The Prime Minister of Tawa – 27
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The Royal Ploughing Ceremony was strictly a Royal House of Moshee show. The Prime Minister and other ministers were allowed or rather, were expected to attend the ceremony, but their status was not much higher than that of commoners. Geero Moshee had his entire extended family around him – his mother, wife, sons, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, various cousins, their children etc. This was the only time of the year when commoners would be allowed to pass through the King’s Forest and enter the palace grounds. The ceremony predated the arrival of Deelahee in Tawa. By a happy coincidence, the Guardian’s birthday happened to be at the end of monsoon season when farmers started planting rice. And so, the Royal Ploughing Ceremony began to be held on October sixteenth, the fifth day of the Holy Week.
Within the palace grounds, a circle of around fifty metres diameter was cordoned off with robes. At one end of the circle, two perfectly matched oxen stood harnessed to a plough decorated with red cloth. A horde of singers dispensed with songs in ancient Keenda accompanied by loud music from an assortment of flutists, drummers and trumpeters. Over twenty thousand people were present. Almost all of them were farmers from various part of Tawa. It was considered auspicious for farmers to watch the ceremony before they started to plough their own fields. There were no seats for them to sit and they merely milled around the circle. The ones at the back craned their necks to see what was happening in front. Many people had camped there overnight in order to get a place close to the cordoned off circle. Mash and all his ministers were sitting in a group under a red canvass canopy surrounded by policemen. Horan was also present. Though he did not have ministerial status, he was with the group of ministers. All others MPs from both parties were sitting in a different area.
‘Horan-raan, why don’t you sit on this chair? This is not wobbly,’ Vikan offered his chair to Horan.
‘Don’t worry Vikan-raan. I am not very heavy. This chair is not going to collapse for the next hour. After that, it doesn’t matter.’
‘I would have thought the people at the palace would take the trouble of giving us decent chairs,’ Mash told the group as a whole. No one responded. It was still unthinkable to openly criticize the Royal Family. The Minister for Royal Affairs was sitting close by, but no one blamed him for the fiasco. Once funds were allocated for maintenance of the Royal Family and the Palace, the Minister had very little control over it. His job was more to liaise between the King and the government rather than to exercise any control over the King or the Royal Family.
‘When is that one-eyed friend of ours coming?’ one of the ministers asked.
‘They’ve changed their minds again. Hanoleeyan is not coming this time either. He is going to send an emissary,’ Nedeem informed him.
‘Will it be Rhymala once again?’
‘Must be. Who else can they send? She is the only presentable face they have got.’
‘I want to meet him at least once. Just to get a feel of him,’ Mash said.
‘Unless he turns up, we should not sign anything. If he doesn’t come, then it’s a sign that he is not prepared to agree on a deal,’ Horan told Mash.
‘Maheshdas-raan, we should agree to everything they say in order to get Hanoleeyan to come here. Once he is here, you should just put him in jail, try him and hang him,’ Vikan told Mash. ‘I hate him much more than any of you do, because I am Seeda and he has done so much harm to our people. If it had not been for him, we would not have suffered so much. We were not the only ones harmed by General Naranin. If everyone who is harmed by the government were to take up arms, the world will be in turmoil. General Naranin harmed your family as well, Maheshdas-raan. Did you take up arms against the state?’
‘Vikan-raan, it is very tempting to do that. But if we kill him, someone will just take over from him. Then we will have to deal with an unknown quantity instead of dealing with Hanoleeyan.’
‘I hate that one-eyed bastard,’ Vikan declared vehemently.
‘So do I. So do we all.’
‘Do you think the Americans will keep their promise?’ Horan asked Nedeem and Mash.
‘We hope so. Thanks to 9/11, the Americans are suddenly alive to the fact that there are terrorists living among them. Ted Hoffman promises me that they can and they will put an end to all fund collections by the SFF in the US. They will also try and persuade the EU to do likewise.’
‘I wonder what they will want from us for doing this,’ Horan asked Mash. ‘We already owe them a lot of money.’
‘What can they want from us?’ Mash laughed. ‘They just had an awakening of their conscience. They just realised how painful terrorists can be. Until now, they thought that all terrorists were freedom fighters with a guitar in one hand and a rifle in the other. They used to allow the IRA to collect money there, even though the UK is one of their closest allies.’
