This is a cynical moment in Indian journalism so whenever there is a new political development us political pundit types spend all our time trying to find hidden motives and dark secrets and this often means that we fail to confront simple truths. Something like this is currently happening in the way in which we have analyzed the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s latest problem with an ally. Most political commentators have read conspiracy theories into Sharad Pawar’s threat to have his Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) withdraw from the UPA government. Almost nobody has believed the reasons Mr. Pawar has given for his unhappiness and instead there has been endless speculation about the ‘real’ reasons why he and his NCP ministers have threatened to walk out of the Sonia-Manmohan government.
Among these ‘real’ reasons is mentioned, right up there at the top of the list, is his alleged anger at the Chief Minister of Maharashtra’s reported decision to investigate the disappearance of funds meant for irrigation projects. Irrigation is a portfolio handled by an NCP minister. In Mumbai, where I was last week, newspapers in the city were filled with gossipy stories about how Mr. Pawar was worried that a white paper on irrigation would reveal embezzlement that could be traced to his party. Another conspiracy theory has it that his ‘real’ problem is that when Pranab Mukherji moved to Rashtrapati Bhawan last Wednesday he was not respected enough by the Congress Party to be given the position of number two in the Cabinet. What puzzles me is why it is so hard to believe the reasons Mr. Pawar himself gives for his unhappiness over the NCP remaining in the government in Delhi and Prithviraj Chavan’s government in Maharashtra.
Ever Since Sonia’s National Advisory Council (NAC) has tried to ram its food security law down the government’s throat Mr. Pawar has been one of the only ministers to have openly expressed grave doubts about the scheme. As Agriculture Minister he has pointed out that trying to give subsidized food grain to the entire population of India is unworkable and so expensive that it could bankrupt the country. This is so true that even the NAC has now decided to restrict this grandiose scheme to cover only seventy percent of the population. But, even this is unworkable and unnecessary because seventy percent of Indians are not in fact on the verge of starvation and if subsidized grain is given to them it would amount to a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money.
As someone who believes that the most shameful Indian statistic of all is that 45% of our children are malnourished I follow closely all attempts to rectify this horrific malfunctioning of our supposed welfare state. So I thought it commendable that Sonia’s do-gooding kitchen cabinet was trying to evolve an effective strategy to combat malnutrition until I read the law her do-gooders came up with. Anyone who has traveled in villages where starvation deaths have occurred will confirm that the main reason why they happen is because the government schemes to prevent such deaths are centralized and unwieldy.
The first to die in times of drought and famine are always children and wherever there have been small, localized schemes to provide a single nutritious daily meal in the affected villages children do not die. Wherever this task is left in the hands of collectors who are supposed to be implementing the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) they do. This is because the ICDS is funded and remote controlled by the central government and this leaves a lot of room for corrupt officials to manipulate it for purposes of self-aggrandizement. Mr. Pawar is absolutely right to try and stop the food security bill from becoming law because it will amount mostly to providing a new avenue for corruption. It cannot be otherwise with a broken public distribution system.
When it comes to NCP differences with Prithviraj Chavan in Maharashtra not only do I find myself once more in agreement with Mr. Pawar but so do more than forty Congress Party MLAs who have openly rebelled against his leadership. As someone who has lived in Mumbai for more than twenty years I can say, without exaggeration, that Mr. Chavan has been the most ineffective chief minister I have seen in this time and for me a personal disappointment. When he was appointed, in the wake of the Adarsh scandal, I welcomed the move and even wrote that I thought he would make an excellent chief minister of Maharashtra. I said this because whenever I had come across him in Delhi, during his tenure as a minister in the central government, I had found myself impressed by his understanding of the need for economic and administrative reforms. Besides, he was young (by Indian political standards) and well educated and this seemed to give him the right credentials to rule a state that has in recent years fallen behind more progressive neighbours like Gujarat.
There was much that Mr. Chavan could have done to improve the investment climate in Maharashtra and even more by way of investment in the future of its people. The state’s worst kept secret is that, despite being one of the richest states in India, there are children dying of malnutrition and bad healthcare in Mumbai city leave alone in more remote rural parts. Mr. Chavan has done nothing to stopt this happening and he has done nothing at all in other areas as well.
He has taken such few decisions that political circles in Mumbai are awash with jokes about him being a chief minister who can be relied on only to do nothing. His own officials admit that major projects and investment decisions have been needlessly delayed only because the Chief Minister has not been prepared to take a decision. Mr. Pawar as a veteran politician, and a former chief minister of Maharashtra, knows well that when elections come around his own party will suffer on account of this. So why should we be surprised if he wants to distance himself from the Congress Party in this state?
Cynicism is a healthy trait for journalists to cultivate but it can become deleterious if carried too far. There are signs that of late it has been carried too far more often than not and this has led to some seriously dodgy political reporting.
(Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter@tavleen_singh)