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March 14, 2001
The unseen majority
Yashwant Sinha's Budget this year was a good one. Maybe it did not deserve the 10 on 10 that the Chairman of the Unit Trust of India gave it or the 9 on 10 that it earned from business leaders, fund managers and investment bankers and the embarrassing amount of praise lavished upon it by the media. But, yes, it was a decent Budget. It was smartly mounted and cleverly structured to keep the chattering classes in good humour.
Good for Sinha. He is a smart politician and even though he has a miniscule political base and very little personal following within the BJP, he is a fine minister and has outperformed every expectation in his current assignment. In fact, that is exactly his style. He does not raise too many expectations and, then, he goes and outperforms them.
But this column is not about Yashwant Sinha. It is about the Budget and how, over the years, as we speak more and more about structural reforms and liberalisation, we tend to become more and more indifferent to those who actually need the greatest support from the government.
I agree with the reforms policy. I am as convinced as the rest of India that it is not the job of a government to bake bread and run hotels. Of course, that does not mean we must sell cheaply what we have built over the years. Like BALCO was given away to Sterlite for a price that looks hugely undervalued. Whether it is or not is another matter. But disinvestment, like Ceasar's wife, must be above reproach. It is not only a question of doing it right. It must be seen as done right. This is where the BJP Government failed miserably.
Where it has also failed is to recognize the fact that while structural reforms are fine and it is important to keep the chattering classes in good humour, it is also the job of a government to actually govern. And governing in a democracy eventually means looking after the interest of the largest number of people. Does the Budget do that? Does it even attempt to do that? Or does it only look after the interest of the privileged few, that is people like you and I?
Over the years, the Budget has come to address itself more and more to satisfying the expectations of those who can very well look after themselves. The argument is always the same: We must encourage economic growth and empower those who can move India ahead. And who are these people that our government believes can move India ahead? You do not have to look very far.
The biggest praise for the Budget has come from its biggest beneficiaries. Businessmen, industrialists, traders, investment bankers, fund managers, stock brokers, foreign investors and, of course, the upwardly mobile middle classes and the media. They are the ones most thrilled by what the Budget has to offer. They are the most vociferous lot in modern India but are they, let us ask ourselves honestly, hands on our heart, the true representatives of the majority of India? Or are they the ones who always end up influencing government policy by their sheer cacophony?
Even as we move towards a new economy, a new political order we are today talking less and less about more and more. We are no more talking about or concerned with those who make up the real majority of India. The voiceless millions who are no longer heard above the babble. Marginal farmers. Landless labour. Unemployed youth. Forgotten peasantry. Factory workers who are increasingly losing their jobs. The homeless urban poor. The sick and aged, whose numbers have doubled. We have forgotten almost half of India: Our women. Particularly those who live in the villages and walk on an average 11 kilometres every day to fetch drinking water for their families.
We have ignored the poor, the destitute, the lonely and the dispossessed. Words like poverty, homelessness, unemployment and penury have vanished from our political lexicon today. We no longer talk of public welfare. We no longer argue over how wide the safety net needs to be cast, to protect the wretched of the earth. We boast that today only 27 per cent of India go to bed hungry at night against 34 per cent some years back without realising that in terms of actual numbers, this means many more millions are now below the bread line.
Every pain is a statistic today. As our cars become cheaper, our overseas holidays more affordable, and imported chocolates flood the neighbourhood retail stores. We are all becoming blind to poverty. We are all becoming indifferent to grief. The grief that is spreading all over rural India, the grief that grows in the slums around the flats in which you and I live. By ignoring this grief, this pain, this poverty we will eventually turn it into anger and then, one day, into blind rage. Blind rage that will burn down these huge edifices we are building for ourselves and our children.
It is time to focus on what India wants, what India needs. It is important for those in power to hear the voice of the silent majority. To frame budgets that speak for them as much as they may speak for those among us who are privileged to be heard by those in high office. It is important to have a Budget that speaks not for you and I but for those millions among us who remain voiceless and unseen. After all, that is what democracy is all about. Not just appeasing the strong but empowering the weak.
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