Chapter 39 - Riots Break Out

The Prime Minister of Tawa – 39

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Mash decided to rush back to Tawa as soon as he got to know of the riots. He had been in Australia for just three days and hated the idea of cutting short his vacation, but there was nothing to be done about it. Urush wanted to return with him, but Mash would not hear of it. ‘You people deserve this break more than anyone else. Just forget what’s happening in Tawa and enjoy,’ he told Urush and Barbara. His relationship with Judy had reached a plateau and he did not really want any change in that status quo. Sulawa was much more fun than Judy. It was not just that Sulawa was younger, but also because she had a more open mind. The fact that she was quite easy on the eye did not do any harm either.

Heather was unhappy to see him leave. ‘Please come back as soon as you can Daddy’ she said.

‘I’ll try honey. You have fun with Veseem and Vanamola,’ Mash said, but he knew that he was unlikely to return.

A week ago, the communists had started street protests against the privatisation of the banks, the insurance company and factories which they wanted to always be owned by the government. Also, the Communist Party of Tawa wanted the government to ensure that workers would never be laid off after the privatisation of the plantations. The two-year restriction on retrenchments wasn’t good enough. Initially, the protests took the form of peaceful street demonstrations and nothing more. However, a day after Mash left for Australia, the PDA launched an agitation against what it called “corruption in privatisation”. The PDA did not oppose privatisation, per se, but only the way in which the nation’s assets were being sold off. It alleged that the process of inviting bids for acquiring the banks and the insurance company was not transparent. Like the CPT, the PDA also did not agree that plantations could retrench workers after two years.  However, unlike the CPT, the PDA did not seek an indefinite ban on retrenchment. Instead, the PDA demanded that the two year period be extended to five years.

The PDA’s agitation differed from that of the CPT in one more respect. The PDA’s agitation was quite violent. Roads had been blocked and telephone lines cut. At street junctions, PDA activist fought pitched battles with the police. Hepara was paralysed. Traffic had come to a standstill. After Mash landed in Hepara, a police convoy escorted his car across the Quaree River to the central secretariat.

So far the privatisation process hadn’t been a success. There were just two bidders for each of the banks and they had both been sold for around hundred million puvees each. The bidders had obviously formed a cartel and prevented competitive bidding. The insurance company had attracted some more interest and finally an ethnic Chinese business house had bought it for a billion puvees. The TFP had taken two million puvees each from the winning bidders for the banks and ten million puvees from the winning bidder for the insurance company.

From his office window, Mash saw that Hepara had become a war zone. He tried calling Sulawa but could not get through since telephone lines were cut in many places. Peelee was inside the Central Secretariat and so was Vikan. But Dimanan and Nedeem were at their homes. Mash sent police jeeps to bring them to the Central Secretariat.

‘This agitation does not really have much popular support. Does it?’ Mash asked.

‘No, it doesn’t. But the PDA bastards are being funded by one of the companies which lost out on the bidding process for the insurance company.’

‘So, what’s to be done?’

‘There’s no way we can ensure the plantations will not fire people once they are transferred to private hands,’ Mash fretted. ‘How on earth can we give such an assurance? The best we can do is what we are planning to do – a two-year moratorium on retrenchments.’

‘I don’t agree Maheshdas-raan. Why can’t we give such an assurance?’ Peelee asked. ‘At the least we should say that workers cannot be laid off for five years after the privatisation.’

‘Which means none of the plantations can be run profitably for five years! The whole idea behind this scheme is to make those darned plantations profitable.’

‘How does it help the government if the plantations become profitable?’ Peelee asked belligerently.

‘We will be able to collect tax from profitable plantations, won’t we?’ Mash responded in a reasonable tone.

‘But none of those bastards who own plantations pay any tax!

‘That’s the next step. We will improve tax collections, broaden the tax base. Right now, very few people pay taxes. We can’t go on like that. There’s no point in doing that at this stage when not many people are making much money.’

‘I agree with Peelee-raan. Just because we say that the workers cannot be laid off does not mean that none of them will be laid off,’ Nedeem said.

‘We will not get much of a price for the plantations we auction if we make it illegal for owners to fire their workers for five years. Even with a two-year moratorium, the price we get will be less than half the real value of the plantations.’

