Theatre of the absurd: The FDI debate is not all black and white

Domestic politics has increasingly become cantankerous and meaningless: it is funny when it should be dead serious; it is very real, but seems unreal; and it insults our intelligence.

Nearly two decades ago Harold Pinter wrote: “Rationality went down the drain donkey’s years ago and hasn’t been seen since.” This certainly rings true in the realm of public discourse in India.

 Take the current hysteria after the government gave the green signal on Foreign Direct Investment in multi-brand retail. Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal may be right in opposing it, but surely, Maharashtra and Haryana chief ministers are equally within their right to have a different opinion.

Since the policy gives each state government the option to allow or disallow it in their state, where is the difficulty?

The Vajpayee government went ahead with FDI in the insurance sector after his party had opposed precisely that move by the previous Narasimha Rao government.  Vajpayee faced strong opposition from forces within the Sangh Parivar, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch.

The then BJP president Kushabhau Thakre was also a staunch opponent. Nevertheless the policy change did not bankrupt the Life Insurance Corporation and other nationalised insurance companies although dire warnings were given that they would be hit hard.

When the country entered the World Trade Organisation during the Rao regime, the Left and the BJP had opposed the move. Yashwant Sinha, who later became finance minister in the Vajpayee-led government promised a BJP walkout of the world body if it came to power. Of course it did not when it came to power. Would any party today from the Right or the Left want India to leave the WTO?

Although many tears are being shed on what fate mom-and-pop stores would face, the harsh fact is that such stores have thrived for decades on cheating consumers on quality and quantity.

They have also cheated the treasury, barring a few exceptions, as the traders do not pay their taxes fully. When a presumptive income tax of some Rs 1,200 a year was introduced by Manmohan Singh as finance minister, the scheme had to be abandoned, as most traders refused to part with even a hundred rupees a month as tax. The irony is the some parties making the maximum noise about need to curb black money were also in the forefront shedding tears on behalf of this non-tax paying class.

The Left and the BJP have also been screaming that the prime minister is bent on selling India to foreign multinationals while destroying the domestic industry and trade. One wonders whether Narendra Modi in Gujarat was also selling his state cheap when he wooed FDI like no other state through his biannual Vibrant Gujarat events. It is another story that his tall claims on this front do not match with the reality on the ground as disclosed by Reserve Bank of India figures. His claim: over 800 billion dollars of MOUs from 2003 to 2011. Reality: just over 7 billion US dollars of investment from 2000 to 2010.

Two comments

Two comments made recently by two chief ministers—Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi, could be laughed off except that they represent a mindset: nothing that my government does can be faulted, everything some other government does is wrong.

Earlier this month, speaking at Kolkata’s Writer’s Building Banerjee blamed dieting to lose weight for people falling prey to dengue. “I appeal to you, my young friends, not to go on diet...because when you do, your immunity system goes down and you may be struck by diseases like dengue.”  The people were at fault for going down with dengue. Not the fault of the government or the civic authorities for not checking spread of the deadly mosquitoes.

 Not to be left behind in absurdity, Modi defended his government on hunger statistics in Gujarat in an interview to Wall Street Journal. Modi blamed it on vegetarianism and on the fact that Gujarat was a ‘middle-class state’ and its women were “more beauty conscious than health conscious.” As if that was not ridiculous enough, he rubbed in the point: “If a mother tells her daughter to drink milk, they will have a fight. She will tell her mother ‘I won’t drink milk, I’ll get fat.’”

 Never mind the facts underlined by National Sample Surveys, Planning Commission’s Human Development Report 2011 and a study done by the National Council for Applied Economic Research. The 61st NSS estimated 44.6 per cent children in Gujarat were malnourished and 69 per cent in the 0 to 5 years age group anaemic. The NCAER study said a larger percentage of children in Gujarat go to be bed hungry than in Uttar Pradesh. As for Gujarat being ‘middle-class,’ it ranks 6th among states in per capita income. Is there no poverty in these six states?

In Kudankulam, Arvind Kejriwal seems to have metamorphosed overnight from an anti-corruption crusader to a nuclear safety expert! Move over Department of Atomic Energy and Abdul Kalam and other experts.

On the political stage in Delhi too, there is no dearth of absurdity. The BJP’s Arun Jaitley suggested a debate in Parliament on the coal block allotment scam is not worth it because the government enjoys a majority! Other BJP worthies denounced parliamentary committees as worthless as ruling coalition members have a majority.

Should a government be in a minority for Parliament to be allowed to debate an issue? Did the NDA not enjoy a majority on parliamentary committee when it was in power?  As a commentator on the theatre of the absurd had said “Realism may provide amoral observation of events, Absurdism rejects even the possibility of debate.”

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