Everyone loves a good outrage

The reform agenda must be defended from Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s attackers

As far as op-eds go, this one marks a new low from P Sainath. It is not uncommon for him to frame grave issues in a divisive manner by conflating them with unrelated matters—like, for instance, agrarian crises and beauty pageants. This technique seeks to arbitrage outrage, as if decent people cannot be anguished at a tragedy without having to contrast it with an unrelated celebration. But when Mr Sainath links the poverty line, expenses incurred by the Planning Commission chief while traveling on official business overseas, the lavishness with which some tycoons spend their private funds and dubious dealings of crony capitalism, it can’t merely be his usual, unfortunate and misguided conflation.

Make no mistake: Mr Sainath’s hatchet job on Montek Singh Ahluwalia is part of an internal campaign against reform-minded individuals within the UPA government. This week’s manufactured controversy over renovation expenses of toilets in the Planning Commission’s headquarters is another manifestation of the same campaign.

Let us examine Mr Sainath’s cleverly framed allegations. His case is that at Mr Ahluwalia’s travel expenses are exorbitant, at an average of $4000 per day abroad. You would think he would give you some comparable data to prove Mr Ahluwalia has been unusually proliferate in spending public funds. Say, for instance, the average daily expenditure when cabinet-ranked Indian officials travel abroad on official business. Or for instance, the average daily expenditure incurred by Mr Ahluwalia’s counterparts from other countries. These would be like-for-like comparisons. Mr Sainath, however, does not do that. He compares these to a income of a person on India’s poverty line. All this proves is that $4000 is much higher than Rs 28. It does not even come close to proving that public funds were misspent, nor does it show that Mr Ahluwalia was unusually liberal with his expense budget. The onus of doing this research is on Mr Sainath, the person making the argument.

How Mukesh Ambani spends his personal wealth is irrelevant to the argument—he is free to spend his money as he pleases, even if it does not suit our tastes—, so is a discussion on cronyism and corruption in IPL. You don’t need to read the Planning Commission’s response to conclude that Mr Sainath’s allegations are sensationalistic nonsense.

But why choose Mr Ahluwalia at all? Mr Sainath’s arguments against profligacy would have been worthy of respect if he had compared the travel expenses of the top officials of government—from President Patil to the lowest ranking minister of state. How much, for instance, does Sonia Gandhi, as chairperson of the National Advisory Council, spend on her foreign trips? Whatever her political role, she’s an official of equivalent rank. How much do the members of the National Advisory Council spend on their foreign and domestic trips? Unless we have some numbers to compare with, we can’t say anything about Mr Ahluwalia’s trips.

What we do know is that Mr Ahluwalia is among the few people known to be advocating economic reforms in the UPA government. Singling him out with a view to making him the lightning rod for public outrage has all the signs of a political hatchet job. The objective is to discredit the reformist agenda by associating it with imaginary wrongdoing. After running the Indian economy to the ground, the socialists that haunt the UPA government’s policymaking are now trying to bury the narrative of reform, liberalisation and markets through subterfuge and intellectual dishonesty.

It’s no different with the renovation expenses of public toilets in Yojana Bhavan, the Planning Commission’s headquarters. One of the earliest reports on this, in the Times of India, again compared toilet renovation expenses with the the poverty line. Few in the mainstream or social media bothered to ascertain the scope of the renovations and compare it with similar renovations conducted in New Delhi’s public and private buildings. The purpose of the revelations was to insinuate wrongdoing on the part of Mr Ahluwalia, rather than to establish whether there was any wrongdoing at all.

Mr Ahluwalia is guilty: of not throwing his credibility on the line to compel the UPA government to launch the second-generation reforms, and to prevent it from engaging in monumental fiscal irresponsibility that has put India’s future at risk. Like his mentor Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, he becomes complicit in the UPA’s misgovernance. He will have to answer these charges both to the nation and to history. This does not mean he’s lavishing public funds on unnecessary foreign excursions, building gold-plated toilets or taking a cut from the renovation contractor.

It is fair for the Opposition parties to politically exploit the situation to their advantage. However, it is in the national interest not to allow a campaign of unfair personal calumny to discredit the reform agenda—or indeed, to prevent Mr Ahluwalia from a chance to redeem his reformist record—to succeed. The Acorn completely agrees with Mint’s editorial defence of Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Mr Ahluwalia has “done far more for the poor than the busybodies and peddlers of poverty porn who are now attacking him.”

