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Mainstream, Vol. XLVIII, No 34, August 14, 2010

Promises to Keep

Sunday 22 August 2010, by Nikhil Chakravartty



Fifteenth of Agust is a sacred day in the annals of our nation as the day that marked the dawn of freedom from colonial bondage.
And it is also the day of promises to keep. This country won its political independence not without a commitment, and that commitment was to emancipate its millions from the grinding poverty imposed by the social and economic structure built under colonial rule.

This is the pledge that successive generations of the nation’s leadership have taken but have made only marginal advance towards its fulfilment. Instead, there has come about, over the years, a startlingly widening gulf between the rich and the poor. Not that the poor have been getting poorer but there is no doubt that their share in the national wealth is being sliced smaller and smaller with every passing year, while nobody, not even the rich themselves, will dispute that they are getting richer.

The basic question of eradication of poverty can no longer be shelved as part of the agenda for tomorrow. Promises and platitudes, shibboleths and resolutions, have come the way of the poor in impressive array at periodic intervals. From Avadi to Bhubaneswar, from Ten Points of 1967 to Stray Thoughts of 1969, and on to Twenty Points of 1975—with four more added this summer, and still one more tagged on by the time the monsoon rains have started pouring—nobody cannot but be overwhelmed by this impressive record of sweeping promises.

And yet, with all this majestic cascade of words tumbling upon words, the discomforting question persists: what about the elimination of poverty? Parents are to be sterilised; bonded labourer being given freedom by law; trees are being planted by persuasion; dowries being abolished by oration; illiteracy to be stamped out by exhortations; urban property ceiling to be enforced gently, if not by consensus; and rural land distribution has to follow its time-honoured procedure without impatience.

Out of every programme, manifesto or declaration, cometh some good. But that by itself does not add up to the honouring of a pledge. By this time last year, there was much talk of land distribution to be time-bound. The Congress President, carried away by his own plethora of pronouncements, set June 30 as the deadline for all surplus land to be distributed. Six weeks since that famous deadline, nothing is heard of it today.

Presumably getting wiser by the fate of the Congress President’s rather pathetic mandate, the Youth Congress chhota bosses with their latest Five Points have this week discreetly set no deadline for their own programme.
For years, if not decades, this nation has been told by its leadership that our journey to socialism would have to be slow as we are officially committed to the democratic method instead of any authoritarian short-cut. The more enthusiastic but innocent among the Congressmen seriously believed that by consensus, instead of coercion, the rich would surrender to become un-rich and the poor will cease to be poor; so, class struggle need not continue and socialism shall be reached by the slow-motion of democracy.

The nation, its unwary millions, have so long put their faith on such a perspective, though they would not possibly have bargained for the tortoise speed, even if they are accustomed to the bullock cart.

Today after one year of the anushashan that the Emergency is supposed to have ushered in, the Twenty-point pledge itself is yet to be redeemed, and the road to socialism seems long and dreary despite many an inspiring pronunciamento. Not the bullock, nor the tortoise—but the snail appears to have been chosen as the vehicle.

If the tempo is slow, it may of course be argued, it does not necessarily follow that the goal is abandoned or the direction is lost; and that is what the Congress leaders are expected to sell to the people of this country.
At the same time, the reality protrudes in the most uncomfortable manner. The anushashan of the Emergency has no doubt helped the trains to run in time, and even superexpress trains are bringing us fresh glories. Side by side, the momentum of the Birla activities—whether of the B.M. or the K.K. variant—has shot up. From multinationals to chain newspapers, they
never had it so good. Their conspicuous amassing of wealth coupled with spectacular accretion of political influence, is one of the more significant landmarks of this one year of national anushashan.

But the Birlas and their brothers-in-operation are not the only beneficiaries under the present dispensation. With all the threats administered by the Twenty Points, the rural rich remains untouched. All the old-fashioned talks about State trading or distribution of foodgrains sound like forgotton whispers of yester-years. If the industrialist is getting a liberal deal since the Budget, the rich farmer is treated with competitive concessions. His accumulation must not be touched lest the fragile political structure over which the Congress President presides may tumble down.

The Prime Minister has won kudos in the world of Socialism, in Moscow and in Berlin, and will receive more accolades from the world of Nonalignment as it meets in Colombo. But she, as the head of this Government, knows more than anybody else, that the strength of the country lies, in the final analysis, on its economic foundations. It is not the weather god alone but large-scale credit, with record-breaking total, from the Western agencies—the Consortium to the IDA—that seems to be keeping the Finance Ministry in a state of euphoric complacency. Any prop, furnished by massive borrowings from the World Bank and the Wall Street, does not make us strong nor enables us to combat poverty.

Noble sentiments, strong words have a way of being overpowered by the law of diminishing returns. It is a fallacy of politics to think that the unlettered millions have a short memory. Garibi Hatao is not even five years old as a national slogan. This promise cannot be kept by just enshrining Socialism in the Constitution.

There is no escape from facing the basic truth—for no one, from Indira Gandhi to her most ardent supporter of the Left—as the vast ocean of poverty with all its grim reality stretches beyond the horizon that is India on August Fifteenth, the day of Freedom.

(Mainstream, August 14, 1976)

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