There is a deep puzzle about our current bout of inflation. Why is there not more palpable political rage at what is, by historical standards, unconscionably high inflation? What does this say about our economic and political discourse? In days of intelligent filmmaking we used to ask of our democracy, "Albert Pinto ko gussa kyon ata hai?" (Why is Albert Pinto angry?) But we now need to ask, "Albert Pinto ka gussa kahan gaya?" (Where has Albert Pinto's anger gone?) Are we deep down really more content? Or is it a sign that our democracy has artfully neutralised all protest; if so, are we sitting on a time bomb?
The elements of the contentment argument go something like this. Most people have been cushioned, as it were, from the full blast of inflation. NREGA, the apparent rise in rural wages outpacing inflation, largesse of various kinds like loan waivers being doled out, no real cuts in subsidies, and the after-effects of the pay commission bonanza to a large section of the middle class have made the frontal effects of inflation less serious.
Not only that, all this largesse might have caused inflation, and since we are now all complicit in creating inflation, we better not complain too much, lest we be asked to pay for our sins. Certainly, many policy-makers tout this line. There may be an element of truth to this. But the degree of callousness about inflation begs for some reflection.
This callousness on inflation is massively underestimating the ill effects of high inflation on the poor; indeed it could single-handedly wipe out any gains the poor might have experienced. In this sense, inflation callousness is another way in which we render poverty invisible to our consciousness. But the poor in India have always adapted and been far more self-reliant than the rich. That the poor don't protest is no surprise.
If the poor complain that food prices are rising because of a supposed crisis in agriculture production, we can numb them with alcohol, produced by food-grains!
In part we appear to have been hoodwinked by the diversionary tactics of the official discourse on inflation. It kept being assigned to contingent causes: global surges in energy prices, expansion in global demand, then the drought and so on. The message consistently was: "Don't worry; it is a matter of weeks." We kept drifting from one seemingly plausible cause to another. And it has taken the government appallingly long to even begin to admit that we may have a serious structural problem on our hands. In a way, the creation of three new committees on the issue, two of them interestingly headed by chief ministers, is a belated acknowledgment of what was obvious to all but the most cavalier policy-makers.
The weakness of the opposition is also an issue. But the opposition is not just weak in credibility; it has lost all analytical focus. Analysis by my PRS Legislative Research colleagues suggests that parliamentary debates over inflation have a formulaic quality: exactly the same arguments are made in every parliamentary session. In short, by crying wolf too often, in the same way, the opposition has no ability to articulate precisely who is to blame.
The third reason why anger does not find visible articulation is that in an unintended way the media diffuses protest rather than encourage it, even when it is trying to rally for a cause like inflation. This is simply because public discourse becomes one state of generalised critique and anger. When we are in a state of permanent critique, no critique in particular matters; social anger gets dissipated by being generalised.
Fourth, there is the delicate question of the character of the political class itself. Although the Mumbai high court recently dismissed a PIL saying it did not want to interfere in policy matters, the case made sobering reading. The Maharashtra government pays Rs 5,000 crore subsidy to food-grain based distilleries, many of which are owned by prominent politicians. Just think of this. Five thousand crore subsidy for alcohol production, in a context where the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission was worried about an additional Rs 6,000 crore for increasing food subsidy! It is also a nice nexus: the big farmers that benefit and the distillers are politicians.
And if the poor complain that food prices are rising because of a supposed crisis in agriculture production, we can numb them with alcohol, produced by food-grains! And alcohol is great because it generates more excise, so more money for state schemes. A nice little circle. Which political party dare question it?
A similar political logic also applies to the increasing gap between wholesale and retail prices, artificially created scarcity by mismanagement of food stocks. While there may be underlying structural reasons for inflation as well, the use of technical economic discourse has also become a diversionary tactic. Imagine if poor Shivraj Patil had said that the Mumbai attack was a consequence of structural factors in the region. But essentially, this is what we are letting the current agriculture minister get away with, on an issue that is arguably of even greater national importance. Part of the inflation story may involve tackling a complicated state, trader, big farmer, corporate nexus that no one really wants to touch.
In part we are becoming victims of our own sophistication. In the old days, lines were clear. Government is responsible, and it better show it is so. Now, no intellectual, even on the pain of being right, could possibly say that. That is so seventies and so uncool. Better to talk of global trends, structural factors.
All those matter, but the conduct of the state does as well. With government out of the picture, there is no object to fasten on. Poor old Albert Pinto's tormentors were clearly visible: he could get angry at someone. We cannot get angry at our agriculture minister, since he has given us the best circus in town; we cannot get angry at the prime minister since he understands structural factors; we cannot get angry at the Congress president since she really does care about the poor through all these schemes; we cannot really get angry at any of the chief ministers since we might find our guy complicit as well. So Albert Pinto fends for himself, precisely because everyone is too busy looking after him.