13 thoughts on “Everyone loves a good outrage”

  1. Mr. Ahluwalia is targetted not because pro or anti reform groups because people are anti-reform. When you come up with the ridiculous figure that any one earning more than Rs.32 & Rs.28 is not poor; you will be the target of ridicule and rightly so. This entire exercise of planning commission is not about removing poverty but about removing poor. By lowering the standards, the Government of the day can say that reforms/its performance has reduced poverty. It was a political exercise pure and simple.

    About Rs.35 lakh crap bowls, to put things in proportion:

    (a) It was renovation; and not building
    (b) It takes a life time of earning for even most middle class to get to that figure
    (c) It gets you at least one two room apartment in cities in Madras, Delhi etc.

    Don’t you think people are bound to ridicule him for this.

    If you think Government is spending this much on crap bowls; do publish this. Let all of us know the Government’s austerity programmes.

    1. Quite right! Montek’s own expenditure is rightful subjkect for scrutiny BECAUSE he’s the one who is prescribing ridiculous ‘poverty’ norms for other, less privileged citizens!

  2. If what he spends on a foreign trip as a dignitary working for GoI has not been compared with what a cabinet minister from India does, or what a similar ranked official from a different country does, why don’t you give us these numbers? having traveled extensively throughout the world, definitely not as a cabinet ranked official, I can tell you that USD4k / day is exorbitant by any standards.

    If building 20 toilets costs 35Lakhs INR to the exchequer, should anyone try to provide a number for its comparison? Even if no one knows what a loo must cost, everyone still knows what it must not, and that is a lot.

    Finally, trying to read the motive of the author is secondary. Does it in anyway absolve the guilty of the crime of gross misuse of funds? Even assuming Sainath was a bigot and trying to frame Montek, how does the flushing down of tax payers money, pardonable?

  3. So the great reformist, anti-socialist that Montek is, he heads the “planning” commission of India that purports to think it can plan and design prosperity for ordinary Indians?. Are you kidding me?

    If you hear a whizzing sound, that’s the sound of me spinning in my grave – Hayek.

  4. I agree when you say that P. Sainath was wrong with his “misguided conflation”, as you put it. I also agree that the whole story of public expenses being frittered away in renovating toilets in Yojana Bhavan was a non-issue. But I can’t get myself to agree with the conclusion you have drawn that there is a concerted effort to malign the name of Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

    A columnist chooses to highlight his opinion from information he gathered from someone else’s RTI applications and some other newspaper (a fierce competitor to previous columnist’s publication) sees a controversy from another RTI response and since the only common link is the Planning Commission head, you jump to the conclusion of there being a political hatchet job.

    When the debate on FDI in retail was keeping newspapers busy, P. Sainath wrote a column on it showing his amusement at how some journalists had suddenly woken up to farmer suicide issues. Then, Sainath was ridiculed for thinking he alone had the right of criticism when it came to farmer suicides. The Mint editor and your column have not failed to inform us that you yourself have been critical of policies of Planning Commission from the beginning. I think it’s safe to say that more than a political hatchet job, you’re just peeved that someone else is also critical of your target; for the right reason or wrong.

  5. What P.Sainath was writing about Mukesh Ambani and Vijay Mallya was that these people have been waived the IPL entertainment tax which is public money and then using this money for their purpose. Why does Mr. Ahluwalia visit US more than any other country and that too when govt. is in austerity mode? Any way Sainath article was a reminder of what happens in the planning commission and its deputy chairman when none of the things are going according to govt. ‘plans’.

  6. Nitin, you seem to be a part of the campaign to defend arm chair intellectuals or you’re feeling pity as you are one of that group

  7. Sainath’s article is a good example of how not to make an argument and is based on insufficient research. But then your argument that Montek is an advocate of reforms has any little proof.

    1. My view on those articles,

      In both articles , they are trying to say the author who attacked Planning Commisson’s Deputy Chairman has no record of working for poor people.
      What a ridiculous statement is that , anyway they can’t know the role of Journalist in a Progressive Society.

