Sunday, January 06, 2013

You can expect an Xmas tree, not a budget

You can expect an Xmas tree, not a budget
M.J. Akbar
06 January 2013
Nothing quite grips human ambition as forcefully as the allure of luck. Even Napoleon wanted lucky generals in preference to merely brilliant ones. Logic is not an impediment; superstition leaps across paradox. In Bangkok, Thais pray at the Tree of 100 Corpses for a number that will win the lottery. Many Chinese gamblers believe in the glorious tradition that red underpants bring fortune in a casino. They also avoid the main entrance, and postpone their date with the table if they encounter a monk or a nun on the way. This last bit makes sense. God wants us to lose money paying taxes, not rolling dice.

Elections are always a gamble, and this year, Indian democracy will become the most active casino in the world, with 10 assembly polls. The stakes will vary: a lifetime's earnings at roulette, medium-sized bets at blackjack , and lots of zing at pinball machines. Perhaps Indian politicians should switch to red underpants. It can't hurt. And if they are careful, no one will notice.

The monster question is whether 2013 will include the next general elections: that three-card flush played mostly blind, with unlimited stakes, at an exclusive high table.

Most of us take a quick look at rickets in the UPA coalition and come to the wrong conclusion. Allies will not determine the date of the next election. They are all suffering from fifty shades of impotence. Mulayam Singh Yadav is becalmed in a self-constructed prison; Karunanidhi may be teetering on the edge of a cliff, but believes this is still slightly better than a coffin in an abyss. Sharad Pawar is neither here with the Congress nor there with the Opposition, so the Congress treats him with either an indifferent shrug or a patronising pat.

An internal debate is raging between the Diehard School of Survival and Pragmatists who are more keen to minimize losses, since there is little question of maximizing gains. The Diehards have one good argument.

In February, finance minister P Chidambaram will present a Christmas tree rather than a budget. There will be gifts galore for the electorate, all manufactured by the Great Santa Claus in treasury who signs IoUs with the abandon of a bankrupt who has nothing further to lose. The point they make is that the voter will take a year at least to unwrap presents and smell the coffee, so wait till 2014.

Pragmatists point out that time is a treacherous ally. They worry that the voter might discover that the Christmas tree is sparkling with tinsel rather than gold. The first of the bonanza series, the direct-cash-transfer scheme, is already suffering from over-exposure and undernourishment . Cash sticks at every stop between source and destination , which is why America gives nearly 50 million citizens food stamps, not cash. But this methodology cannot possibly serve Indians below the poverty line. The day India’s banking infrastructure includes the half billion under or around the poverty line, we will also have eliminated poverty. Poverty is the absence of surplus. Nor do IoUs work each time. IoUs need to be backed by credibility.

Pragmatists want a general election after the Karnataka polls, where Congress should do well; and before elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, where they see little hope for it. The ruling party could seek a mandate even without passing the Budget, which would relieve it of the onerous necessity of wooing both Mulayam and Mayawati. The median date would be a September-October election.

Diehards warn, ominously, that only Indira Gandhi succeeded in a pre-emptive election, and as far back as in 1971. Atal Behari Vajpayee called an election six months before it was due for all the right reasons, quite forgetful of the fact that the wrong ones are scripted in subdued fine print, waiting to surprise you on polling day. Wait till the end; who knows when, and why, luck could turn.

Neither side of this argument has, however, yet begun to address a more significant problem in Congress. Unlike 2009, there is no continuity in the narrative this time, either in leadership or policy. 2009 offered the image of Dr Manmohan Singh, the promise of electricity through the nuclear power deal, and greater overall prosperity. Each turned out to be mirage. Rahul Gandhi was meant to have occupied the space vacated by a vanishing Singh; instead, he too vanishes whenever there is a crisis. Instead of an economic policy programme that needs a mandate, we have last-minute shopping from a tawdry sale.
It needs more than luck to elect a vacuum.

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