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Poverty, glorious poverty

By Tavleen Singh
India has more ‘pro-poor’ political leaders than any other country. They have been very visible since the cash crisis hit us, competing raucously to prove that they are more ‘pro-poor’ than all the others. The Prime Minister noticed that his own credentials were being questioned and joined the competition instead of dismissing the ‘anti-poor’ charges flung his way as rubbish. In every speech he makes these days, he reminds us in thunderous tones that he did what he did for ‘the poor’.
The question we should all really be asking is why India remains one of the poorest countries in the world with such a profusion of leaders who love poor people. Could it be that the answer to this apparent conundrum is that Indian politicians have a vested interest in ensuring that poverty never disappears? Could it be that this vested interest was created from even before India gained independence from our colonial rulers?
Children-PovertyCan we trace this passion for poverty to the Mahatma himself? It is usually unwise to find flaws in a political leader once he has become a Mahatma, but in seeking out the origins of poverty worship in our political class, I found myself dwelling on Gandhiji’s determined efforts to appear to be very poor. In those times it was perhaps a clever way to appeal to the vast majority of Indians who were indeed desperately poor. But, is the glorification of poverty useful any more? In imitation of the Mahatma, today’s political leaders continue to wear khadi, but have they noticed that most voters these days wear jeans? Have they noticed that those Indians who continue to be mired in poverty aspire only to escape it and become middle class?
The Prime Minister appears to have forgotten that the reason why aspirational young Indians gave him the first full majority in 30 years was because he promised prosperity instead of banging on like his opponents did about ‘the poor’. He also seems to have forgotten that he once told a gathering of investors in Washington that he saw no reason for India to continue to be a poor country. As a responsible political commentator, I feel duty bound to remind him why.
If millions of Indians live in horrendous poverty, it is because they have been deprived of the tools that would help them escape it. These tools are proper schools, decent healthcare and sanitary living conditions which thereby would give them an equal chance in the job market. Our ‘pro-poor’ political leaders have denied them these vital tools, choosing instead to throw scraps of charity (like MNREGA) in their direction. These schemes have served mostly to keep them in poverty. If the huge sums spent on this leaky and very expensive rural dole had been spent instead on improving our truly awful government schools and rural health centres, India would perhaps today be in a better position to end her shameful poverty.
Why is it that a Prime Minister who once publicly reviled MNREGA now embraces it with open arms? Has he discovered the benefits of glorifying poverty? Absurd though this may sound, there are huge benefits in keeping poverty alive. Very poor people ask no questions. Not even when they see their poverty-loving leaders strive to become very rich as soon as they enter public life. They see that elected officials who once could barely afford a bicycle start zooming around in convoys of foreign SUVs. They see them migrate from windowless hovels to splendid mansions. They see them mysteriously begin to live like millionaires. They see all these things but they rarely object because poverty deprives them of the energy to do much more than stay alive.
What your humble, poverty-hating columnist would like to remind our ‘pro-poor’ political leaders is that no country that glorified poverty ever grew rich and nor will India. The choice really is between investing in prosperity and investing in poverty. And it is very unfortunate that across India, in state after state, our chief ministers appear to see the benefits only of investment in poverty. It is a good investment and can often win elections because people who live below our pathetic poverty line are easily fooled by ‘pro-poor’ rhetoric. But India will only be rid of her poverty when we start investing in prosperity.
As long as political leaders wear their ‘pro-poor’ credentials as if they were badges of honour instead of badges of shame, we can be sure that India will remain a poor country. Of course, if the Prime Minister’s digital dreams are transformed magically into reality, it might make us the world’s only digitally enabled desperately poor country. The one benefit of digital dreaming is that electricity and the Internet will have to become much more reliable than they currently are in vast swathes of rural India.
(The Indian Express)

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