Those focussed on the $10 million event in New York are missing out on the real thing. The bharatiya khana, sangeet and natak unleashed on the Big Apple are not a patch on the carnival at home. 'Incredible India' is happening right here. It came fully alive two weeks ago with the Congress government of Andhra Pradesh declaring that rice would be sold to the poor at Rs.2 a kilo. It also announced a doubling of widow pensions from Rs.500 to Rs. 1000. And the same for State-level pensions of freedom fighters. Soon after, it pledged that it would not raise power charges for the next five years. Along with these came a slew of other pro-poor announcements. Some, if not all the measures, were things any government ought to have done long ago.
The rice at Rs.2 a kilo annoyed the opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP). After all, its founder, N.T. Rama Rao (NTR), was the true author of the scheme. But the TDP leaders had to be cautious about describing this as 'stealing our clothes'. For, their own government had shed those clothes with alacrity in the post-NTR era. So, instead, they announced 'nine hours of free power daily for farmers' - the very first policy the Congress signed into effect on taking power in 2004.
The TDP also promised farmers loans at four per cent interest. Not to be left out, the 'Loksatta', a movement that decries the populist stunts of other parties and which sees itself as cleaning up politics, showed itself as a force with a difference. A one-hour difference. It offered eight hours of free power as against the more lavish nine hours of the TDP. And, of course, rice at Rs.2 a kilo. The Telangana Rashtriya Samiti closed the bidding at 12 hours of free power for farmers. The TDP topped it off with the promise of three cents of land for poor urban families to build homes.
India is never more incredible than when polls are on or around the corner. And politics is never more focussed on real issues either. At that point, the blah of software superstardom or nuclear nirvana is simply buried. Unlike newspaper editors and channel anchors, most politicians know who votes. To messily paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing concentrates the human mind more than the knowledge that its owner is to be hanged in a fortnight. Elections appear to produce that result in Incredible India.
To gain a sense of just how incredible India gets, look at the latest on the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme. This is the single most vital action of the UPA government thus far. Never mind that it embraced the programme kicking and screaming in protest. Or that it badly under funded it. Never mind that a hundred days of work for only one person per household was much less than needed. Never mind, too, that earlier this year the number of districts under the scheme was doubled, but the funds were not.
Suddenly, it is to cover all districts of the country. The media say this happened because the request came from Rahul Gandhi. Well, good for him. Maybe, he can even get the government to fund it better. And extend it to all seeking work, while raising the number of work days. What's incredible, though, is the instant conversion of the Prime Minister and his Finance Minister to avid fans of a programme they cared little for and adopted under duress from their allies.
No less impressive is the sudden hike in the minimum support price for wheat, rice and other crops. Till this moment, the government was happy to import wheat from Australia at far higher prices than it was willing to give our own farmers. No amount of distress could move Delhi's hearts of stone. But elections can. There is now a rise of Rs.250 per quintal in the MSP for wheat, overnight. Of course, this does not set things right. And the hike of Rs.50 per quintal of paddy comes towards the end of the procurement season. But it is a sign of events to follow.
In Maharashtra, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh's heart has begun bleeding for Mumbai's displaced mill workers. Mr. Deshmukh is appalled to find that mill owners have not been honouring their commitments. (Gee, who would ever have suspected them of that?) And that workers are not getting the housing they were promised. This is not right, says the saddened Chief Minister, to a public that has known all of this for a very long time. Mr. Deshmukh's heart now beats in sync with the electoral clock.
Only weeks earlier, the Chief Minister was in danger of losing his job for all the opposite reasons. He had scoffed at the farmers of Vidharbha - standing right in the zone of their suffering - and mocked their "innovative" ways of cheating. The uproar over those remarks drew the usual "quoted out of context" defence.
But all that is past now. No context is greater than the poll context. And if you are Chief Minister of one of the country's richest States, it's not a context you want to be thrown out of.
The crisis in Karnataka also has firm roots in Incredible (or Electoral) India. At the point of stirring the cauldron, the cooks have forgotten what went into the recipe. It all makes for the kind of gripping drama Bollywood and television can never capture. It's hard to make a compelling script without any kind of hero. But India's Silicon Valley has managed it.
On the Ramar Sethu issue, alas, Incredible India has lost its way. When mythology takes over, it's hard to discuss more vital problems of unique marine parks or the fate of local fishermen. If countless millennia of deposits and sediment formed such a bridge, it stands to reason that process will continue. So it's worth pondering the fortune you will spend each year on cleaning up your planned route. Instead, we're stuck with the mythology. But for the BJP, that's Incredible India.
Impact on media
Incredible India will also, at some late and brief point, make its impact on the media. It is possible, though not certain, that Bollywood and cricket might get just a little less coverage for a while. So far this season, we've been seeing the merging of the two. Shah Rukh Khan at the T20s, for instance. Some space will have to be found, though, for the clichés of bijli, sadak, paani. And television will trot out its intrepid anchors, eyes flashing in made-up anger, berating squirming politicians over their lack of concern for the problems of the aam aadmi. Of course, with full knowledge that this is a minor diversion before we go back to the serious business of covering Paris Hilton, Shilpa Shetty and the Sensex.
The politicians are in fact way ahead of the media. At least in sensing public concerns and moods. They do not rely on SMS polls with a sample size of zilch, which declare with certainty that 97 per cent of Indians think that Thursday is better than Wednesday. Media antennae are far more crippled than those of the politicians they despise. Remember those magisterial pronouncements of the mega-pundits on the eve of the 2004 polls? All those they hope no one will recall the next time around? The most famous one was this - and it came from a highly visible media personality less than a hundred hours before the results were out:
"The era of the massive election rally has long been over. People now have work to do. This election was fought more in the media than in the streets. Television is now the new electoral battleground and, as with more developed democracies, will increasingly replace public meetings and door-to-door campaigns as the mode of campaigning. A recent ... opinion poll has clearly shown that a large majority of voters now make up their minds on the basis of what they learn from the media."
As famous last words, those rank right up there with Tarzan's Who Greased the Grapevine? But that won't stop them from being repeated. The media are slow learners. Welcome to Incredible India. Goodbye New York, Hello Hyderabad.