One book I read while I was at college was the 100 Great Speeches, an anthology of speeches made by statesmen from Cicero to Mark Antony to Winston Churchill to Mahatma Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru. Among them the two speeches that impacted me the most were by Churchill and Nehru.
In his soul-stirring speech that Great Britain would never surrender to the Nazis, Churchill said, “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills”.
Even more impactful for me was Prime Minister Nehru’s speech made in the Central Hall of Parliament on the night of August 14, 1947. He began his speech that stirred a whole nation with these words, “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
Every writer knows how difficult it is to write the first sentence of his essay or short story or novel. In journalism it is called the “intro”. If a reporter is able to write her intro well, she knows she has accomplished half her job. Nehru was a great writer. So great that he could have been a full-time writer and the world would have benefited with several books like the Discovery of India and the Glimpses of World History.
Yet, I am sure that like any other writer, he too would have struggled to write the intro of his speech that the whole country was waiting for to know that India was no longer in serfdom. It had become the master of its own destiny. Nehru was a much-travelled man but he made an error in his speech. Let me quote him again, “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”.
At 12 am when he rose to make the speech, people in Washington DC were enjoying an afternoon siesta and people in England were laying the table for dinner. At Kozhencherry St. Thomas College, my alma mater, we had a professor whose Ph.D was on the errors Nehru made in his books and speeches. I remember the function in which the professor was felicitated, among others, by Juhanon Mar Thomas Metropolitan.
I tried in vain to get a copy of his thesis, which is in the custody of his family, most of whom are settled in the US. The current establishment in India which hates everything Nehruvian would have gladly promoted the book to show the first Prime Minister in a poor light.
What occasioned these thoughts was another spectacle the same Central Hall witnessed on Friday night. Such midnight sessions were held only thrice in the past - on the Independence Day and on the Silver and Golden Jubilees of Independence.
I do not know why Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley thought it necessary to call all the chief ministers, former chief ministers, former prime ministers and MPs for the midnight madness to usher in the Goods and Services Tax, known as the GST, which Modi calls “Good and Simple Tax”. It may appear curious that as workers were laying a new carpet and installing a new and more powerful public address system in the Central Hall of Parliament, I got a call from a Swiss person who was on a visit to New Delhi.
He wanted to meet me as I had sent a letter to his organization to seek support for an ophthalmic project that I wanted to launch. One of my colleagues and I met him and his companion over Malleswaram 24th Cross dosa and a mini vegetarian thali at Carnatic Cafe at Greater Kailash. By the way, Lord Shiva stays at ordinary Kailash while the rich in Delhi stay at Greater Kailash. Also, the Carnatic Cafe has nothing to do with Carnatic music and I do not even know whether the dosa I like originated at Malleswaram 24th Cross.
I won’t call my guest a Switzer as the noun is archaic. I would rather call him a Swiss. I have passed through Switzerland a couple of times. It is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, comparable only to God’s Own Country, Kerala. My father had a Swiss watch which he had to pawn when he was in desperate straits. I had inherited a Swiss watch which was stolen from my room at RK Puram in the early seventies. I finally got a Swiss watch when my wife gifted me one several decades later.
I found my father taking greater care of the humble HMT watch I gifted him. It appeared more valuable for him than the Swiss watch he bought and pawned. The Swiss couple had come to attend a marriage in New Delhi. In their own words, it was a “fat wedding” that would do a Maharajah proud. They had already attended several programs associated with the wedding. And they were excited about attending the big event around the same time GST was unrolled at the Central Hall of Parliament. The marriage the Swiss came to attend and the GST rollout have one thing in common — ostentatious celebration.
The most poignant moment in Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi is when he finds a woman who does not have a cloth to cover her breasts. He gives the destitute his own upper garment. Noor Fatima, who played the role of the poor woman in the film, was my colleague’s wife and she told me that she got Rs 25,000 for that role. Alas, she allegedly took her own life for reasons she would have told her Creator but it saddened me a lot at that time.
It was from the moment Gandhi gave her his cloth and he decided to forsake an upper garment forever that he became the Mahatma. It was when Vardhamana and Buddha abandoned their royal trappings that they became great. Jesus’ appeal to humanity is not because of his acquisitions but because he was born in a manger and the greatest procession he had was on a donkey’s back. In contrast, Modi would be remembered for the costliest suit that he wore that had his full name emblazoned on it and also for the grandest dinner he served to the rich and the mighty in New York.
