Hard questions about soft questions
*There was in fact a successful auction of spectrum — only it was not conducted by the government but by its corporate sector cronies who made a fortune on the deal.
On one pronouncement of his, you have to agree with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. His is not a ‘lame-duck government.' Cooked goose seems the more appropriate soubriquet. However, not a single new scam worth over Rs. 1 lakh crore has surfaced for 10 days now. So maybe things are getting better. Yet, even a doting corporate media find that the Professor did not come out looking good from his interaction with a few favoured students. That is, electronic media chiefs and editors who have mostly adored Dr. Singh for nearly two decades. If even the largely free ride they gave him left him unnerved and defensive, it's a measure of how much things have changed. Not that the editors emerged looking better. If asking the right questions is at the heart of journalism, then somebody had a bypass. At no point did it occur to them that the corruption they questioned him on with some passion, flowed entirely out of policies and from a policy altar at which they have worshipped for years.
Some of the questions in fact indicated a need by worried editors to be reassured that those very policies would continue. For instance, a fear that there is “no big reformist wave coming from UPA II. Have we lost the will to take hard reformist decisions?” “No way,” responded the Prime Minister. “We have not lost the will. We will persist.” In asserting that what he (and the editors) view as “reforms” are on track, Dr. Singh speaks the truth. The chaos and corruption troubling the editors was the outcome of those very ‘reforms', if they cared to see it.
Even on corruption, the questions ranged from those revolving around some Ministers' actions to a couple implying wrongdoing by people within the PMO or Cabinet. Nothing that suggested the country's basic direction under the Professor's guidance is destructive and dangerous. But once you've accepted the neo-liberal economic framework scripted since 1991 as wonderful and beyond reproach, then your questions get limited to asking who fluffed his lines. And as for corporate criminality, editors step on to that terrain only when left without a choice and at their own risk.
The first question, fair enough, was about the 2G scam and the lack of an auction in the sale of spectrum. There's something missing here, though. There was in fact an auction of spectrum — a successful one. Only it was not conducted by the government but by its corporate sector cronies who gave it away for a pittance. Having been gifted that scarce public-owned resource by the government, the cronies then auctioned it privately for astronomical sums of money. The argument that consumers today enjoy low prices because the privateers got it cheap is a fraud. Customers are getting those cheap prices even after this double sale. After the crony cabal milked huge profits in its own private auction. Had that process been cut out, consumer benefits would have been far greater. Also auctioned alongside were the government's individual Ministers, posts and integrity. Two auctions for the price of none.
The press conference saw one abstract query and a no less abstract reply on ‘black money.' Not a single question on Indian illegal funds parked overseas in Swiss and other banks. None on why the government does not reveal the names it has in this connection. The illegal flow of such funds, according to the startling report from Global Financial Integrity, costs the nation Rs.240 crore every single day, on average. As much as Rs. 4.3 lakh crore (twice the highest estimate of the 2G scam losses) has been lost in just five years, between 2004 and 2008. And who are the main culprits? “High net-worth individuals and private companies were found to be the primary drivers of illicit flows out of India's private sector.” Seems a good subject to ask the Prime Minister some questions about. But it didn't happen.
Nor was there a single question about the Amnesty/Immunity schemes his government seems to be planning for such criminals. This, even as it plans tougher and tougher laws for ordinary citizens, abridgement of rights for displaced persons, gutting of the public distribution system and arrests of those protesting the incredible price rise.
Nor, while on morality and corruption, was there a single question from the editors about the Prime Minister making Vilasrao Deshmukh Union Minister of Rural Development. A man castigated by the Supreme Court for protecting moneylenders in Maharashtra now controls rural development across the country. The Maharashtra government has even paid up the Rs.10-lakh fine imposed by the court in that case, signalling acceptance that wrong had been done while he was Chief Minister. Dr. Singh cannot plead ‘coalition compulsions' here. Mr. Deshmukh is from his own party. If he remains in the Union Cabinet after the Supreme Court trashes him, it is only because Dr. Singh wants him there. There were no ‘coalition compulsions' in brewing the CWG scam either, but that too wasn't touched upon in the questions.
It would, of course, be insane to expect the editors to raise a question on the nearly quarter of a million farmers who have committed suicide in this country since 1995, going by the data of the National Crime Records Bureau. Or on migrations out of villages going berserk. Or on worsening levels of unemployment. But there was not a single one on hunger either.
The only serious question on food inflation, linking that to its impact on the poor in a country with 8.5 per cent growth came from a foreigner. Now our editors present knew this to be a burning issue, even for their middle class audiences. Yet Sara Sidner of CNN was the only one to raise it. The other question on inflation related to the need for “the second [round of] structural reforms to be done in agriculture.” Another query on price rise — not linked to hunger or poor people — was not answered at all. The Prime Minister was not challenged when he virtually equated losses in the 2G scam with subsidies to the poor. “If auctions are not taking place then what is the basis for you to calculate a loss? ... It is very much a function of what is your starting point. And also depends upon your opinion. We have a budget which gives subsidy for food, Rs.80,000 crores per annum, some people may say these foodgrains should be sold at marketplace. Will we say then because they are not sold at market prices, because you are giving them a subsidy, it is a loss of Rs. Rs.80,000 crores?”
Plunder and subsidy
Firstly, he equates plunder with the pathetic subsidies tossed at the world's largest hungry population. We rank 67th out of 84 nations in the Global Hunger Index. Secondly, subsidies for the super-rich soar each year. While food subsidies for hundreds of millions were cut by Rs. 450 crore in the last budget.
All those carping critics attacking direct cash transfers miss the point that the government has become really good at this. It routinely transfers billions of rupees, directly or indirectly, at each opportunity to the corporate world. And it is equally good at corporate karza maafi — Rs.5,000 billion under just three heads (direct corporate income tax, customs and excise duties) in the last budget. That's two-and-a-half times the 2G scam estimate. It also gets bigger with each new budget. The dominant media have never once raised a peep of protest against the corporate plunder of public money, thanks to the government Dr. Singh presides over. Nor did they in this conference with the Prime Minister. So Dr. Singh is understandably peeved when asked about the petty cash transfers of the 2G scam to a handful of hucksters. The Prime Minister wanted to know if the editors would view the Rs.80,000 crore his government commits to food subsidies as ‘losses.' Actually, most of them do. Quite a few of them would like to see all subsidies directed at the poor to be wound up. The politically correct way of going about this is to call for the “streamlining of systems,” or “proper targeting,” or “efficiency.” A demand never once made of the tsunami of subsidies given to a handful of super-rich (media owners amongst them).
One positive point: Dr. Singh announced no new Group of Ministers at his conference with the editors. Though one's probably required to conduct a GoM Census. That might help Pranab Mukherjee figure out how many of these he chairs. And spare him the embarrassment of having to ask “so which GoM is this?” at his next meeting. A ‘lame duck' government? Not really. More like an integrity-challenged Cuckoo.