‘Maheshdas-raan, there aren’t going to be any plantations to be auctioned,’ Dimanan said.

‘Why is that? What about the plantations which were without valid title deeds when they were acquired by General Naranin?’ Mash demanded to know.

‘But Maheshdas-raan, didn’t you tell me that your friend Urushambo-raan was to be allowed to buy all three of his family’s plantations?’

‘So? That’s just a one-off exemption. That doesn’t apply to everybody.’

‘Maheshdas-raan…..,’ Dimanan was silent.

‘Tell him. Go on,’ Peelee prompted Dimanan.

‘We’ve taken the position that in the case of plantations which did not have title deeds, the owners can still buy them for a nominal sum if they donate ten thousand puvees per acre into our party funds.’

Mash was stunned. ‘How dare you bastards do that?’ he screamed. You bloody monkeys, he almost added in English. His scream had very little effect on Peelee who grinned back at Mash. Dimanan and Nedeem looked embarrassed. Vikan looked pained.

‘So, we can extend two years to five years, can’t we?’ Peelee asked Mash.

‘Yes, we can,’ Mash said through gritted teeth.

‘Great. That’s one PDA demand met. We’ll also have to let Kemon have his fertilizer factory for a thousand puvees,’ Dimanan said.

‘Like hell we’ll do that for that traitor,’ Mash said heatedly. ‘Haven’t we already received bids for the fertilizer factory?’ he asked Dimanan.

‘Yes, we have. We invited bids for the fertilizer factory along with the banks and the insurance company. But we are yet to decide on the winning bid.’

‘There’s a way out,’ Peelee said. ‘We’ll informally ask Kemon-raan to get one of his friends to put in a bid for that factory. Not much, say five hundred thousand puvees. And then we’ll have to persuade everyone else who has tendered bids to withdraw their bids.’

Even as a stunned Mash listened to his cabinet colleagues in shock, Nedeem said, ‘we may also have to return that five hundred thousand puvees to Kemon-raan in some way. It’s a matter of honour you know.’

‘I will not do this. I will not give in to that bastard. No way,’ Mash said as soon as his shock subsided.

‘In that case, the rioting will continue,’ Dimanan said.

‘Why didn’t someone warn me that the PDA would react like this if we refused to give back Kemon’s fertilizer factory?’ Mash asked them at large. They were silent.

‘Maheshdas-raan, let Kemon-raan win this round. We’ll plan better and beat him next time,’ Nedeem said.

‘No way. Let the riots continue. We’ll crush them. Let’s call in the army,’ Mash said. Peelee looked at him with shock which later turned to amusement.

‘Call in the army, did you say?’ He looked at Mash with sympathy.

‘It won’t work Maheshdas-raan,’ Vikan said quickly. ‘The army may even side with the rioters. General Naranin created Kemon and the PDA. The army has always looked upon Kemon as one of its own.

‘You are useless. All of you,’ Mash screamed at them. He calmed down after a few seconds. ‘I want all of you to hang around here. Give me a few hours time. I’ll think of a way out of this.’

‘We could go home carrying police walkie-talkies and discuss over the wireless,’ Peelee said half in jest. Mash stormed out of the conference room. As he walked to his room, he noticed that there were very few people around in the Central Secretariat building. ‘I’m sure many of these bastards will just stay at home and claim they could not make it to work,’ he spoke aloud.

As soon as he reached his room, he dialled Sulawa’s home once more. This time he was successful and Sulawa picked up the phone.

‘I was worried about you,’ Mash said.

‘So was I,’ Sulawa replied. 

‘If I send a police jeep, can you come over to Urush’s place?’ Mash asked.

‘Yes, I can,’ Sulawa replied after a moment’s hesitation. Their relationship had been purely platonic till a month ago when they started meeting at Urushambo’s plantation at Hakksadhra, on the outskirts of Hepara.

‘I’ll find out if a jeep is available and call you back,’ Mash said.

‘Be careful of what you do,’ Sulawa warned Mash as he hung up.

Mash sat down with his head in his hands. The army could not be relied upon. Could he persuade the police chief to do a better job? He could promise him an award or something at the next Independence Day celebrations if he could put down the rioting. No, it wouldn’t work since the police were not particularly competent. And they seemed to be doing their best anyway. He wished at least one of his ministers could come up with a good idea at this stage.  Think Mash Think, he told himself. Think like a bloody Tawan.

