His prematurely old face showed no signs of hostility. It did not betray any emotions at all. His voice also discloses anything. He spoke as if he was reading news on the Door Darshan.

The village barber had diffidently asked the visitor if he could take two minutes. He needed no permission because he and the visiting journalist sat on the same bench for three years in the village primary school before the barber dropped out.

But, the income divide creates a wide chasm in society and many people deny friends marooned on the have-not side. The journalist could not but acknowledge the friendship for more than one reason.

The barber’s father was horse-carriage man of a buggy owned by his doctor father. The barber’s mother was the Dai (a class of women who assist pregnant women at the time of delivery and then for days to come look after the infant) who was present at the visitor’s birth.

Yet, the fragile man sought permission to speak. The visitor nodded a wordless yes. The people seem to think that the scribes knew more than what they are telling.

The village barber, wearing a shirt with a torn collar and pyjama displaying loose endings of his customers hair-cut, began his quizzing in a matter-of-fact tone.

Was it true that the visitor had done well in his life? The visitor mumbled non-commitally: Cannot complain.

The villager returned the serve rather quickly. He said: Well, better than he had. The scribe essayed an affirmative, puzzled about the drift of the chat.

There came a query like a good length ball that often makes a batsman lose his wicked.

Was it because the barber had dropped out of the school and the visitor had gone ahead?  The newsman again nodded yes.
Now a googly came. Was it not because the barber’s father was poor and needed his son to add to the family earnings quickly while the visitor had no such compulsions as his father was a middle class man. The scribe could not but say: Yes.
Why were the poor parents blamed when poverty was responsible for school drop outs? The barber followed up smartly: Do the middle and upper class babus and politicians really know poverty? How can one formulate policies to combat poverty if one didn’t know what it means to be a poor?

Reading the journalist’s mind, the barber said: you are wondering about my questions. Even though he had only a smattering of education, poverty made one think.  Better education would have helped him think and understand better, he said.

The poverty in the barber’s house had been a hereditary reality, an empty virasat. The veranda of the mud house had now for three generations served as hair-cutting shop, sometimes half-mockingly called a saloon or still worse men’s beauty parlour. There was a single chair for hair-cut. One of its four legs was broken and had been kept in place by wrapping round pieces of a thin rope. In front of the wobbly chair, the mud wall was adorned with a mirror cracked in several spots. When a customer looked at himself in the mirror, he would see multiple images of his face. The razor and a pair of scissors dating back to the barber’s grandfather were still on active duty.

The razor was used to shave both men and buffaloes.

The journalist was feeling distinctly uneasy now. His barber friend went ahead mercilessly. He could not renovate his shop, buy new razors and scissors, acquire new furniture, and install new mirrors because that needed money. His grandfather, father and he himself had been unable to borrow from any source. Everybody asked for money, something called margin money. Some banks were said to be giving the full amount but you needed touts to get and touts demanded a cut.

In fact, everyone in the world was asking for money. He asked the scribe if there was a way out. Nobody gave money to poor to make them earn more. Again, in the past decade another threat for the poor had come up. Everybody said the government was getting out of education and health, allowing private money to make more money through hefty fees.

The village barber said now it appeared impossible for his grandchildren to make good in life because their parents would not be able to find money. The same situation prevailed in medicine. Even for traveling on some roads one has to pay toll.

Then came a rocket. How and where would the poor find money for all these facilities? His own reading was that the life of the poor had already become more difficult with the recent years’ pro-poor policies.

The barber did not know but he  was echoing a question raised many a moon ago by the economist and at one time finance minister of West Bengal, Dr Ashoke Mira who had said that market economy was fine but what about those who were  not in the market ?

A missile attack followed. If all the politicians proclaimed from rooftops that they are for the poor, how come the prices of foodgrains, pulses, vegetables and other day-to-day things were not going down and the authorities keep saying: mahengai kam ho rahi hay?

The barber now fired the mother of all the questions. Are the political parties saying something and doing something else?
Or, to put differently, are they using the poor as election winning pawns and after getting into power misusing their mandate to further worsen their plight? Sometimes he wondered if men and women in positions of power were working to eradicate poverty or to eliminate the poor.

The visiting scribe began to feel the burden of guilt and started perspiring.

Then came a nuclear-head salvo. The village barber quietly put in: Are you better-off people in a majority or are the poor larger in numbers?  The hapless newsman murmured: the poor are more in number.

