Byline by M J Akbar: Wanted, a Nobel Prize for Honesty
Now that a legitimate recipient can be identified for a Nobel Prize for Honesty, it is time Oslo introduced such a prize. One sensible option would be to scrap the prize for peace since each year the committee has to torture itself to find a candidate — before it hands over the cash and plaque to someone who has just declared war.
I have an excellent nominee for the first winner of the Nobel Honesty Prize: Alexei Kudrin, Finance Minister of Russia. In the first week of this month he told the news agency Interfax that the best thing his countrymen could do to help the national economy was to smoke and drink more. These are his specific words: “If you smoke a pack of cigarettes, that means you are giving more to help solve social problems such as boosting demographics, developing other social services and upholding birth rates…People should understand: Those who drink, those who smoke are doing more to help the state.”
There is an also-ran in these stakes. On 10 September, Sha Zukang, Undersecretary General for Economic and Social Affairs at the UN, encouraged by a glass or four of alcohol, told Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General, “I know you never liked me, Mr Secretary-General — well, I never liked you, either…” But the winner is Alexei Kudrin, by a long shot. He was sober.
His message is simple. Smoking gives you cancer; cancer kills you early. A dead person cannot claim state pension, which is good news. Death also shifts the age-youth ratio in favour of the young. Further, you pay higher taxes on cigarettes and drink — more money, then, to the exchequer: wonderful! QED. Die to save the fatherland!
This is exactly how any Finance Minister driven to despair by deficits would express himself. But the rules tell him to talk like a weasel and promise more food, electricity, shelter and security even if he has to bankrupt the future in order to secure your votes today.
Dr Manmohan Singh, who had a hard time as Finance Minister and isn’t actually on a picnic as Prime Minister, is never going to give such excess, but you can almost hear him straining at the leash. Years of being politically correct at the cost of economic discipline are beginning to tell. He tipped over when the Supreme Court instructed his Government to feed the impoverished instead of letting grain rot. Dr Singh’s retort was sharp; in sum, that the Government was not in the business of charity. If the grain had to rot, so be it; if the impoverished wanted food they would have to go to the market. There is economic logic, apparently, in letting rats get fat. The Supreme Court, said the PM, should live outside the policy zone. If a lesser being had made such a remark, it would doubtless have invited contempt of court, but even supreme judges know better than to summon a Prime Minister at the drop of a remark.
The Prime Minister is a politician. Any suggestion to the contrary is promotion of a myth. Evidence suggests that his populism would be community-oriented rather than poverty-specific. He understands the nuances of the game better than some self-proclaimed professionals imagine. Community is the key: poverty is too amorphous an identity, whereas caste and religion are the truly powerful instruments of mobilization. It is not accidental that Dr Singh’s Cabinet has scheduled a caste census for next year.
Being a politician, he knows that his main responsibility is to keep the Government afloat until heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi declares himself fit to rule rather than merely campaign through non-sequiturs. Dr Singh keeps sane in the waiting room thanks to a quiet sense of humour. He has, for instance, advised his ministers to check out the United Nations code on corruption. Does he think that the whole Cabinet will begin to tremble at the thought of being caned by Ban Ki-moon?
Indeed, it is possible that ministers like Commerce Minister Anand Sharma who, poor chap, has declared to the Prime Minister that he has personal assets of a mere Rs 26,741, might apply for a UN poverty certificate, while we concerned Indians pass the hat for charitable contributions. It is a shame, in these post-Gandhian times, that as important a personage as Anand Sharma should have less in his bank than it costs to buy an official suit, unless of course he buys his suits from what lies in his cupboard rather than in his bank account.
Given the parlous state of so many of our ministers — the indigent Subodh Kant Sahai, for instance, has personal assets of only Rs 1.4 lakh — should we suggest to Oslo that they should also offer a Nobel Prize for Poverty?
Censorship is hereby imposed on all those who believe that what Indian politicians would really win year after year is the Nobel Prize for Hypocrisy.