Slaves To Tandoori Socialism

It’s official, straight from the horse’s mouth. At a training camp for Congress Party workers, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao bemoaned the fact that his partymen had become slaves to power and alienated from the people. Voters have known this for ages, but apparently the message has finally trickled up to the top.

Well, Mr Rao, the remedy is very simple: just lose all elections for a few years; and you will be emancipated from your slavery. The BJP and Left Front will readily help break your shackles. Just imagine Comrade Jyoti Basu declaring, ‘Workers of the Congress, unite You have nothing to lose, but your chains.’

Whether this message will go down well with your partymen is another matter. They rather like their chains. In particular, they seem to like hotel chains. Just look the meteoric rise of Mr Sushil at who will doubtless inspire future generations to undertake the following route to fame.

  1. Join the Youth Congress.
  2. Misuse your position to get a contract for running a public sector restaurant.
  3. Cook your wife in it.

Following this new experiment in tandoori cuisine, there has been a furore in the newspapers about the criminalisation of politics. Many columnists have bemoaned the fact that hundreds of elected legislators today have criminal records. The columnists recall that musclemen were initially used to capture booths, and then became candidates in their own right.

Maybe so, but Mr Sharma and his comrade-in-crime, Mr Keshav Kumar, are not promoted booth-capturers. They represent a different side of politics altogether-the milking of the public sector by influential politicians. In the holy name of socialism, Indira Gandhi expanded the public sector in every area, including hotels. And she was not alone-the Janata Party and other socialist groups were in favour too. In practice, hotel chains were used by politicians as patronage networks, and for wining, dining and womanising at public expense.

What most observers have failed to notice is that Naina Sahni could not have become a burning issue, but for government ownership of the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC), which gave Mr Sharma a contract to run a restaurant. The main, but unstated purpose of this public sector corporation is to provide perks for politicians. Mr Sharma simply took this process to its logical culmination. This is not the criminaliation of politics-it is better described as tandoori socialism.

It should now be apparent why so few politicians of any party are willing to privatise ITDC. They have a lot to lose. Forget bogus talk of India being in the clutches of IMFpolicies. It remains in the clutches of tandoori socialism.

This Mr Rao, is the real problem you face. The Congress Party has long transcended its political origins, and become the biggest business house in the country, one untrammelled by laws or licensing restrictions. True liberalisation would mean disbanding this enormously profitable business, and you appear not to have the stomach for that. The world may hail you as an economic reformer, but tan doori socialism remains unreformed.

If you have done anything to reduce corruption and cleanse public life in the last four years, that remains a closely-guarded secret. When you assumed office, you

What most observers have failed to notice is that Naina Sahani could not have become a burning issue, but for the government ownership of the ITDC, which gave Sushil Sharma a contract to run the restaurant.

yourself had a clean image, notwithstanding the sad reputation, of your party. But after four years of being Prime Minister and Congress President, the rapacity of your party seems to have altered not a whit and for this voters will, quite rightly, hold you responsible.

The irony is that economic liberalisation had the potential to give your party a new image. Ending the licence-permit raj automatically reduced the scope for kickbacks. and could have been the beginning of a new era of cleaner public life. Nobody would have expected instant miracles, and even a half-successful attempt to use liberalisation to improve public morality would have constituted a new social vision, and would have enthused millions.

This, alas, never happened. You only saw liberalisation as a technocratic change. Now this was certainly needed, and saved the country from bankruptcy in 1991. But you needed to buttress technocracy with social vision to make it popular. This you never did, and may be you were not even interested. You partymen wanted to continue with politics-as-business, and you gave no signal that you were going to stop this. Your half-baked liberalisation reduced kickbacks in Udyog Bhavan. but simly shifted the main action to other ministries. You refused to privatise public sector units, one reason being that your partymen did not wish to forego the joys of tandoori socialism.

If you had some social vision. you would have tried throwing out at least the most notorious rascals in the party. But that would have meant splitting the party. And you were too much a slave to power to risk that.

What do you think?