‘You may not remember it Maheshdas-raan, but the US government was the main supporter of General Naranin. If they hadn’t set up that base in Yalee, General Naranin would not have survived for more than a couple of years. And let me tell you, they will want something from you in return for cracking down on the SFF.’
‘Well, let them make a demand and we’ll see. In any event, I have a promise from Ted that the US will not press for repayment of their loan.’
‘Even if they did, they will not get anything from us, will they?’ Peelee joked.
‘How did Hanoleeyan get in touch with us?’
‘He didn’t. We did. We established contact through this journalist who works for the Hepara Herald. He has interviewed Hanoleeyan many times and Hanoleeyan sort of trusts him, even though he is Keenda. He is the conduit for both of us. He first contacted the SFF and then came back to us and announced that Hanoleeyan has agreed to come down from his hills to Hepara. We said fine, when is he coming? We get a response after a week saying Hanoleeyan wants to have the negotiations at a neutral place.’
‘Which place did they suggest?’
‘They suggested Bangkok or Colombo. We said, nothing doing. This is our internal matter. Let’s solve this within our own shores. Then we get word that if that is the case, Hanoleeyan will not turn up, but …’
Nedeem was interrupted by a loud shout which went up as the King entered the cordoned off circle. The ministers and the MPs stood up. Geero Moshee was wearing a gold braided white sarong and a blue kiree. He was escorted by a group of palace guards who clustered around him. The music rose in crescendo and the drum beats became frenzied. Geero Moshee took a whip from one of the guards and got ready to plough. The guards fell back by a bit. Geero Moshee whipped one of the oxen softly. The other ox was hit a little bit harder. They began to move forward, dragging the plough behind them. The onlookers started to cheer. The ministers stood silently while the MPs could be seen cheering the King like any of the onlookers. After the oxen had moved forward by about ten metres with the plough, the King pulled back on the reins. The oxen stopped moving and the Guards ran up to take over the reins from the King. Geero Moshee handed over the whip to a guard and moved away a bit.
The oxen were unharnessed from the plough and led back to the King. A group of palace employees carried in a number of large bowls and laid them on the ground near the King. Some of the bowls had rice grains or corn in them while some others had fruits. Some of the bowls held dried twigs. One of the oxen tried to walk away and was firmly held in place by a guard. Both the oxen were led to the bowls. It remained to be seen which of bowls would be favoured by the oxen. Everyone held their breath. The cheers died down, but the musicians continued to play loudly. One of the oxen went for a bowl of rice grains while the other went for a bowl of bananas. The crowd broke into whoops of joy. A choice of grain and fruit meant an abundant harvest. If both the oxen had opted for the bowl of dried twigs, it would have meant a lean harvest. If one of the oxen had chosen grain or fruit and the other had chosen the dried twigs, it would have meant a middling harvest.
The ministers congratulated Mash. ‘Maheshdas-raan, we are indeed fortunate. Guardian Akbar is on our side.’ Mash agreed that Guardian Akbar appeared to be on his side. It would have been difficult if Mash had had to content with a bad harvest in the first year of his rule.
‘You will now be even more successful than your father,’ Peelee told him with a twinkle in his eye. It was difficult to make out if Peelee was trying to be sarcastic or if he was merely making a joke.
‘I hope so Peelee-raan,’ Mash told him. Peelee’s attitude towards Mash had changed immediately after the elections, when Mash told him that he would not be the Interior and Defence Minister anymore. But a few weeks later, he had gone back to his normal boisterous self, cracking jokes and laughing out loud for the silliest things. Horan on the other hand, showed very little change. He continued to keep a poker face. Once in a while, he would say something that was self-deprecating or witty.
As custom demanded, the King walked backed to join his family members who were preparing to leave. The oxen were led away. A medley of palace guards descended on the crowd, which would have otherwise started to leave, and forced them to stay till the King and his Royal family departed. The ministers however got up and started to leave.
‘Maheshdas-raan, have you had a look at the airport road project file I sent you?’ Peelee asked.
‘I did actually,’ Mash replied. ‘I was planning to have a word with you regarding those bids. They all seem to be on the higher side. Ten million puvees to repair fifteen miles of road. A bloody joke. I think we should try to get more bids.’
