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That ’Feel Good’ Feeling

Prashant BHUSHAN

Thursday 19 February 2004, by BHUSHAN*Prashant

Feeling bad? Down and out? Depressed? Help is at hand. Just switch on the TV and watch an ad worth crores. Welcome to the world of media manipulators and spin masters. A world where the ad agency becomes the cutting-edge of a party’s political campaign.

Remember Satyendra Dubey?

He was the engineer working on the golden quadrilateral project who had sent a letter to the Prime Minister complaining about massive corruption in the 30,000 crore project. He was shot and killed after his identity was casually disclosed by the PMO despite his entreaties that such disclosure would endanger his life.

Remember Manish Mishra?

He was the Prime Minister’s nephew who was thrown out of a running train with several friends when they objected to the harassment of some girls in the train.

Remember Sarita and Mahesh?

They were two of our finest young activists working in the villages near Gaya in Bihar on water conservation and for restoration of the lands of Dalits which had been grabbed by local landlords. They were recently shot dead while returning home after a meeting with the villagers.

These are merely some well-publicised but stray examples which illustrate the law and order situation in the entire country.

Several hundreds of people belonging to the minority community were butchered in a gruesome manner in broad daylight in Gujarat two years ago with the full complicity of the police and the government. Not one of the persons involved in the brutal killings, which included police officials and ministers, have been brought to book. At the same time, thousands of the minority community whose houses were burnt and belongings looted are still unable to return to their homes because of the continuing terror.

Over a thousand of the more than 20 lakh citizens who have no shelter and sleep out in the open (according to the government census), died in the recent cold wave in the country. More than a thousand people had died in Andhra Pradesh alone in the heat wave this summer, also mostly people without shelter. Thousands of farmers died of starvation and several hundred even committed suicide this summer, being unable to feed themselves and their families. Most of these deaths went unreported by the mainstream English-language media where cuts in the fees of IIMs, cuts in customs duty on cars and computers and even gossip about models and film-stars make headline news.

We are told that Telgi and his gang cheated the public exchequer of at least 3,000 crore by his forged stamp papers while all in the establishment slept or connived with the scam. The Tehelka tapes graphically showed (despite the Honourable Justice Phukan’s clean chit to our Honourable Defence Minister) how easily penetrable and thoroughly corruptible the Defence establishment has become.

The non-performing assets (a euphemism for money stolen) of public financial institutions has come to exceed one lakh crores. And even this is likely to be a gross underestimate.

In the UTI scam alone the public lost more than 10,000 crores.

More than 10,000 crores of irregular loans (without proper appraisal) were given away last year by HUDCO, one of our smaller public financial institutions. Out of this, more than 5000 crores was handed over to 50 different corporations in one-day through a board meeting in which only three part-time directors were present!

It is hardly surprising that Transparency International should continue to rank India as amongst the most corrupt countries in the world.

Public sector companies having assets of tens of thousands of crores have been sold off for amounts less than even their free reserves (which is like cash in the bank), as in the case of VSNL and IPCL. In the guise of privatization, huge chunks of public assets such as oilfields, gas fields, mine reserves, and even forests and water have been and are being transferred to private corporate and often foreign interests.

Our public debt has more than doubled during the last five years and stands at more than 16 lakh crores, more than 65% of our GDP and much of it owed to foreign institutions. Much of our record foreign exchange reserves are on account of short-term and speculative investments in our stockmarkets, money markets and securities markets.

All this is hot money which can disappear as quickly as it came as was seen in the Southeast Asian crisis in 1997. Most of this speculative investment is being routed through post box companies in Mauritius because the government has instructed our income tax department to give them a tax holiday. Feeling good about such foreign exchange reserves in these circumstances is not unlike the feeling of one who is on a splurge after pawning off his assets and borrowing from a rapacious moneylender.

Unemployment is at an all-time high, with 27 million (7.32%of the workforce) jobless. The increase of unemployment is greatest in rural areas where the rate of increase of employment is only a third of the growth of the labour force.

At least 24% or 47 million children continue to be deprived of elementary education as government spending on primary education continues to decline as a percentage of GDP. In the 10th plan, the planning commission has allocated only .15% of the GDP for elementary education as against the .47% stated to be required for universal elementary education.

Whatever be the claims of the government regarding poverty reduction, the fact is that between 1997-98 and 2003-04, the per capita consumption of foodgrains has declined from 174 kg per annum to 151 kg per annum.

Thus while the government cites the 8% growth rate recorded in the last quarter and the booming sensex (where stock market manipulators routinely create virtual money which eventually disappears just as surely) as evidence of India shining, hundreds of millions cannot even buy two square meals a day. And clearly this number has grown in the last 5 years as is evident from the decline in foodgrain consumption.

Yet this government has issued advertisements worth hundreds of crores in the last month to convince people that India is shining and that the common man in this country is feeling good. It hopes to win next elections, which have been prematurely declared, on this so-called "feel-good factor".

Of course these hundreds of crores, spent on this advertising blitz to make us feel good, have come from the public exchequer, which means your pockets and mine. It is like taking starving men to a laughing club to make them feel good while their last penny is squeezed out of their pockets.

Welcome to the political world of the whiz kids of the brave new world. The world of media manipulators and spin masters. A world where the advertising agency becomes the cutting-edge of a party’s political campaign. Welcome to the world of the Mahajans and the Jaitleys, masters of spin (the art of deflecting attention from the real issue) and media management. No matter how inconvenient or horrendous the facts might be, they can be trusted to give it the right spin and manage the media (through ad agencies or otherwise) so that the government comes out shining white.

In this world, every fact or fiction can be sold. You just need the right spin or a compliant media or a good ad agency. We all know how George Bush was able to sell the war on Iraq and convince the American people of the lie that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction which could obliterate America within minutes. He even convinced them that Saddam was behind the Al Qaeda (though he hated Islamic fundamentalists even more than Bush did). He accomplished this by repeating his lies at every opportunity which were dutifully peddled by a compliant media which is owned by the same corporate interests represented by Bush.

It was Goebbles who first used propaganda to such devastating effect. Bush, Blair, the Jaitleys and the Mahajans of today are the political heirs of Goebbles, except that their power has been greatly amplified by the reach and concentration of the mass media (into the hand of a few gigantic corporations) and the professionalism of the ad agencies. We seem to be approaching an era when political parties and governments would be run by advertising agents. The political education of such "leaders" would take place not by observing society, the people and their problems, nor even by studying history, political science, sociology or economics, but in the schools of the ad agencies which teach the art of deception and propaganda.

P.S.

Outlook India, February 19, 2004.

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