Born To Sweet Delight, Or To Endless Night

Updated: Jan 19 2003, 05:30am hrs
What is it about birthdays that encourages Indian political leaders to indulge in unacceptable behaviour As far as I am concerned, birthday comes once a year, and if you have missed one (do not worry) another one will come in twelve months. I can understand celebrating the birthday of a child but, I am afraid, I am unable to see any significance or purpose in the 47th or 70th or 78th birthday of a person. Last week, Ms Mayawati celebrated her 47th birthday. Or, to be accurate, the Uttar Pradesh government celebrated the birthday of its chief minister. I wonder if, in anticipation, a budgetary provision was made in the demands of the general administration department or the public department. If so, kudos to the far-sighted finance secretary. The chief secretary was the official host at the function. The information department, the Public Works Department and the Police Department (Ah, the Police Department, what would we do without them) pitched in to decorate the city of Lucknow, put up a huge pandal, distribute sweets and generally help the people of Uttar Pradesh have a good time.

What struck me most about Ms Mayawatis birthday bash was the photograph that prominently displayed her jewellery. The word is awesome. There was on display the awesome earrings and pendants, the awesome necklaces and the awesome bracelets. All gold and diamonds, of course. Her income-tax officer must be a proud person to count among his clients the wealthy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (Reminder: Has the income-tax office issued a PAN number to Ms Mayawati). It would be cruel and wrong on my part to suggest that the cost of the ornaments came from the state budget. Of course, not. These are obviously off-budget items.

It is a pity that not enough people condemn such behaviour. It is politically incorrect and socially unacceptable. And at a time when people are dying of hunger and cold, it is the most arrogant taunt thrown at the people who have elected these leaders to office. I am not so naive as to plead for a return to the Gandhian era. Then, public service meant a total sacrifice of all that one possessed or aspired to be. It meant a spartan life. It meant that there may be no reward at all during ones lifetime. In many cases, it meant dying unsung and unhonoured. In a democracy with rising prosperity and aspirations it is difficult to view politics as if it was a monastic order. Yet what distinguishes politics from other vocations is that it is based or ought to be based on the principle of public service. The morphine of Indias young politicians into ambitious businessmen and page three celebrities has profound consequences for the polity. Soon, some of them may turn into models or endorse products. When I see Mr Amar Singh, Mr Vijay Mallya and Mr Lalit Suri dancing, and Mr Farooq Abdullah crooning, I am tempted to ask if it is not the end of politics (meaning public service) and the beginning of the monetisation of politics. It is not, as it seems to be, more people from all walks of life entering politics and giving it depth and greater content. On the contrary, it is the hijacking of politics by the rich who also want to be powerful.

If the consequences of such politically incorrect behaviour stopped with expenditure of some public money, one could perhaps forgive these excesses. But they do not. The first negative consequence is the complete distortion of priorities. The government, instead of being in the service of the people, will neglect and exploit the people in order to serve the personal interests of the rulers. Mr Kanshiram did not hide his goal: he declared that he wanted more money from the people and these were mostly dalits in order to make his party number one in the country. The next casualty is the administration. If this kind of behaviour is endorsed, the civil service will very soon become a private instrument of the rulers, and its main purposes will be to collect money for the rulers and to oppress the enemies of the rulers. This is precisely what happened in Tamil Nadu during 1991-96 and what seems to be happening in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar today.

Even while Ms Mayawati celebrated her birthday, dozens of people were dying every day due to bitter cold. No one dies in a city or village simply because it is too cold. They die because they are also malnourished and hungry. As I write this, 327 persons have died in Uttar Pradesh alone. To her and her mentor Mr Kanshiram, what assumes priority is swabhiman. Not food, not jobs, not shelter, not investment, not growth, not any of the indicators of a developed and just society. Just look at the state of the state that Ms Mayawati rules over. Of the 15 states for which the Planning Commission was able to construct the Human Development Index for 2001, Uttar Pradesh stood at number 13. Going by the data available for 1991, among all 32 states and Union territories, Uttar Pradeshs HDI and Gender Disparity Index both ranked 31. Needless to say, only Bihar was below UP on both counts. UPs per capita consumption expenditure in 1999-2000 was Rs 516.99, below the all India average of Rs 590.98. Only Assam, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa had a lower level of consumption. Fifty-three million people, amounting to 31.15 percent of the population of the state, were below the poverty line, the figures revealed.

Lets leave the present and fast forward to the future. In 1991, only 36.7 per cent of children in the age group 6-11 were enrolled in schools in UP. The drop-out ratios in the state, estimated in 1996-97, at class V was 49.85 per cent and at class VIII was 53.11 per cent. What does this mean In the state that accounts for nearly one-eighth of Indias population, every year one million children are growing up illiterate. They will, throughout their lives, remain poor and unemployable except in low-grade, manual jobs. The state, because of its misgovernance, is condemning a million citizens every year to a life of poverty and hopelessness. By the time she celebrates her next birthday, I hope, Ms Mayawati will reflect on the swabhiman of these child-citizens and future voters of Uttar Pradesh.

(The author is former Union finance minister)