Certain curtains next time

The most satisfying outcome of the recently concluded legislative assembly elections in five states across the country, is the utter rout of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) in West Bengal, which the comrades’ party had continuously ruled for 34 years — the longest tenure in office of any communist party in a genuinely democratic country. Hopefully the crushing defeat at the hustings will finally bury this political mafia committed to the dictatorship of a clique of power-hungry autocrats subscribing to an obsolete ideology which has been discredited and discarded the world over including Russia and China, whence it originated.

CPM rule in West Bengal began amid much euphoria in 1977 in the new dawn of the post-Emergency era conterminously with the start of my career in journalism as the first editor of Business India. Right from that time I have been repeatedly warning the public about the conniving comrades of the CPM hell-bent upon subverting Indian democracy, and predicted they would wreck the economy of West Bengal.

Thirty-four years later it has finally dawned upon the 91 million people of this once most industrialised state of the Indian Union that as predicted, the CPM comrades and cadres have de-industrialised Bengal, exiled the educated middle class, destroyed the education system, terrorised the rural popul-ation and rigged the electoral process in a systematic and organised fashion as Abheek Barman graphically details in the Economic Times (May 17). But this time round by carefully spreading the assembly election over six weeks, the Election Commission successfully prevented ‘scientific’ rigging and intimidation of voters by CPM cadres in rural Bengal. This is perhaps the greatest victory of Indian democracy in post-independence India, on a par with the defeat of Mrs. Gandhi and the Congress party in the post-Emergency election of 1977. Yet it is pertinent to note that Mrs. Gandhi and the Congress were back in the saddle in 1980.

If Mamata Banerjee, leader of the triumphant Trinamool Congress messes up and allows the CPM to re-occupy Writers Building, Kolkata, next time round it’ll be curtains for certain for West Bengal.

Freeloader par excellence

That government bureaucrats at the centre and in the states are the country’s greatest freeloaders wholly committed to taking maximum advantage of their positions within the pecking order, is a fact too well known to bear reiteration. The prime purpose of the plethora of punitive direct and indirect taxes imposed upon the long-suffering public is generation of revenue to pay the country’s huge 18 million-strong bureaucracy — including 4 million netas and babus on the payroll of the Delhi durbar — who are remunerated with a bewildering array of pay and perks completely divorced from productivity.

Yet even within the neta-babu fraternity, which has developed freeloading and creation of parallel income streams (through corruption and abuse of office) into a fine art, there is a tribe of master freeloaders. A case in point is Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the St. Stephen’s and Oxford educated deputy chairman of the Planning Commission who was conferred cabinet rank in the Congress-led UPA-I and UPA-II governments at the Centre even though after liberalisation and deregulation of the Indian economy in 1991, Soviet-style central planning became redundant.

According to a brilliant investigative report in India Today (May 23), during the past seven years since he was conferred the Planning Commission sinecure in 2004, Ahluwalia has made 42 foreign trips, including 23 to the US, spending 274 days — every ninth day in office — abroad, all at public expense. According to the IT report, the cost to the exchequer of the minister’s foreign travel bill during the past seven years is a humungous Rs.2.34 crore or Rs.85,400 per day abroad and “could actually be a lot higher” if expenses incurred on the globe-trotting minister by Indian embassies abroad, are included.

Your editor is hardly surprised by the irresponsible freeloading of this ministerial worthy. Two years ago when this publication solicited a five-minute telephone interview with Ahluwalia, despite leaving over 50 messages with his secretary, under-secretary, additional secretary, joint secretary, wife and sister-in-law, he neglected to respond. Now you know why. Meanwhile the latest development is that following the resignation of IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, indicted in New York for attempted rape of a hotel chambermaid, the scams-tainted UPA-II government is in a lather of excitement about proposing Ahluwalia for the top job in the IMF. God save the Fund!

Global auction please

While on the subject of rip-offs of the public exchequer, one of the country’s longest-running rackets which needs to be shut down without further ado is the government-run resources-guzzling enterprise known as Air India. As in the case of the CPM in Bengal, as a former business journalist I have been tracking the rackets upon rackets run by the politico-bureaucracy conspiracy in the national airline for over three decades.

Although proudly proclaimed by vested interests as India’s pride and joy, the untold story of the public sector Air India (and Indian Airlines which was merged with it in 2007), is that it has been comprehensively captured by its 40,000 employees and complicit neta-babus cutting across all party lines who crowd its first and business classes. Currently the airline hosts 23 trade unions and has the largest number of employees per aircraft of any civilian airline worldwide.

Colossal written-off losses notwithstanding, it’s still business as usual in this nationalised airline run by its employees for its employees, 90 percent of whom are relatives of influential politicians and government bureaucrats. According to the latest (2008-09) report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, Air India has an accumulated loss of Rs.13,300 crore and an outstanding debt of Rs.40,000 crore. Nevertheless in 2008-09 the management paid out “performance-linked incentives” ranging from 62-919 percent of basic pay to employees as against the maximum 5 percent recommended by the department of public sector enterprises.

Thirty years on, my recommendation remains the same: stage a global auction and sell off this resources-guzzling airline and save the taxpayer and air-travelling public an ocean of grief.