Ever making the people pay

D. N. Bezboruah

All of a sudden, prices have shot up and gone through the roof without the government evincing the slightest bit of concern about how terribly this is hurting the common people. The abnormal inflatiory trend is surprising because diesel prices, one of the principal factors of cost escalation, have taken a downward trend in recent months. The abnormally high prices of essential commodities must be confined largely to Assam and the other north–eastern States, because, in recent months, the rise in retail prices has been just a little over two per cent in the rest of the country. In India, this shift from the earlier plan economy to the price economy of the free market has been a radical one. Also, in some ways, the late Winston Churchill’s prediction that after Independence, the leaders of India would tax even the air that people breathe, is almost beginning to come true.

It is partly true that in a free market economy the control of prices by the government is an unexpected task. And that is precisely what political leaders keep telling us. However, the fact remains that in most advanced democratic countries, governments have found ways of keeping prices of essential commodities under control without directly intervening in the price control mechanism. This is largely because in civilized democracies governments continue to worry about things that adversely affect the lives of people. For instance, in Switzerland, the government is seriously concerned when the inflation rate increases by even by one or 1.5 per cent. There is no such concern in India, where the government constantly relies on the people to continue paying for the government’s waste and gratuitous additiol expenditure due to wrong policy decisions. We tend to keep forgetting that the government itself does not generate profits or any kind of surplus. The government collects a part of the surplus created by people through the levy of direct and indirect taxes. In other words, while the government’s mechanism for collecting revenue created by others is a fairly efficient one, it has no role in actually generating a surplus on its own. True, the government does have very few production units in the public sector that do make some profit, but the revenue from such enterprises is an infinitesimally small part of what it spends—and wastes.

In India, what the government spends and wastes are both quite plainly visible to the people. For instance, the cavalcades of over 100 cars that Mayawati used to take with her whenever she stirred out of Lucknow during her rule as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh were very visible to one and all. In Assam, when the head of government moves about with the cavalcade of 18 to 20 vehicles, people cannot help wondering why a head of government should need such an entourage and why such blatant waste of public money cannot be brought to an end. After all, as I have said on several occasions, real security is not a matter of numbers. It is much more a matter of physical fitness, sharp reflexes and total dedication to once task on the part of security personnel. It is because of the visible waste of public money that whenever people think of the government they are more inclined to actually think of the ruling political party rather than a hazy entity called government. It is the ruling political party that is more inclined to waste public money than government officials. The political executive is much more used to massive waste of party funds in elections and think nothing of a few lakhs wasted here and there as long as it is other people’s money. This attitude to the handling of public funds has rubbed off on some government officers who like to emulate their political bosses. Political leaders are very careful about their persol wealth, though in many cases this persol wealth is what was siphoned off from public funds for a rainy day. In most cases, for politicians, the rainy day is the day when there would have to be spending (or rather investing) a lot of money on their elections if they can mage to get nomited as party candidates. That is why today we rarely see a politician who is not a crorepati even though many of them might have been worth almost nothing when they started their political careers. And yet we cannot run away from the fact that people in India who make politics their career are those who cannot afford to be in any other career because they do not have the qualifications for other professions and jobs. It is only for politics that one does not need any academic qualifications. An elected representative of the people in our Legislature is entitled to a handsome salary, liberal allowances and perquisites and free travel by train and air to any part of the country/State. In addition, they are entitled to a lifetime pension if they complete just one term in the Assembly or Parliament. What more could an uneducated person ask for? Unfortutely, politics has also become a refuge for crimil elements because of the safeguards that lawbreakers can enjoy when they choose to become lawmakers.

What has this scerio to do with the sudden abnormal rise in prices and what law–abiding citizens have to pay through their noses for their daily subsistence? The most important link is funds for the elections. And we have to constantly bear in mind the fact that most of our politicians are chronically short of funds because they lack the means to earn an honest living. The political party to which they belong has an unstated duty to take care of the fincial needs of such politicians who are unlikely to get tickets for elections, but whose services are indispensable for the more fortute members of the party during elections. And that is why most of the middlemen who are related to the food trade and those who comprise the cartels and syndicates that operate in our State are politicians.

The forthcoming Assembly elections of Assam that are around the corner have underscored two rather unpalatable facts for the present ruling party. The first is that the Congress is very unlikely to come back to power even though it has been in power for almost 15 years or three terms. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has himself admitted that his attempts to form any kind of pre–election coalitions have failed. The second is that this would mean that the election funds for the Congress in respect of the 2016 Assembly elections would be considerably depleted. Before the Assembly elections of 2006 and 2011, the Congress in Assam had no difficulty in raising more than the required funds for the elections. After all, traders and business houses in Assam, knew that the Congress was coming back to power, and it was difficult for them to refuse requests for dotions coming from the would–be ruling party. The situation is going to be very different for the Congress in respect of the coming elections. And so the Congress has hit upon the plan of making the public pay indirectly for the election funds of the party to fince the elections of 2016. The rather simple expedient is to permit a large number of middlemen in the food trade so that people making sizeable sums of money without any investments would have no hesitation about parting with some of it to the political party that made the raking in of such easy money possible. And that is why, in the vegetable trade, for example, city dwellers are paying Rs 50 to Rs 60 a kilo for any vegetable, even though the cultivator probably got no more than just three or four rupees a kilo. The rest of the huge difference has gone to the several middlemen in the chain and a large chunk of it will go to the political party that made such easy money possible for the middlemen. The traders are happy, the middlemen are perhaps happier and, come election time, the ruling party will be the happiest of the lot. It has maged to create money for the trading community and more of it to the party by giving a free hand to middlemen and the syndicates that operate in the State. The entire strategy is to make the consumer pay for what the party is going to need for the elections of 2016. There can be no reasons for some vegetables to be selling at more than Rs 100 a kilo and for the price of arhar daal to suddenly shoot up to over Rs 200 a kilo. Come election time, the common voter, the man on the street and the law–abiding citizen will all perhaps remember who paid through their noses to strengthen the fincial condition of a political party with slim chances of winning the elections in 2016.

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