'Why I chose that painting'

'Why I chose that painting of Gandhi for my Budget speech'

The cover of my Kerala Budget speech was as much a subject of animated discussion as the Budget itself. The striking painting by Tom Vattakuzhy showing the death of Mahatma Gandhi, captured in stark detail the horror and grief of the people around as Gandhiji lay in front of the prayer hall, blood gushing out of bullet wounds. Though it focuses on the scene of the assassination, it conveys the sense of loss of the nation and also the gruesomeness of the murder, most foul in human history. Very rarely have liberators of nations been killed in cold blood within weeks of attaining freedom. It was not the wanton act of a demented zealot; it was a cold-blooded deed planned meticulously by a group of people whose motive was only hatred.

This picture on the cover page of the Kerala Budget speech has evoked a strong reaction. Stung by its evocation, the BJP spokesperson condemned it outright and, I thought, naturally so. But some independent thinking persons also wondered whether the choice was appropriate on the cover of a Budget document. 

I chose it consciously, to make a political statement on the dangers that Indian society, and polity – and the economy — are facing today. There is an insidious attempt, even more dangerous than the original conspiracy to kill Gandhiji, this time to kill the Mahatma’s Atma, the soul. There are Goebbelsian attempts being made to change the Gandhi narrative. Outrageous comments and actions are made, all by senior political and social functionaries of the ruling dispensation. Desecration of statues of Gandhiji, shooting at a picture of the Mahatma, outrageous acts of planning temples for his killer Nathuram Godse, asking students a question that casts a doubt on the assassination itself in a school examination in Gujarat, removal of the photos of Gandhiji’s assassination from the National Gandhi Museum are all part of this.

However, the latest and most shocking outrage was the description of the Indian freedom struggle, which has a unique place in world history for sustained non-violent mass mobilisation, as a drama staged with the consent of the British to fool the nation. 

The feeble condemnation of these despicable acts and the fact that the perpetrators of these outrages continue to strut on the political stage makes one feel that they are all well-orchestrated acts to test the mood of the nation, to find out if the time is right for the second murder. That this should happen while the nation is celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi is ironic, to put it mildly.

At a time when the country is facing the prospect of economic recession and collapse of development, it is ridiculous that the central government gives priority to the CAA-NRC exercise. The official explanation for the CAA and NRC is that Gandhiji’s wish is being realised. An instrument for communal polarisation is being rolled out in the name of Mahatma Gandhi!

The misery experienced by the ordinary people is increasing day by day. Huge tax concessions have been given to the corporates, 42% of revenue collections from whom rightfully belongs to state governments. When good sense makes it clear that public spending needs to increase to tide over the crisis, states have been denied the freedom to increase their borrowings from the market. Shockingly, the allocation for MGNREGA has been cut substantially, which is nothing but an insult to the toiling masses, to use a Gandhian term. We have the sad spectacle of an expenditure squeeze being effected at a time when the aggregate demand in the economy is slackening. This supply-side approach is very much a part of the reactionary policies of the central government. Therefore, my Budget speech is prefaced by a discussion of the contemporary political situation in the country. The cover I chose conveyed the message far more effectively than words could.

The Kerala Budget, in contrast, considers the economic crisis to be the most important challenge and attempts, within the limitations of a state government, to stimulate demand by strengthening employment generation and welfare measures. We are implementing a Rs 50,000-crore infrastructure programme using Special Purpose Vehicles. The main obstacle to this programme is the major reduction in central transfers and cut in the market borrowings of the state government. The focus of the Kerala Budget on welfare and economic development and boosting investment is a healthy contrast to the national Budget and offers several lessons to the country.

Recently, I read a newspaper article by SM Vijayanand highlighting the Gandhian aspects of Kerala’s development, which includes space for public action, citizen-centric politics, deep Panchayati Raj, Antyodaya-focused schemes like palliative care and Asraya for the destitute, a vibrant public healthcare system, cooperative action for development, the literacy movement, and so on. Kerala, which was the poorest state in the country in the 1960s, is now one of the least poor, and one recalls Gandhiji’s words “Swaraj has but one meaning – eradication of poverty.” Many a Gandhian visiting our panchayats has commented that it is here that Grama Swaraj is being realised today.

Coming back to the Budget, I have included several references to artists and writers in my speech.  The cover page of the ‘Gender Budget’ of 2020-21 has aroused keen interest in social media circles even outside the country. The painting by Anujath Sindhu Vinayal, a Class 9 student from a school in Trissur, titled “My mother and other mothers in the neighbourhood,” depicts unpaid work by women and conveys the multiple burdens on women and their contribution to the economy. Eliane Vigneron from France has commented, “HI WORLD...what an artist and how he recognises and shares the unpaid activities of Mothers...it’s worldwide.”

The Budget speech is not, and should not be, a drab document of schemes and announcements, full of numbers and statistics read out monotonously. It is an important means of communication with citizens. It has to reveal the spirit and philosophy of the government, its attitude and concern for the people. Hence the paintings and the quotes stress that the government and the people are one and are determined to work and act together to uphold constitutional values, which is a Gandhian legacy.

(The writer is Finance Minister of Kerala) (Syndicate: The Billion Press) 

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