Hostage to holiness

An electorate which bays for the government’s blood because it could not predict or stop a brutal rape in a private bus on a lonely highway but is completely immune to the fact that year after, it squanders our country’s future and our hard-paid taxes in grandiose schemes which never come to fruition, and a government, which has transformed itself into a government of craven apology and knee-jerk reaction rather one of fearless action and hard decisions. This is a public which holds our streets and our transport system to ransom demanding an end to corruption and violence against women, but always looking for a way to shove our way to the front of the line, always expecting a sweetener to expedite someone’s work and always ready to grease palms to get our work done out of turn or to get more than we deserve.  We want the government to post policemen on every street and in every bus, but have nary a care that our police are one of the most underpaid and overworked forces in the world. Why don’t we put more security cameras up instead, and appoint  a taskforce to ensure they work?  Why don’t we rally on the streets telling our government to appoint more judges and pay them commensurate to their education and status so that they are not open to temptation and work hard enough to ensure that they do not delay justice for months or years. We are only interested in getting our little share of the booty, free grains from a public distribution scheme which is rotting on its hinges and providing food it would be beneath our dignity to consume, demanding fuel at subsidised rates when we never owned this resource in any decent quantity to begin with and jostling to be part of numerous public welfare schemes from which we can all skim a little off the top and bottom any which way we can, whether we need or deserve it or not.

Our people have a huge sense of entitlement though they have absolutely no understanding of the fact that our resources are few and our population ginormous. In a similar fashion, our government is a government of electioneering and a government of panderers, doling out largesse like the zamindars of old, a food security scheme here and a direct cash transfer scheme there, never mind if they have to put themselves in the debt-house to fund all their grandiose plans, because they know, just like the zamindars of old, who were up to their neck in debt but still spent like kings, that in the end it was not their money but the people’s and the people would eventually pay and have to square things up.

We keep proclaiming we are a democracy and this is why our inclusive government results in slow growth but nowhere is the concept of democracy merely paid lip service to more than in our nation - even in Communist China decision-making and governance is much more concerned with the common good, and that which provides the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, because no one single person dictates policy and they do not have to dance like puppets on a string, being swayed by every wave of protest that comes their way or every election, general, state or local, that determines  their longevity and their governing power. In our country, all supplicants go directly to the top, bypassing the prime minister, asking for a scheme for one constituency and a hospital for another, while Madam ponders and distributes largesse according to the imperatives of the moment. We are all hostages to her holiness, as she believes that if people do not have bread, they can at least fill their stomachs with promises of unrealistic schemes where ministries are not able to spend even half their budget allocations throughout the year.

The poor Finance Minister is in the eye of the storm again, made a convenient scapegoat for the government’s sins of omission and commission, as was so often the case in the past. He takes his orders meekly like the obedient servant that he is, vying with many others, including our comatose prime Minister, who abdicated all sense of responsibility and urgency long ago, to prove their loyalty to Caesar.  The chairperson of the UPA was brought up in a welfare state, where every citizen felt it was their right to be looked after by the government (though we can all see what state it has brought them to now, which is almost to their knees), but at least the concept of welfare was institutionalised only after they grew fat and prosperous, in the Roman empire, only the nobility had any advantages, and that too you earned a title only after you earned your wealth, the rest either starved or worked themselves to exhaustion. In poor and developing societies, growth starts from the bottom up, because the great communist experiment has proved conclusively that schemes imposed from above will always fail because they do not take the innate laws of human society into account, you will live according to your means and earn according to your ability.

After enjoying all the benefits of a welfare state, it was Sonia Gandhi’s privilege to be married into a family which had all the privileges of the landowning class and which felt compelled to improve the lot of its peasants because of high-faultin ideas about the responsibility of those better off to carry the less privileged along and probably even a guilt complex that these riches were not of their own making. She learnt at the feet of her mother-in-law, the country’s greatest champion of the socialist Raj, that it was the responsibility of the rulers and leaders to decide what was best for the
aam janta
because they did not have the capacity to decide what was in their own interest or work hard enough to significantly improve their own lot. Never mind if such policies flew in the face of everything that prosperous nations around the world were practicing then or if it was sending our own country into the depths of depression and despair, so much so that the only solution to dramatically turnaround the situation at one point seemed to be forced sterilisation! Whether the zamindar beat his peasants during famine to earn tax or provided them with feasts on religious holidays so they could eat well once in a while, the attitude is the same  - ‘these people need to be managed, cajoled, and coerced by fair means or foul so that my zamindari prospers and the ground is not burned from under my feet by the angry mob.

This budget is formulated on the same principles. I can almost imagine the conversation between ‘Madam’ and Chidambaram, when he dutifully goes to seek her blessings and lays out the budget proposals for her approval. ‘Madam, as per your instructions we have included many schemes in this years budget for women and the poor, the backward classes and minorities.’

Good, I am very happy, tell me more.