Now it was the turn of the barber to be bewildered. His voice trembling, he croaked. So far the haves were reaping the fruits of Independence.  If the have-nots are more in numbers, why do they allow this topsy-turvy governance of our Republic?

Why, why, why?
What is the remedy?
The visitor was speechless.
Instead of going on with the chat, he did the only thing he knew to escape from the reality.
He ran away.

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / OPED

The Congress, derisively dubbed as Budhiya-Goodiya, ought to thank the disparate trimurti of Mr. Prakash Karat, Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mr. Narendra Modi for their unintended contribution in ensuring a clear mandate to the Congress in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls for the next five years.

Their onslaught during the eyeless electioneering failed to convince the electorate that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi-led Congress, and by implication the United Progressive Alliance, was the villain in India’s slow development march.

The anti-Congress parties exhibited their complete failure in reading the pulse of the people. Poverty eradication and jobs matter. Ram Mandir and nuclear deal with the USA appear to be remote issues. While what the communists want are policies considered failure as symbolized by the melting of the Soviet bloc, the Bharatiya Janata is yet to discover economic thinking of its own. What it has as socio-economic policies is a khichdi of ideas ranging from Gandhian to Golwalkar, with other tit-bits thrown in as chat masala.

Again the BJP does not have a Gujarat-like stronghold even in the Hindi heartland. Look at its performance in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP succeeded in only one area and that proved disastrous. It copied the Congress party’s style of internal bickering and backstabbing. However, the Congressmen had mastered how to fight a proxy battle, the BJP does show any such finesse.
The outlook for the anti-Congress forces was made murkier ny the Leftists. Mr. Karat forgot that his party, the Communist Party (Marxist) and other leftist formations, were till recently party to the actions of Dr. Manmohan Singh. In his zest and haste, Mr. Karat threw the baby with the bathtub. The Singh administration had a few schemes that really benefited the poor. The irony is that some programmes were taken up at the behest of the Left.

In a hurry to create semblance of an ideological distance between the Congress and themselves Mr. Karat and the Left left it to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s party to reap the benefits in vote getting.

The Left groups concentrated mostly on the Indo-US nuclear deal as the focal point of its electioneering. Championing the cause of the poor, the Leftists forgot what was known even to monks. Tathagat Buddha once asked a preaching. The disciple  correctly replied that to a hungry man, even the full moon would look like a chapatti. Food for stomach is a pre-requisite of food for the soul.

This is not to say that the nuclear deal is not important. It is to say that political parties have dismally failed to drive home to the people the impact of the deal on Indian policies and standing in the comity of nations. India may be co-opted as an ally on par with Pakistan. Thousands of Indians are settled in the USA and by and large the average Indians aspirations of a good life includes going to the West.

In a democracy no government in this country, no matter what is its ideology and religious or secular inclinations, can ignore the stark reality ---the dire poverty of the masses. Even those like Lalu Prasad know it that for a long time to come the poor will be in a majority. If you have one vote for one person then you cannot but have some policies, maybe mere window dressing, for combating poverty.

Of course, the behaviour of the Left groups was mindful of the opportunity that could materialize only if they dissociated from the UPA.  Some years back, the CPM politburo had spurned an idea of  Mr. Jyoti Basu as prime ministerial possibility ina coalition. In retrospect, the party never stopped regretting its decision. Mr. Basu has never forgiven this. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is not the only one where discipline has weakened and personal rivalries appeared. Its arch enemy, the CPM too has gone the same way.

This time Mr. Basu is not in the race. Mr. Somnath Chatterjee, then speaker of the Lok Sabha and another potential candidate, is out of the party.

So, who but Mr. Karat? Or so it seemed too many. The trouble is that this time the electorate has shot down Mr. Karat’s ambition. In the process, the CPM got a severe drubbing in two of its fortresses—Lal Killas—of West Bengal. The party is now frightened that its 32 year old rein in West Bengal and Big Brother’s role in Kerala may be in jeopardy.

The second murti of the trimurti is Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav has an image of a court jester, although he did quite well as railway minister. He is a political cowboy famous for shooting his own mouth first. He is also unpredictable in not only saying but doing also. A man dedicated to himself, Mr. Yadav can bravely march into a classroom at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, to teach pupils more qualified than he is and emerge as a highly successful Don. He will be equally at home   with illiterate charwaha, promising a rosier sun-rise tomorrow. When the rises the next day sans what the saviour of charwaha promised, he will blandly blame it all on Mr. Nitish Kumar, the current chief minister of hapless Bihar.  Mr. Yadav will promise to get the Centre to do what Nitish is not doing.

