Byline by M J Akbar: The Lost Tribe of India
Is poverty boring? Or is it merely inappropriate, just too in-your-face during the holiday week that precedes Diwali? It doesn’t seem right to behave like a sourpuss when the national mood is celebratory, when traffic and shopping are indistinguishable from each other in Delhi and Mumbai, when those of us who can afford to be happy are happy with a bang, and when a strange form of cricket full of hugely unknown players dominates the television set.
I can blame it on Hindustan Times. This week it carried a front page report quoting a study done by worthies in the highest echelons of government, which showed that the number of Indians living below the poverty line had actually increased by ten per cent, taking the figure up to 38%. Add the marginals and more than half of India exists at subsistence levels. That sounds too polite actually. More than half of India does not sleep with a full stomach.
There are two categories growing in the Rising India of elephants, tigers and various Maharajah animals that grace the covers of silly books: the super rich, and the abysmally poor. At the top of the wealth peak are both legitimate businessman who have the skill, entrepreneurship and financial genius to turn enterprise into a pot of gold. Alongside them are the creators of illegitimate riches, the well-dressed, greasy scumbags who make deals with banks and politicians, loot the country and stash billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts that, naturally, our authorities can never access.
Since it is the commonly acknowledged dream of newspaper-reading Indians to turn our nation into a superpower within the foreseeable future, an objective question needs to be answered. Is poverty a hindrance to superpower status? Oliver Twist, Uriah Heep, Micawber and Scrooge lived in the world of Dickens and Charles Lamb wrote on chimney sweeps, young boys who climbed up chimneys to clean the soot. This did not prevent Britain from becoming a world power under the watchful eye of Queen Victoria and her successors. Did the British nabobs mope about the wretched beggars and prostitutes on the streets of London, or did they simply get on with conquering the world?
An impoverished population can actually be quite useful for such an enterprise. You need foot soldiers and cannon fodder for imperial armies: what would Britain’s generals have done in World War I without their local poor, or the million Indians ready to put on a uniform for a soldier’s pittance? The rich are not easy to turn into a battlefield statistic. A thrusting economy also needs cheap labour to keep prices competitive [owners never, of course, reduce the size of their profits and bonuses, they merely skim the wages of the lowest in the ranks]. China’s story is heavily dependent on the virtual slave labour on assembly lines; equally, Indian businessmen need sweatshops, just as Americans once did when they were in a comparable stage of economic growth.
Face it: those who invested in the poor for their political survival have been marginalised in the last two decades, and those who invested in growth have flourished. The latter had a ready answer, of course: only growth could eliminate poverty. The latest statistics show that it has not. Charity is alien to the culture of wealth, so the private sector is more interested in profit than welfare. The state, which should ensure that welfare gets priority, is more concerned with the glamour of growth. So, after nearly two decades of economic reform the poverty levels have increased at an astonishing pace, taking us back to the Seventies, at least on this count.
We began our exercise in nation-building with Gandhi’s talisman: whenever in doubt, think about the poorest amongst us and consider whether what we are doing would benefit him. Every socialist, whether inside Congress or outside, carried it around as a badge of honour. Look where the socialists have ended up, including of the tricolour variety. Socialists have become the lost tribe of India.
Communists had no time for Gandhi. They opted for either two beards or a moustache: the fulsome growth of Marx, or the pointy triangle of Lenin, or the Ottomanesque upper lip of Stalin. All three have been shaved clean in Kerala and Bengal. They might soon have to rename themselves the Communist Party of Tripura. Trade unions have become the spoilt brats of our system, limited only to their constituency interests, contemptuous of the unorganised poor.
Why have the poor turned away from povertywallahs?
They have not. The povertywallahs have abandoned the poor. The Naxalites, who had been virtually eliminated from politics by the mid-Seventies, have expanded into space vacated by the socialists and communists. Between them, they would have most of the seats in over 150 districts, which would probably have made them the largest bloc in Parliament. The true Opposition in India has moved away from Parliament, which is not good news for either democracy or India. The Naxalite vote does not get translated into seats, because Naxalites do not offer candidates, or indeed play the artful game of electoral manipulation along seams of caste or community or faith. It is perfectly understandable that the two principal parties in Parliament, Congress and BJP, are outdoing each other in schemes for massive state aggression towards Naxalites. It is in everyone’s vested interest that Naxalites are crushed, physically. The government throws around palliatives in time-honoured fashion, promising development the moment Naxalites are killed. Why did it need Naxalites to remind the government that these districts required development? That is not the only question. When Montek Singh Ahluwalia, honestly and bravely, reminds the country that Rajiv Gandhi was right, and that only 16 paise in the development rupee actually reaches the target, he is ignored. I suppose they will start calling him a socialist next.
Sorry for being a party-pooper, or at least trying to be one. Remember Queen Victoria, and have a happy Diwali!