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Aruna Roy, the IAS of­fi­cer- turned- busy­body ( oops, I mean ac­tivist) is both for­mi­da­ble and scary. She is the ob­ject of ad­mi­ra­tion, ven­er­a­tion and even in­spi­ra­tion to many. She tours vo­ra­ciously, isn’t afraid to speak her mind and has views on most things. She is also a com­pelling speaker and can sway metropoli­tan au­di­ences with the same dex­ter­ity as Naren­dra Modi can move Gu­jarati bens. With her steely looks and dis­avowal of flip­pancy, she is, in short, not the sort of per­son— to use a favourite phrase of a crusty Ox­ford don, long de­parted— I’d like to fly with.

Imag­ine my hor­rific sur­prise last month when I ac­tu­ally felt rather sorry for her. I blamed it all on a gen­tle­man named N. Srini­vasan and In­dia’s ma­ni­a­cal ob­ses­sion with cricket. On May 28, Roy re­alised that she was wast­ing her time in the So­nia Gandhi- led National Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil ( NAC). With care­ful pre- med­i­ta­tion, she despatched a let­ter to the UPA chair­per­son say­ing she would not like to of­fer her­self for re- nom­i­na­tion when the NAC was re- con­sti­tuted in June.

The rea­sons for her dis­af­fec­tion were char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally and glo­ri­ously no­ble. The Govern­ment had spurned her dogged in­sis­tence that all the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the Ma­hatma Gandhi Ru­ral Em­ploy­ment Guar­an­tee Act ( MNREGA) be paid the govern­ment- stip­u­lated min­i­mum wage. The regime, she de­tected, had been hi­jacked by a “small but vo­cal mi­nor­ity” which didn’t care a fig for MNREGA, was in­tent on di­lut­ing the Right to In­for­ma­tion Act that she em­braces with pro­pri­eto­rial con­cern and had lost the po­lit­i­cal will to bam­boo­zle the Food Se­cu­rity Bill through a re­cal­ci­trant Par­lia­ment. All of this, the an­gry lady felt, pointed to the UPA 2 reneg­ing on its so­cial agenda and mind­lessly chas­ing the Gross Do­mes­tic Prod­uct num­bers.

In or­di­nary times, Roy’s de­par­ture from the NAC would have re- ig­nited the hoary wel­fare ver­sus growth de­bate, with Jairam Ramesh chip­ping in with his lat­est one- liner. With the Man­mo­han Singh dis­pen­sa­tion look­ing in­creas­ing frag­ile, di­rec­tion­less and vul­ner­a­ble, this was surely the mo­ment for the stage army of the good to in­ter­vene in the po­lit­i­cal dis­course and re­claim the aam aadmi space for the only party that has ac­corded hon­our, recog­ni­tion and re­spect to the NGOs, the sem­i­nar­ists and the self- pro­fessed ac­tivists. As the Queen Bee of In­dia’s jho­lawalas, Roy’s let­ter to So­nia Gandhi was meant to sig­nal civil so­ci­ety’s de­tach­ment from a floun­der­ing Congress un­less vir­tu­os­ity was re­stored to the agenda of gov­er­nance.

Un­for­tu­nately, like most things that hap­pened in the pe­riod be­tween the na­tion’s dis­cov­ery of the son of Dara Singh and the fall of Srini­vasan ( and I in­clude the hor­rific mas­sacre by Maoists in Ch­hat­tis­garh which Roy nat­u­rally con­demned with the manda­tory ‘ but’), Roy’s de­par­ture from the NAC left In­dia un­der­whelmed. It barely made the front pages and apart from the Times Now pugilist who read it as a sig­nal of an ever- grow­ing dis­tance be­tween the Congress ( So­nia) and the UPA Govern­ment ( Prime Min­is­ter), this par­tic­u­lar NGO bomb failed to det­o­nate.

What did cre­ate rip­ples, al­beit in a small cir­cle, was the rev­e­la­tion that GDP growth had slipped dra­mat­i­cally from an un­healthy 6.5 per cent to an alarm­ing 5 per cent. Clearly, the time for the Lady Boun­ti­ful ap­proach was well and truly over. It was time to count the shekels, an ex­er­cise that didn’t re­quire peo­ple with the courage of their own ob­so­les­cence.

Not that el­e­men­tary economics has ever moved the likes of Roy who imag­ined In­dia could be turned into an ori­en­tal ver­sion of a Scan­di­na­vian wel­fare par­adise. In the past they had fo­cused their en­er­gies on ‘ mak­ing a dif­fer­ence’ to iso­lated vil­lages where they stood out as ro­man­tic odd­i­ties, much like the so­cial­ist vege­tar­i­ans in Vic­to­rian Eng­land, and court­ing wide- eyed rep­re­sen­ta­tives from aid agen­cies on both sides of the At­lantic. Their mo­ments of glory were few and far be­tween: A con­ven­tion of ‘ peo­ple’s move­ments’ where Medha Patkar was om­nipresent, a spir­ited in­ter­ven­tion on TV where they would sparkle in their earnest­ness and, above all, a ‘ con­sul­ta­tive’ ses­sion with some mul­ti­lat­eral body in con­vivial global sur­round­ings where the au­di­ence would be suit­ably guilt- tripped into a state of post- colo­nial cringe.

The NAC changed all that. From oc­cu­py­ing a fringe space, So­nia’s cho­sen ac­tivists were cat­a­pulted into the cen­tre of po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion- mak­ing. They evolved grandiose schemes, the min­is­ters had to oblige, the civil ser­vants dis­played def­er­ence and their so­cial sta­tus touched dizzy­ing heights. The NAC wasn’t ‘ ad­vi­sory’ in the same way as the PM’s busi­ness ad­vi­sory coun­cil and the National Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sory Board are. Its self- im­age was that of a moral ma­jor­ity that de­cided what was good for less priv­i­leged souls. It was a case of as­ton­ish­ing pre­sump­tu­ous­ness and stu­pe­fy­ing ar­ro­gance.

And then, one day, it dawned on a few that the party was al­most over. Bet­ter to cut the losses and pre­serve the moral halo for the fire next time. Swa­pan Das­gupta is a Delhi- based

po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com


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