not know.The facts that are moulding the mood of the voter have been gathered by the ISI, based on data collated by the National Sample Survey Organisation from about 124,000 households across the country. Get ready for a sharp crack in your first illusion. The UPA government,through its economic spokesman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, has sold us the bait that poverty has gone down under its watch.

Fact: the number of people living below the poverty line has actually increased by a horrifying 20%. India had some 270 million people below the poverty line in 2004-5, when the present government took office. That number has gone up by 55 million, or 20%, after five years of policies named after the "aam aadmi" (common man) but shaped for the "khaas aadmi"(vested interests).

The economic map of India has shifted the axis of tension. The old notional north-south line that divided the country into broad politico-cultural halves is passé. There is a new poverty diagonal that separates the nation on a north-west to south-east arc. The India to the east is sinking towards Bangladesh and Burma; India to the west is rising, and becoming the stuff of popular aspiration and fantasy.If you want to know why Mamata Banerjee could undermine the rampartsof the red fortress in Bengal, pore over the ISI report. A stunning 14 out of Bengal's 18 districts are among the 100 poorest in India, after three decades of Marxist rule. The most indigent district in the country is not in Bihar, Orissa or Jharkhand, but in Bengal,Murshidabad, capital of a principality that once included the whole ofBengal, Orissa and a significant part of Bihar. When Robert Clivestepped into Murshidabad in 1757 after victory in the Battle of Plassey, he looked around in wonder and exclaimed that it was richer than London. Today he would look around and find women slaving away,making bid is at the rate of Rs 41 for a thousand, out of which the middleman keeps six rupees. In percentage terms, the rich pay far less to their middlemen.

Muslim-majority Murshidabad has a population density of 1,102 persquare km against a national average of 590. Among its constituencies is Jangipur. Its Member of Parliament is the present Finance Minister of India, Pranab Mukherjee. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Marxists were pushed back in Bengal but won Jangipur, as the law of accountabilitybegan to extract its price? The job losses that could cross over ahundred million by March are going to have significant impact on voter mood. January saw a fall of 24% in exports from last year. Realists consider the Reserve Bank of India's projection of 7% growth optimistic.

Rising India might be under a cloud for the last six months, but Stagnant India has been in gloom for years. There is little coverage of this gloom since media is driven by advertising; advertising is interested in consumption, and the hungry do not even consume food. It is extraordinary how political parties shy away from decisive facts, and chase ephemeral ones. The extended BJP family is sending vigilantes to check on what the young are doing in their leisure time,but displays little interest in what the young really want — someoneto worry about their workplace. It is understandable when a ruling party shies away from the economy because it has no answers. Whyshould an Opposition party be averse? All it has to do is ask questions.

The political discourse, on all sides, is consumed not by issues that are relevant to the voter, but by posturing and negotiations for partnerships of convenience. The parties do not even pretend to have any ideology in common, or even a purpose that is vaguely similar.Everyone knows that the negotiations for office after the results will have little to do with the manifestos that will be printed before the elections. There is only one weight that will be placed on the scales of judgment, the weight of numbers. [The scales of justice have noplace in politics.] One is often reminded, while watching the pantomime, that when you dance with a bear you don't stop. Those who stop get mauled before they can walk off.

A friend reminded me of an even more appropriate aphorism, and was kind enough to add that this had become relevant to the whole of SouthAsia. The quotation was from the Bible of South Asian democracy, Alice in Wonderland. If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there.

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