The Great Indian Rope Trick

Arrogance and Austerity
The Great Indian Rope Trick
by Farzana Versey
Counterpunch, September 18-20, 2009

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.”

he 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.

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(An abridged version appears in The News International, September 19)


  1. Farzana,
    Too much bile.No holy cows in your abuse .Can you give credit to a soul for trying.All our leaders are not total failures,demogogs yes.Is your expectation so high that even gods would not be able to meet them.

    I find criticism of Amrytya Sen unwarranted . If we complain a lot we become irrelevent.I hope you see hope and good in future of India.Balance your comments or you may end up like most of our leftist ivory tower India bashers, who are mutual admirers and have no impact on life.
    I think you have a unique prospective to offer and you know it.
    Do not curse the darkness light a candle ,many want to be enlightened.

    Some papers may not pick you if you moderate your comments,but others will and i hope so.I wonder is it possible for a very thoughtful to be bitter.


    kul bhushan

  2. Kul Bhushan:

    Since you have been commenting quite often I would deem it fit to ask you a few questions:

    What is abusive? Who has to be given credit here and for what? Why is critiquing a statement made by Amartya Sen unwarranted? Have you provided a single counter argument?

    I take strong exception to a term like India basher, especially coming from one who left the country. As for the Tharoors, they get by precisely due to such coddling. I wonder why you did not notice his bilious attitude camouflaged as humour.

    As for this light in darkness business, I suppose the fact that I get emails from people of all stripes and different nationalities does count for something. And they are not flattery but reasoned arguments for and against.

    FYI, before you start giving yourself the role of deciding who would publish me kindly ask or check up. It is quite contrary to your illusion that people would 'pick' me only because of this bile, as you choose to dismiss important issues. I have NOT been published and been banned in fact because of that. Most 'moderate' tepid voices are heard and they become turncoats at the drop of a hat.

    And no one picks me up. I choose where I want to be seen. As for becoming irrelevant, it has not happened for 20 years. Besides, I don't imagine I am out to change the world. After having spent years doing field work, even by sitting in an ivory tower I have an understanding of my country. I don't hide my opinions behind the skirt of research and fake enlightenment.

    Thanks for partaking of the darkness when you did. The world is Kafkaesque indeed. But you have the choice of chocolate sundaes that thrive in the marketplace. Go for it.


  3. Lalu Yadav is an interesting character and I like the way you see both sides. I have a question. If he had said what Shashi Tharoor has would there be a similar controversy?

    The article is well written as usual.

  4. It is all double standard and why ministers don't have houses in constiteuncy??Tharoor is clean guy but he has to prove himself.He has too much power now.In Kolkata left movement is dying

  5. Ameya:

    Lalu has got into enough controversies, but he might have not got the chatterers to support him. I mean, if he would say, "Hum aisan phaive istar mein rehvat ho tau sasura tohar ki jaavat...hum gai-bhains ka doodh bechat kamaiyee kiya..." would it have the same ring?


    He has just stepped in and his name has not been tainted. That is not the issue at all. And you are right that MPs ought to spend more time in their constituencies. What are they doing in Delhi bungalows? Of course, if their get a ministerial berth, then they have an excuse. Tharoor should have been sent to Kerala.

    Well, the Left movement in Kolkata was often elitist.


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