By Swapan Dasgupta
There is a small minority of Indians who grew up in cities and hill stations where the British influence lingered for a decade or two after Independence. Of them, there must be another lot that developed a liking for the oh-so-English fudge — an extremely rich confectionary made with sugar, butter and milk with a light flavouring of cocoa or vanilla or even chocolate.
I have always preferred the fudge to either lozenges or toffee. There is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than landing up in a quaint English town or a village fair in the ‘Shires and buying a small packet of creamy fudge from one of those sensible ladies who run those quaint tea shops. It is one of those simple pleasures of life — as worthwhile as re-reading an Agatha Christie whodunit on a holiday.
Unfortunately, life isn’t all that uncluttered. Like the perfectly innocuous terms ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ that have been misappropriated by determined crusaders of ignoble causes, fudge no longer conjures happy images of innocent childhood. The term is more commonly associated with a sleight of hand, deceit and manipulation. In the age of innocence, this fudge would have been shunned; in today’s world of cleverness, it has become a political attribute, a byword for canniness.
Take the battle of figures involving Minister for Railways Mamata Banerjee and her predecessor Lalu Prasad Yadav. In her intervention in the Lok Sabha on July 9, Mamata revealed that Lalu’s claim that the Indian Railways was in the pink of health with a cash surplus of Rs 90,000 crore was worse than an eyewash — it was a fudge. “One cannot talk about the income and skip the expenditure part,” Mamata told the House, “after spending Rs 28,200 crore on account of the Sixth Pay Commission award for two years, we are left with a cash surplus of Rs 8,361 crore.”
It is a misfortune that the significance of this scandalous revelation by the Railways Minister has, by and large, escaped the political class. What Mamata was alluding to wasn’t a minor miscalculation or an accountant’s error. She was suggesting that her predecessor wilfully misled both Parliament and the nation. Worse, her revelation of the true state of railway finances pointed to the fact that the Budget has lost its sanctity and that official statistics are fudged.
The significance of the fudge is awesome. Less than a year ago, the corporate sector was shaken by the disclosure that Satyam Computer had misled its shareholders about the true state of the company’s finances. The company has been charged with criminal conspiracy, its auditors have been sacked and its chairman is behind bars and may well receive a stiff prison sentence. If Lalu is guilty of concealment and misrepresentation, it follows that his offence is no less severe than that of the hapless Ramalinga Raju. If Raju is prosecuted for playing havoc with the money of investors and banks, does Lalu and, for that matter, the Railway Board get away by fudging the accounts of a corporation funded by the taxpayer? There cannot be different sets of laws for the private and public sector.
Nor does the buck stop here. Lalu was a member of Manmohan Singh’s Government and was repeatedly praised by the Prime Minister for his remarkable performance. Surely the Prime Minister now owes the country an explanation? So far he has been silent.
Fudging, it would seem, is fast becoming a national preoccupation. In suggesting that the fiscal deficit of India stood at some 6.8 per cent of the GDP, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee need not be charged with Laluism, but he was certainly guilty of inexactitude. The figure, as he well knows and as do economists, is only a partial representation of the true state of public finances. If non-Budget items such as the deficit of States, oil bonds and fertiliser subsidy are added to the list, the real fiscal deficit is likely to approximate between 12 and 13 per cent of a falling GDP.
The implications of this are staggering. It means that the Government is bequeathing to the country a debt burden that will haunt the present and the future. Yes, there is a law enacted in 2003 that makes it obligatory for a Government to pursue the path of fiscal responsibility. But the Government has unilaterally waived its own responsibility for following the law — on the ground that exceptional situations warrant exceptional remedies. This means that there is very little faith in the Government actually carrying out its commitment to lower the fiscal deficit in the next two years. If the monsoons don’t come up to expectations, the profligacy with public finances will continue merrily and be justified.
The issue is not so much whether or not the Government has a right to pursue voodoo economics. That privilege cannot be taken away from an elected Government. The more important question is the ethics of selective revelation, bordering on concealment, what in everyday parlance is called fudging. If you doubt what I am saying, just correlate the official claim of a negative rate of inflation with the soaring consumer price index.
At one time, particularly after smooth public relations professionals started regulating the flow of information, many Western Governments were charged with being a hostage to spin. In India, the quality of non-cricket spin is still amateurish. But we have moved to a higher level of political management. We are now a nation driven by fudge.
What a shame, it isn’t the real thing.