Let’s stop this poverty tourism

Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Discovery of India’ is following such bizarrely unconventional ways that it is impossible not to subject it to public scrutiny.

Written by Sudheendra Kulkarni | Published:January 18, 2009 12:46 am

Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Discovery of India’ is following such bizarrely unconventional ways that it is impossible not to subject it to public scrutiny. Last week he thought he needed a phirang co-discoverer and hence took British Foreign Secretary David Miliband to spend a night on a charpoy in the cowshed of a poor dalit widow in a village near Amethi,his parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh. As gaffes go,this must rank alongside his previous shockers in his rather brief political career—namely his “I could have been PM at 25” interview to Tehelka in 2005 and his 2007 assertion that the “Babri Masjid demolition would not have taken place had the Gandhi family been there in politics (at that time)”.

Miliband,43,slept in Karma Devi’s house,whereas Rahul had a sleepover in the thatched hut of Shiv Kumari,another dalit woman in the neighbourhood. Rahul explained the purpose of this rural rendezvous: “A lot of people come to India and they have a particular perspective based very much on the big cities. I thought it would be quite interesting for the foreign secretary to come to rural India.” There was of course the mandatory visit to a milk collection centre,a school,a hospital and a women’s self-help group—all bearing the name of the Gandhi family. But make no mistake,it was India’s poverty on display for the benefit of Britain’s PM-in-waiting,courtesy the Congress party’s PM-in-waiting. As Miliband himself wrote in his blog while leaving for Amethi: “800 million Indians live on less than 2 dollars a day,450 million on less than 1 dollar and I will get a chance to see some of the gap that exists between metropolitan middle class India and the rest.”

As Shivkumari herself later told The Indian Express,“She had nothing to share with her VIP visitors except poverty. She also said she had got an NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) job card a year ago,but no work.” The cowshed in Karma Devi’s house,as the widely published photograph of Miliband entering it shows,had no electricity. The mattresses,quilts and linen on the charpoy he slept on were arranged by the local Congress party office. Lampooning this ersatz experience of a slice of the “Other India”,a blogger in London’s Telegraph newspaper wrote: “As political stunt-making goes,this must really take the gold chapati award for international humbug.”

If Rahul wants to experience rural India,let him do so by all means. After all,he was born with the proverbial silver spoon. In any case,it is now his democratic duty as a people’s representative. Any honest and earnest effort by any politician to connect to the people must be applauded. But what can one say about his political maturity,as displayed by his decision to invite a foreign dignitary to undertake poverty tourism in his constituency? Would a British MP take Pranab Mukherjee on a tour of the poorer quarters of London and show what developmental works he has initiated? Would an Italian MP invite Rahul to take a look at poverty in his country and make it an international media event? Have we ever seen Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao (or Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang,who are tipped to become China’s next President and Prime Minister) escorting a foreign visitor on a tour of the backward areas of their country? Let’s not forget that there is a lot of hidden poverty in Europe. There is stark poverty in China too,in spite of the fact that China was last week adjudged the third largest economy in the world.

But who is this boyish-looking foreign friend that Rahul hung out with? Miliband’s unsolicited advice on terrorism and Pakistan were so outrageous that not only India’s foreign office but even the Congress Party was left red-faced,leading to Arun Jaitley lambasting the British foreign secretary’s visit as the “greatest diplomatic disaster” in recent times. By saying that India must first resolve the Kashmir issue for terrorism to end,Miliband was clearly toeing the Pakistan line on terror from Indian soil. His advice urging India not to insist on the extradition of Pakistani masterminds behind the Mumbai terror attacks was a clear case of double-standards,since it contradicts Britain’s own vigorously pursued position in relation to crimes committed by foreign nationals on its soil.

In a front-page report,The Hindu quoted senior officials as saying that the Indian side was “irritated” by the “aggressive manner in which Mr. Miliband conducted himself in his closed-door meetings with Mr. Mukherjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In particular,South Block took offence to his strident arguments that the Mumbai terror attacks were really the result of the Kashmir issue remaining unresolved. He berated Dr. Singh and Mr. Mukherjee on this point… All told,say Indian officials,the two meetings with Mr. Miliband were ‘pretty awful’.”

Who has given Britain,one wonders,the right to advise us either on Kashmir or on development and poverty alleviation? After all,our erstwhile colonial master was one of the culprits who created the Kashmir problem in the first place. As our colonial history incontrovertibly shows,Britain was also responsible for the pillage and pauperisation of India—one of the important factors that pushed the families of Karma Devis and Shiv Kumaris into poverty. Of course,we cannot blame Britain for our own failures in poverty eradication in the post-Independence era. But who is responsible for these failures,if not those who have ruled India for the longest period since 1947?

If Miliband’s visit has any lesson for us,it is this: India needs leaders who are deeply rooted in India,who do not crave foreign recognition,whose empathy for the poor is not guided by PR guys nor triggered by the desire to create a media event,and who have the courage to show the Big Powers—and today’s Britain is no longer one although it pretends to be—the door if they exhibit the arrogance to advise us on how we should defend our national interests. And no more government-assisted poverty tourism,please!

Write to: sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com

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