Why India is not Lutyens’ Delhi

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When the voices of the dispossessed emerge from nowhere, they make democracy work

For those who have known Montek Singh Ahluwalia for a while, he comes across as a gentleman with sound credentials worthy of the berth where he finds himself today. There can be no second thoughts about that. Born in Delhi, Ah­luwalia studied at some of India’s best schools — St Patrick’s, Secunderabad; DPS, Mathura Road; Bishop Cotton, Shimla; and St­ephen’s, before heading to Ox­ford as a Rhodes scholar. Ah­luwalia joined the World Bank soon after, becoming its youngest division chief at 28. He’s also been the first director of the Independent Evaluation Office at IMF. Between the World Bank and the IMF, he’s been a top civil servant in Delhi, helping define much of the economic reforms of the past two decades. And now he’s the planning commission boss in the rank of a cabinet minister.

How did a person so rich in education, and experience and public influence, get it so wrong when counting India’s poor?

I hate the numbers game. But, if numbers alone can define In­dia’s poverty, there certainly se­ems to be a poverty of thought in the planning commission over which Ahluwalia lords as master of all he surveys. Because, as we all know, numbers lie. This is not to suggest that Ahluwalia is being disingenuous, even though he has totted up some incredible numbers to contend that India’s poverty level is down to 29.8 per cent. Yet, that’s just one side of the story of India’s 1.2 billion people who count 48 dollar-billionaires in their ranks.

Ahluwalia’s problem lies there.

In drawing a fine line between people like us (PLUs) and people like them (PLTs), Ahluwalia’s PLUs may well be the PLTs on the Forbes list for the rest of us Indians who do not live cloistered lives shunting between Oxford and Harvard, London and DC, without a care for what makes the real Bharat. Which is why, while I can’t really figure out the formula Ah­luwalia may have used to calculate income levels, and therefore, count India’s absolute poor, I have a lurking suspicion that he may have looked no farther than people wielding handphones to make his guess. With India’s telecom subscribers adding up to 900 million or thereabouts, Ahluwalia, perhaps, demarcated the mobile haves from have-nots in determining the income figures and poverty numbers.

Now if you look at those numbers carefully, with the total number of Ahluwalia’s poor at 344.7 million, we are talking of Indians in penury adding up to the entire population of the United States, the world’s third most populous country after India. We are also talking of rendering India’s entire population at the time of independence to a state of abject poverty. That’s quite an achievement in our 65 years of freedom. Despite the thousands of crores of rupees gobbled up under the guise of poverty reduction schemes —

Rs 7,00,000 crore in the past five years alone — the numbers reveal the stark realities of a poverty-stricken country, desperate to make both ends meet. And Ahluwalia is only talking of people on the fringes of our forests, in the interiors of our villages, and in the innards of our vast urban sprawls we call cities, who do not earn enough a day to afford a packet of cigarettes.

To be fair to Ahluwalia though, he makes a distinction between the numbers and the problems those numbers create. In a paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly in May last year, Ahluwalia comprehensively articulated the poverty issue thus: “The extent of reduction in the percentage of the population below the poverty line is clearly a very important indicator of progress. However, many families that are above the poverty line in terms of per capita consumption may lack access to basic services such as education, health, clean drinking water and sanitation. Inclusiveness must also extend to addressing concerns about inequality. It is sometimes argued that inequality should not matter as long as the poor are getting better off and it is probably true that a rapid rate of improvement in incomes for the poor may make them willing to accept some increase in inequality. However, large increases in inequality, accompanied only by modest improvements in the levels of living of the poor, are unlikely to be acceptable. Inequality in this context relates not only to the distribution of income or consumption across individuals, but also inequality across states, and in some cases, even across regions within states.”

Did you get what he said? Those who know him up close and personal contend that since his days as president of the prestigious Oxford Union, Ahluwalia’s mastered the craft of articulating long sentences that, in sum, reveal little. No wonder, a leader like Mulayam Singh Yadav, just back from a resounding win in the heartland and on whom Ahluwalia’s government banks for life support, is astounded by this claim, and is demanding his head.

For all their pious platitudes on poverty reduction, and economic inclusiveness, the problem with people like Ahluwalia is that in their long and eventful career as the country’s economic planners, they haven’t ever done a rural stint, defecating in the open when most of the poverty notes are exchanged in public every morning. When you squat over that kind of a problem, you know why India’s ruling elite is so distanced from Bharat. You can well rule India from the lawns of landscaped bungalows and air-conditioned offices in Lutyens’ Delhi, but do you care really enough for a billion empty stomachs on subsistence diet in the great beyond?

This brings us to the sad state in which the grand-old Party finds itself, disconnected from the masses from which it repeatedly seeks the mandate to rule. Today, too many well-intentioned people, with very little grassroots connect, have reduced the so-called national party to a resemblance of the Delhi Gymkhana and the India International Centre.

Way back in the 18th century, a great princess, heeding to the advice of her noblemen, once reportedly uttered: “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” Translated into, “Let them eat cakes”, the princess triggered the French Revolution. Right now, as you read this column, a great Maoist revolution is sweeping across our own backyard in over a 100 districts across nine Indian states where the poorest of India’s poor on whom Ahluwalia seeks to impose an arbitrary number have raised the flag of insurrection. And we can do nothing about that.

At a popular level, where violence is shunned in favour of democratic alternatives, India’s poor are erecting their own leaders (and their statues) to guide their destiny for better or worse. You can see it repeating in the thumping electoral victories of the Mayawatis and Mulayams, the Lalus and Kumars, the Mamatas and Ammas and Badals who control most of India from Kanyakumari to Kargil and Kohima to Kutch, leaving the Party to barely run its writ over the National Capital Region, as in the last days of the once glorious Mughal empire.

Having lost its bearings over vast swathes of the country and its people … in Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, UP, MP, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Kashmir, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the Party may soon lose its grip even over Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana for a long, long time to come.

In its heydays, the Party, as much under the charismatic leadership of the dynasty at its core then, as it is today, drew strength from powerful regional leaders with a finger on the pulse of the people they represented. Of late, those props stand uprooted.

Regional heavyweights, who, as in the past, could have lent credence to the clan, have now emerged on their own, dictating terms on everything from rail fare hikes to petrol price readjustments, to voting at the United Nations. To who should or should not be counted among India’s poor. Ahluwalia’s numbers be damned.

When the voices of the dispossessed emerge, they make democracy work.

Ivory tower idealists can take a break.

shubhrangshuroy@mydigitalfc.com

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