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From Dikshit to Montek: When politicians play with poverty

If anybody thought that the repeated attempts of the Congress to tell the desperately poor in the country that they are really not poor is to avoid subsidising them, it is time to think of their deeper motives.

With the next general elections around the corner, the direct cash transfer plans, and what looks like a pilot attempt in Delhi by Sheila Dikshit, make it amply clear that the wrangling over the poverty line by Congress was a ruthless political strategy of denial.

In the process, the party also sought to write off millions of people from their account books.

An Indian elderly roadside woman vendor sits on her cart as she waits for customers in New Delhi, India, Saturday, Dec. 15. AP

First Montek Singh Ahluwalia said that if a person earned Rs 28 a day in a city, or Rs 24 in a village, he/she was not poor. Now, on 16 December, Sheila Dixit came up with her estimates that made Ahluwalia a kind man.

According to Dikshit, Rs 600 is all that takes for a family of five to buy its food for a month. “A family of five can easily complete their needs,” she reportedly said.

Dikshit had an apparent reason for this. She wants to get rid of PDS subsidies by giving cash. According to her, surveys in Delhi have found that majority of the people preferred cash to ration. The rest is all about the virtues of UDAI, smart bank transfers and kirana shops.

With this announcement, that too in the presence of the Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the Delhi chief minister did two things: one, deny the real gravity of poverty in her constituency (although even by Tendulkar estimates, only less than 8 percent of her people are poor in Delhi) and two, write it off with an easy Rs 600 monthly handout.

Now, she would want us to happily surmise that the Congress in Delhi has obliterated poverty. And people have their money in their hands.

There has been considerable discussions on the denial of poverty in the US as well. Reportedly, a right-wing think-tank had argued, using 2005 data, that people who the government defined as poor were in fact not poor because they had amenities such as fridge, oven, phones and washing machines. They also argued that the dietary problem in America was “eating too much.”
This is the real danger that politicians, in badly governed countries, crises or captive to ideologies, pose to their citizens - denial of the real problems to absolve themselves of responsibilities. Politicians in both poor and rich countries do it.

History is replete with political denials of genocides, poverty, famines, epidemics and ethnic strifes. Whether it is the holocaust denial, denial of the mass executions of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, denial of killing of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka or the denial of a bourgeoning AIDS epidemic by South Africa, all were attempts by politicians and dubious regimes, either to cover up or whitewash their failures.

Even with the Tendulkar estimates, ridiculous attempts by Congress leaders such as Dikshit, and their hired experts such as Ahluwalia, are to tell people that what they see or experience as poverty is not really poverty. The direct motive for creating such an illusion is to claim non-accountability. Just as the way Narendra Modi said malnutrition in Gujarat was not really malnutrition, but figure-conscious women dieting; or how Tamil Nadu government said at the beginning of the dengue epidemic that the reported deaths were data entry mistakes.

Owning up trouble is politically difficult because it will naturally demand solutions. However, what the politicians are reluctant to learn is that denial in the long term will have disastrous consequences. Driven only by political expediency, does it matter?

Sonia Gandhi and Dikshit want the Congress to get the next term, while Narendra Modi wants us to believe that Gujarat is a development marvel, even if many images are illusory, and that he can do the same magic for the country.

Guardian in an editorial writes how Republican Todd Akin resorted to rape-denial, mainly to justify his conservative position on abortion. “In Mr Akin's case, his foolishness has been driven by a doctrinaire social-conservative hostility to abortion which leads him to contort the issue of rape so that he can challenge the legitimacy of abortion in rape cases.” The article notes that his views on rape are also shared by the religious right wing.

In the run up to the French elections, The Economist noted how the country’s politicians were in a state of denial regarding its economic crisis and how it would make the recovery harder: “It is not unusual for politicians to avoid some ugly truths during elections; but it is unusual, in recent times in Europe, to ignore them as completely as French politicians are doing. In Britain, Ireland, Portugal and Spain voters have plumped for parties that promised painful realism.”

Among all the political denials that abound in India, playing with poverty and public health are unpardonable because they just irreversibly worsen by being pushed under the carpet.

If only Indian voters “plumped for parties that promised painful realism.”

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