Madam, there are schemes to take care of widows and single women, there are the maternal and child welfare schemes, there are the shelters being provided for women besides many other schemes which indirectly relate to them, sanitation and clean drinking water, food security, ICDS scheme, Rajiv Gandhi Yojana and many more. Madam, we are also providing more buses to make life easier for women!

No, No, Mr Chidambaram, this is not enough. We must do more. Women are the future. We must take into account their feelings. After all, they are a significant part of the population.

‘Yes Madam, you are right. We are providing Rs 1,000 crore for women’s safety and we have made sure  we name it the Nirbhaya fund. An additional Rs 200 crore will be provided to support schemes like the one-stop crisis centre, a national helpline and effective implementation of the domestic violence act and discrimination at workplace act. We are even allowing women to bring in Rs one lakh worth of jewellery duty free!  In total, we have allocated Rs 97,134 crore to women’s schemes!’

‘That is all very well. Tell me one scheme which includes the poor, the minorities and women also! What about that women’s bank I mentioned to you. I don’t see anything!’

Madam, the bank will not serve much purpose as all women are using normal banks nowadays.

No, it is very important to empower women, we must implement it this time.

Madam, banks cost money. And we have no more money. Besides it will send out wrong signals.

To whom?

To FIIs?

But how can they dictate our policies? There are women’s banks in many countries. No one objects.

But what about the money?

Well, we must find the money, from somewhere. Or the rich must help the poor. India is a country where the rich have always helped the poor. We must find a way.

But it will upset people. The corporate sector, FIIs....

We cannot afford to please a few rich to deny millions of poor. Please understand that our government needs to stand beside the deprived women.

Yes madam, I understand. We will fund a woman’s bank for Rs 1000 crore.

Good, I am very happy. There is very little time, please ensure it is operational this year itself.

Yes, of course Madam!’

And off goes the dutiful servant to carry out his master’s orders. We wonder why Chidambaram, a man of sufficient honour and dignity, allows it to happen time after time. Is it overweening ambition, the satisfaction of showing up his predecessor and earning the plaudits for having fixed his botched track record or simply all initiative and imagination having been wiped out in the struggle to fit in and survive in the Congress culture of sycophancy? Is he gazing mournfully into his cups and declaiming, ‘What did I do wrong? I was just following orders and made the best of a bad job?’

Or is it a case of sweet revenge – having been removed unceremoniously to be replaced by his arch-rival Pranab Mukherjee, he will give the party exactly the debt-laden and subsidy-heavy budget they asked for, without so much as a warning, saying to himself in quiet satisfaction, ‘beware what you ask for. You made your bed, now lie on it and I will be the last person to sugarcoat the pill.’ Little does he know that the government will wash its hands off him in a moment if the tide turns and he will be made the whipping-boy all over again.

This almost seems like a government in waiting. Waiting to which way electoral winds blow before bringing in the heavy duty measures which could upset the boat right now. Where good work must not so much be done but must be seen to be done. Where growth can be sacrificed for sake of survival, where reforms must be sacrificed at the altar of appeasement. Like timid parents trying to calm a recalcitrant child with bribes, but the child keeps throwing ever bigger tantrums and the toys must grow ever bigger. A government at the mercy of an electorate led like sheep by a ratings hungry-media with their own axes to grind, who demand instant and cruel satisfaction.

And the electorate at the mercy of leaders who may be well-meaning and personally honest, who will not speak up in defence of her own son-in-law when rumours of wheeling and dealing surface but is willing to turn a blind eye to one of the largest scams perpetrated on the nation simply to be able to stay in government. And then falling over themselves to lock the stable door once the horse has bolted and bringing the telecom industry to its knees, simply to show that like Caesar’s wife, it is above reproach. What good personal principles when they are not applied for public good? A government so afraid of criticism that it invites the very scorn it tried to avoid through its own paralysis. What good truth and justice that are preached to partymen behind closed doors but are not applied for the benefit of the public who you claim to be your foremost concern?

A leader so concerned about the common man that she acquiesced meekly to every demand of Mamata Banerjee to hold back reforms simply to make coalition politics viable, making the Bengal chief minister the scapegoat for the government’s own lack of integrity and resolve to take unpopular actions, come what may. And now that it no longer has the excuse of Mamata Banerjee around, making the economy the culprit. The UPA chairperson claims she is the country’s bahu but still does not have enough confidence and comfort level in her sasural to take bold initiatives which might displease her in-laws, in the same way she was the invisible and submissive housewife in her own home, never expressing an opinion, always timidly tiptoeing around in the shadow of her powerful mother-in-law.

A good woman, but in the wrong job and in the wrong time, way too big for her to handle.  But still insisting on being completely in charge, as that is the only way she saw governance being implemented. Satisfied with timid, piecemeal measures which cater to local votebanks, terrified of sweeping measures which may backfire. And god forbid, perhaps such piecemeal measures may even cobble together enough piecemeal votes to form yet another government of high-faultin principles but bumbling governance, hobbled from the start by its fear of falling even before it has begun, leading to five more years of misery and decline.

Moutussi Acharyya is group editorial director
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