There was a knock on his door. ‘Come in,’ Mash bellowed.

It was Dimanan with a sheet of paper in his hand. ‘Maheshdas-raan, there was something else,’ Dimanan said.

‘Yeah, is there any more shit you can pile on?’

Dimanan hesitated. ‘Maheshdas-raan, there was a fax from Bendron Corp yesterday. Addressed to me and to you.’

‘Why was it addressed to you?’ Mash demanded.

‘Maybe because I am the Economic Affairs Minister,’ Dimanan explained apologetically.

‘Fair enough,’ Mash conceded. ‘Sit down Dimanan-raan,’ he said. This was not the way a prime minister behaved. He was supposed to keep calm under pressure and treat his cabinet colleagues civilly all the time. 

‘I’m sorry I lost my temper out here.’

‘That’s okay Maheshdas-raan. You are entitled to shout at us once in a while.’ Dimanan gave Mash his meekest smile.

‘So, what’s does the fax say Dimanan?’ Mash held out his hand as he spoke.

Dimanan gave the fax to Mash and remained silent. Mash skimmed through the fax message which was signed by Clare Ferguson. ‘We are very worried by the security situation in Hepara. If privatisation of the banks and the insurance company results in so much violence, we fear that our investment may attract greater flak. We look forward to you regaining control of the situation and giving us much needed assurance.’

‘How dare they!’ Mash said.

‘How dare they!’ Dimanan repeated.

‘We are a sovereign country and how dare a mere company tell us how to run things?’ He picked up the phone and called Ted. He would tell Ted what exactly he thought of Bendron Corp. Maybe Ted could call up Clare and tell her how stupidly she had behaved.

‘Hello Ted, it’s me,’ Mash said.

‘So, you had to rush back, did you? Pity.’

‘Are you okay Ted?’ Mash asked superficially.

‘Of course, I am okay.’ Ted chuckled. ‘My embassy is a much safer place than your Central Secretariat at the moment.’

‘You have a point,’ Mash conceded.

‘You got to get things under control soon Mash. Somehow or the other, you need to scare the rioters into giving up and going home. Otherwise Bendron Corp is going to get worried.’ Mash was silent. Ted went on. ‘They are planning to put their money in there, aren’t they? If it were my money, I’d be doing a rethink. Do whatever it takes but get things under your control.’

‘I am going to do that Ted. I just thought I would give you a call. I’ll call you after I put things in order.’

‘Good idea.’

‘By the way, I know this is not the best time to tell you this, but I might as well, I’ve been asked to tell you that we’re very keen for Tawa to make a contribution to the Iraq coalition.’

Ted was silent. Mash continued. ‘I should be able to carry my cabinet with me. They all know what I’m doing and why we’re doing it. Horan is the only one who has objected. But I doubt if we will be able to contribute more than a hundred soldiers.’ Before leaving for Australia, Mash had floated the possibility of sending a detachment of hundred soldiers to Kuwait to assist in the invasion of Iraq.

‘If you manage to send the troops, we’ll put together an aid package for you guys. It’s not exactly a quid pro quo, but you know how these things work.’ Ted laughed. Of course, it was a quid pro quo. If Mash were to despatch a hundred soldiers to Iraq, he did expect something in return. Hopefully the US would write off the billion dollars they owed them. And maybe give them some money as aid as well.

‘I’ll get back to you on that score in a week’s time Ted.’

‘Thanks once again. And good luck with this thing here.’

Mash hung up and turned to Dimanan who was still standing. ‘We do not seem to have much choice, do we? Mash felt very weary. He wanted to go to sleep.

‘Shall I get Nedeem-raan and Peelee-raan and tell them that you have agreed to let Kemon get back his factory?’

‘Yes. Please do the needful. I don’t want to know what you are doing. But please do it. And you can also put out a statement that there will be no job losses for five years after the plantations are privatised.’

Dimanan left the room. Mash followed him. Hopefully he would be able to find a police car which could collect Sulawa and take her to Hakksadhra.

To be Continued


More by :  Vinod Joseph

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