A poor country of very rich people

Military muscle, martial music and a flowing turban are sare jahan se acchha. But sitting glued to the television on Republic Day while prime ministerial — I mean the parade’s — splendour unfolded on the screen was a trifle disappointing. The feisty Nirmala Sitharaman should have demanded a finance ministry float to showcase the billionaires who are the NDA’s principal creation. Indians may starve but who cares if the declared riches of only 63 tycoons exceed the 2018-19 Union budget of Rs 24.5 trillion? Perhaps she didn’t want to encourage the bolshie Abhijit Banerjee to push for a wealth tax. Perhaps a display of money power might have made parade highlights like Mission Shakti’s surgical strikes in space or the $63 billion Rafale deal, if not Anil Ambani himself, seem a trifle redundant. 

There were surprises galore. With the Tejas flaunted as wholly desi, no one remembered that India and the US were squabbling over jointly developing the Light Combat Aircraft as early as the 1980s. The “Back to Village” tableau rubbed salt into the wounds of a disgruntled Kashmir Valley which has travelled from independent kingdom to autonomous state to Union Territory by recalling the August 5 relegation to the village and worse. Chefs catering to the gastronomic sophistication of French and Chinese tourists didn’t relish having to seek chicken or fish substitutes now that Goa is determined to “Save the Frog”. 

Younger Bengalis wondered last year who the old man wrapped in a sheet sitting companionably with Rabindranath Tagore was. Gujaratis may have asked if Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was entertaining Father Christmas in the Bengal tableau. New Delhi scotched this year’s hope that Mamata Banerjee would steal the show in the awesome simplicity of white cotton and flip-flops by chanting anti-CAA slogans and designing shrouds for the NPR and NRC. Alas, like other states beyond the BJP’s grip, Bengal was refused a place in the parade. Didi could have stormed the Daredevil bikers, expecting fellow Bengali inspector Seema Nag to welcome her. But it’s not easy to salute standing upright in a saree on a moving bike. Worse, you-know-who standing next to Brazil’s president and ours would have assumed she was saluting him. Besides, like Indira Gandhi, Didi doesn’t relish being bracketed with a gaggle of women. Unfortunately, Captain Tania Shergill wasn’t ready to relinquish her slot as commander of a men-only contingent.

One of several firsts this time for which Modi mustn’t be denied full credit was starting the ceremony at the National War Memorial he inaugurated last February instead of at the Amar Jawan Jyoti Indira Gandhi constructed in 1971. Balakot isn’t Bangladesh and a surgical strike hardly compares with the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani troops. But to no one’s surprise, Modi’s handiwork shoved Mrs Gandhi’s into oblivion. When George-V’s statue was shunted out of the nearby canopy, Modi’s Jana Sangh ancestors refused it even park space. That’s Delhi. Each ruler seeks to recreate it in his/her own image. After seeing the ruins of seven pre-British Delhis, Georges Clemenceau, the veteran French statesman, reportedly exclaimed at the foundations of Lutyens capital, “And what a magnificent ruin this will make!” Cynics may not be alone in wondering whether the grand new “Modinagar” that Modi, who professes contempt for “Lutyens Delhi”, is designing might end up as another ruin testifying to Ozymandias-like vanity.

Nowhere amidst the efflorescence of 13 military bands, 16 marching contingents and 22 tableaux was there any hint that far from being a rich country of poor people (as the fashionable claim), the closely-guarded secret is that India is a poor country of extremely rich people. The rich wouldn’t have remained rich if they hadn’t managed a simple matter like abolition of wealth tax by keeping the yield down to a paltry Rs 1,008 crore. A more calculating Vijay Mallya might not have been running from pillar to post to avoid extradition if he had invested in a Rs 4.31 crore monogrammed coat instead of a gold toilet seat. Gold has medicinal virtues and the ancient Chinese used it for many complaints including constipation, which might explain the lavatorial link. But Mallya mustn’t be underestimated either. He knows that Mrs Sitharaman won’t revive a variant of Morarji Desai’s Gold Control Act for the same reason she won’t fall for Banerjee’s redistributive philosophy. Both would alienate the BJP’s moneybags. It needed Dominic Asquith, Britain’s high commissioner — Britain still takes a proprietorial interest in India — to remind Modi of his sabka saath, sabka vikas commitment.

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