As finance minister, Manmohan Singh had quoted Victor Hugo in his budget speech for 1994-95: “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.” The then FM was, of course, referring to reforms and liberalization. However, since then, this quote has been used in diverse contexts, from India’s rising economic clout to capital account convertibility to reservations. I don’t think Victor Hugo is a very good choice. For a start, he wrote in French and the quote in question is from History of a Crime, written in 1852 and published in 1877. The French states, “On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées.”
A literal translation would be, “One resists the invasion of armies, one doesn’t resist the invasion of ideas.” Distortions are possible in translation if the original is in French. That apart, there is a dangerous quote ascribed to Hugo. “I don’t mind what Congress does, as long as they don’t do it on the streets and frighten the horses.” Victor Hugo probably didn’t say this. However, imagine what would happen if this quote, wrongly ascribed or not, were to float around as commonly as the other one. For that matter, there is another quote rightly ascribed to Victor Hugo: “As the purse is emptied, the heart is filled.” With the UPA’s proclivity for determining economic policy by the heart, rather than by the brain, this is singularly appropriate.
The present FM’s choice of author in budget speeches is much better — the Charles Dickens of A Tale of Two Cities. Of course, P. Chidambaram only quoted the part about the best of times, the worst of times. With Bharat Nirman, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the sixth pay commission, backward regions fund and national rural employment guarantee, we have the full complement of foolishness, incredulity, darkness and despair, and the entire quote is in order. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” There are several Dickens quotes the United Progressive Alliance should revel in.
Consider the time when the UPA came to power. “Now, I return to this young fellow. And the communication I have got to make is, that he has great expectations” (Great Expectations). Cut to 2006, and “I am...joined with eleven others in reporting the debates in Parliament for a Morning Newspaper. Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify. I wallow in words” (David Copperfield). There is the Davos bit, “Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars” (Martin Chuzzlewit). But there is a difference between Davos and Delhi. As for the original blue-eyed boys of reforms, now part of the UPA, “In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong” (Great Expectations). Alternatively, “Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away” (A Tale of Two Cities) or “Yes. He is quite a good fellow — nobody’s enemy but his own” (David Copperfield).
As constraints, we have the left, including the left within the Congress. They never believe in India Shining or in growth, or that growth can lead to poverty reductions. Indeed, poverty must have increased from 1993-94 to 2004-05, the two points for the National Sample Survey “thick” data. “Men who look on nature, and their fellow-men, and cry that all is dark and gloomy, are in the right; but the sombre colours are reflections from their own jaundiced eyes and hearts. The real hues are delicate, and need a clearer vision” (Oliver Twist). But given the left, “Oliver Twist has asked for more”, and we must have higher employees’ provident fund rates and the sixth pay commission. For the reformers within the UPA, “So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise” (Great Expectations). Or “‘Some persons hold,’ he pursued, still hesitating, ‘that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is a wisdom of the Heart’” (Hard Times). What can you possibly do if the Heart overrules the Head' After all, the Moloch of the left won’t go away. “It was a very Moloch of a baby, on whose insatiate altar the whole existence of this particular young brother was offered up a daily sacrifice…Wherever childhood congregated to play, there was little Moloch making Johnny fag and toil. Wherever Johnny desired to stay, little Moloch became fractious, and would not remain. Whenever Johnny wanted to go out, Moloch was asleep, and must be watched. Whenever Johnny wanted to stay at home, Moloch was awake, and must be taken out. Yet Johnny was verily persuaded that it was a faultless baby, without its peer in the realm of England, and was quite content to catch meek glimpses of things in general from behind its skirts, or over its limp flapping bonnet, and to go staggering about with it like a very little porter with a very large parcel, which was not directed to anybody, and could never be delivered anywhere” (The Haunted Man).
What does the Johnny in North Block do' Spend more money. Who can dare to criticize something like a national rural employment guarantee' “Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing” (A Christmas Carol).
The Scrooge who can dare to say “Humbug” is rare. Thus, for the FM, “So now, as an infallible way of making little ease great ease, I began to contract a quantity of debt” (Great Expectations) or “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery” (David Copperfield) or “I have made up my mind that I must have money, Pa. I feel that I can’t beg it, borrow it, or steal it; and so I have resolved that I must marry it” (Our Mutual Friend). Better still, “We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintances were in the same condition. There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did. To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect a rather common one” (Great Expectations).
There is the crazy lot who will talk about efficiency of government and right to information. “‘Drat that boy,’ interposed my sister, frowning at me over her work, ‘what a questioner he is. Ask no questions, and you’ll be told no lies’” (Great Expectations). We mustn’t forget that public expenditure is “skewered through and through with office-pens, and bound hand and foot with red tape” (David Copperfield). Dickens is most appropriate. The “Great Expectations” of 2004 has become the “Hard Times” or “Bleak House” of 2006.