Thursday, March 13, 2008

LOAN WAIVERS, SUICIDES AND FIVE STAR MEALS.

P Chidamabaram, a sane, educated and sensible politician, has done what the ‘illiterate’ Devi Lal had once done, to literally buy votes. In the Union Budget presented on February 29, 2008, he took the wind out of the opposition’s everything by announcing a jumbo waiver of all loans taken by small farmers from banks. The bill: a whopping Rs 60,000 crores!

Much to the surprise of all, as soon as the announcement was made, ‘farmers’ from neighbouring Harayana landed up at the residence of not the Finance Minister who made the dramatic announcement but of Sonia Gandhi, to thank her! How ordinary, poor farmers came to know immediately that Sonia Gandhi was the one to thank and how they had the presence of mind and the motivation to rush to Delhi to do so is one of the great mysteries of India’s political landscape. Everyone knows how these meaningless tamashas are orchestrated. Everyone also knows that they serve no useful purpose except boosting the egos of political leaders and getting media coverage which does not translate into votes. Yet, all parties are as hooked to them as some guys are to cocaine; the momentary high is truly addictive!

That was not all. On 10th March, the Congress party organized a massive ‘Dhanyawaad Abhinandan’ rally to thank Sonia Gandhi for saving more poor farmers from committing suicides due to the cumulative effects of the burdens of loans which they could not pay and poor crop outputs. Like most political rallies held particularly in Delhi, this one too involved enticing people from neighbouring states to come for a day’s holiday to Delhi, free to and fro transport provided!

The rally was a grand success, with the entire party machinery going into overdrive to ensure that crowd targets were met. Then came the time for the poor farmers to go back to their dilapidated homes after seeing India’s scorching growth with their own eyes in the capital of the country. That must have made them feel very proud indeed, so what if time had stood still for them.

Here comes the twist in the tale. After the rally, about 60-odd farmers headed towards a five star hotel to enjoy a kingly meal in one of the most visible symbols of the country’s progress. The management of the hotel, used to entertaining only ‘civilized’ guests attired acceptably, was taken aback by this unfamiliar crowd of farmers, and did not let them in. No, it wasn’t because it was worried that these really poor farmers wanted to have may be the last good free meal before they reverted back to thoughts of committing suicide, having been shocked by the glamour and affluence of fellow Indians living in Delhi.

The farmers had made it clear that they had enough money on them to afford that five star meal. Whether the money was their own or had been given by political leaders to entice them to attend the rally was obviously not disclosed. In any case, they were not desperately out of cash. The hotel was, however, unrelenting – it had an image to protect you see - and the farmers had to find food elsewhere. Days of the Raj are still around in Lutyen’s Delhi.

One does not know who is really going to benefit from this Rs 60k crore electoral bait of the FM to get votes for the Congress party. The really poor farmers, the ones committing suicides, would most probably have not even qualified for a bank loan and would have borrowed from money lenders who are worse than sharks when it comes to recovering their loans given at often unpayably exorbitant rates of interest.

The slightly better off farmers, including the ones who can afford a five star meal, will certainly benefit. The increase in the disposable income of this lot will also more than help in keeping national consumer spending growing at a healthy rate. At the same time, those committing suicides will also continue to do so, as most politicians know only too well. The real question that concerns them is whether or not this freebie will motivate those who will benefit from it to come out and vote for the Congress.

The answer may well be found in the results of the recent elections in Gujarat. Narendra Modi, the beleaguered Chief Minister of the state, went against all advice and refused to waive off the outstanding electricity bills of lakhs of farmers, a move which many analysts had warned would cost him dear. We know what happened in Gujarat. We also know what happened earlier to those who had tried to play havoc with the financial system.

Some farmers may enjoy a five star meal, thanks to the pre-poll bonanza, but they will most probably not sell themselves, as some politicians are hoping. In the meantime, reports of suicides of the really poor farmers will keep coming in. Who will they vote for before they go? Do they have a real, real choice?