National Interest: Proud to pay

All of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's critics are unanimous that irrespective of how good or bad the times, he looks the same: worried. I can tell you, however, that one of his biggest worries has remained as it was 15 years ago. Which is when I had a conversation with him on board a morning Indian Airlines flight from Delhi to Bombay. The NDA had just come to power and was making some reformist promises. But my interlocutor on that flight was speaking both as an economist and a politician. He was so worried, he said, because he feared that India's growth, even economic stability, was under threat going ahead because of its people's disinclination to pay real prices for goods and services provided by the government, and the politicians' inability, and lack of courage, to persuade them to do so. He mentioned fuel, foodgrain, rail and bus fares, electricity and water. If we look back carefully at what has been accomplished over the past 12 months or so, he might wish to revisit that view now, and happily so. It is still work in progress, but there is evidence now that our people are changing. And, as almost invariably happens in democracies, the political class has failed to foresee this welcome change, or embrace it.

The increase in rail fares this week has gone through almost bloodlessly. So bloodlessly, in fact, that you worry if this is some deceptive calm before all hell breaks loose next week. But it won't. As it didn't when diesel prices were hiked substantially and a rude LPG cylinder cap introduced in September last year. Streets did not go aflame, and the departure of Mamata Banerjee from the UPA was an inevitable moment of liberation. The threatened Bharat Bandh, in spite of the Left and the BJP coming together with Mulayam, Mamata and Karunanidhi, was a flop like any other protest against fuel price hikes before this. The only places where it was visible were West Bengal and Kerala. But you can bring those states to a standstill even if you call for a bandh because Brazil did not win the World Cup. These states are ever so bandh-ready. I saw Kochi come to a pause as news came in that Saddam Hussein had been hanged and several parties had given bandh calls. I was, at that precise moment, floating as a tourist in Mattancherry, the heritage quarter of Kochi harbour. And was witness to the fact that the first people to pull the shutters down and join the bandh were the shopkeepers on the ancient Jew Street.

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