Make believe in gloomy times

In this week of economic gloom I searched hard to find something to write about that would make you and me feel less gloomy. Gloomy times get gloomier if you wallow in gloom and in Mumbaiócity of slumdogs and billionairesóthere has been much wallowing lately. My friends in the world of high business have predicted for months that the economy was not going to be growing at 7 per cent as our recklessly un-gloomy officials have been telling us. So when it was officially announced last Friday that economic growth had dropped to 5.3 per cent, businessmen seemed almost pleased. I told you so are four little words that provide momentary relief even in the worst of times.

In pursuit of good cheer I turned off the gloomy TV news bulletins, stopped talking to friends in the corporate world, and took a stroll in the busy commercial streets of my Mumbai neighbourhood. I walked past shiny new malls and cinemas, relics of recent good times. And, dreary Soviet-style government buildings, relics of socialist bad times. As I approached the very ugly Mantralaya building I noticed that there seemed suddenly to be colour in the landscape. Wishful thinking? A rainbow? A silver lining? Some new poster from Bollywood? No. It came from a wall covered in posters of Rahul Gandhi in different moods and different colours. When he stood dimpling happily beside a caption that said, 'My only religion is the Indian flag' his cheeks and hair glowed in luminous Bollywood hues. And, when he stood beside a caption that said 'On the foundation of the past stands the future' he was in duller, almost greenish hues as he gazed somberly into the unknown future.

Momentarily dazed by the profusion and abrupt materialisation of the posters I looked around in puzzlement and noticed other posters in brash Bollywood hues. Sonia Gandhi with a Mother Teresa smile, Sharad Pawar with a sly puss grin and sundry other politicians of less importance. Elections loom. Here it is again the great Indian democracy circus that in a couple of months will give us a new government and in every likelihood a new Prime Minister.

Is that a cheerful thought? I think so. And, the reason is that it's hard to believe that our next government could be as unmindful of the country's most serious problems as this one has been. On the economic front we have seen almost no reforms in the past four years and a dramatic, some say deliberate, slowing down of the national highway programme that was the jewel in the Vajpayee government's infrastructure plan. According to this newspaper the project completion rate of 81 per cent in 2004 has dropped to 56 per cent. And, anyone in the construction business will tell you that there are not many new contracts being handed out either. Our only hope of making an opportunity out of the worldwide downturn is to urgently speed up our infrastructure projects. There is no sign of this happening yet.

Our other most serious problem is tumult in our immediate neighbourhood. Bangladesh under siege from mutinous para-militaries and dangerous Islamists, civil war in Sri Lanka and Pakistan descending faster and faster into chaos. These problems affect India directly because of fallout of the kind we saw in Mumbai. There is no indication that the government led, if not headed, by Sonia Gandhi has any idea of how to tackle these problems. Last week on the day that the Pakistani Naval Chief denied that Kasab and his evil companions came to Mumbai by the sea route, Madame was on TV dancing with tribals in some remote rural redoubt. She models herself on her mother-in-law and Mrs. G loved dressing up in primitive headgear and twirling arm in arm with Adivasis. But, that was a time of innocence. Would she have been frolicking around in such a gloomy time? I think not.

So the good news is that a general election looms closer by the hour and that whatever change it brings it will be for the good of India. I say this not just because the right to kick out bad governments is the whole purpose of democracy but also because I think this government has been unforgivably irresponsible and wasteful. First, it squandered our money on massive government schemes of dubious merit and now, if you read even one newspaper a day, you would have noticed that taxpayers money is being frittered away on huge and very expensive advertisements that exalt the non-existent achievements of this government. If you want to amuse yourself in this gloomy week read these advertisements and afterwards turn on your television and watch the happy, healthy Indians who smile out of idyllic rural settings for the Bharat Nirman commercials. Make believe is always fun.

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