On Budget Day in Delhi last week, it was bitterly cold and an icy rain fell. Not far from Parliament, I was driving in my warm car when, at a traffic light, a girl who would have been no more than twelve appeared with a small baby in her arms. She was trying to protect the baby from the rain with her dupatta but failed.
It looked tired, sleepy and hungry, and my first reaction was to scold her for carrying it around in the cold and rain. But she lifted her hand to her mouth and said she had to eat. Before the car moved, another girl appeared at the window in wet clothes carrying a baby.
I found myself wondering why we in the media were more interested in the Budget than the stories of desperate people living in desperate poverty in India’s capital. Is it because those who read newspapers and watch TV news channels are not interested in stories of poverty?
The next day, by coincidence, I got my answer at an Express Adda with Prashant Kishor. He has moved on from making political strategy for big political parties to becoming a grassroots politician himself. He has spent more than a year travelling through the villages of Bihar.
Answering a question I asked on what made him feel despair in the political landscape today, he said that he did not understand why educated, middle-class Indians could not try and show more empathy for those of their countrymen who still live in degrading poverty. He reminded the audience that more than 700 million Indians still live on less than two dollars a day and that the old-age pension in Bihar was four hundred rupees a month. His answer shamed me. I think it shamed us all.
The newspapers on the day after the Budget had no pictures of poverty. They were filled with praise for the ‘visionary leadership’ that Narendra Modi has given us. It was not just political leaders who sang praises to the Leader and his vision, but mighty businessmen, well-known economists and political pundits of the highest order. There was a small trickle of adverse commentary on the Budget from opposition leaders and they sounded more bitter than accurate.
Before going further, I want to say that it is true that India looks much better today than it did ten years ago, when Narendra Modi became prime minister. It is also true that the poorest Indians have benefited hugely from welfare schemes that have improved their lives, with subsidised food grain, cooking gas, sanitation and drinking water. This is why there is not the smallest doubt that Modi will become prime minister for the third time this year and possibly with more seats in Parliament. There is also a consensus in political pundit circles that the reason for victory will be Modi’s personal image, not the BJP.
This is not just because of what he has done for our poorest citizens but because he has infused hope in the middle classes. And convinced millions of Indians that the magnificent temple to Ram in Ayodhya has been built because of his personal determination to make this happen.
There are people I know who admit that they wept when they saw the consecration ceremony. But this week, I want to stick to talking about smaller dreams of smaller Indians that have remained unfulfilled since 1947. A statistic, pointed out by analysts of an earlier time, is that there were as many Indians living in extreme poverty when Jawaharlal Nehru died as when he became prime minister. His daughter came up with a catchy slogan about removing poverty but failed to make it more than a slogan.
The burden of millions living in extreme poverty is one that Modi inherited. There is no question that he has done more to reduce the weight of this burden than other prime ministers. On my travels in rural India, I have seen visible change. I have seen seaside villages in Maharashtra that have been transformed by tourism and villages in other parts of the country that have facilities they could not have dreamed of before. Roads, railways, airports, and ports have been built at a pace that leaves many foreign travellers astounded. And there is among educated, young Indians a conviction that if Modi remains prime minister, the goal of India becoming a developed country by 2047 is achievable.
Personally, I long for this to happen but know that it cannot unless the euphoria and hope we see at the top begins to trickle down to those who still have nothing. This newspaper quoted Modi as saying of the Budget, “We set a big goal, achieve it, and then set an even bigger goal for ourselves.” The biggest goal he can set now is to order the men and women who get to the Lok Sabha in his name to ensure that no child in their constituencies needs to run away to Delhi or Mumbai to beg in the streets. It sounds like a small thing to ask but it could be more important than anything else they will do for the constituents that send them to Parliament.
For me this Budget week will remain forever imprinted with the shameful, heartbreaking image of a small girl standing in the icy rain with a tiny, tired baby in her spindly arms.