Econ mom gets Dabbang on corruption

 It was very “Saturday afternoon”. After a heavy lunch, we settled down to watch Salman Khan vs. the baddies in Dabbang. The great fun in watching Hindi films with many members of the extended family is that people are really on their own trips.

The women were tittering about Sonakshi Sinha’s many costumes, her weight, her forehead, her dance and what not. In the meanwhile, the kids, showing superb level of disinterest in the moves of the femme fatale (God bless them!), were playing cards. They were however extremely tuned in to the movie and were singing all the songs together with the lead playback with great gusto. The place where the cards would be forgotten is the dishoom-dishoom sequences, which is where the boys were really perking up.

Last but not the least, there were the males. Sigh. Most of them never watch films for the film sake. Rather, this is the platform they use to make loud comments about the general state of economics and politics in the country. They can use any scene in any movie to make sure that the women of the house are treated to a parallel course on inflation (please spare me!), growth and development, nutrition, pollution, women welfare (that could be increased if you just let us watch the film peacefully), gym charges, how brawn is negatively correlated to brain, how films have deteriorated across time, religion, mythology and of course, politics.

Watching the evil Bacchha bhaiya dealing with the local Bihar politics in his own uncouth fashion was simply too much for most of them. A few elderly men reacted spiritually in the “Khuda ko mooh bhi dikhana hain ek din yaaron” strain. Hubby and cronies reacted in superb disdain to this strain of thought and focussed more on showing off their prowess and astute gyan of Bihari politics (Really, now!). This is what you’d have heard in my living room that day:

“She was 105 kilos and now just look at her.”

“Of all the goons that are literally nurtured by politicians, Biharis would really lead the way.”

“Goes without saying. That’s why their level of development has been so pathetic despite such huge natural resources.”

“Tea or coffee?”

“Mom, he is cheating on me and sees all my cards all the time.”

“Arre, it’s simply not possible to reduce like this through gymming. Wouldn’t we have reduced? Its liposuction, I tell you”

“And then after geography classes, I have the PT period and they make us play in the sun. I hate school.”

“But the situation has improved drastically after the Laloo-Rabri dynasty politics reduced. They are actually making decent progress.”

“Beta, no sugar in my tea.”

SIGH! The level of noise in our living room was really increasing and we were all yelling at the kids not to yell so much, when suddenly, the unifying thought came through from my uncle as a welcome relief. “Why they need so much money, I don’t understand. Corrupt, all of them!”

This is the most agreed upon thought across all families in India and a thought no one can deny. Everyone started aligning themselves to this agreeable intellectual position though Econ Mom was already moving back in time to last week, where she had to meet with a number of local politicians to understand local body election dynamics.

Multi-disciplinary is the mantra in economics. Ranging from climate change and insurance products to using economic tools for political analysis, projects require economists to have a handle on fairly diverse issues. At the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, we are currently trying to understand the dynamics of local body elections since many local bodies will move into election processes from around November 2016.

It is in the course of this study that we have meetings with journalists, economists, law makers, Maharashtra Government officials and of course, corporators lined up now. Last week was superbly interesting because I was looking at issues from a politician’s angle, rather than from a common man perspective.

A local young candidate in Pune, who has huge political aspirations and wanted to contest from the Paud road constituency shared some very interesting insights. “This entire process of getting a ticket and then winning/losing is a big, big headache,” he remarked. “Madam, in the past 5 years, I have been working in this basti trying to get some basic things in place for the people. And that involves getting a loan for someone’s ironing laundry business to solving marital problems wherein the woman of the house gets beaten up by the husband. Each day is a new problem. Someone comes and says the water pipe is broken. I have to give money. Someone wants to paint the entrance gate to our basti. I pay money again.”

While listening to him, I realized that for him, money was survival technique. I have largely grown up with the thought “Why do they need so much money” and it was very interesting for me to meet with someone who was giving me the answer to this largely rhetorical question of the middle class Indian.

“I have some 800 young boys who do these odd jobs for me. They are mostly school dropouts but have a skillset of local intervention, which you educated people lack. People keep saying that literacy will solve the issues in Pune but literate people will never understand how to quickly create funds in half an hour to facilitate emergencies. And we are constantly looking at such problems.”

“Now you can imagine how much money I must have invested in the past 5 years.” How very interesting! He used the word investment, not expenditure! Pre-election investments are a huge gamble for these people. The closest simile I could think of in our white collared world was the payment of astronomical fees for the medical school, wherein the expenditure on the would-be doctor runs into crores before you get the degree.

“And Madam, when the party declared that I would get a ticket, the boys went overboard. Because now there was a genuine chance that our efforts in the past 5 years would pay off. They arranged for a huge, really huge procession. Mikes, cars, garlands, you name it. I went to the procession like a king only to return and find out that my ticket has been cancelled.”

He stopped for a moment. “Can you imagine what a shock I must have got? My boys were crestfallen. It’s not a political game, Madam. It’s a financial one. People who’ve given me money in the past did so on the faith that once I won the local elections, I would be able to do something for them. But now they’ll need their money back. And I want more money to sustain the work till the next elections; else, the earlier investment is down the drain.”

Why do politicians need money? Because most of them and I’m talking about those who’ve come from the grassroots, do significant amount of financial transactions even before they are formally enrolled in the game. And once they’re in, the money flows like water and they look at it as redemption amount. For all the headache and heartbreak. For all the good work that went unappreciated when they were not in power.

And it doesn’t stop here. Once in power too, the money spinning abilities are required. Most people who approach the local politician, do so for money. Or for a job. “I need a job, Sahab. I am a seventh standard drop-out and I’m not getting a job anywhere. Even for a peon’s job, we now need BA.”

These huge quasi-Government or quasi-corporate structures of dairies and sugar factories and educational institutes that have been created in Pune or Kolhapur are all ways of making sure that these young people get absorbed into the stream at some point in time. It is easy for Sahab to make a call and set up a job for a seventh standard dropout as a lab-boy or as a driver in one of these quasi-businesses.

Quasi businesses give the system a much needed boost. They create job opportunities for the youth in the area. They also create a useful facade behind which cash transactions can be easily swept. Most importantly, they create goodwill and votebanks for politicians. It’s self-sustaining.

Now, to create this kind of a quasi structure is tricky and again requires big money. Hence, once in power, you not only need money to clear the transactions you carried out as “investments”, but you also need money to keep gambling for the future.

End of the day, these are unique systems that have been created in India, as a private response to the failure of provision of public goods. It’s very easy for us to say that politicians are corrupt, but frankly till the time that the underlying delivery mechanisms are changed, it would be not only impossible but maybe also unfair to get rid of corruption! Till such a time that bank are not able to fully offer financial inclusion and till such a time that enough private sector jobs are not created across skill-sets, such person or politician driven systems will always thrive in the country.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not supporting corruption. I am suddenly alive to the fact that it’s a different ball game when watched from the other side.

I thought Salman Khan summed it up extraordinarily well when he claimed to my indignant-about-corruption family, “Hum yahaan ke Robinhood hain, Robinhood Pandey.”

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