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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 32, July 27, 2013

Aam Aadmi, Poverty Line, Modi’s Image


Sunday 28 July 2013, by SC

The gulf between the politician and the common citizen, the aam aadmi, is widening by the day. One is getting proof of that almost on a daily basis. But what two spokespersons of the Congress, the party leading the ruling coalition at the Centre, claimed in the last two days magnified that alienation of the leading figures in the ruling party from the ordinary people despite the fact that the former never tire themselves of asserting that they articulate the aspirations of the latter.

First, Congress spokesperson Raj Babbar affirmed that even now one can get food—comprising rice, vegetables and sambar—sufficient to fill one’s stomach for Rs 12 in Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazar. Not to be left behind, another spokesman Rashid Masood went a step further to announce that a fine meal was available for Rs 5 in New Delhi’s Jama Masjid; when pointedly asked as to how much he himself spends on food, he said he has a meal for less than Rs 5.

What were these worthies trying to establish? That the incessant rise in prices of essential commodities, notably foodstuffs, was not hurting the common man? But in the process they were unaware that they were enacting a cruel joke on the aam aadmi whose interests they have all along declared to protect, promote and defend. This too provided a measure of the distance they have traversed from the feelings and sentiments of the aam aadmi, an inevitable logic of enjoying the trappings of power for more than nine years at a stretch.

It is possible that the Congress spokespersons were buoyed by a Planning Commission report that claims that the incidence of poverty declined from 37.2 per cent of the population in 2004-05 to 21.9 per cent in 2011-12. However, this is based on the Suresh Tendulkar Committee’s methodology (which sets the poverty line at a per capita expenditure of around Rs 33.3 per day in urban areas and Rs 27.2 per day in rural areas, that N.C. Saxena, a member of the National Advisory Council, described as a ‘kutta-billi’ line—“only cats and dogs can survive on it”). Now The Hindu claims that the government “has begun moving to a broader and more realistic de facto definition” of the poverty line to include 65 per cent of the population below it; the “notional poverty line” which the government is reportedly going to accept is to stand at a “per capita expenditure of around Rs 50 per day in rural areas and Rs 62 in urban areas”.

No doubt a wide difference exists between the figure of the BPL population being 21.9 per cent (as spelt out in the Planning Commission report) and 65 per cent (that would be available with the notional poverty line getting recognition). Yet even if one accepts the 21.9 per cent figure, it works out to be 270 million in actual terms—which means every fifth Indian lives below the poverty line. This is nothing to boast of. But this the Congress spokesmen have yet to comprehend. And still these latest poverty estimates not only drew derisive comments from the Opposition but even such a major ally of the Congress in the UPA, the NCP, called the figures “unrealistic”.

Meanwhile the persona of Narendra Modi continues to loom large on the national horizon. The controversy over as many as 65 MPs having written a letter to US President Barack Obama urging him not to grant visa to the Gujarat CM has come to the fore with several signatories denying having signed the petition and the BJP instantly branding the document as being “forged”. Simultaneously Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s outspoken remark—“Modi is not my choice for PM” due to his role in the 2002 carnage in Gujarat—has provoked some BJP leaders to go to the extent of demanding that Dr Sen be stripped of the Bharat Ratna A.B. Vajpayee had conferred on him as the PM. Interestingly in a dignified reply Dr Sen stated he would gladly return the BR if Vajpayee asked him to do so; and he also said he had problems solely with Modi as the latter had made the minorities insecure, and not the BJP as such.

Thus the problem of the troubled image and legacy of Modi being sought to be imposed on the Indian public at large has once again been brought into the centre of discussion. Needless to underline, the impact of the debate on national politics would be extraordinary, to say the least.

July 25 S.C.

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