The soles of his feet were cracked like the soil in barren fields. He sat idly and drank khus sherbet. There weren’t any files spread before him. He was doing no work, only shaking his legs in that nervous frenzied manner of people in power who have to sit with others.
This was in the executive class on a private airline. It was before the Congress party told its ministers that they had to go on an austerity drive and travel economy. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar reacted by saying there would be no space to do any work.
Why has there been such a black and white reaction to this move? Was it because two ministers started staying at luxury hotels while their government bungalows were being ‘done up’? S.M.Krishna and former UN man Shashi Tharoor claim they did not use the tax-payer’s money; the latter in his now patented fashion is throwing the “I am paying the bills from my own savings after a lifetime of international work” line.
His little tweets have made him into a five-star martyr to become a part of knee-jerk legend. In one he said he would definitely travel in ‘cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows’. Naturally, those who think life revolves around conveying their daily stories in small doses find it, and him, cute. The arrogance of this kind of Indian politician mirrors the same feudal mentality that upstart urbanites accuse the country bumpkins of.
The primary reason is that our society follows the “Dilli Chalo” (onward to Delhi) credo to sanctify the power of central leadership and fake cohesiveness. Our slogans have moved from “Jai Jawaan, Jai Kisaan” (Hail the solider and the farmer) to “Garibi hatao” (Banish poverty) to “India Shining”. While India was shining, farmers were committing suicide as they are now. Getting ministers to give 20 percent of their wages for drought-affected regions is simplistic. The salaries of ministers are not known to be high. They earn more through perks – for fuel, phones, travel. There is also the larger issue of corruption. Granting licences for large projects to certain firms is part of the money-making deal that keeps the political machinery lubricated.
The current move is not about hypocrisy but hyperbole. And who better fits the slot of abstinence than the father of the nation? Lalu Prasad Yadav said, “Mahatma Gandhi always preferred to travel in third class compartments… and remained frugal throughout his life.”
If there is anyone who made poverty look like a million bucks, then it was Gandhi. The land of nabobs became the land of the half-naked fakir. The Birlas played host to him not because he drank goat’s milk but because he said, “India must protect her primary industries even as a mother protects her children against the whole world without being hostile to it.”
This is the brand of selective socialism that is being replayed today, not the fashionable Nehruvian model which was about how to do a Lenin by wearing mink. It is corporatisation of spiritualism. Anyone with a begging bowl of empty dreams can head a start-up venture of couture abstemiousness.
The idea of droughts and famines do not merely fan such high thinking among politicians but intellectuals, too. Remember Amartya Sen’s facile belief that, “… famines have never afflicted any country that is independent, that goes to elections, that has opposition parties to voice criticisms, that permits newspapers to report freely and to question government policies without extensive censorship”?
Simply speaking, we would be talking about socially and economically wealthy societies. Forget famines. What about other problems that beset a country like India? We have democracy, why then does Prof. Sen subscribe to state intervention? He had concurred that the role of the state even in matters of nutrition, health, education, social insurance was connected with the outcome of economic processes, which must empower people to become economic agents in their own right.
Here was a clear case of making both sides happy without giving a thought to the fact that state intervention can never empower people; it only results in dependency if not degradation. Perhaps, that suits the purpose. As he once stated, “Buddha was asking himself what kind of life is that (of illness, old age, mortality)? These are problems we all face. For many of us it is also the impetus for our work.”
The concern about rural India’s suffering arises only when it affects the middle class and the rich. Food, a basic need, is in short supply. An India that is now being sold Quaker Oats by an organisation of heart cure is willing to exaggerate its misery. Where are our irrigation plants? What happens to the families of farmers? How many people are moving to other towns and cities? Have these aspects been considered? Sonia Gandhi takes a flight with the plebs. As a symbol it might work, but only for a limited audience.
Once the flight touches ground, there will be a fleet of security vehicles. The person in the street does not care. It will, however, result in more corruption. The corporate sector that has thrived due to political munificence will be happy to help. They will not go quietly and do something in the villages where they have set up factories; they already think they have done the country a huge favour by providing employment opportunities. Labour is cheap. Instead, they will provide facilities to ministers, and since many of their kind have got into the fray it will be easy. They talk the same language and suffer from the same gilt-edged greed.
Does anyone talk about austerity for them when they are in fact sponging on the shareholder’s money? Was there any talk about austerity when villagers were driven out of the leftist state to facilitate factories to produce a low-cost car for the city dweller – a car that would clearly point out the difference between the rich and the ones who would never get there?
We condescendingly let Lalu, our rustic politician, join the cavalcade of management geeks to give lectures at Harvard and Wharton. The gallery applauds as they would when they watch a comic act or an acrobat. He senses that. Years of having been marginalised have taught him lessons in hypocrisy, stereotypes, and expectations. He plays their game. He too starts quoting Gandhi even as he made money from kickbacks from cow food. How much more hick town can anyone get?
Sleepy Communism has joined ranks, clinking glasses of Old Monk and belting out the angst of foreign rebellion in the voices of Ginsberg and Che, driving kitsch up the Warhol wall. Poor India has today become a parody of its own poverty.
FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based columnist and author of A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, Harper Collins, India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org