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During UPA rule, 55 million pushed below poverty line

During UPA rule, 55 million pushed below poverty line

Author: MJ Akbar
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 22, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/157990/During-UPA-rule-55-million-pushed-below-poverty-line.html

Instead of banning opinion polls during election time, the Government should ban subversive academic organisations like Kolkata's Indian Statistical Institute. Opinion polls and exit polls are way off the mark, so why bother? A ban only betrays the nervousness of a Government anxious to come back to power, but uncertain about how this will happen.

It is true that the slightest shift in the electoral demographic could send a Government from the heaven of office to the hell of irrelevance. But does the Cabinet of Mr Manmohan Singh and the party of Ms Sonia Gandhi and Mr Rahul Gandhi actually believe that the Indian voter sits biting his nails before a television set in order to make up his mind about how he will vote?

The really accurate psephologist is not a pseudo-scientist available on hire, but the social scientist whose name you do not know.

The facts that are moulding the mood of the voter have been gathered by the Indian Statistical Institute, based on data collated by the National Sample Survey Organisation from about 124,000 households across the country. Get ready for a sharp crack in your first illusion.

The UPA Government, through its economic spokesman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, has sold us the bait that poverty has gone down under its watch. Fact: The number of people living below the poverty line has actually increased by a horrifying 20 per cent. India had some 270 million people below the poverty line in 2004-5, when the present Government took office. That number has gone up by 55 million, or 20 per cent, after five years of policies named after the 'aam admi' (common man) but shaped for the 'khaas admi' (vested interests).

The economic map of India has shifted the axis of tension. The old notional north-south line that divided the country into broad politico-cultural halves is passé. There is a new poverty diagonal that separates the nation on a north-west to south-east arc. The India to the east is sinking towards Bangladesh and Burma; India to the west is rising, and becoming the stuff of popular aspiration and fantasy.

If you want to know why Ms Mamata Banerjee could undermine the ramparts of the red fortress in Bengal, pore over the Indian Statistical Institute report. A stunning 14 out of West Bengal's 18 districts are among the 100 poorest in India, after three decades of Marxist rule. The most indigent district in the country is not in Bihar, Orissa or Jharkhand, but in West Bengal - Murshidabad, capital of a principality that once included the whole of Bengal, Orissa and a significant part of Bihar.

When Robert Clive stepped into Murshidabad in 1757 after victory in the Battle of Plassey, he looked around in wonder and exclaimed that it was richer than London. Today he would look around and find women slaving away, making beedis at the rate of Rs 41 for a thousand, out of which the middleman keeps six rupees. In percentage terms, the rich pay far less to their middlemen.

Muslim-majority Murshidabad has a population density of 1,102 per square km against a national average of 590. Among its constituencies is Jangipur. Its Member of Parliament is the present Finance Minister of India, Mr Pranab Mukherjee. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Marxists were pushed back in West Bengal but won Jangipur, as the law of accountability began to extract its price?

The job losses that could cross over a hundred million by March are going to have significant impact on voter mood. January saw a fall of 24 per cent in exports from last year. Realists consider the Reserve Bank of India's projection of seven per cent growth optimistic.

Rising India might be under a cloud for the last six months, but Stagnant India has been in gloom for years. There is little coverage of this gloom since media is driven by advertising; advertising is interested in consumption, and the hungry do not even consume food.

It is extraordinary how political parties shy away from decisive facts, and chase ephemeral ones. The extended BJP family is sending vigilantes to check on what the young are doing in their leisure time, but displays little interest in what the young really want - someone to worry about their workplace. It is understandable when a ruling party shies away from the economy because it has no answers. Why should an Opposition party be averse? All it has to do is ask questions.

The political discourse, on all sides, is consumed not by issues that are relevant to the voter, but by posturing and negotiations for partnerships of convenience. The parties do not even pretend to have any ideology in common, or even a purpose that is vaguely similar.

Everyone knows that the negotiations for office after the results will have little to do with the manifestos that will be printed before the general election. There is only one weight that will be placed on the scales of judgement, the weight of numbers. The scales of justice have no place in politics. One is often reminded, while watching the pantomime, that when you dance with a bear you don't stop. Those who stop get mauled before they can walk off.

A friend reminded me of an even more appropriate aphorism, and was kind enough to add that this had become relevant to the whole of South Asia. The quotation was from the Bible of South Asian democracy, Alice in Wonderland. If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there.

-- MJ Akbar is chairman of the fortnightly news magazine Covert.

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