Friday, October 07, 2011

Salt On Poverty's Wounds

From Byword- India Today (October 7)

There are three ways in which a journalist gets a headline right: deep thought, instinct, and good luck. Of the three, instinct might prove to be the most reliable, since it does not permit space for doubt. The favourite word used by media to describe the cessation of hostilities between Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and former finance minister P. Chidambaram, at a particularly volatile moment in their war, was "truce". Spot on.

The Oxford dictionary defines "truce" with its usual pithy perfection: "An agreement between enemies or opponents to stop fighting for an agreed period of time." A truce does not signify the end of war, and it isn't. Congress President Sonia Gandhi would of course like this truce to last at least till the next general election, or the installation of her son Rahul Gandhi as successor to Dr Manmohan Singh, whichever comes earlier. Both the contestants might be irrelevant to a Rahul regime, Pranab because he wants to retire, and Chidambaram because he is now too controversial. But the Pranab-Chidambaram ceasefire, negotiated through multi-tier back channels with a finesse that nations might envy, was held together by a band-aid rather than a bandage. It was always a veneer, and it crumbled within days.

The artillery of Delhi's intra-party wars is disinformation; the battlefield is mostly newsprint; the first casualties are bureaucrats, particularly those under consideration for some choice posting. There is an old Indian saying from the feudal days: when you want to destroy a king, first kill his parrot. That is the fate of officials close to ministers; they get trapped in poison weeds planted by the opposition. As in any war, the circumference of damage is inevitably far larger than the circle of target. Institutions get battered, as much as individuals. When critical ministries like finance and home are involved, government becomes dysfunctional. This is not sniper fire, this is civil war, symptom of a much more serious malaise.

Stability in power is not merely an attribute of numbers, and levels of support in the legislature. An American president does not need a majority in the Senate, but Barack Obama's mooring has come unhinged. There is no threat to Dr Manmohan Singh's tenure yet, but his coalition has lost its centre of gravity. Its majority is sustained by the compulsion to postpone accountability, although in a democracy this cannot be an indefinite luxury. Survival may be certain, but governance becomes uncertain. When a government loses discipline and direction, it can inflict self-damage in the most curious, if revealing, ways.

Montek Singh Ahluwalia, to offer the most recent instance, has poured salt upon poverty's wounds with a fervour that the electorate will remember long after feuds fade into the subconscious. His economists must have done the math: calculated the minimal calorie requirements for survival, costed it and emerged with the now infamous Rs. 32 definition of daily urban need. Statistics are a trap in an insensitive mind. They may be necessary for policy, but they must be refurbished by the human touch in politics. Here is a statistic that Montek Singh Ahluwalia might consider worth a thought or two. He lives in the most exclusive residential zone of India, or perhaps Asia, in one of the string of multi-acre palaces built for the elite of the ruling class in Lutyens' Delhi. If the Government ever thought of selling Ahluwalia's bungalow, it would fetch Rs. 400 crore or more. Economists in the Planning Commission have computers which can count and divide. They would calculate that every blade of grass in Ahluwalia's expansive, grace-and-favour residence is worth more than Rs. 32.

Politicians who live in similar palaces are at least accountable at election time, and know that the price of callousness is defeat. Ahluwalia is where he is because of only one vote, the Prime Minister's. Dr Manmohan Singh is a generous employer. Ahluwalia's sole penance was to appear pseudo-contrite on a friendly television channel. The remark will prove more expensive to the party which hired him.

General Jack Jacob, our living hero of the Bangladesh war, told me of a cockney ditty British soldiers under his command would sing during the Second World War. It's the rich wot gets the pleasure, It's the poor wot tikes the blame, It's the same the whole world over, Isn't it a bloody shime!

Within months of victory in this great world war, these impoverished cockneys threw out Winston Churchill, the genius who saved his nation, in an election that became an avalanche, because they were tired of taking the blame while the nabobs drank champagne. Democracy hath no fury like the poor scorned.

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