Your grand-children and mine look in utter amazement if we tell them how in good old days that we lived through, things were so much cheaper. There was a time, for instance, when gasoline cost seventy-five paise – yes, paise, and not rupees – per liter. They look at us in utter disbelief and wonder if we’re spinning a story. Everything was available at a fraction of what it costs today, be it rice, potatoes, apples, tea shirt or books. A kilo of sugar that could have been bought for Rs 2 in the 1970's currently costs Rs 40, while a dozen bananas that you could have bought for just Rs 5 about 25 years ago, will now cost you Rs 40.
What on earth happened, you and I wonder, to make price go up and up. What has made the rupee lose its value, and so drastically? The reason for this loss, my economist friends explain, is largely macro-economic and linked to aggregate demand and supply dynamics, government borrowings, exchange rate and interest rates. I cannot buy this learned explanation. It is sheer debauchery of our currency that is ruining our economy and destabilizing the polity. And it has happened the most in the last ten odd years.
For this great achievement of his, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should, I propose, be nominated for next year’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize in Economics. No ordinary individual but only a great genius could have brought about such precipitate fall in the value of our currency. Isn’t it the surest way to destabilize an economy and thereby, the polity?
Economists tell us that over the past two decades, the inflation rate in the country (as measured by the WPI index) has averaged 6.07% annually. Even as a lay person I know it to be a lie. WPI is one of the economic tricks that Pranab-da bequeathed. First, its base before its much-delayed change was very narrow. Secondly, the trick of comparing WPI on the last day of the year with what it was on the first day, is a cruel joke on the intelligence of the common man howsoever simple he may be. Do you and I buy our supply of sugar on these two nominated days of the year?
It was Keynes, the universally revered guru of all who, like Manmohan Singh, went to Oxbridge to become economists, who said “the best way to destroy the capitalist system—for that matter any – [is] to debauch the currency.” Some attribute this prescient remark to Comrade Lenin. How does it matter? The truth is one; the wise tell it differently.
Gulp and Forget
The cleverest thing that the fast food industry has done is to create a wall – yes, an impregnable wall – between you and what you eat at a fast food joint. As you bite your teeth into a hamburger at a MacDonald’s outlet along with highly-salted potato chips, do you ever think of how the ingredients were procured and how the final product was processed? Would you continue eating if you simultaneously saw a film reel of the exceedingly sickening conditions that animals were reared in factory farms and slavery-like conditions in which those who prepared food, worked in. Most certainly not. Imagine one thousand chickens reared standing in a pen which is six feet by six feet, overfed to fatten them, then slaughtered on an assembly line to be processed into cubes of meat to be used a couple of months later taken out of deep-freeze. How would you relish what you have paid for?
You remember what that celebrated Beatle, Paul McCartney once said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” President Theodore Roosevelt was a skeptic when he read Upton Sinclair. He immediately turned a vegetarian when he read the report of the commission appointed to study the conditions obtaining in meatpacking industry that Sinclair had exposed in his novel, The Jungle.
The secret of fast food I learn is cheap food prepared quickly, eaten quickly, forgotten quickly, but paid for in advance. Now contrast it with the plate at home that arrives on the dining table. You quickly glance if everyone has his and her in front. You say the grace. Look at what you are going to eat, spend good half an hour at the dining table, eating and talking and savoring intimacy as much as the food. Even the home-packed sandwich downed with a mug of coffee at the work desk is qualitatively different from the gulp-it-down pizza.
Long Live the Little Difference
One of the admirable qualities of George Bush was to make up his own cerebral deficiencies by appointing clever people where brain, not brawn, was needed. So, in his second term as President he promoted Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. (In Bush’s first term she was National Security Advisor.) After Condy, Hillary Clinton took over the charge of State Department – a job that she has performed unblemished. And this brought into being the belief that the post of the Secretary of State was reserved for Women Only. (Some analysts believe that this contrived arrangement is a small price to keep American Presidency a safe male preserve.) The only time when a woman was third in the line of Presidency was when Nancy Pelosi became the Speaker of the House.
So everyone was surprised when John Kerry was nominated by Barrack Obama to be his Secretary of State. Hillary had famously claimed that “Women have the responsibility gene”. Apparently, Obama thinks otherwise.
Nonetheless, women in America seem to be on march. There are in all 535 Senators and House members. Of these less than one-fifth – 101, to be precise –are women. If you’ve to choose which state to settle in the US, opt for New Hampshire if you’re a sworn supporter of the feminist cause. It is the first State in the US to be entirely administered by women – its Governor, both its Senators and its two Congresswomen.