      All he meant to say , that the way Planning commission says the cut-off for poverty in rural india is 25 INR for an individual.
      How a journalist can show the Indian Masses to realize that 25 Rs is so small incomaparision with Someone’s per capita expenditure.
      Should he only tals of economic jargon (inflation , growth rates of xyz of abc quarters) …?
      Do you think people of India, atleast educated, can really justify the amount what they fixed for Poor to be poor and take part in welfare schemes?
      Can poor people really see that 25rs is definition for their Poverty? Can they shout is is so meagre untill next elections(lets assume they think before they vote)?

      It is ,needless to say, educated people / intellectuals whose responsibility it is to shout at the face of Govt and its deputies in governing the country.
      They don’t because too busy people as we are. Have deadlines and entertainments not to miss, have their dreams not to miss in this life.

      What should be the role of jounalist in such scenario?

      It has been more that 67 yrs Indian National Congress has been fighting with Poverty in India and still they are.
      Is it credible statement? to say that they are really fighting.

      All we want is action and strong determination from high-end Politicians and Policy-makers. Perhaps , it might be unavoidable task to stop economic reforms in the country with so called neo-liberal policies. But more important thing is for Govt. is to see how it has tightened the shackles on rural poor’s neck and reduced them to
      virtual slavery and begging. Is it nice thing to hear?

      Its often one-day news for news-readers if Planning Commission announces 25 Rs per capita expenditure for declaring them as poor.
      Is it really sensible? In country like Modern India, nobody (not even so-called educated) cares what Planning Commission says on poor.
      Its just one more new definition for poor as we daily hear so many such in many news papers along wtih hot topics of Bollywood and IPL,
      in such hot space even BPL (Below-Povery-League) becomes onemore tournament team to bet on.

      People really lost sensitivity to feel those definitions and very busy
      I personallly think one should be radical not in his ideology , but in his fight for poor and exploitated.
      Blows ought be given to inhuman society with whatever possible , but preferable with words than swords at first attempt. Busyness is not an excuse for educated.

      In this rapidly developing country, where the definition of poor remains so cheap 25 rs per day. I guess, this fetches more and more MNCs and Manufacturing units to India as they are desperately looking for cheap labour around the world.
      How to make Indian Masses to know their insesitive nature towards on on-going blood-game with
      rural poor and landless labours. Once they see , who are working like animals in Bangalore’s big,big malls and apartment constructions. They will surely see their fellow brothers regarding whom they used to pledge every day in schools.

      Its often very hard to let masses, at least, educated people to know the hard reality unless you compare with something.
      I guess, even the same Motek singh says, 25 rs really handsome amount to a person to live happily , because he no more a poor-guy.
      I sincerly ask the people whoever (strong supporters of Neo-liberal Policies and Continuation of acute Poverty and Inequality), to go and see they
      Grand father Mr. M.K. Gandhi , who himself was an Journalist , how radical he was in protection of the poorest of the poor in this country.
      One more Great-great-grand father Mr. Dadabai Nouroji , who compared the indian’s average income was just half of the amount British
      spent on a single prisoner in indian Jail during colonial rule, still they make hadsome amounts from collection of taxes from such tiny creatures
      who were reduced to slaves in their hands. He was the one who exposed British economic exploitation of indian masses, I doubt they may say, even this guy (Nouroji) was also ridiculous for such comparision he did.

      If hard reality of numbers and invisible torture against poor fails to move tough and educated citizens’ hearts.
      What makes these apathetic people ready for action and fight for exploitated?
      One should be radical and should fight against the evil not against the evil-doer.
      This needs society of people who can think , but we lost the way, greed has poisoned men’s hearts and barricaded the world with hate and
      intolerance.

      The silence of the good men is more dangerous than the brutality of bad men. – Martin King Jr.

      I just wrote as a reply to that article buddy.

  8. By the way, do we know how much money this sainath is making, while the farmers are dying? And how much he spends on petrol, while the farmers are dying? And how much money he spends for wining & dining, while the farmers are dying?

  9. Besides, one major point Sainath is making is: if Montek is so disinterested in ‘Planning’ that he spends one in 7 days away from his job; if he prefers (or feels compelled to be) ‘sherpa’ for the G-20; if he wants to whiz off to the US every now and then – then fine, but let him relinquish his post as Planning Commission head! Let someone willing to travel every month among India’s own poor in far flung regions, head the Commission that plans for those same poor people and far flung regions…

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