It’s time for our Bourbons to wake up and sense the anger of the public

Rau mein hai rakhsh-e-umr kahaan dekhiye thame

Nai haath baag par hai, na paa hai rakaab mein

Mirza Ghalib’s couplet quintessentially reflects the historical situation in India today.

“Rau” means speed, “rakhsh” means horse, “umr” means time (it also means life, but here it means time or era), “bag” means “reins” (of a horse), and “rakaab” means stirrup.

Hence the sher means: “The horse of the times is on the gallop, Let us see where it stops/The rider has neither the reins in his hands, nor his feet in the stirrup.”

Ghalib was probably writing of the happenings at the time of the Great Mutiny of 1857, when events took place at a galloping pace. But the beauty of Ghalib’s poetry (as also of much of Urdu poetry) is that it is often universal in time and place.

Today in India, the pace of history has speeded up. Events are taking place even more rapidly than earlier, and one wonders where all this will end.

In the media, one scam after another is reported, often involving politicians who swear by the poor and disadvantaged sections of society.

Talleyrand said of the Bourbons that they “saw nothing, remembered nothing, and forgot nothing.” Most Indian politicians today remind one of the Bourbons. They do not see the public anger rising against them and reaching boiling point. They do not remember the fate of the Bourbons, the Hapsburgs, and the Romanovs (if they have even heard of them). And they do not forget their power and pelf, thinking these will continue forever, as did the ill-fated dynasties mentioned above.

The decisive factor is the economy. The Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, said recently that deceleration in the Indian GDP growth has bottomed out at 5.5 per cent. This rosy picture is in sharp contrast to Standard & Poor’s warning that the Indian economy’s sovereign credit rating could be downgraded to “junk status” in 24 months.

What economists like Dr. Ahluwalia do not see is that the problem in India is not how to increase production (that can easily be increased considering the large number of engineers and technicians, and immense natural resources) but how to raise the purchasing power of the Indian masses. After all, what is produced has to be sold, but how can it be sold when 75-80 per cent of our people are poor, living on about Rs.25 per day?

Moreover, if GDP growth benefits only a handful of rich people by making them richer while the poor become poorer because of inflation, it follows that the goods manufactured cannot be sold because the masses will have no purchasing power.

In recent months there has been a manufacturing decline in India, and export-oriented industries have been particularly hard hit because of the recession in western countries.

India’s relative stability was based on the 15-20 per cent middle class, which, considering our huge population of 1,200 million, would be about 200-250 million. This provided a market for our goods and services. This middle class is fast losing its purchasing power due to skyrocketing prices, and this in turn is fast eroding India’s stability, as can be seen from the popular agitations lately.

Massive poverty, huge unemployment, skyrocketing prices, absence of health care for the poor people, farmers’ suicides, child malnutrition, etc, are all an explosive mixture. If the Bourbons do not wake up now (of which I see little likelihood at present), a prolonged period of chaos and anarchy seems inevitable in India in the near, not distant, future.

(Markandey Katju is a retired judge of the Supreme Court and Chairperson of the Press Council of India.)

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