‘But Maheshdas-raan, it does not work that way,’ Peelee said hurriedly. The ministers stopped in their tracks.
‘What doesn’t work what way?’
‘There are only three contractors in Tawa who do this kind of work. And they have an arrangement among themselves so that they take turns to win bids. We won’t get a bid lower than that.’
‘So, they have formed a bloody cartel, have they?
‘I don’t know about that Maheshdas-raan. The contractor who has bid lowest, he’ll pay ten percent into our fund once he gets paid for his work.’
‘You mean, you are going to take a bribe from that contractor?’
‘Of course not. I would never take a bribe. Why would I do that? But the party needs funds. How else do we run the party and fight elections?’
‘Is this how we fought the last elections?’ Mash asked Peelee incredulously. Peelee was silent. Mash turned to Vikan. ‘Vikan, tell me, is this how the TFP collected money for the last elections? I thought we collected money at the time of elections. I didn’t realize ..’ Mash’s voice trailed off.
‘Well Maheshdas-raan, let me tell you this,’ Horan spoke calmly and on behalf of everyone there. ‘There is a difference between taking money from businessmen for personal gain and taking money for the party’s fund. When General Naranin was in power, most of the money he took went to his own bank account in Switzerland. He also used some of it to keep people like Kemon happy. When Kemon was the Prime Minister, he took a lot of bribes. He had to give part of the money to General Naranin. The balance, he kept for himself. Very little went to the PDA. I can assure you that if the PDA had received those funds and used them properly, we would have found it very difficult to win the 1996 elections. We had been out of power for so long. We had no money at all. At the time of elections, we did manage to collect some money, but it wasn’t much. I tell you Maheshdas-raan, this is not corruption. This is merely a common practice and is meant to ensure that we stay in power. If we don’t do this and instead give all businessmen a tough time, I can tell you that they will not want us to win the next election. They will give all the money they earmark for political contributions to the PDA, because they will want a party which allows them to make such money to be in power.’
‘So, you think I should approve what Peelee-raan has recommended? Sanction this bid even if it is at least thirty percent higher than what it ought to be?’
‘Come on, it’s not so much higher. Maybe twenty percent more than what it ought to be. And they will give half of that excess to us. What more can we ask for?’ Peelee had regained his boisterous self once more.
‘Vikan, what do you think?’ Mash asked Vikan.
‘I don’t know Maheshdas-raan. We should not be doing this. I don’t like it at all. But in this world, if we don’t do this, will we survive? I don’t know.’ Vikan was quite upset.
‘Maheshdas-raan, what Horan-raan and Peelee-raan say is correct.’ Nedeem had been silent until then. ‘This is not corruption. We are not cheating anyone. The money we collect will be used for constructive purposes.
‘Well gentlemen, I don’t agree. I don’t like this idea of ten percent. So, Peelee-raan, you will have to ask those contractors to tender fresh bids. And you can tell them in advance that they will not have to pay us ten percent.’
‘In that case Maheshdas-raan, how do you justify having stayed in Mr. Cheung’s bungalow? Right now, I am staying in one of Mr. Cheung’s buildings. How can I justify that? Please do not apply developed countries’ standards to our country. We will not survive in our world if we do that.’ Horan continued to speak in a dispassionate voice, but his voice cracked with emotion.
Peelee burst out ‘if you want to behave like a Guide how do you justify all those shopping lists your wife sends to our High Commission in London? How do you justify sending your wife and daughter to England for Christmas? Aren’t you applying different standards for you and for us?’
‘The purchases for my wife were not paid with party funds. They are government funds. My family trip to Europe will be paid by the government, not by the party. I am used to a certain lifestyle. My family is used to a certain lifestyle. I am entitled to maintain that lifestyle even if I am working for the government.’
Peelee snorted. Horan gave a sardonic smile. Vikan maintained a poker face. Nedeem and Dimanan had pained expressions on their faces. Mash realized that he was fighting a losing battle.
‘Okay, I will approve the bid. And you can collect ten percent. Please make sure the money is paid directly into the party account. Horan-raan, you are the general secretary. Please make sure it goes directly into the party fund. And please give them a receipt.’
Peelee snorted once more. ‘A receipt! How does that help anyone?’
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