Arundhati Roy writes:
On the 64th anniversary of India’s Independence, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh climbed into his bullet-proof soapbox in the Red Fort to deliver a passionless, bone-chillingly banal speech to the nation. Listening to him, who would have guessed that he was addressing a country that, despite having the second-highest economic growth rate in the world, has more poor people than 26 of Africa’s poorest countries put together? “All of you have contributed to India’s success,” he said, “the hard work of our workers, our artisans, our farmers has brought our country to where it stands today…. We are building a new India in which every citizen would have a stake, an India which would be prosperous and in which all citizens would be able to live a life of honour and dignity in an environment of peace and goodwill. An India in which all problems could be solved through democratic means. An India in which the basic rights of every citizen would be protected.” Some would call this graveyard humour. He might as well have been speaking to people in Finland, or Sweden.
If our prime minister’s reputation for “personal integrity” extended to the text of his speeches, this is what he should have said:
“Brothers and sisters, greetings to you on this day on which we remember our glorious past. Things are getting a little expensive I know, and you keep moaning about food prices, but look at it this way—more than six hundred and fifty million of you are engaged in and are living off agriculture as farmers and farm labour. But your combined efforts contribute less than 18 per cent of our GDP. So what’s the use of you? Look at our IT sector. It employs 0.2 per cent of the population and accounts for 5 per cent of our GDP. Can you match that? It is true that in our country employment hasn’t kept pace with growth, but fortunately 60 per cent of our workforce is self-employed. Ninety per cent of our labour force is employed by the unorganised sector. True, they manage to get work only for a few months in the year, but since we don’t have a category called “underemployed”, we just keep that part a little vague. It would not be right to enter them in our books as unemployed. Coming to the statistics that say we have the highest infant and maternal mortality in the world—we should unite as a nation and ignore bad news for the time being. We can address these problems later, after our Trickle-Down Revolution, when the health sector has been completely privatised. Meanwhile, I hope you are all buying medical insurance. As for the fact that the per capita foodgrain availability has actually decreased over the last 20 years—which happens to be the period of our most rapid economic growth—believe me, that’s just a coincidence.
“My fellow citizens, we are building a new India in which our 100 richest people, millionaires and billionaires, hold assets worth a full 25 per cent of our GDP. Wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands is always more efficient. You have all heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the broth. We want our beloved billionaires, our few hundred millionaires, their near and dear ones and their political and business associates, to be prosperous and to live a life of honour and dignity in an environment of peace and goodwill in which their basic rights are protected.
“I am aware that my dreams cannot come true by solely using democratic means. In fact, I have come to believe that real democracy flows through the barrel of a gun. This is why we have deployed the Army, the Police, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Border Security Force, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Pradeshik Armed Constabulary, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Eastern Frontier Rifles—as well as the Scorpions, Greyhounds and Cobras—to crush the misguided insurrections that are erupting in our mineral-rich areas.
“Our experiments with democracy began in Nagaland, Manipur and Kashmir. Kashmir, I need not reiterate, is an integral part of India. We have deployed more than half-a-million soldiers to bring democracy to the people there. The Kashmiri youth who have been risking their lives by defying curfew and throwing stones at the police for the last two months are Lashkar-e-Toiba militants who actually want employment, not azadi. Tragically, 60 of them have lost their lives before we could study their job applications. I have instructed the police from now on to shoot to maim rather than kill these misguided youths.”
In his seven years in office, Manmohan Singh has allowed himself to be cast as Sonia Gandhi’s tentative, mild-mannered underling. It’s an excellent disguise for a man who, for the last 20 years, first as finance minister and then as prime minister, has powered through a regime of new economic policies that has brought India into the situation in which it finds itself now. This is not to suggest that Manmohan Singh is not an underling. Only that all his orders don’t come from Sonia Gandhi. In his autobiography (A Prattler’s Tale), Ashok Mitra, former finance minister of West Bengal, tells his story of how Manmohan Singh rose to power. In 1991, when India’s foreign exchange reserves were dangerously low, the Narasimha Rao government approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an emergency loan. The IMF agreed on two conditions. The first was Structural Adjustment and Economic Reform. The second was the appointment of a finance minister of its choice. That man, says Mitra, was Manmohan Singh.
Over the years, he has stacked his cabinet and the bureaucracy with people who are evangelically committed to the corporate takeover of everything—water, electricity, minerals, agriculture, land, telecommunications, education, health—no matter what the consequences.
(Thanks to reader Aaron Aarons for drawing my attention to this article.)