The Trickledown Revolution

September 11, 2010

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The law locks up the hapless felon who steals the goose from off the common, but lets the greater felon loose who steals the common from the goose.
—Anonymous, England, 1821

On the 64th anniversary of India's Independence, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh climbed into his bullet-proof soap box in the Red Fort to deliver a passionless, bone-chillingly banal speech to the nation. Listening to him, who would have guessed that he was addressing a country that, despite having the second highest economic growth rate in the world, has more poor people than 26 of Africa's poorest countries put together?

“All of you have contributed to India's success,” he said, “the hard work of our workers, our artisans, our farmers has brought our country to where it stands today... We are building a new India in which every citizen would have a stake, an India which would be prosperous and in which all citizens would be able to live a life of honour and dignity in an environment of peace and goodwill. An India in which all problems could be solved through democratic means. An India in which the basic rights of every citizen would be protected.” Some would call this graveyard humour. He might as well have been speaking to people in Finland, or Sweden.

If our prime minister's reputation for 'personal integrity' extended to the text of his speeches, this is what he should have said “Brothers and sisters, greetings to you on this day on which we remember our glorious past. Things are getting a little expensive I know, and you keep moaning about food prices. But look at it this way— more than 650 million of you are engaged in and are living off agriculture as farmers and farm labour, but your combined efforts contribute less than 18 per cent of our GDP. So what's the use of you? Look at our IT sector. It employs 0.2 per cent of the population and earns us 5 per cent of our national income. Can you match that? It is true that in our country employment hasn't kept pace with growth, but fortunately 60 per cent of our workforce is self-employed. Ninety per cent of our labour force is employed by the unorganised sector. True, they manage to get work only for a few months in the year, but since we don't have a category called 'underemployed', we just keep that part a little vague. It would not be right to enter them in our books as unemployed. Coming to the statistics that say we have the highest infant and maternal mortality in the world—we should unite as a nation and ignore bad news for the time being. We can address these problems later, after our Trickledown Revolution, when the health sector has been completely privatised. Meanwhile, I hope you are all buying medical insurance. As for the fact that the per capita foodgrain availability has actually decreased over the last 20 years—which happens to be the period of our most rapid economic growth— believe me, that's just a coincidence.

My fellow citizens, we are building a new India in which our 100 richest people hold assets worth a full 25 per cent of our GDP. Wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands is always more efficient. You have all heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the broth. We want our beloved billionaires, our a few hundred millionaires, their near- and dear-ones and their political and business associates, to be prosperous and to live a life of honour and dignity in an environment of peace and goodwill in which their basic rights are protected.

I am aware that my dreams cannot come true by solely using democratic means. In fact, I have come to believe that real democracy flows through the barrel of a gun. This is why we have deployed the Army, the Police, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Border Security Force, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Pradeshik Armed Constabulary, the Indo Tibetan Border Police, the Eastern Frontier Rifles— as well as the Scorpions, Greyhounds and Cobras--to crush the misguided insurrections that are erupting in our mineral-rich areas.

Our experiments with democracy began in Nagaland, Manipur and Kashmir. Kashmir, I need not reiterate, is an integral part of India. We have deployed more than half a million soldiers to bring democracy to the people there. The Kashmiri youth who have been risking their lives by defying curfew and throwing stones at the police for the last two months are Lashkar-e-Taiba militants who actually want employment not azadi. Tragically, 60 of them have lost their lives before we could study their job applications. I have instructed the police from now on to shoot to maim rather than kill these misguided youths.”

In his seven years in office, Manmohan Singh has allowed himself to be cast as Sonia Gandhi's tentative, mild-mannered underling. It's an excellent disguise for a man who, for the last 20 years, first as finance minister and then as Prime Minister, has powered through a regime of new economic policies that has brought India into the situation in which it finds itself now. This is not to suggest that Manmohan Singh is not an underling. Only that all his orders don't come from Sonia Gandhi. In his autobiography A Prattler's Tale, Ashok Mitra, former finance minister of West Bengal, tells his story of how Manmohan Singh rose to power. In 1991, when India's foreign exchange reserves were dangerously low, the Narasimha Rao government approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an emergency loan. The IMF agreed on two conditions. The first was Structural Adjustment and Economic Reform. The second was the appointment of a Finance Minister of its choice. That man, says Mitra, was Manmohan Singh.

Over the years he has stacked his cabinet and the bureaucracy with people who are evangelically committed to the corporate takeover of everything —water, electricity, minerals, agriculture, land, telecommunications, education and health — no matter what the consequences.

Sonia Gandhi and her son play an important part in all of this. Their job is to run the Department of Compassion and Charisma, and to win elections. They are allowed to make (and also to take credit for) decisions which appear progressive but are actually tactical and symbolic, meant to take the edge off popular anger and allow the big ship to keep on rolling. (The most recent example of this is the rally that was organised for Rahul Gandhi to claim victory for the cancellation of Vedanta's permission to mine Niyamgiri for bauxite—a battle that the Dongaria Kondh tribe and a coalition of activists, local as well as international, have been fighting for years. At the rally Rahul Gandhi announced that he was a “soldier for the tribal people”. He didn't mention that the economic policies of his party are predicated on the mass displacement of tribal people. Or that every other bauxite 'giri'—hill—in the neighbourhood was having the hell mined out of it, while this “soldier for the tribal people” looked away. Rahul Gandhi may be a decent man. But for him to go around talking about the “two Indias”—the “Rich India” and the “Poor India”—as though the party he represents has nothing to do with it, is an insult to everybody's intelligence including his own.)

The division of labour between politicians who have a mass base and win elections to keep the charade of democracy going, and those who actually run the country but either do not need to (judges and bureaucrats) or have been freed of the constraint of winning elections (like the prime minister) is a brilliant subversion of democratic practice. To imagine that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are in charge of the government would be a mistake. The real power has passed into the hands of a coven of oligarchs —judges, bureaucrats, and politicians. They in turn are run like prize race-horses by the few corporations who more or less own everything in the country. They may belong to different political parties and put up a great show of being political rivals, but that's just subterfuge for public consumption. The only real rivalry is the business rivalry between corporations.

(Excerpted from Arundhati Roy's latest critique of the Indian political system. The full version will be available on www.dawn.com at 11am on Saturday (today).—Special to Dawn