Byline by M J Akbar: The dangers of political capitalism
Power is the pre-eminent value in Delhi’s value system. I was tempted to write ‘only’ instead of ‘pre-eminent’, when some passing sympathy for exceptions interfered with the syntax. A sidelight of this week’s main event reminded me of this basic principle of what might be called political capitalism (how else should we describe the culture of a capital?).
But first to the highlight; a sidelight can only follow.
Mamata Banerjee pulled off a spectacular budget on Friday. There is no doubt about that. She was always a master populist. She has now rounded off this quintessential virtue with just that touch of maturity that enables a politician to pole-vault over the rest of the tribe. Her visage was blooming with the confidence that victory brings; what used to be dismissed as querulous once had transformed into good humour. She might still jump a little over the top while pole-vaulting, but that is a manageable and even agreeable excess. She was very much a Bengali railway minister, distributing as much largesse as she possibly could to the people who made her railway minister, and reminding her voters back home that a successor to A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury had finally turned up in Parliament.
But she also made sure that it registered that she was the nation’s minister as well, parking a gift in every corner. Her railway budget was drawn up on a map of India much more than on a ledger. Politics was written all over it, and why not? A decisive turn in the Muslim vote had brought her to power, and she remembered that children of the country’s madrasas are also students who deserve discounted tickets. Her cultural appeasement (the Urdu couplet at the end, accompanied by the mention that she was speaking on a Friday) fell a bit flat, but who cared?
You can bet that even if some of her promises remain paper decorations a year later, the train line between Nandigram and Singur will be completed. The much-dedicated freight corridor might remain dedicated to the future rather than the present, and those SMS-es that the Railways have so grandly promised could end up as no more than a theoretical blessing, but that power station near Lalgarh will materialise. [Check this out: for how many decades now has Indian Railways taken your telephone number for further communication? Has anyone got a single call helping the customer in all these years?]
Mamata Banerjee has many points to prove in Bengal. Her strategy is uncomplicated: she is sending her voter a simple message. ‘If I can do so much for Bengal with control of just one portfolio, how much more will I be able to achieve if you give me the state government!’
She remembered that she was a member of the House in addition to being a member of the Cabinet. Every MP was given a chance to distribute some largesse through her ticket scheme for the poor. Sharp. There is no easier way of getting the support of the House. Amethi and Rae Bareli were mentioned more than once when the Santa Claus bag was opened. That was appropriate. She knew that all last-minute hitches in the Trinamool-Congress alliance were cleared by the direct intervention of Mrs Sonia Gandhi. It is always good in public life to make your gratitude public. Her triumph was visible on the ashen faces of the Left Front MPs. She reversed their attempts to disturb with a potent jibe: “What have you done in 32 years?” Since they did not have a credible answer they opted for retreat. They knew that this speech, being watched avidly in Bengal, was a major leap forward in the credibility stakes as Mamata Banerjee strides towards her real goal: to enter Writers Building in the heart of Kolkata as Chief Minister of West Bengal. With such nimble political virtuosity it will be difficult to stop her.
The great adage of political capitalism was not at work in the budget speech, but in a derivative. One cannot easily comprehend why Lalu Prasad Yadav chose to become the Left’s chief ally during the railway budget. Surely he does not believe that he is the permanent superstar of railway ministers, nonpareil and beyond emulation. Has he become a victim of the Harvard hype — the adulation of economic capitalists who lured into believing that he had turned into a miracle CEO because he fell into the trap of believing that profits were the only criterion of success? That is one man’s folly. But the political capitalism story lay askance of Lalu’s cracking self-image. It was amazing to behold all those suit-and-tie types who till yesterday were pumping Lalu Yadav up as the biggest balloon since man invented a ledger book, the middlemen who thought that Lalu Yadav deserved a separate chapter in the Harvard curriculum, the tour operators who ferried American students to guided tours of Lalu Yadav’s office and cattle-packed Patna grounds, suddenly seeing merit in the announcement that a white paper on his last five years was the compulsion of the hour.
When the mighty fall there is a thud gleefully recorded by media and transmitted to millions who take vicarious pleasure in the pop and crackle of a bursting ego. Why are there no questions when the sycophants who have inflated any ego into a monstrosity switch their attentions to the next object on their agenda? When Lalu Yadav became railway minister Harvard simply did not exist in his thoughts. On Friday afternoon in Parliament he was possibly thinking of nothing else. Who were the misleaders of this leader?
The misleaders are part of the record. Unfortunately, they are not part of our attention span.