Opinion and Editorial

The long onion road

M J Akbar (Byline)
Filed on March 17, 2008

A SHORT cut is often the longest road in politics. As the time to the next general election shortens to months from years, both the Congress and the BJP are searching for a short cut to power.

The temptation is understandable. Politics is a difficult journey, rife with roadblocks and accidents. But who will persuade politicians that voters live on the long road, not the short cut?

There is something very irresistible about a short cut, with its promise of speed and good luck. The massive loan waiver in finance minister P Chidamabaram's end of February budge is such a classic short cut that the only reaction from ruling coalition MPs has been a demand for more handouts. They want waivers on everything: you merely attach 'poor' to a bank loan and sanctify a political purchase. Debit is being converted into political credit. When you have run out of good sense, you throw money and hope for the best.

The opposite of a bad debt is a good debt. If you could make a nation rich by handing out cash to the poor, every nation in the world would be wealthy. It costs very little to print cash, as the Germans of the Weimar Republic discovered when they discovered that it was cheaper to burn currency notes for heating rather than buy fuel with it. Eventually the Germans burnt their respectable inflationary government and brought Hitler to power. There are many factors that are pushing up today's Indian inflation, but the sudden injection of non-productive cash into the system will certainly not bring inflation down.

You don't have to win the Nobel Prize in Economics to realise that an economy is lifted by an investment of good debt. How does that concept translate into policy in the case of a starved rural economy? You have to invest in a ruined farm, not in a ruined bank account; the future earnings of a revived farm should pay off the debt, which can be amortised over a longer period. It took no more than a day for the synchronised post-Budget applause to muffle. Economists and analysts punched holes in it.

Congress used an old tactic to cover up mistakes in the hurriedly-packaged offer, by packing remedies into Rahul Gandhi's speech on the budget, which he read from a prepared text. He may not have fully understood the details, since economics is not his strong subject, but his staff did a good collage of newspaper clippings.

Why is there a convention in parliament that you do not give your speeches from a prepared text? Parliament is not a test of memory. Parliament is not a classroom where the student with the highest rote-quotient wins the most coveted prize. An MP is permitted use of notes, and the best orators refer to them during a debate. Most debates are on complex matters of governance; much of the detail can be infuriating in its obscurity. But that is what governance and parliament are about. The reason why you do not read from a prepared text is because you are meant to have a grasp of your subject. You place your own views in front of the House, not a speechwriter's; that is the difference between a speech that is delivered and one that is read out from a prepared text. For the Congress, the budget is less important than the continuous reconstruction of Rahul Gandhi as a future prime minister. He has the privilege of dynasty, and is above conventions. One can understand a touch of nervousness in a first speech by a new MP, but after four years in the House you have to live by its rules.

A further privilege is that the dynast is placed in charge of all the good news. The bad news is left for minions to handle.

The BJP is consistent; it does not change its short cuts. It has only one short cut in its route map: how to bring Muslims into every argument. This has become a bit of a yawn, but it seems to have run out of other things to say. Or perhaps it is simply on-message: Muslims are not going to vote for the BJP so why worry about them? It needed a terrific leap of imagination to link this budget to that of another finance minister of India, Liaquat Ali Khan.

The two Indias were as unlike as the two finance ministers. Liaquat Ali Khan was finance minister of united India, or, more accurately, British India, for the princely states did not come under the purview of the government in which he was a cabinet minister. He held the finance portfolio in the interim government formed a year before independence, in which both Congress and the Muslim League participated, a sort of partnership in regress. The two parties had nothing in common, not even a country. Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister: Gandhi and Jinnah, as symbols of their people, were above the latitude of mere governments. Finance was allotted to the Muslim League. Liaquat Ali Khan's most notable achievement was to throw dust in the machinery of government so that it ground to a halt; no one accused him of actually helping anyone, though he did hurt some businesses because, in the lexicon of that period, they were "Hindu". His name has been forgotten not only in India, and I suspect is barely remembered in Pakistan, although he was Jinnah's successor. That service was brief, since he was assassinated in Rawalpindi in 1951. I doubt if millions of votes will take a fast short cut to the BJP's ballot box because of its reference to Liaquat Ali Khan but there could be an inadvertent, minor revival of Khan's name.

In its desperate search for votes, the government surprisingly, for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is an economist of standing, and has surely discovered the perils of electoral politics after four years in office has taken its eyes off that dangerous curve ball that could become the most decisive factor in shaping the popular mood: prices. Inflation is running at over five per cent now, and the price of food is climbing at a much higher rate. This is not the first time that farmer-populism is being touted as the all-purpose panacea. One wonders if anyone remembers the name of Chaudhry Charan Singh. He too was a prime minister of India, if only for six months. Just before he took the top job he served as finance minister and threw as many lollipops as he could towards his core constituency in the only budget he presented. Nine months later, Mrs Indira Gandhi swept to power on a decisive issue: inflation.

The price of onions made the government weep in the winter elections of 1979-80. Watch out for the onions, prime minister.

M J Akbar is a celebrated Indian journalist, author and commentator

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