September 23, 2012

No takers for Didi-giri

THE ASIAN AGE, Sep 22, 2012

Whether it was the aggressive art mart or the gold mart, going by the enthusiastic shoppers, nobody could believe Didi had dropped a bombshell
I happened to be in Kolkata when Mamata Banerjee made her dramatic announcement to pull the plug on the UPA. Nobody was surprised. There was a bus strike in the city and people were rejoicing. It meant there would be far less traffic on those clogged streets, less pollution in the atmosphere and more time to focus on the dengue outbreak that is obsessing Kolkatans.

Every time there is even a hint of a mosquito buzzing within a five-foot radius, locals duck for cover or start flapping the air frantically with anything handy — even a sturdy handbag.

Didi’s latest stunt doesn’t cause a single ripple. “It was expected,” says a corporate honcho tiredly. Apparently, anything and everything is “expected” from the mercurial Didi. And no, people don’t want her to leave her hard-won gaddi. Not yet. “The commies are waiting to get back into the saddle… but that’s not happening,” announces an industrialist as we nibble on exquisite salads. Life appears to be looking up for those who have embraced Didi’s extraordinarily eccentric and imperious style of governance.

There is a great deal of hope invested in her ability to somehow get things moving in that sluggish state. While people wait for the miracle, those close to her are reaping the myriad benefits of being Didi loyalists. Their projects are getting cleared phataphat, and money — a great deal of it — is being made. In such an upbeat scenario, it is foolish to argue with the converts. Didi is their saviour. She has rescued them from the maws and jaws of the previous regime and granted a carte blanche to go forth and mint money — no questions asked. In the process, her party hasn’t done too badly either. There’s something to be said about friends with benefits in these difficult times.

Like Didi’s faithful followers who argue (rather unconvincingly) against policies Didi refuses to endorse, there are the non-believers, albeit in a conspicuous minority, who articulate their misgivings over watered-down Scotch, while reeling off glories that once were Bengal. They are least bothered about the neighbourhood kiranawalla’s future and what will happen to his shop once the biggies enter the market. Wal-Mart politics is for those who live in Delhi. Diesel prices affect interstate truck drivers, not them. Didi’s got it all wrong, they sniff dismissively, as the old bearer in their favourite club, pads around getting refills. Similarly, the young, rich and restless are worried about Kolkata’s non-existent nightlife, given the early curfew and the absence of lively hangout places. One of them was earnestly urging a high-ranking official to “reconsider” the spoilsport policy since shutting bars at 11 pm was such a downer… a barbaric ruling, he called it, without a hint of irony. A disconnect this deep is hard to bridge.

It is happening all over India. And those who refuse to address the growing divide are going to pay for their resistance eventually. Most people are living in a fatalistic zone, worried about day-to-day adjustments and compromises. They are totally disengaged from the bigger political picture that, in fact, does impact their lives on every conceivable level. I watched the images of Vishwakarma in Kolkata and asked around how the preparations for the annual Durga Puja celebrations were progressing. Was there a sense of panic at rising prices… did the escalated cost of diesel dampen their enthusiasm? Was their confidence in Didi shaken? What about the prospect of a mid-term poll disturbing the tempo of their lives? Were any of these issues of any significance? Bilkul nahi! The Vardan Market was full of shoppers making early purchases from small boutiques that specialise in selling designer knock-offs. Speaking to a few women haggling over an Anamika Khanna fake, they stared at me like I was crazy. Rollback or no rollback, they were going all out to enjoy a great pujo, minus any cutbacks. Whether it was the aggressive art mart or the gold mart, going by the enthusiastic shoppers crowding bazaars, nobody could possibly have believed Didi had just dropped a bombshell.

How things unfold after the flop Bharat Bandh will be interesting to monitor. The key word being flung around is “consultation”. Assorted netas are going purple in the face about not being consulted by the Congress Party before taking such a momentous decision. But hello! Since when did the Congress ever consult anyone…. Allies included? Countless ad hoc decisions have been imposed on the nation in the past… been weakly debated and eventually junked. Most times, the aam janta has seen through the charade, shrugged and gone on with life.

This time too, the pantomime will be ignored till a staged “resolution” is offered and instantly accepted by the Opposition and allies. The Prime Minister, emboldened by the positive market sentiments to last week’s googly, will once again disappear behind the purdah and wait for the Didis and Dadas to calm down — which they will. Our political masters have read us well. They know all it takes to buy time and get on with business as usual is to make a big noise and threaten to withdraw support. The natives are satisfied that at least someone is doing something. It’s hogwash, of course. But everybody goes to bed feeling happy. Meaningless threats and protests have a way of dulling our senses and making us believe we actually count.

So, has a new era of Didi-giri and Dada-giri dawned? Will the latest flexing of political muscle make even the smallest dent in the status quo? Or will we — stupidly and passively — stay mum even after the Rs 12,500 crore Teddy Bear’s Picnic erroneously referred to as Bharat Bandh? As always, this expensive joke is on us.

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