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Beware, hypocrisy is in the air

09:27 AM May 30, 2019 |

EITHER Jaitley and Modi are living in La La Land and conjuring up a picture of the Indian economy that bears no resemblance to reality or the alternative scenario of imminent collapse is a political positioning exercise. When Parliament works, as it has done in the past week, it can serve as a mirror to the cross-currents in the country. Yet, the question arises: among the many versions of India that get reflected, which one comes closest to representing the aggregate?

There were many different pictures of India that were on public view through the proceedings of Parliament. If we were to regard the views of the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad, or the perspectives shared by the floor leader of the Trinamool Congress Derek O’Brien as gospel, there would be an unmistakable impression that the country was on the verge of imminent collapse. Both of them painted a picture of widespread rural destitution, collapse of industry and the country’s international isolation—as gleamed through the pages of the New York Times and Guardian. The Gospel according to the TMC leader also suggested that the extent of the collapse wasn’t adequately reflected because the media had been compromised. He, in fact, appealed to the media to shed its inhibitions and join in a grand and noble struggle against the Narendra Modi government and its Twitter supporters.

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Then there was Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s inordinately long Budget speech that, for a change, didn’t have sections of the political class crying out for rollbacks. Yes, there were the ritual noises about how the Budget hadn’t addressed the problems of the youth, farmers, et al. That was only to be expected. However, what was curious is that the picture of immiseration resulting from the November 8 demonetisation that Messrs Azad, O’Brien and others of their persuasion had drawn wasn’t at all reflected in Jaitley’s speech or proposals. This could mean one of the two things: either Jaitley and Modi are living in La La Land and conjuring up a picture of the Indian economy that bears no resemblance to reality or the alternative scenario of imminent collapse is a political positioning exercise.

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I can only offer anecdotal evidence. In the TV studios on Budget day, most of the non-political experts suggested that the Budget was good and that the Finance Minister had tried to balance the twin imperatives of good politics and good economics. Of course there were some stray complaints of the Budget not being a Big Bang exercise—a meaningless phrase that increasingly conveys nothing more than a demand for the immediate privatisation of a white elephant called Air India, as if there are buyers standing in queue. There were also some complaints from well-off media figures about being over-taxed—a relevant observation that failed to take into account that the mid and low income taxpayers have had their tax rates reduced, as have the small enterprises. Rewarding the honest taxpayer has often been a demand that has fallen on deaf ears. At least in the aftermath of demonetisation, Jaitley listened.

In the Central Hall of Parliament, a safe zone where MPs and ex-MPs let down their guard, dissolve their party identities and speak uninhibitedly, I found quiet (and sometimes vocal) satisfaction with the Budget. In private conversations, people didn’t go overboard with tales of destitution and despair, either in the towns or the countryside. In conversations on the elections, where assessments differed, the talk veered predictably to caste equations and, in the case of Punjab, to either the spectacular rise of the Aam Aadmi Party in the Malwa belt or the simmering anger with a family that has governed for two terms. Like the dog that didn’t bark, demonetisation didn’t figure or figured peripherally in the narrative. This doesn’t mean that demonetisation has been forgotten and people have returned to the old normal. It only suggests that any prognosis based on the Assembly elections being a referendum on demonetisation must be seriously discounted.

There was another feature of the Budget that was underplayed significantly, both by the media and the political class. This was Jaitley’s announcement of proposed legislation to regulate political funding. When Modi had suggested that one of the objectives of demonetisation was curbing corruption, the sceptics had argued that the exercise was meaningless unless accompanied by some steps to curb the super-abundance of black money in politics. The proposed measures may not be draconian and won’t stop influence buying or graft entirely. Innovative Indians, accustomed to short-circuiting all rules, will definitely find ways to beat legislation. Indeed, it will be interesting to see what response the proposed legislation elicits when presented to Parliament.

At the same time, it was humorous, to say the least, to discover that many of those anti-corruption stalwarts, including those who had sat on dharna with Anna Hazare in 2013-14, were now rubbishing the proposal as being insufficient. When people counter pragmatic and workable proposals with maximalist demands that include banning cash altogether and shifting to some mysterious system of state funding, there is cause for suspicion. It would seem that either they want the system to become totally dysfunctional and riddled with a conflict between law and reality or else, maximalist approaches are a convenient smokescreen to conceal their innate preference for the status quo, particularly now that they are part of a system they decried when they wore their civil society activist hats.

There is a great deal of hypocrisy in the air. In studying India’s politics, the challenge is to separate the bogus from the real.

The author is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a Presidential Nominee to the Rajya Sabha.

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