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Botched debate over poverty line: A Catch-22 for UPA?

Last updated on: October 11, 2011 14:14 IST

Botched debate over poverty line: A Catch-22 for UPA?

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Shashi Shekhar

The manner in which the government and the political opposition in Delhi have been guilt-tripped into this debate on the poverty line is a reflection of a broader phenomenon that has taken root within the minds of the thinking class at large, says Shashi Shekhar.

The botched debate over where to peg the poverty line, between the Planning Commission and the United Progressive Alliance Cabinet, reminds one of American author Joseph Heller's famous fiction novel Catch-22 set in the Second World War.

The principal character in Heller's dark war comedy is a delinquent air force bombardier Yossarian who had lost the will to fight. A riveting moment during Yossarian's travails in trying to go AWOL is the mission over Bologna in Italy. Intense fear grips Yossarian over the scheduled mission to bomb Bologna, for he dreads not coming back alive.

The morbid fear takes a comical turn as day after day Yossarian and his colleagues stare at the 'bombing line' on a map under the awning of the unit's intelligence tent. Faced with the inevitability of the mission, an irrational superstition takes root in the men's mind that somehow the 'bombing line' would move itself past Bologna.

Then one fateful night Yossarian sneaks up to the intelligence tent to actually move the 'bombing line' over Bologna, causing a cascade of reactions leading all the way to the allied high command in that theatre to mistakenly think Bologna was captured, thus cancelling Yossarian's much-dreaded mission.

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Photographs: Krishnendu Halder/Reuters
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Botched debate over poverty line: A Catch-22 for UPA?

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While the jury may be out on who is UPA's Yossarian looking to go AWOL from this theatre of the absurd, we should be in no doubt that the UPA's bumbling chain of command is not much different from Yossarian's.

In a telling conversation between Yossarian and his colleague Clevinger, Heller captures the naive hope that so many in India also seem to harbour, that a mere moving of the line on a map would translate into a real victory in the war: 'It is a complete reversion into primitive superstition. They are confusing cause and effect .....they really believe that we would not have to fly that mission tomorrow if someone would only tiptoe up to the map in the middle of the night and move the bombing line over Bologna....'

If the remarks by Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh from earlier this week were anything to go by, Heller's Clevinger may just have inspired more than one delinquent to delink the metaphorical line from reality.

If the moving of the 'bombing line' over Bologna exposed the hypocrisy within the chain of command in that theatre, the UPA's 'delinking of the poverty line from entitlements' has exposed the duplicity of the UPA's aam aadmi political agenda.

It also begs the question on what exactly is the basis for the UPA to dole out entitlements. A question that is unlikely to be posed with the necessary incisiveness by any political party in Delhi. The only exception being the call for an end to centrally sponsored schemes, if not for a wholesale end to these entitlements by the chief ministers of Gujarat and Bihar.

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Photographs: Reuters
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Botched debate over poverty line: A Catch-22 for UPA?

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The manner in which the government and the political opposition in Delhi have been guilt-tripped into this debate on the poverty line is a reflection of a broader phenomenon that has taken root within the minds of the thinking class at large.

In a recent column in the Hindustan Times, former Justice Rajinder Sachar cited a series of human development indices as proof of what he called 'misgovernance' in Gujarat. Justice Sachar's contentions on Gujarat were likely taken at face value by many within the thinking class, after all the indices cited him were reinforcing already held prejudices that Gujarat's economic success came at the cost of social inclusivity.

It is a different matter that Justice Sachar's arguments on Gujarat in 2011 were based on an untested theoretical model developed in the United States in 2008 which in itself relied on unsubstantiated sample data collected across India in 2004-05.

The real danger here is the manner in which even right-thinking minds have been guilt-tripped into conceding a political debate that has been tilted using a Leftist frame of reference. From just the past week one can cite at least three different reports that should give reason for all right-thinking minds to pause and reflect.

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Photographs: Reuters
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Botched debate over poverty line: A Catch-22 for UPA?

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Arvind Panagariya, writing in the Times of India on the 'Child malnutrition myth' raises some fundamental questions on the method to the NGO HDI madness. In another ad-hoc survey conducted by noted development economist Jean Dreze, bizarre claims were made of hunger levels in Bihar being 70 per cent and in Uttar Pradesh being only 7 per cent.

Lastly, in what must be a huge disappointment to Justice Sachar, the director of census operations in Gujarat in a column in the DNA has cited provisional data from the 2011 census to report a significant spike in female literacy across regions in Gujarat.

All three of the above reports highlight the fallacy of conducting a partisan political debate within electoral cycles based on human development indices.

The acceptability these indices enjoy in our public discourse is a matter of concern. The timidity with which right-thinking minds have accepted this Leftist frame of reference is a matter of even greater concern. A notional 'poverty line' has become the focal point of all debate, allowing the UPA's bumbling chain of command to get away by merely moving the proverbial 'bombing line'.

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Photographs: Reuters
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That line may yet prove to be a Catch-22 to the UPA. Disconnect between promise of UPA's entitlement programmes and the reality of poverty is already widening, thanks to faltering UPA programmes like the NREGA.

This Catch-22 for the Congress does not however signal a certain D-Day for the Bharatiya Janata Party, at least not yet.

We are yet to see a clear second front in this debate from the BJP against the Congress and the allied force of Left liberal NGOs. A start perhaps can be made by the BJP in reclaiming the terms of reference of the debate away from the Left.

The 'bombing line' may have been moved over Bologna, but Normandy is still to be invaded.


Photographs: Reuters
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