A nod in the wrong direction

A nod in the wrong direction

By M.J. Akbar | 12 July, 2014
Rahul Gandhi nodding off
I don’t know if Rahul Gandhi has fully absorbed the meaning of defeat or not. His tragic nap in Parliament, to twist a metaphor, is his wake-up call.

My sympathies are entirely with Rahul Gandhi in the Curious Case of the Sleeping Leader. The great inner chamber of the temple of Indian democracy, the Lok Sabha, can be infected with a languorous air during a hot Delhi summer afternoon. Some of the speeches do not help. Better parliamentarians than Rahul Gandhi have had to fight off a dangerous yawn during those critical hours after lunch when the body, drugged by food, and the mind, poisoned by torpor, yearns for a nap.

This used to be a consciously protected secret, in the best traditions of a cosy club, in that remote age before Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, seeking greater visible glory for MPs, permitted real time television recording of speeches. MPs welcomed the opportunity to become screen idols. What they did not fully appreciate is that cameras have no soul, and their handlers, cameramen, are wicked by nature. They wait for their brief moment, and pounce.

Perhaps Rahul Gandhi could have ordered suitable flunkeys in the information and broadcasting department to censor those startling images of him dropping off into sleep as soundly as a baby after a feed, during the debate on price rise. It is possible that the bureaucrats would not have even needed to check; they would have blanked the screen without being told, such is the culture of sycophancy in Delhi. But that was when Congress was in power. The same lot are ready to show his neck tilted somewhere close to 90 degrees when he should have been alertly leading the Congress charge on an issue at the top of the party's counteroffensive against NDA. I don't know if Rahul Gandhi has fully absorbed the meaning of defeat or not. His tragic nap in Parliament, to twist a metaphor, is his wake-up call.

It was touching to watch Parliament next morning, when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley rose to deliver his marathon Budget speech. Mrs Sonia Gandhi, like a very concerned mother, was taking no chances. She made her son sit beside her, on the front benches, where the chances of nodding off are negligible. Rahul Gandhi had spent his time during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's long reply to the debate on the President's address cleaning his mobile phone, or tinkering with it. This time he was on best behaviour. He had even come armed with pen and pad to make notes.

It would be interesting to discover what notes Rahul Gandhi actually made during Jaitley's oration, but one doubts that history will get that document for its archives. However, if Congress' reactions to the Budget are any reflection, then those pages might well have been full of doodles.

Democracy is a partisan business. To that extent Congress hostility to the first NDA Budget is both predictable and understandable. But at the least Congress could have opted for a better line of fire. Its response was lazy, knee-jerk and thereby counter-productive.

Its first salvo accused NDA of merely copying UPA budgets. If that was indeed true then Congress should have praised Jaitley. Or has Congress now taken the position that Budgets produced by Dr Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram were a load of rubbish? Look before you leap, and think before you talk. The more likely reason for this misfire is that Congress propaganda had built up the argument that this Budget would be anti-poor. This was astonishing misjudgement given the consistency with which PM Modi has said that if government does not serve the poorest of the poor first, then it is no government at all. The best positive-discrimination welfare schemes today are being run in BJP states like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, not Congress provinces like Maharashtra or Karnataka. The Budget exposed such propaganda as the lie it was.

The second charge was that the Budget lacked any big ticket vision. This too is a bit absurd. The Budget promised proper housing for every Indian by 2022; electricity in every home; sanctioned seed money for a hundred new satellite cities; opened up foreign direct investment in housing, defence; expanded infrastructure spending to add roads and link rivers; promised return of growth to 8% or 9%; and began the drive to create a clean India, with a pristine Ganga, by 2019, which is the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Is that too little for a first Budget that had to factor in an empty treasury, left desolate through reckless spending by desperate Congress governments?

Delhi's thinking is largely in the hands of those who think a power cut is a calamity, rather than those who have never seen power in their huts; those fantasising about palaces in Lutyens' Delhi dying instead of living without a roof; those who love a siesta instead of thirsting for clean water or slaving for a morsel of simple sustenance.

The promise is there in the Budget. The articulation is there. The vision exists. Now comes the tough part: the government has to deliver on a nation's dreams.

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