This may appear to be ridiculous but the sketch of Mr. Yadav really is the essence of his politics—clothe his ambitions as urge to serve the poor, do little, claim credit for more and blame others for omissions.

The 2009 elections have effectively cut him to size. But, Mr.  Yadav will  be the last man to walk into the sun-set voluntarily.
The third murti of the trimurti, Gujarat Chief Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi whose image had acquired a lot of sheen after the Tatas shifted their prestigious small car project, Nano, from West Bengal to Gujarat. In the business and industry sector he regarded as a model, dynamic chief minister. He dethroned Andhra Pradesh’s Chandrababu Nayudu, who was hailed chief executive officer (CEO).Mr. Modi is one step ahead. He is viewed as chairman-cum-managing director-cum -board of directors.
What business sector likes best in Mr. Modi is his ruthlessness with the bureaucracy. Before Nano, Mr. Modi had limited himself to Gujarat. Time and again, he had said he did not aspire to go to Delhi for some national. A shrewd man, he has found that to be a chief minister is much better.

Much better than what? The earlier rhetorical answer was:  a minister at the Centre. Then, after the Lok Sabha polls were announced, it was discovered that Mr. L K Advani, would-be prime minister, was getting old and would be still older in years ahead. It shocked the Bharatiya Janata Party. Ageing is a standard process of life, but obviously it had been kept in abeyance in Mr. Advani’s case.

The question of age begged another: After Mr. Advani who?

It is amusing to remember that this eternal question in a democracy first came up in the days of Nehru.

Mr. Narendra Modi’s name was bound to come up because of dual reasons. He has been seen as a highly successful chief minister because of smart progress in industry and iffra-structural amenities such as road, concessions and cutting of the red tape. The Godhra incident and post Godhra rioting in the State are perceived as blemishes on his record, but it was hoped the dust of time will cover them up.

Mr. Modi was a star pracharak in the just held election, leaving Gujarat in the care of his trusted men. His campaigning was aggressive and abrasive. He regaled the audiences, but how much vote value all the verbal spats had in terms of votes is doubtful. It appears that in several constituencies where he did helicopter hopping, his ferociousness produced counter-productive response.

The Modi rhetorics were highly successful In Gujarat in the assembly polls. He was a Sachin Tendulkar on home ground in Gujarat but was erratic like Saurav Ganguly. His abrasiveness also did not yield much mileage. After the results were out, Mr. Modi refused to immediately share his rereading of what happened at the hustings.

On the other his acolytes could not do much in Gujarat. In the new Lok Sabha the BJP has 15 and the Congress 11 seats. In the last LS, the BJP had 14 and the Congress 12 from the State.

The results have given a setback to the sweet dreams of Mr. Modi’s mentor, Mr. Advani. He has won by a big margin in Gandhinagar, but the overall fiasco of the BJP may result into him walking into the sunset. A broken man, Mr Advani has said he did not want to continue as leader of the Opposition.

There will be internal fall out of Mr. Advani’s lost chance as PM and it would change equations within the outfit.
It will be argued that NDA partners had initially shown reluctance to Mr. Advani who they thought was a hardliner as compared to the always-acceptable Mr. A B Vajpayee. Now as things stand, Mr. Modi would be regarded as a hardliner as compared not only to Mr. Advani but also to a whole clutch of top-guns dreaming to become Prime Minister. Since for the opposition parties, there is no hope but to present a façade of NDA, Mr. Modi’s march to Delhi will become still slower.
Mr. Modi’s name not the only one projected, as a future PM. Mr. Arun Jaitley is an aspirant and so are others like Mrs. Sushma Swaraj, Mr. Venkaiah Nayudu, Mr. Murli Manohar Joshi, Mr. Jaswant Singh, and Mr. Yashwant Sinha. The queue is long and this game is free for all.

Now that the UPA is in saddle, Mr. Modi   will have to park his Ichchha Rath In Gandhinagar for some years and once more settle down to polish the concept of Swarnim Gujarat. He has celebrated festivals, signed MOUs (memorandum of understanding). Now what next?

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / OPED