Mahatma Gandhi worked tirelessly to ensure that the people of India followed his example and lived in poverty, although of course, not in Birla House or the other stately homes that the Father of the Nation chose as his temporary residences. Not for him the passion for wealth that motivates so many “servants of the people” during these sleazy times. A particular politician in India is known to wear a sari on only a single occasion, putting it away once worn rather than perhaps gifting it to the more needy. This would imply that the lady must need to acquire around 500 saris each year, not a large amount for a person who regularly travels by chartered jet. In her zeal to give cheer to sari merchants, the lady differs from the Mahatma, who possessed only a few changes of clothes, and these homespun. Scanning the horizon for political leaders who emulate the Mahatma in his (absence of) needs, one comes across only Mamata Banerjee and A.K. Antony.
The current Defence Minister does not, however, entirely share the Paschim Banga CM’s penchant for ensuring that the entire country sink into the poverty that characterises her state. Especially since 2009, the merest hint of a tantrum from Mamata Banerjee can paralyse Manmohan Singh into silence. Initiative after initiative has been cold-storaged because of the lady. In the process, not only Paschim Banga (whose people clearly prefer to live by the teachings of the Mahatma, else why would they have chosen Mamata?) but the rest of the country as well is being deprived of the opportunity to decide on whether they would like to join Didi in her Cuban-style economics or go in a different direction, perhaps marching to the beat introduced in China in 1979 by Deng Xiaoping.
Rather than pretend that he is a pensioner rather than the Head of Government, Manmohan Singh ought to introduce economic reforms with the caveat that it is up to individual state governments whether or not to implement them. If Mamata is allergic to foreign-brand retail, perhaps Nitish Kumar or even Prithviraj Chavan may not be. Why should these two be denied the choice, simply because the Trinamool Congress supremo wants the nation to stick to Gandhian economic doctrine religiously? Although the idea may sound daft, there may exist a few people in India who would like to do their shopping in a more ordered environment than that provided by the kirana stores frequented by Didi during the days when she was just an MP. In a few years, it will become clear whether the Paschim Banga CM was right or the CM, Gujarat, who is busily welcoming foreign enterprises into his state. Should Mamata find that international department stores add to the economy rather than subtract from it, hopefully the lady will change course. Not that there were not strong reasons for her sabotage of Singur and Nandigram. Think how many extra votes the Left Front would have got, had these two mega projects proceeded smoothly to become operational.
Despite the fact that both the Heir Apparent as well as his closest associate seem to be too terrified of Mamma to respond to this columnist’s emails asking for a meeting, his soft corner for Rahul persists, warmed by memories of the (then) young lad strolling around his father’s home office in the 1980s. Instead of believing that voters in India are too stupid to understand the opportunism behind his one night stays in miscellaneous huts, Rahul needs to mobilise his soporific party machinery into agitating for economic reform. While it is too much to expect Manmohan Singh to show the energy to challenge Didi at this age, the Congress party’s favoured choice for PM needs to tell Mamata that while she is welcome to block change in Bengal, she will not be allowed to veto it in the whole of India. Give the states the freedom to decide to what extent they are willing to embrace reform, and all of a sudden, the clouds that have blocked growth will begin to dissipate.