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August 19, 2013

Poverty Porn: When Politicians Start Insulting The Citizenry with Impunity

[From my column Obviously Opaque in the UTS Voice, 01-15 August, 2013]

Raj Babbar was not quite off the mark. Neither was the war reporter who had thrown one of the most notorious questions ever asked in the history of journalism at the hundreds of just rescued European survivors of a siege at Stanleyville in eastern Congo in November 1964. “Anyone here been raped and speak English?" was the question if you must know.

They both were just a bit unfortunate to be caught off guard on the other, insensitive, side of the fence; the side that remains perennially oblivious to the plights of lives plagued by unimaginable horrors of poverty. Though we can never be sure about that, the intentions behind both, Raj Babbar’s comment and the war reporter’s question, might had been noble. Or, could they? For, there are those who look at others’ misery with empathy. They go for real, human stories and report or respond to them with all the empathy such human stories deserve and demand.


And then, there are others for whom all that matter is poverty porn. Unfortunately, the line between them has often been very thin. Journalists have been known for risking everything, even their lives, to expose horrifying tales of death and despair wrecking havoc on hapless people. And there have been those who are best, or worst, known for doing exactly opposite; sensationalizing such stories either to sell more or in quest of that ‘one’ story that seals their place in the annals of journalism.

There was, yet, a very discernible difference between the two. Poverty porn was almost always indulged into by the ‘outsider’. It were the ‘others’ who would turn ‘poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from,’ as Kennedy Odede, the executive director of Shining Hope for Communities, Kenyan social services organization has asserted in his opinion piece for New York Times denouncing slum tourism. ‘Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity’ he had further added. The ‘otherness’ of the onlooker was cemented.

Raj Babbars’ have snatched poverty porn back from being monopolized by the quintessential other. Not if one goes by the recent statements made by him and several Indian politicians regarding the poor and their hard to come by meals. Babbar, a former actor and a sitting Member of Parliament from the ruling Indian National Congress was the first to lead this charge against one of the last citadels of the Raj. In a move that marked the final triumph of the natives, Raj Babbars had ensured that insulting fellow natives was no longer an exclusive privilege of the (ex) colonial masters.

Babbar had led the charge from the front by asserting that one could easily get a full meal for as less as INR 12, that is 20 US cents for the uninitiated, in nothing less that Mumbai, financial capital of the country. No reality checks would suffice to slow the warriors down; not even the fact that forget full meal, even a cup of tea costs more than 7 rupees in any metropolitan city of India. Rasheed Masood, a fellow M.P. of the Congress would, in fact, bring the bar even lower. For him, a lowly sum of 5 rupees could fetch a full meal in Delhi.

The chorus would soon be joined by Farooq Abdullah, Union minister of new and renewable energy belonging to the National Conference. “One could fill his stomach even for just Re 1,” he would tell to baffled reporters in a tone and tenor bordering at being spiritual. Though reports were completely silent on this, I am sure that he would have looked up in the sky in a manner befitting only those who are completely resigned from the lowly realities of the materialistic world. This would be the tone and tenor he would maintain again, like the other two, while regretting his comments ‘if they had hurt anyone’.

Yet, there was a problem with Abdullah’s statement. He had put the bar too low to be breached. Putting the cost of a full meal lower than this would not merely be humanely impossible but also make the one attempting that look lunatic. Lunatic, now that’s something politicians can ill afford to be identified as it would disqualify them, constitutionally, from running for any elected office. Even this, though, would not stop making politicians from making even more absurd claims. Nilomoni Sen Deka, Minister for Agriculture in Assam would throw his hat in the ring claiming that eight people could have a proper meal for just Rs. 20.

Unlike the earlier three, he would not even regret, forget withdrawing, his insensitive comments despite getting thoroughly panned across the state and political spectrum. Quite on the contrary, he would claim to prove his comment in a press conference within a week. How would he pull out such a Rambo act, now don’t read between the lines your naughtiness, is still to be seen. It is bound to be more so as Tarun Gogoi, Chief Minister of Assam, had not only distanced himself from his comments but has virtually disowned them as a ‘personal opinion’. A minister operating out of his personal opinions in a system defined by collective responsibility, take it as an evidence for further democratization of Indian society.

Don’t make the mistake of seeing this new native breed of poverty porn to be similar to its original, imported, form. The politicians at the helm of reclaiming insensitivity earmarked for the outsiders are neither cut off from the reality nor do they get to see it in fleeting images over small sojourns in devastated foreign lands as foreign correspondents. They, on the contrary, are deeply entrenched in the system to know it inside out. They are the ones who have overseen the transformation of India from a largely closed economy to one that is marked by deepening rural distress at one end and countless international chains selling a cup of coffee for more than INR 100, or more than thrice the amount they have pegged poverty line at.

Neither are they confined to one political party or alliance; provided one takes political alliances seriously even in these blink-and-a-party-had-switched-sides days. That reminds me of quick fix ideology supplements like Janta dal (United) becoming secular overnight after leaving Bhartiya Janta Party(BJP) led National Democratic Alliance(NDA) but then, that is beside the point. That the ‘betrayal’, as JDU’s exit was called by the BJP, left the erstwhile NDA only with Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena thus reducing it to be nothing more than a Regional Communal Alliance is also beside the point.

Coming back to the issue, despite all the righteous noise made by the BJP, there is nothing to suggest that they have been any better than their counterparts in the current ruling coalition. One can easily recount the horror of officials of Odisha calling mango kernels ‘nutritious’ and an integral part of ‘food habits’ even after several poor tribals had died of food poisoning after consuming them in 2001. "And, some of them even had a bank balance”; Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister and BJP stalwart, had notoriously added in parliament, for a good measure, while rubbishing the reports of starvation as a conspiracy to malign the image of the country.

Remember, again that none of these comments came from ignorance but for, perhaps, the almost comic one- why don’t you grow jaggery instead of sugarcane- often attributed to Rajeev Gandhi. He is the only one in the pack who could have been given the benefit of doubt for being pushed into a system he never wanted to be part of. Should I assert here, though, that I have no particular liking or disdain for him? It is just that his comments might be the only one born out of naivety of someone trying to make sense of a new setting because of an accident, literally.

There is nothing to suggest that any of the rest are, or were, unaware of the realities plaguing the lives of the poor of the country. Be it 2001 by when the agricultural distress resulting in large-scale suicides of farmers had started making it to the headlines of the national newspapers or 2013 by when per capita consumption had slipped to an abysmally low figure of INR 33.3 in urban India and INR 27.2 in rural, they have seen and known it all up close and personal. They had to for they were the ones responsible for deteriorating the situations to that extent.

Why do they, then, end of making such statements that could hurt their own prospects? Out of stupidity? No, that does not explain the enormity of insensitivity intrinsic to such jibes. They make them for they know that the citizenry, call them the electorate, has ceased to matter. They know that the poor don’t really have many choices available in the highly polarized electoral arena. They know that voters compelled to choose between a party with riotous past and neoliberal economic agenda and a party with merely neoliberal agenda will also be compelled to go with the one that does not threaten their lives, at least.

They know that the BJP has made it much easier by sacrificing the NDA for an arrogant and divisive leader and turning it into a Regional Communal Alliance. They know that the BJP would make it even easier by belittling itself further in its quest for power. They know that all the anger against them is bound to get dissipated by the threat of their political enemies coming to power. They know that the choice had gotten reduced to an exercise of choosing the lesser evil and they are that lesser evil. They know that the democracy is indispensable and the citizens would, therefore, ensure that those threatening it are kept out of power.

They know that they can get away with poverty porn till their opponents are found watching real porn in assemblies.

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