| Cars first, people later
Recently the media reported that the ministers in Haryana were dissatisfied by the cars provided to them by the government — Maruti Balenos. They clearly considered that these were not impressive enough. So they’ve decided to replace them all with Sonata Gold cars, each costing over nine lakh rupees. A couple of senior bureaucrats are also being blessed with these cars — the chief secretary and the principal secretary to the chief minister. The chief minister himself has modestly said that he will keep the car he already has; a noble gesture, even if he doesn’t say that the car he already has is a Mercedes. He could, after all, have got himself another Mercedes, or a Rolls Royce; but he has, like a true mahapurush, declared that he is above such mundane acts. The Mercedes he has will do.
There have also been media reports that that admirable character, the mayor of Calcutta, has decided to erect a gate in the city. Not any old gate, but something impressive, wondrous to behold. After all, he seems to have said, if New Delhi can have its India Gate, Calcutta can have its Calcutta Gate, surely. Calcutta is no way less than Delhi. That the corporation is virtually bankrupt, that what little money it has could be spent on repairing roads, improving the drainage and other civic works isn’t something that deters him. A few crores here or there — how does it matter' One hears that he’s now gone off the gate and is spending crores on some curiosity called Calcutta Panorama or something like that, which has figures rather like the waxworks in Madam Tussaud’s in London except that these are so dreadful as to be amusing. What isn’t amusing, though, are the crores of rupees he’s pouring into bringing this excrescence into being.
And, as if to show that what Calcutta does today, Uttar Pradesh can also do today, or even before, a monstrosity that is probably some kind of gate is being erected at the entrance to Noida, the UP suburb of Delhi, which, while it does house some very wealthy and famous people, also has its slums, its chronic lack of power, and a very primitive drainage system. But here again, money is not seen as a problem when it comes to gates.
What, you may ask, is the connection between these quite separate acts by different authorities' What has the historic contribution to Calcutta’s culture being made by Subrata Mukherjee got to do with the historic contribution being made by Mayavati (or her minions) to the landscape of Noida, and what have these two public actions got to do with the Haryana ministers climbing into their Sonata Gold cars' There is a connection, a very vital one. The ministers are representatives of the people. So it isn’t just they, the ministers, who are riding around in these luxury cars, it’s the people of Haryana, really. It sets Haryana apart from and on a more awesome level than the national government, whose ministers ride in lowly Ambassadors.
So what is it, then, that really and truly justifies these crass, disgracefully stupid acts' The people who take such decisions are not renowned for wisdom, true, but surely someone like the chief secretary, or the finance secretary, would have strongly opposed this flagrant wastage of public funds and told the chief ministers firmly that this kind of thing had to stop' But they obviously didn’t; in UP the officers would have been instantly suspended, in West Bengal Subrata Mukherjee would have used the officers’ opposition as an example of how peoples’ power prevails over the dark machinations of the bureaucracy, and in Haryana — well, the chief secretary’s been given a Sonata Gold too; so that, presumably, settles that.
And there’s no evidence of public anger, of indignation among legislators and parliamentarians, that money should be wasted in this brazen manner; those who have been elected by the people to look after their interests are either part of these exercises in wasting public funds or are for their own reasons keeping quiet. But that, while it’s saddening, tragic even, shouldn’t surprise. It is one more example of the diseased system that brings such people into positions of authority, makes them lawmakers, members of legislatures, and some of them ministers, entrusted with building the state, eliminating such ills as illiteracy, disease, lack of drinking water.
The excellent James Lyngdoh has won the Magsaysay Award, an honour he richly deserves for having kept some semblance of integrity in the electoral system. But the evils are far too widespread and too ingrained for one person, acting within the limitations of a single not too comprehensive a statute, to combat or eliminate. The continued violence by gangs of thugs and toughs who call themselves party workers — unemployed men who have found that there is much to be earned in collectively coercing and frightening people into paying protection money and then making sure they vote the way they’re told — who’s going to stop them' The police' That would be even funnier than the thought of Central ministers travelling in Ambassadors while the Haryana ministers whizz past in their Sonata Gold limos.
That violence spreads out as elections near, and some key toughs in the opposite camp are killed or maimed to show who’s more powerful. One politician once told me that while it was all very shameful, actually this, in a way, showed which party was really the stronger, so it was a reflection of the process of democracy! Then the terrified voters are herded to polling stations where the polling is peaceful all right; the voters have been well conditioned, the poling staff made to see what’s what, so all goes according to plan. The reports then begin to come in — polling passed off peacefully in this constituency and in that one, and finally a declaration is made that the polls were peacefully held.
So the real manner in which these people, the builders of gates and buyers of Sonata Gold limos came to power was not because the people reposed confidence in them; not at all. If that had been the way, they would have been worrying themselves sick about how to improve things. But they came to power in a manner not different from the way mafia chiefs come to power and have no feeling whatsoever that they owe people anything. All the “masses” are there for is to be terrorized. But they, the dons and wielders of power, they have the cash, and so it goes into what they want; if they want it, the people had better want it if they know what’s good for them.
The system has been eaten away from within, is diseased, and that disease cannot be cured very easily. It will continue, and take even more terrible forms, because all of us acquiesce in it. We accept it, because we just want to get on with our lives. Truth, a sane healthy society — these are all relative terms. Einstein could have learned a thing or two from us about relativity. We have a system that actually opens the doors of power to thugs and criminals and we think that, so long as we’re doing all right, it doesn’t matter. But it does; sooner or later there will be that knock on the door, and a group of wolfish people will be standing outside, eyes ablaze with avarice and hatred. And there will be nowhere to hide, no pious formula to make them go away.