Sunday, September 5, 2010


A few months back, the entire opposition had united to bring India to a grinding halt for a day ostensibly to protest against the back-breaking price rise that is hitting everyone except the rich hard. To me, the sight of well-fed, rosy-cheeked and inflation-proof politicians courting mock arrest on behalf of the poor was revolting. It was painfully palpable that they had neither any interest in nor concern for the poor in their hearts; they just wanted to show their strength by getting their cadres out on the streets and allowing them to vent their anger by vandalising state property. Not surprisingly, in the evening there was much chest thumping in TV studios about the success of a bandh that boosted their bruised egos but forced millions of daily wage earners and their kids to go hungry.

To add insult to injury, even though the situation remained unchanged for the aam admi, MPs of all parties gave themselves an over 300% hike in salaries shortly thereafter. If this insensitivity that is beginning to become alarming was not bad enough, some political leaders, already allegedly fattened by enough pelf to last them a few lifetimes, staged a mock parliament and bulldozed their way unashamedly to get the hike.

Did anyone remember that poor man then? Did any political party refuse the hike till inflation came down? Did the political parties giving lip sympathy to the decades-old demand -- approved by the courts -- of ex-servicemen for one-rank-one-pension remember them and put pressure on the government to first meet their just demands? Not at all. The same MPs who sleep forever when it involves issues that don’t affect them personally pushed through their bill in a matter of days.

The above incidents are only illustrative; there are as many available as you want. I know there are many who will find justification for both, the first one as a vital symbol of democracy and the second as the right of MPs to be paid well. The point is not about the right to protest or to a fair remuneration. It is about the broken connect between the people and their elected representatives, a sacred and vital bond that is the soul of democracy, without which it is no more than a sham that is sending out invitations to be swept aside.

Democracy means everything to the elite because it fulfills all their needs and greed, and allows them to secede without guilt from the India that is still struggling to get two full meals a day. Politicians love it because it allows them to proudly rule as feudal lords and plunder India without even the slightest fear of being punished. The bureaucracy, police, judiciary and the media are enjoying the rocking party too. Which other system will give such 'freedom'?

No wonder then that Mani Shankar Aiyar, echoing the voice of politicians and the urban elite cocooned in luxury, says he would rather be a poor man in democratic India than a rich man in an autocratic China. A couple of years back Barkha Dutt, on return from a visit to China that left her dazzled, had similarly dismissed what China has done for its aam admi by saying "we have democracy." Yes, she has it, Aiyar has it, as do I and probably all of us who are reading this article.

Aiyar can say that he would prefer living as a poor man in India because he knows he never will have to. By inserting 'democracy' into his argument he has also absolved his ilk of all blame for the mess that they have made of it till now as well as responsibility to fix it in future.

Does democracy ignite even a tiny a spark in Natha or the 800 million Indians living on less than Rs 50 a day? Given a choice, will he prefer to live in the India he does or in China? Natha is the face of India that none of us wants to see, that none of us wants the world to see, that many of us do not know about, that most who know about want to pretend it does not exist, that those who have managed to escape are thankful that they have and want to forget that it still exists for many.

To know who Natha is and how irretrievable rotten every instrument of the state has become and how disconnected our media is from more 70% of India, do go and see 'Peepli Live'. This Bollywood film is a rare masterpiece produced by Aamir Khan and brilliantly directed by first-time director Anusha Rizvi.

If you have no idea what it means to be poor in rural India, and if you are not a politician or a reporter, this film will jolt you and leave you deeply disturbed. As real as any film anywhere in the world can get, it shows you the real face of an India without hope, an India that virtually does not exist for those who rule it or 'cover' it, an India for whom democracy has no meaning, an India that is as wretched and cursed it was under British rule. Peepli Live also tells you why this India is going to remain without hope even as we celebrate India's great growth story and the astronomical salaries that some of us earn in another India that lives in an entirely different country.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a theory that human beings are motivated by unsatisfied needs and that lower needs have to be satisfied before higher needs can be addressed. This hierarchy of needs, often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid, start from basic physiological needs -- air, water, food, sleep -- followed by safety, social, esteem and self-actualisation needs. According to Maslow, one will be motivated to strive for higher needs only once the lower needs are satisfied. Bluntly put, if one does not have food to eat, he will be not be concerned about social esteem, freedom and lofty philosophical pursuits.

800 million Indians are still struggling to satisfy their physiological and basic safety needs. In fact millions of Nathas out there not only continue to suffer, the insensitive, manipulative and totally corrupt system that they confront is making it so difficult for some of them that the only sliver of hope they have of getting something out of it is by committing suicide; even then, as the film shows, the red tape can kill that too. What meaning can higher needs have for this ocean of humanity? Does the the model of governance matter at all? Democracy, autocracy, colonial rule, communism, monarchy -- all are still meaningless words for almost a billion people. All they are concerned with is delivery. In that the system has failed them completely, and there is no sign that it is going to change on its own.

Communism became a rage in the last century primarily because it promised and quickly met the physiological, safety and social needs of people. It failed because it did not recognise that the higher esteem and self-actualising needs that got activated as a result had to be met too. China saw the fatal weakness and dumped it for its own unique model that could respond to and meet higher needs as they emerged. The result is there for all to see. In 25 short years, its GDP that was then equal to India, has grown to five times as much. But what is of great significance is that China has not only pulled out all its Nathas from the claws of poverty but has also systematically created economic, social and governance conditions that is not choking rising aspirations.

This is not the India that our forefathers fought to free from British yoke. The founding fathers of the Republic erred, at the very least, in choosing a model of democracy that was developed over centuries by and for a tiny near-single race island nation whose people had long satisfied all their basic needs. Democracy filled their higher needs. For Natha it was mainly a question of survival in 1947 and remains so now. For him democracy has turned out to be a bondage, a curse. China made a similar mistake in 1949, though Mao's misdirected focus never veered from the poor. Fortunately, at a critical moment it was blessed with a Deng Xiaoping who all but threw Mao out of the nearest window.

Unfortunately, we are still stuck with petty pygmies who are working furiously to further distort the model by dividing people among dangerous fault lines and turning democracy into a plunder club of a few hundred dynasties. Their focus is on dimpled Rahul, not scraggy Natha. But the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family cannot be the Deng that the nation deserves. Not that anyone who matters wants, expects or will let him or any known challenger be one. That can only be bad news for India.

The way things are, the big change agent that India desperately requires is unlikely to emerge from within the known political or bureaucratic establishment. When Deng pushed through the badly needed across-the-board reforms in China, he famously said that the colour of the cat is not important as long as it catches the mice. We need such a cat. For Natha.