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India: Looks like the work of a thief

Sunday 20 July 2014, by siawi3


Jawed Naqvi

Dawn, 15 July 2014

Narendra Modi’s instant prescriptions to cure India’s chronic troubles are vacuous or easy or both.

The conclusions are reminiscent of the full moon night when Majaaz, Lucknow’s guru of wit and poetry, returned home punch drunk. The house was in a shambles. Policemen were shining torches into the ransacked cupboards. The ladies of the house were huddled in a corner, anxiety writ on their noble faces.

Spotting Majaaz in his unbuttoned sherwani and dishevelled hair, one of the sisters cried out in anguish. Whoever had broken into their house had taken away everything, she sobbed. Majaaz, we are told, watched the proceedings silently, shifting his weight from dizzy toes to tipsier heels and back.

Using the palm of his hand as a hood over his eyes he took as good a view as he could get of puzzled cops gaping at emptied out teakwood almirahs. Then, with an air of insight he muttered what seemed like a considered opinion: “Ye to kisi chor ki harkat maaloom hoti hai.†(This looks like the work of a thief.)
For some reason, the chorus stops just short of insinuating that monsoons are by habit pro-Congress, anti-Hindutva.

Modi too has identified the clean pair of heels that cause problems for India’s struggling economy under his watch. There is a threat of drought in the country, he has figured out. With his capable team of advisers the reasons for the looming scarcity are not hard to seek. It is the deficit monsoons, stupid. For some reason the chorus stops just short of insinuating that monsoons are by habit pro-Congress, anti-Hindutva.

As food gets scarcer under his rule, Modi rues the cause though unlike Majaaz, who seemed sincere in his cluelessness, the prime minister gropes for alibis. It must be the handiwork of hoarders, he concludes. Without losing a precious moment he directs the state governments to deal urgently with the nuisance. Is hoarding a euphemism for inflation? His audiences are generously allowed to wonder privately. That rulers had historically dealt in vain with hoarders seems like an avoidable ladle of cynicism at this point.

When Modi recently ordered a steep hike in the price of diesel, someone, quite possibly a critic, pulled out an election poster and put it on the web. In it, the prime minister-to-be is seen bellowing: “Bahot hua petrol aur diesel ka atyachaar, abki baar Modi sarkar.†(Enough of pain inflicted by petrol and diesel prices. Vote Modi government.) True to form, his supporters grab the mikes on as many news channels as exist, urging citizens to realise after all that most of India’s petrol is imported from the Persian Gulf, really.

They follow this revealing bit of information by adding another, that the political turbulence in Iraq was responsible for the prices of petroleum going through the roof all over the world. Since a single corporate supporter of Modi owns most of the channels, no one bothers to remind the audiences that it was a similar crisis in Iraq that made Manmohan Singh a star performer as finance minister in 1991. Singh, however, had to push his minority government’s budget by bribing a few tribal MPs who were later jailed. Modi faces no such lure.

India’s tea stalls and paan shops are notorious for their elevated levels of political discourse. Taxi drivers are another indication of how the political needle is poised at any given time. You can hear two views about the 40- or 45-day old government. Give him some time, goes the argument for Modi. It’s been barely a month and we can’t be lunging at his throat for everything wrong with the economy.

The other view is cutting. He was promising a Congress-less country, but even his budget could not be free of his bête noire’s prescriptions. The spin doctors are giving him credit for launching rockets and announcing bullet trains but they are robbing his predecessors of their share of brownie points. It was India’s Singh and Japan’s Abe who signed the bullet trains proposal whatever be the merits of such a venture.

A good reason why Modi can’t stop hoarders is that such a move would hoist him as the leader of a peasants’ revolution, which no post-independence government would want, not even Nehru. By a quirk of fate a move to tame food hoarding would also snuff out the so-called Maoist insurgency from central India, and cut the military budget by half. Is Modi ready to lead a tribal revolution against the banias, the usurers that will serve to undercut the Maoist sway in Chhattisgarh?

After all what do the besieged tribes want? They seek an end to the dominance of the usurer in their land, who they believe is the main sponsor of hoarding among other exploits. And hoarding is most profitable when the rain gods fail. Pioneering Indian historian D.D. Kosambi concluded that for over 2,000 years, usury had played a central role in India in the expropriation of a surplus from subordinate groups. And the Indian state had traditionally supported the bania.

With food scarcity in 1832 in Maharashtra, to give one example among thousands, food riots spread against Marwari banias. “In September and October the price of grain doubled in Pune and Ahmednagar districts, and the banias offered for sale only old and damaged grain. They began exporting their grain to Hyderabad where prices were higher.â€

As for drought, peasants have historically attacked grain traders for practising witchcraft whereby they could stop rain. All this is recorded history. A good source is Histories of the Subordinated by David Hardiman if the copies have not been removed from the libraries, a growing possibility these days.

Majaaz was imagining what might have happened at his house on a full moon night. He concluded that it was the work of thieves who walked away with assorted goodies in the cover of night. Modi, on the other hand, has to tackle daylight robbery. Will his state turn against its historical allies?

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.