The Lurch of the Lemmings


One of the most enduring of media-created myths is that of mass suicide amongst lemmings, the little rodents that live mostly in and around the Arctic. A 1958 Disney documentary film, White Wilderness,  staged scenes of large numbers of lemmings marching mindlessly off a cliff to their doom in the waters below. Actually, lemmings can swim. The rodents see major migrations when they multiply rapidly and their population grows. And when this dispersal finds big numbers crossing large bodies of water, some of them drown by accident, not by intent. However, the Disney film — where they were actually forced off a cliff — and earlier articles, created a false notion that still holds: that lemmings commit mass suicide by leaping off cliffs and drowning in the waters below. This is also the origin of the political slang: ‘Lemming-like behaviour,’ to describe a suicidal course of action.

Political scientists in India 2011 can now be forgiven a rethink on the whole fraud. You begin to wonder if there was some truth in it, after all. The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) seems determined to prove that this instinct of the little creatures was no myth. The race off the cliff is real, with Congress Lemmings leading the charge of the light-footed brigade. The massive hike in petrol prices at a time of raging food inflation was merely one among such efforts. In just seven months, the price of petrol has gone up by over Rs. 10. The new hike came even as the government announced that it was taking the price rise seriously and has formed yet more panels and Groups of Ministers to study the problem.( Another Group of Ministers was to have met in December 2010 to decide on whether to hike diesel and Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) prices as well. Yet another was to take a call on raising APL foodgrain prices.) Lemmings, after all, mostly act in large groups.

Now that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic, the impression of a collective rush to mass drowning only grows. Handing the rural development portfolio to a man just trashed by the Supreme Court for protecting moneylenders in Vidharbha while he was Chief Minister of Maharashtra, has a Kamikaze-like courage about it. Not only did the Court admonish Vilasrao Deshmukh in scathing terms, it also enhanced the fine levied by the Bombay High Court’s Nagpur bench on the government of Maharashtra in the same case from Rs.25,000 to Rs.10 lakh. Now in normal and non-Lemming circles, this would have led to his unaccompanied exit off the Cabinet Cliff.

Justice A. K. Ganguly in his judgment on the case involving Mr. Deshmukh says, among other things: “The message conveyed in this case is extremely shocking and it shocks the conscience of this Court about the manner in which the Constitutional functionaries behaved in the State of Maharashtra.” The judgment goes on to say “it is clear that the Chief Minister was aware of various complaints being filed against the said family [the moneylenders: PS]. Even then he passed an order for a special treatment in favor of the said family which is unknown to law.”

The judgment notes the debt-induced plight of farmers in that very region and also says of Mr. Deshmukh’s action: “This amounts to bestowing special favor to some chosen few at the cost of the vast number of poor people who as farmers have taken loans and who have come to the authorities of law and order to register their complaints against torture and atrocities by the moneylenders.”

Obviously, in Dr. Singh’s view, this is the perfect candidate to preside over the destiny of rural India and its development. Hee is a man during whose eight years as Chief Minister of Maharashtra, well over 30,000 farmers took their own lives in the State — a feat unrivalled anywhere in the country. Mr. Deshmukh’s most famous remark on the farmers: “Committing suicide is an offence under the Indian Penal Code. But did we book any farmer for this offence? Have you reported that?” (The Hindustan Times, October 31, 2007). Just after the terror attacks of 26/11, he went to the Taj hotel, with his actor son and Bollywood filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma in tow. This provoked outrage in a public which saw them as disaster tourists checking out the rich cinematic promise thrown up by the tragic events. Sacked from his post, Mr. Deshmukh spent some months in cold storage before being elevated to the Union Cabinet.

His successor lost his job over the Adarsh episode and also earned notoriety over the ‘paid news’ scandal. On the latter, Ashok Chavan faces a case in the Election Commission and might run into yet more trouble. His successor Prithviraj Chavan, imported from New Delhi, gives non-entity a bad name. The NCP, once a declining force, gets a new wind with his arrival. And that party gets more aggressive towards the Congress at the Centre as well, sensing the mess it is in. In Andhra Pradesh, two successive Chief Ministers have spent over a year fighting their own party in a State that contributed 33 MPs to the Congress at the Centre. In West Bengal, the Congress has written itself, with almost lemming-like fatalism, into a distant third place.

If you watch your Animal Planet you’d expect that, like in other social hierarchies, there are alpha male lemmings. It requires rare qualities of leadership to guide a bunch of sharp front-toothed mammals off a cliff. Heading the charge means there are lots of large gnawing incisors just behind you. This is no role for the faint-hearted, as Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal demonstrated in his stinging attack on the Comptroller & Auditor General of India. This was also what happened in the Bofors case in the 1980s, a blistering attack on the then CAG (among other things). The results of that strategy included a government drowning. But history is not the lemming’s long suit. Mr. Sibal might yet learn that the CAG is not a cowering witness in a court room, but the drowning will probably have begun by then. Meanwhile, with  the 2G spectrum scam, Raja, Radia, illicit funds, and a stubborn Central Vigilance Commissioner facing a corruption charges, the UPA government’s scams are multiplying faster than lemmings.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, meanwhile, has made it clear — wagging a finger while doing so — that the government is not about to reveal the names of any tax evaders. Mr. Mukherjee, who heads more Groups of Ministers than have ever been Empowered, suggests there might be one more group soon. That is, to work out Amnesty schemes for tax evaders and those who have illegally siphoned funds out of the country to secret offshore accounts. No one can be named till they are prosecuted, says he. In other words, we will never know the names of those the government chooses not to prosecute.

A Global Financial Integrity Report (The Hindu, Nov. 17, 2010) estimates that India has lost almost half a trillion dollars in illegal capital flight since Independence. As much as $125 billion, or more than a fourth of the total, vanished between just 2000 and 2008. The government plans amnesty for such offenders and arrests for those protesting high prices.

The line has also been laid down on food security: forget about it. There will be neither a universal PDS nor even an enhanced one. Feeding a hungry corporate world takes all the resources we have. Things are about to get much tougher for the whole team. India’s premier lemmings are simply too busy to pay any attention to their day jobs. Even as the onion season winds down, the World Cup Cricket and IPL seasons are about to begin. This means, of course, that we will still see no Agriculture Minister for a further two months. (Unless someone provokes him with a comment on Lavasa.)

Back in 2008, as global food prices soared, Mr. Pawar revealed to the daily, DNA (Page 1, April 2), that the real reason why wheat prices were soaring was that south Indians were eating too many chapathis. In this, he echoed the view of noted nutritionist George W (then also working part-time as President of the United States). Mr. Bush declared that the world food prices were soaring because millions of Indians and Chinese were eating so much more. (Global prices fell sharply just months later. Were millions of Indians and Chinese suddenly starving? Or were big-time speculators giving prices a yo-yo ride?).

Prime Minister  Singh and Plannig Commission Boss Montek Ahluwalia have also bought into the Bush Food Doctrine: the huge price rise in food items suggests that the poor are doing better, eating more. The cliff runway is free and the lemmings have been cleared for takeoff.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.


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