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Thursday, Feb 05, 2004

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India shines — only for some

Rasheeda Bhagat

ON TUESDAY, The Times of India carried a set of two pictures showing the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr L. K. Advani, and the Union Law and Commerce Minister, Mr Arun Jaitley, at the inauguralof a symposium in Delhi. While the first picture showed the two gentlemen with their eyes closed and their hands clasped against their faces, as though in deep reflection, the second depicted both grasping their heads, as though in despair. The caption read: "Don't go by what you see; they're feeling good deep inside".

The readers could interpret this comment at face value. After all, the latest India Today-Marg poll predicts a landslide victory for the National Democratic Alliance coalition, led by the "Atal wave" that is sweeping the country. An overwhelming number of the 17,600 people polled for the `Mood of the Nation' survey declared faith in the leadership of the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and said they would vote for his party to form the government once again.

While Mr Vajpayee got a 47 per cent vote as the candidate most fit for becoming prime minister, the Congress(I) chief, Ms Sonia Gandhi, was a distant second, with 23 per cent vote.

Images of a triumphant Finance Minister, Mr Jaswant Singh, and the Communications Minister, Mr Arun Shourie, brightly lit highways,girls chatting on mobile phones and Mr Vajpayee and the Pakistani President, Gen Pervez Musharraf, shaking hands, illustrate the findings of the survey. Most surprising, 57 per cent felt that women and girls on our streets are safe.

In short, the message on the "mood of the nation" is that everything is hunky-dory — sorry, the right term is "feel-good". Very soon, Mr Advani assures us, we will shift to the "feel-great" mode.

And yet, the stock market — that barometer of the mood of the nation, or at least that sector which has disposable income to invest in anything at all, has but reacted inconsistently. In the last two weeks, it has been on a southward journey after moving far up north.

And this after the flood of positives — GDP growth for the last quarter breaching a record 8 per cent, Corporate India coming out with results that endorse the "India Shining" claim, the Finance Minister giving out one goodie after another in an election year, low interest rates in the developed world making India an attractive investment destination for FIIs and, most important, the hope that the leadership in the sub-continent, a nuclear flashpoint, is doing its best to lock up its arsenal and bring peace to the region. There is also the ray of hope that with India and Pakistan getting ready to bury the hatchet, SAARC can finally achieve its original goals — to facilitate and empower South Asia to speak in a single and powerful voice on the world platform.

While the media is full of these messages of hope, there are also"negative" news, puncturing the "feel-good" balloon. A teenaged girl, who was raped after a New Year's party in Ahmedabad, returned home to commit suicide. An already frail Medha Patkar going on a fast to remind the nation that big dams do provide a "feel good" but only for the beneficiaries who get the water, and deprive lakhs of people of the right to a roof over their heads. That despite all the assurances given by the governments on paper, it is activists like her who try to ensure that the helpless and the voiceless at least get a hearing.

One wonders how the privileged women, who are reasonably safe on city streets, react every time they read of the rape of a minor girl in some corner of the country. Perhaps the anonymous faces and unheard screams do no provoke the kind ofcollective outrage that the nation felt on reading how the Prime Minister's grand nephew was assaulted and thrown out of a train for trying to restrain some inebriated eve-teasers. Not-so-shining India, after all.

Cross over from the mahogany panelled corporate boardrooms of Mumbai, which are announcing one set of robust profits after another, to Bihar, where parents are constantly worried that their child will be the target of the next kidnap; or Gujarat, where the Muslims still feel insecure;or the tribal belts of Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh, where people change their religious ideology on the promise of two square meals a day. Or to the desert State of Rajasthan, where even now, a woman is occasionally pushed on to her husband's funeral pyre by villagers secure in the knowledge that they will anyway be acquitted by courts for lack of conclusive evidence on their compliance in the heinous act.

Even in a metro like Chennai, the feel-good factor vanishes when residents have to plot and scheme to beat their neighbours in getting a few extra hundred litres of water before their neighbour does. Or make provision for water charges in an already stretched budget. Or queue up on the road to get a couple of pots of "free water" supplied by the government in tankers, whose drivers and helpers need to be kept happy. They, in turn, have to keep the water utility engineers happy, who in turn have to keep somebody else happy... And so it continues!

As India shines here and there, how many of us have bothered to find out if those tribals of the Kashipur belt in Orissa are still filling their stomachs with mango kernel or plain grass when they fail to get even a fistful of rice to prepare gruel for the entire family? Surely, we journalists will make that journey on Orissa's horrendous roads once again if there are reports of starvation deaths from the region. But, for the time being, we will concentrate on India Shining.

As for the North-East, full of disturbing tales of Naga and Bodo rebels, why depress the feel good sentiment by talking about their dissidence, their disaffection and their petulance at the rest of India not bothering about their plight?

Kashmir is another headache, where our fellow Indians just do not seem to understand how much better off they are compared to their counterparts across the border. Anyway, they still have their Article 370; what more do they need, we wonder.

Did not the poet describe Kashmir as heaven on earth? Why can't they learn to live steering clear of both the jehadis and the armed forces? After all, Mr Vajpayee has made any number of attempts to make peace with Pakistan, so that peace can return to the Valley and the Kashmiris too can participate in the India Shining campaign.

But despite all these big and small irritants, India is indeed shining for some people. Take, for instance, the study by the Chennai-based Business Intelligence Unit on how India's purchasing power has come a long way. The numbers are such that they can go straight into the BJP's election campaign material, if not the India Shinning campaign.

The major finding is that India's purchasing power has almost doubled between 1999 and 2003 — when the BJP-led NDA government was in the saddle — going up from Rs 7,635 billion in 1999 to Rs 14,862 billion in 2003. But, as was to be expected, the luxury segment grew by 45 per cent in the four-year period, compared to the basic segment, which grew only by 9 per cent.

If this does not tell you that the rich Indians only got richer, consider this information: During these four years the passenger car segment grew by 41 per cent, the two-wheelers market by 48 per cent, and the mobile phone subscription rate zoomed by a whopping 1,163 per cent.

But in the same period, milk consumption grew only by 18 per cent! Reminds me of that milk co-operative member in Salem district of Tamil Nadu, who tries to keep aside half a glass of milk for her little son every day before taking the produce to the co-operative office.

Among the five worst performing States on the purchasing power growth score are Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa. But also present in the list is Andhra Pradesh, proving that all that glitters is not gold!

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