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Hello Mr Chips

Hello Mr Chips

“Goodbye Mr Chips” is the story of Mr Chipping, the Latin teacher of Brookfields High School in America. He was affectionately called “Mr Chips”. During World War I the German teacher Max returned to his fatherland Germany, to fight for his country. Chips was saddened by the “waste of young lives in a pointless war”, and tells his students that a person’s goodness is more important than their nationality.

Chips, as we all know, are made from the ubiquitous potato. The aloo is back in the news. Earlier there was only “Jab tak samosa me hain aloo, thab tak Bihar me hain Lalu”. Now we have another political hot potato, with Rahul Baba claiming that “Modiji has a machine. If you put an aloo in at one end, you will get sona (gold) at the other”. This statement went viral, thanks to the well oiled PR machinery of the BJP. What Rahul hoped would be a punch line boomeranged to punch him in the face.

This statement reminded me of a naughty joke, dating back to World War II in Germany. Food processing and assembly line production were just taking off. A German manufacturer boasted that if you put a pig in at one end you would get a sausage at the other. A cynic opined that if he had put his sausage in at one end he would have got a pig at the other. He was referring to the birth of Hitler! A million rupees in sparkling 2000/- notes to anybody who could please tell me which machine Rahul had in mind when he made his claim.

I did some research on the aloo, first cultivated by the Peruvian Incas circa 3000 BC. The Spanish conquistadores found it there in 1537 and brought it to Europe. Spain and Portugal together form the Iberian Peninsula. So the aloo could have rolled across to Portugal, from where it would have landed with Vasco da Gama in Goa, shortly thereafter. A friend who recently visited Portugal told us that in Portuguese the aloo is called batata, in the same way that Maharashtrians say batata wada. In Goa it is batate. So what is wrong with the potato – batata – aloo traversing the globe to enter Modiji’s alleged machine?

Surely there is nothing wrong with the aloo, but it could be misused. For that we need to go back to the great Irish potato famine from 1845-49. It was the worst famine in 19th century Europe, brought about by the blight, a crop disease. It had originated in America (cross border infiltration). The Irish were then under autocratic British rule (dictatorship). Their representatives in parliament were rich landlords (a feudal upper class). Prior to the advent of the potato, the Irish ate a variety of cereal staples. But because of small land holdings they switched to a higher yielding cash crop, the potato (a dietary change for the poor, under compulsion). They sowed only one strain of potato – the Irish Lumper (uniform potato code). The peasants’ rich absentee landlords oppressed them by sending ruthless rent collectors (tax raids). For two centuries the Catholics (who constituted the majority) were denied education, employment and even voting rights (economic oppression and social ostracisation based on religion). Over a million died of malnutrition and hunger (like in our hospitals). So is modern India also starved of ideas and staring at a famine (controlled public discourse and an economic downturn)?

Long ago the father of the nation had said that that there is enough for every one’s need, but not for their greed. In our haste to promote a consumerist culture (aka development) are we not widening the gap between the haves and have nots? Are subsidies for the poor and social security now anathema in an economic policy that favours the rich and famous? Modiji is no alchemist to convert aloo to sona. Let alone alchemy, demonetisation and GST indicate that he knows nothing much of the economy either.

So is Rahul the alternative? Can he convert aloo into sona? Has he a magic wand to liberate the country from draconian rule? In 2014, after the Congress drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections I had written an article, “Why Rahul Should Quit”. (It is accessible on the net). I felt that he was incompetent, and whatever his goodwill, he was actually destroying the Congress party. There is no perceptible change in my opinion.

He recently admitted that he cannot match Modi’s oratorical skills. To that one may add theatrical, political and surgical. But I feel that Rahul’s real problem is conceptual. He thinks in English and tries to convert the metaphor into Hindi. During the 2014 campaign he repeatedly referred to women’s empowerment (sashaktikaran). It became the butt of jokes. Speaking at Allahabad University he had said, “garibi ek soch hai”. What he probably meant was that it was a state of mind. He had similarly said, “Daliton ko ek farsh chahiye”. He probably meant that they needed a platform, not a floor! His aloo machine comment has, in like manner, floored both his supporters and detractors. The only good punch line that I have heard from him is about the Gabbar Singh Tax. It may have been prepared by his team, but it hit home.

Other than his articulation, Rahul Baba is often faulted for his dynastic lineage, something that he tried to compare with Amitabh Bacchan’s son following in his father’s footsteps. It was another bloomer. But dynasty, per se, could not be so bad, if the inheritor is competent. Dynasty is certainly not limited to the Gandhi family, so it would be unfair to single them out for it.

The papacy is considered one of the most sacrosanct offices. Yet it has had its fair share of dynastic rule or nepotism. (Nepote is Italian for niece/ nephew). Silverius, who became the 58th pope in 536 was the son of St Hormisdas, the 52nd pope. St Paul I, the 93rd pope succeeded his older brother Stephen III, the 92nd pope. Sergius II, the 102nd pope was so sick that the papacy was handled by his brother. John XI the 125th pope was the illegitimate son of Sergius III the 119th pope. And Innocent III the 172nd pope was the nephew of Clement II. So much for that hallowed office.

In America we find that George Bush’s son also became the President. Bill Clinton’s wife almost made it there. Donald Trump has already appointed his daughter Ivanka and her husband to his White House staff. His bete noire in North Korea is also a dynastic ruler. We have more than our share in Indian politics. Mulayam Singh Yadav has almost a dozen relatives holding electoral office. Karunanidhi is not far behind. Then we have the Scindias, Abdullahs, Muftis, Patnaiks, Pilots, Thackerays, Pawars, Badals, Mahajans, Reddys, Naidus etc. A long list.

But the obverse is also happening, led by the main protagonists – Rahul and Modi. Both are de jure or de facto unmarried. As are Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Naveen Patnaik, Manohar Lal Khattar, Mamta Banerji, Mayawati, late Jayalalithaa, Sarbananda Sonowal, and the latest to join the pack, Yogi Adityanath. But quite frankly, not having a spouse may not be a strength. There is the old saying that behind every successful man there is a woman. I would modify that to say that beside every successful person there is an intelligent and critical spouse. A good spouse is the best antidote to megalomania.

Only time will tell if post aloo we will have to say “Goodbye Mr Chips”, or “Hello Mr Chips”. As of now, with a one man show and a two man army at the helm of the nation’s affairs, I fear that our chips are down.

Will the great Irish potato famine of the 19th century be echoed in a famine of ideas and leadership in India in the 21st century? I earnestly hope not. Because we need good and strong leaders in both the Govt and opposition if indeed we want India to again be called “sone ki chidiya”, with or without the aloo machine. Else we would be deep fried batata wadas and will have had our chips.

( The writer is the Convenor of the Kanpur Nagrik Manch.)

(Published on 27th November 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 48)