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PRAYAAG AKBAR
GROUND REPORT

Prayaag Akbar is Associate Editor of The Sunday Guardian

An Ocean of Furious Futility

he Internet was an ocean of furious futility this week, even more than usual. The customary coalition between the English language media and the economic interests of the upper-middle class produced an eructation of uniform opinion not often seen in our mangled polity. Editorials and televisual admonishments and tweets and blog posts are all well and good, but one couldn't help but marvel at the vanity of barren opinion. Futile outrage can be most amusing from the correct distance.

The first sticking point was the Railway Budget. In a day Dinesh Trivedi went from the political periphery to the new darling of the commentariat, when he went counter to party chief Mamata Banerjee and proposed a fare hike for passengers and freight. This hike has been across the board declared modest and the right thing to do – as a friend pointed out, no one wants to end up like Greece. I am not arguing that this decision is incorrect. Unlike the Internet's finest, I do not claim to be privy to the finer points of running India's gargantuan Railway network. But I do know this: on one hand we turf the poorest in India from their own land to build factories, mines and Monsanto farms. On the other hand we bewail the influx of migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh into Punjabi Delhi and Maratha Mumbai; on the other hand we make it even harder -- impossible, even -- for those who have suffered most from the wicked inflationary spiral to be able to go home for Chhat and Onam and Lohri and Eid. What is most hilarious is that people who would not vote for Mamata Banerjee at gunpoint – people who would turn their noses up at sitting on the same dinner table – expect her to act in their interests. Why should she not keep in mind the very valid interests of the people who have elected her? Trivedi might have been trying to make the correct decision, but there is no long political life to be led by listening to bureaucrats over those who have voted you into power. What we've seen over the last few days is an unabashed display of that most pernicious presumption of our paternalist English media, that poor ("uneducated") people do not know what is good for themselves and the nation; that populism is an evil, as opposed to something every democracy should aspire to.

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India finds itself in a heartening democratic moment. We are moving from a deadly manner of clientelism to a system approaching genuine representation.

Another question is what Rs 3000 crore of purported additional revenue will actually achieve. The annual expenditure of the Railways is Rs 70,000 crore, and one estimate suggests the cost of upgrading the creaking British-zamaana infrastructure will be Rs 100,000 crore. Rs 3000 crore is a drop in the ocean as far as government spending is concerned. And the same experts who know so much of Railways' finances will also know that the Railways is one of the most notoriously corrupt ministries in India – the reason, largely unspoken, that it is the regular prize handed to the government's biggest coalition partner. Forget the politicians – Railways' bureaucrats retire with the kind of wealth industrialists aspire to. Before squeezing yet more from a class of people already bone dry, perhaps we should set up some kind of accountability for the manner in which money is spent. Would you be genuinely surprised if you learned Rs 3000 crore of Railways money disappears into the Swiss account ether every year?

It is quite clear that rail travel is subsidised in India. But where does this self-righteous opprobrium disappear when you consider that you can get a top-class college education, one that guarantees you a lifetime of comfort, for Rs 300 a month? How many of India's poorest send their children to St Stephens and Presidency? And just how many commentators lauding Trivedi's political courage have benefitted from India's elite-ordained collegiate subsidy? The widespread belief that the government is forever handing out sops to the poor is one of the tremendous misconceptions of contemporary India. The system is weighted to help those at the very top stay there.

India finds itself in a heartening democratic moment. We are moving from a deadly manner of clientelism to a system approaching genuine representation. If the rich, educated, English-speaking elite do not recognise the shifting patterning of power there will be nasty shocks ahead. The incoming chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, pulled off a quite remarkable feat, coming across as both earthen and urbane on every English newschannel. But if we are honest with ourselves we will recognise the reason we like him so much is because he handles himself in our preferred language with genuine ease, because he has studied in Australia, because he likes Pearl Jam and George Michael. These are not the reasons Uttar Pradesh loves him. These are not the reasons Bengal loves Mamata. The sooner we stop expecting this new ilk of politician to act with only elite interests in mind – as has been the case in India for nigh on seventy years of rule by the rich – the sooner we will breach our nation's most deleterious divide.

 
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