An occasion has arisen for not feeling apologetic about recounting half-a-century old apocrypha. It was the heady days of economic planning and self-reliance; the first five-year plan, a tome running into nearly five hundred pages, was ready. The prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, an eternal romantic, was pleased beyond words: India was setting an example for the rest of the developing world, our countrymen must be made aware of the great and good things embodied in this book of wisdom.
Since, like charity, enlightenment too should begin at home, his colleagues in the central council of ministers, Nehru decided, must be the first to get acquainted with the details of the first five-year plan. For a number of consecutive Sundays, the cabinet was accordingly convened in the late afternoon; the cabinet secretary, who doubled up as secretary to the planning commission, was commandeered to read out the entire document, chapter by chapter, to the assembled ministers, most of them at an impressive stage of dotage. The cabinet secretary rambled on, the minister dozed, some of them snored, only the prime minister was all agog.
Everything was hunky-dory till the chapter on agriculture and food production was reached. While negotiating the chapter, the cabinet secretary happened to read out an innocuous-sounding sentence which stated that in order to increase food production in the country by fifteen or some such per cent over the plan period, we would need investment of the order of such and such. The formidable Rafi Ahmed Kidwai was the food and agriculture minister; his hackles were suddenly raised. Question, question; food and agriculture formed his portfolio, what right had the planning commission to meddle in his affairs, what has investment to do with food production'
Commotion round the table, the slumbering ministers woke up in collective shock, furious conversation ensued, almost everyone seemed to be in agreement with the food and agriculture minister; Rafi Sahib was right to take offence, the planning commission should not have butted into his province. The prime minister looked greatly embarrassed. The home minister, Kailash Nath Katju, usually a sound sleeper, was a little late in joining the on-going proceedings. He was, besides, somewhat hard of hearing. It took him a while to grasp the gravity of the situation.
Always a good Samaritan, he chose to reconcile the conflicting points of view. At his amiable best, he walked over to the food and agriculture minister: “Arre bhai Rafi sahib, you please don’t take it to heart. In planning, they have to write such things. But these are not intended to be taken seriously. Please forgive and forget.” The food and agriculture minister forgave. Peace was restored in the cabinet room. The cabinet secretary resumed his reading of the scripture, the ministers fell back to dozing.
A fifty-year gap, and, suddenly, an echo. In Parliament a few days ago, the lady who is the leader of the opposition needled the prime minister on a sensitive issue. In the president’s address and other official documents in preceding years, the National Democratic Alliance government had promised to create one crore new job opportunities each year. The prime minister and his government, the good lady charged, have failed miserably in reaching this target; shame upon them. The prime minister was duly rattled.
He should not have been. There was absolutely no need to feel abashed. The prime minister could have easily turned the table on the leader of the opposition and reminded her that, concerning the promise of one crore extra jobs annually, he had merely repeated verbatim what her late mother-in-law and her late husband had promised during their tenure as prime minister. It is part of official culture to pledge regularly the annual creation of one crore jobs. None is supposed to take the pledge seriously.
The government does not, has not ever made the commitment in a serious vein. The opposition too should be sporting and regard it in the same vein. After all, when the opposition constituted the government, it had made the same promise. Political complexions of the government change, but the backroom boys who draft the official documents do not. The clichés they write also remain unvarying. Such clichés have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Politicians, while arrayed against one another, must live and let live.
This is a genre of cultural homogeneity that competitive democracy fosters. A certain behavioural pattern is integral to the national ethos; no political party can dare to deviate from it. The parties in fact take each other’s washing and are exceedingly glad about it. The sociology of this political culture prevalent in the country is as yet an unexplored field and PhD aspirants will find it to be a gold mine. For example, once upon a time in antiquity, the Congress established the rule that should it be necessary to throw out a recalcitrant member from its fold, he or she would be expelled for a period of six years. The idea of the leading party becomes the leading idea in society. Barring the communist parties, where the culture is slightly alien, in the case of all other political parties too, once you are thrown out, you stay thrown out, the period of expulsion is stuck at six years. It does not matter whether it is the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Muslim League, the Praja Socialist Party or the Republican Party of India, someone who falls out with the party, is extradited from heaven for exactly half-a-dozen years, no more, no less. Conformity is what conformity does.
Also consider the latest opium of the people, cricket. It is no longer an aspect of airy-fairy national consensus, it is part of national unanimity, life is not worth living if the country’s cricketing heroes are not extolled in the most exalted terms. Competitive democracy, or is it democratic competition, could scarcely be more ferocious. If the prime minister and the deputy prime minister telephone the destroyers of Pakistan in the World Cup, could the leader of the opposition lag behind, or even the leader of the leftist grow up' The country may jolly well face a difficult economic situation, industry may be in deep recession, agriculture may be afflicted by stagnancy, unemployment may rise, globalization may be a comprehensive disaster, but the national esprit de corps is never missing: cricket must have absolute priority.
In the rest of the world, American obduracy and the threat of war looming over Iraq might occupy the top of the agenda; not in India though. Cricket, everybody is agreed, has precedence over Iraq and economic crisis. It is quite in order that Parliament should play hookey during the days and hours our cricket team is engaged in life and death encounters in South Africa.
There are nonetheless certain truths which travel even beyond cultural homogeneity. True, cricket is the state-of-the-art opium of the people. But it will be rank bad manners if that original sin, religion per se, is shoved under the carpet. Some circles are therefore trying earnestly to merge cricket with religion, and vice versa. The Tendulkars and the Gangulys have established themselves as godly persons and devotees of the parivar are straining the utmost to incorporate them in the Hindu pantheon.
In the recent elections in Himachal Pradesh, the BJP, reports say, had campaigned in the name of the cricketing heroes as much as in the name of Lord Rama. The campaign was not a resounding success; there is however no harm in life in trying, trying, and trying again. Were the heroes to return from Johannesberg with by and large a respectable performance, they are bound to experience an intensively interesting time. For instance, a Mumbai-based cricketing star might find his engagement schedule for the next few months routinely filled by breakfast with Bal Thakeray, late morning coffee with Sharad Pawar, luncheon with the general secretary of the Congress visiting the city, tea with Maharashtra’s chief minister, dinner with another visitor in transit, such as health minister Sushma Swaraj, and, finally, exchanging notes in late evening sessions with the likes of Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. Cultural convergence can indeed be killing.