Times have changed. There was a time when films like Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray and Swayamvaram by Adoor Gopalakrishnan caught the imagination of film-goers in the country. Of course, they were accused of portraying poverty and making money out of it. Today films are about celebrating wealth. One Malayalam movie I saw recently Bangalore Days begins with a fat wedding, the kind my Swiss guest came to attend.
Once my erstwhile boss Shekhar Gupta described in his column National Interest the film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.. as a great divider in Hindi films. It separated the era when films depicted poverty from the new era in which wealth was celebrated. Gupta considered KKKG similar to Jesus’ death that divided history into BC and AD.
It is in the fitness of things that we have a Prime Minister who also believes in the celebration of wealth. He is the one who would like to remind the world that India is slated to overtake Japan as the third largest economy in the world. Not for him is the thought that we have the largest population of illiterates and that more Indians have smartphones than toilets.
If Modi is considered the 15th Prime Minister of India, it means there were 14 PMs before him. None of them thought of making his or her swearing-in ceremony a grand spectacle. In the case of Modi, he invited all the leaders of SAARC countries, including that of Pakistan, to witness the five-minute function, just a constitutional requirement.
While he did so, it reminded me of the Coronation Ceremony, as depicted in the Ramayana, that forced a jealous mother to seek the banishment of Lord Ram and his wife Sita for 14 years. It also reminded me of the Delhi Durbar, an imperial-style mass assembly organised by the British at Coronation Park, Delhi to mark the succession of an Emperor or Empress of India.
In the earlier part of this column I mentioned the lunch I gave to my Swiss friend. The total bill for four came to Rs 997, out of which nearly 20 per cent comprised taxes of different kind. From July 1 onwards I hope there will be only one GST and it will be lower than the total of the multiplicity of taxes we Indians were all used to till the midnight madness.
As President Pranab Mukherjee, Modi and Jaitely waxed eloquent on the GST, I remembered Gandhi’s words: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away”.
Will the GST benefit the poor potter who makes earthen cups in which tea is served at a popular restaurant named Moga on the Delhi-Moradabad national highway and the poor weaver who owns a small handloom, like the hundreds in Bhagalpur which were destroyed in a riot in the eighties?
Will it force him to buy a computer system and employ a chartered accountant to carry on his business. A full-page advertisement in the Economic Times says “In the GST era, there are two kinds of people — Those who use Tally and those who do not use Tally”. For starters, Tally is an accounting software company which is marketing its “GST ready Tally.ERP 9 Release 6”. The software itself will cost the potter and weaver a tidy sum.
Will the GST usher in a one-tax-that-fits-all regime? Will a packet of Pathanjali noodle that Yoga guru Ramdev wants every Indian to eat either before or after his/her Yoga exercise cost the same both in the upper reaches of the Himalayas from where its ingredients are extracted and Varanasi which was once known as Shiva’s city and is today known as Modi’s Smart City? My friends who studied the GST in detail say the prices will vary from place to place. So what is historic about the GST that 800 VIPs from all over the country had to be brought to Parliament House to witness a tame affair?
Actually, Modi could have used the forum of the Central Hall to launch more epoch-making laws. One of the reasons for his electoral success in 2014 was the campaign his party made against corruption during the UPA regime. He could have used the same Hall to rollout the Lok Pal law. It would have shown his determination to root out corruption at the highest level in the country. By the way, three years after he came to power, the Lok Pal law is nowhere near implementation.
Modi could have organized such a meeting to tell the nation how it benefited from the demonetization he announced with great fanfare on November 8, 2016. He could have told the people how much black money and how much counterfeit money were detected and how much of the total Rs 500 and Rs 1000-denomination notes which were in circulation returned to the banks. It would have helped to remove the confusion associated with what is touted as the “bravest economic move” he made since he came to power.
Instead, Modi chose to rollout the GST, whose paternity is claimed by so many, including the President, who is now busy counting his days in Rashtrapati Bhavan. It reminded me of a character in one of Vaikom Muhammed Basheer's stories who is an impotent. To cover up his inadequacy, he claims paternity of all the illegitimate children born in the village. Having said all this, I hope the GST is a “Good and Simple Tax” as Modi says and that it will benefit the poorest of the poor. After all, even in despair, we should not abandon hope!
The writer is a senior journalist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org(Published on 03th July 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 27)