Profligacy of Punjabis
More on sustenance, less on substance
by Kuldip Nayar
More on sustenance, less on substance
by Kuldip Nayar
Tuesday, November 9, 2010, Chandigarh
A PUNJABI is known for living beyond his means. He may beg, borrow or steal, but he wants his reputation, however exaggerated, to stay. When it comes to the government in the two Punjabs, east and west, they are profligate. They spend less on substance and more on sustenance of prestige. That both societies are losing their culture — and their mother tongue, Punjabi — does not bother them because they sincerely believe that what comes from elsewhere, especially phoren, is worth cherishing. And it is peculiar to both Punjabs that they are saturated in corruption. There is no tier of government, from top to bottom, which is without the taint of graft.
Survey after survey shows the two Punjabs have come down in the standard of living which they used to enjoy even a decade ago. The burden of loan has gone up and their income in real terms has come down. The number of poor has increased and so wide is educated unemployment that even a post of peon has very qualified people as applicants. Petty politics takes most of the time of those people in power or in the opposition. And, believe me, they do not stop hitting below the belt.
Yet if the Punjabis were to preserve the fundamental values of a democratic society each one of them-whether a public functionary or a private citizen-would have to display a degree of vigilance and willingness to sacrifice.
Without the awareness of what is right and a desire to act according to what is right, there may be no realisation of what is wrong. Over the years, for many Punjabis, the dividing line between right and wrong, moral and immoral, has ceased to exist.
On our side of Punjab, a debate has begun, with the resignation of Finance Minister Manpreet Singh, on the state’s capacity to spend when the Centre’s debt runs into hundreds of crores of rupees. He has pointed out that the state goes on spending on subsidies and wasteful activities, and has not tried to balance the budget despite his warnings to the Cabinet and the Chief Minister. It goes without saying that the loan from the Centre to the state is probably highest in the country and it has to be reduced because the interest on the loan runs into crores of rupees.
The issue of overspending or subsidies is a matter of serious discussion and concern. But, unfortunately, the whole thing has been overshadowed by the blood relationship. Manpreet Singh is a nephew of Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and cousin of Sukbir Singh Badal, the Chief Minister’s son and Deputy Chief Minister.
Had this been a quarrel for succession it would have been understandable. Manpreet Singh has said many a time that he has accepted Sukhbir as his leader. Therefore, the inference is that Manpreet Singh has been rightly pointing his finger at the government’s increasing expenditure and the falling income. Whether extraneous considerations, like the family differences, have aggravated the situation is difficult to say. Both have avoided washing dirty linen in public.
Regarding fiscal matters, it is always difficult to balance expenditure and income. Most states in India face a similar situation. But where Punjab differs from the others is the lack of effort to narrow the gap. The reason again is the ineluctable politics. The Chief Minister and his deputy believe that lessening subsidies would cut into their following and hence votes. Manpreet Singh, on the other hand, says that there is no option to cutting subsidies. I wish politics had been kept out of financial matters. But in today’s scenario when a list of voters has more value than a balance sheet, anything that gives electoral advantage has the last word.
Subsidies like free water or free electricity are the sinews of a backward, agriculture economy. But is Punjab really backward? Even if one were to avoid this debate, are the subsidies going to the right quarters? Rich farmers have fattened themselves on free power and free water. In fact, the Akali Dal, which once had a massive following of the Sikh peasantry, is now an organization of kulaks. The landless are fed on religious slogans which the Akali-controlled gurdwaras proliferate.
By turning out Manpreet Singh from the party, the Akalis have proved that anyone hurling a challenge to the party’s sacred cows has no place in it. He has done well in not considering the Congress as an alternative because the latter has come to be headed by a maharaja to deliver the goods. This indicates how both the Congress and the Akalis have distanced themselves form the common man, the first depending on the affluence in urban areas and the second on the wealth of rich farmers.
Come to think of it, the Punjabis on either side of the border are essentially feudal in their thinking. They believe in the cult of command and obedience. They have to have the poor because these people provide leaders their followers and hangers on. The gurdwaras on this side and the mosques on the other are a recruiting ground to rope in the gullible and the innocent.
Punjab needs a party based on the Punjabi ethos and Punjabi pride. The educated employment-a challenge before the state — cannot be managed either by the Akalis or the Congress. Nor can poverty be eradicated. Badal’s defence of subsidies would be credible if he were to withdraw them from the haves. Manpreet Singh would have gone down better if he had realised during his tenure that the amelioration of the landless was more important than quoting Karl Marx to prove his radical ideas. Real life is different from dialectical materialism.
The Punjab leadership is too jaded, their programme too pedestrian and their ideas too hackneyed. The tragedy of both Punjabs is that their eyes are fixed on foreign lands and their bodies are too accustomed to the drugs they consume. They are selling even the family’s heirloom and whatever is left of the land to buy a visa or the drug.
The jolt Akali party received following Manpreet Singh’s exit is too small. But it is a warning to it — more so to Punjab — that unless it deals with the economic matters in a systematic and scientific manner, it is bound to go down because politics can give votes but not the kind of development which the state badly needs.