By all accounts the bastion of male supremacy has been the Supreme Court. Today, one third of its nine judges are women. Great achievement indeed. And from the Supreme Court to the CIA is a sharp contrast. Even in this investigative field (not without its hazards) women have done well of late. Would you be startled to know that it was a female CIA agent who helped to track down Osama bin Laden in 2011. She is the central character in the movie Zero Dark Thirty which recounts the operation. The real faithful will, when they are at the helm of affairs, put women in the right place i.e., behind purdah.
However, the real business of America, as President Hoover said, is business. To be really meaningful, the female thrust has to be in this vital area. You may recall Carly Fiorina telling how she was ousted as the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard by the board dominated by male chauvinists. In this area the glass ceiling is very much there to reckon with.
The White House has been, and continues to be, the biggest glass ceiling. The US is, with Japan, Spain and Italy, one of those democracies that never had a female head of state or government. Let Hillary Clinton take a shot in 2016. I fervently hope communism doesn’t arrive before that.
Meanwhile, let me tell you a story. During the suffragette movement in England there was once a heated debate in the House of Commons. After a long impassioned plea for the rights of women, a lady MP concluded her speech with the submission: “There is, Sir, all said and done a small, just a little difference between men and women.”
Hearing it, a male backbencher stood up to submit: “Mr. Speaker, Sir, long live that little difference.”
Sub-continental Dynastic Rule
Indira Gandhi was indeed the greatest tactician among the politicians of the subcontinent. First, hats off to her extremely deft choice of spouse which bequeathed a priceless surname, Gandhi. (Who cares to know whether Feroze Gandhi was a Parsee who had nothing whatever to do with the man who bore the all-too-well-known surname that Mohandas Karamchand bore.) In the public eye, the aura associated with the brand is a transferable commodity. So she had the advantage of the American style two-in-one branding: a blue-blooded Nehru-Gandhi. So her son, daughter-in-law and dear grandson started off the political race with an unbeatable advantage.
Across the border, President Zia’s decision to send Bhutto to the gallows converted a seasoned schemer into a martyr. And in our society, martyrs are ascribed attributes they never possessed while alive. Benazir was initiated in the game at Shimla Conference where she saw her crafty father practice sleight of hand on the supposedly seasoned Indira Gandhi. Later married to Zardari – a veteran broker who unfailingly, claimed his 10% on every deal his wife sanctioned as Prime Minister, she founded Pakistan’s favorite political dynasty, now called Bhutto-Zardari.
The good news is Benazir’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has, after passing out from Oxford, launched his political career. So, dynastic politics flourishes on both sides of the Radcliffe line. The timing is superb. It is just a couple of months ahead of the elections that a beleaguered government, headed by his father, has to face. At 24, poor Bilawal himself will not be eligible to contest. Meanwhile, he can learn a lesson or two from Rahul Gandhi in the art of Baba Lok Waiting in the Wings.
Favorite Punching Bag
Some 2,000 Muslims were killed in the 2002 Gujarat riots. India’s secularists bemoan their killing every day and night of the year and don’t miss an occasion to shed tears for them. Would someone remind them what led to it? The riots were a spontaneous reaction to the burning alive of Hindu karsevaks returning from Ayodhya, in a rail bogey. Truly secularist Indians had no time to bemoan that gruesome killing but don’t miss an opportunity to express sorrow for their Muslim brethren killed thereafter.
And that’s not the only instance of selective declaration of our secular values.
Some 5000 Sikhs were butchered after the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi in November 1984 in the National Capital. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi indirectly blessed the plot to kill those children of a lesser god. His infamous remark still haunts the country: “When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake.” Mark the word bound. So, that’s that.
When the protector turns into a killer there is no remedy. But that has happened in case of each riot in India. Police who are at the beck and call of politicians do not function independently. Police reforms recommended by the Dharam Vira Committee as back as 1980 could have improved the situation to some extent. That didn’t suit the ruling party. Hence, the continuing stalemate. And with it the crocodile tears of the votaries of secularism in our polity.
Now Fat Cars for the Fat
Slate, the online current affairs and culture magazine carries exciting news. “Like Americans themselves, American cars are getting heavier and heavier every year,” it reports. “Our new cars are more efficient, with average fuel economy climbing and carbon-dioxide emissions falling over the course of the past 30 years. But that is not because they are lighter. The average new car weighed 3,221 pounds [1,464 kilograms] in 1987 but 4,009 pounds [1,822 kilograms] in 2010. Even small-size sedans have packed on the pounds, thanks to more powerful – if more efficient – engines, as well as features like nicer seats, more safety features and more legroom. We pay a hidden cost for our fat cars. … The heavier the car, the safer it is for the driver and the more dangerous it is for other vehicles and people on the road.”
All the diesel monsters on Indian roads do indeed qualify to be called fat vehicles. Their size takes more than half the road and scares pedestrians away. Invariably the size of those at the steering wheel is equally scary.