On March 14, the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate L K Advani held a press conference in New Delhi to brief the media on his Information Technology Vision, and spoke about how he will transform India if a government led by him comes to power.
He said, "A future NDA government, if elected to office in the coming parliamentary elections, would give high priority to the realisation of this (transforming rural India through IT) vision, which would help India overcome the current economic crisis, create productive employment opportunities on a large scale, accelerate human development through vastly improved and expanded education and healthcare services, check corruption and make India's national security more robust."
Next day's poor media coverage made it evident enough that neither Advani nor the co-author of the vision and convenor of the party's IT cell, Prodyut Bora, could connect with media-persons while explaining their vision.
It is disappointing to see a national party 'releasing to public' something that is already being implemented at a smaller level in few states, including BJP-run Gujarat. Nobody in India, not even Rabri Devi, now denies the power of IT. It is known and accepted. But what is evident from the press conference is that these leaders did not seem to have their ear to the ground.
The booklet given to the media already informs that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has initiated the e-gram vishwa gram project on January 23. The state government has given computers to 13,693 gram panchayats.
The BJP is talking about bank accounts to all Indians, smart phones to those below the poverty line, broadband internet in villages, internet in schools etc. There was not a word about financing that IT vision.
What about delivering on these claims?
There are many schemes in the country, which are quite transparent thanks to IT. Also, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has a well-developed IT element and will soon have more of it.
It's not solving the fundamental problems of non-delivery, corruption, sluggish bureaucracy and limited sources of funding for these schemes. The BJP's promises were looking "out of sync" even to the urban media-men present in the conference. The entire vision had no human touch. It didn't talk about people; it talked more about the power of technology and its uses.
A vibrant party would not have come up with a vision that resembles some fat-cat NGO's glossy mission. The BJP's IT vision sounded like India Shining Part Two.
Advani's mission statement or the vision should have been how his government will provide for respectable income to all Indians to deposit enough savings in his/her bank account. Instead of talking about internet in all villages, he should have talked about what could be the best education policy for India, which will have an element of IT.
Internet availability is just one of the issues related to better governance, but the leadership's sound economic policy has no direct connection to the availability of broadband in India. When the economy is sliding, broadband connections are of no help to China, Korea or the United States either.
The BJP is talking about smart phone for people below the poverty line, but if the latter do not have a steady job of what use will the phone be? A senior Congressman in Mumbai once said about the Shiv Sena, "The Hindu party built 80 bridges during their rule in Mumbai but still lost because the people who drove above the bridge didn't go to vote and people living below voted us."
A day later, Mayawati, the so-called regional leader who aspires to be a national leader post-election, went to the other extreme.
She held a press conference to say that she will fight the election all alone. She bluntly told Indian voters, "As you know well, the BSP does not believe in giving false promises but believes in action. So like other political parties we don't publish manifestos."
Mayawati merely issued an 'appeal' in which, on most matters, she said the Bahujan Samaj Party's policy will be "pro-people" and "in the interest of the nation." She refused to feed the media with substantive information of her vision for India, but did offer a sumptuous lunch of rogan josh, fried fish and 20 other items.
One will be disappointed by the BJP's IT-restricted vision or Mayawati's lack of it because they give the feeling that not much is going to change in India.
Meanwhile, how things are worsening in the interiors of India was evident recently in Jharkhand.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act ensures 100 days of work for every rural family in a year. Once the family applies for work and if the government fails to give them work within 15 days, they are entitled to unemployment allowance. The scheme, launched by the UPA government, gives less than Rs 100 per day. However, in certain states, the economic situation is so grave that the NREGA is the only source of certain income for the rural poor.
At present, around four crore families have been registered under it. Even if you take out fake families inserted by corrupt government officers and local rowdies, the reach of the NREGA is huge. On February 7, when activists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera helped organise a Lok Adalat to take up the grievances of Jharkhand people with regard to the scheme, 20,000 people turned up.
To get Rs 50-60 per day (only 100 days a year), these people are bowing and scraping before the authorities.
Media reports in Gujarat say diamond cutters of Surat have migrated back to Saurashtra and have joined NREGA scheme to break stones in roadside development work. The scheme is opposed by the right-wing economists. The justification has been that the scheme is increasing the burden on bureaucracy and the entire system.
But then, in the absence of a better idea to help the poor and hungry people directly and continuously, what do you do?
In India, 45 per cent of the women are illiterate. So schemes like NREGA, however faulty it may be, are their saviour. And, just two days before Advani's IT vision came out, the New York Times came out with a moving story along with the haunting picture of a undernourished Indian baby taken by Ruth Fremson. It speaks volumes about how child malnutrition is still a grave issue in India.
It says that in China 'now just 7 per cent of its children under 5 years of age are underweight -- a critical gauge of malnutrition. In India, by contrast, despite robust growth and good government intentions, the comparable number is 42.5 per cent. Malnutrition makes children more prone to illness and stunts physical and intellectual growth for a lifetime.'
Ever since he retired in 1994, rediff.com columnist B Raman has been going for a walk on a street near his residence every day. Along the pavement is a slum. He mentions a family which has been living on the pavement since a decade. There has been no change in their condition. Their little daughter has grown up and now begs near a traffic signal. Raman says it is painful to see the slum girl being stopped from begging because she doesn't understand why her right to beg should be taken away.
Maybe Advani's team came up with a 'youthful idea of IT vision' to identify with young voters, but he needs to ignore his age. Voters will accept any leader, who can show a way out of the sliding economy and ensure security.
Shekhar Iyer, associate editor of Hindustan Times, follows the BJP round the year. He says, "It seems the BJP has lost the dice. In the last five years they were in the opposition, they didn't build their party as a credible alternative. They are unable to create excitement now. It seems voters are not exactly excited. They have lost the base."
Since the last four days, the way BJP leader Arun Jaitley has been sulking in front of television cameras over Sidhanshu Mittal's induction at the higher level in the party shows that these leaders do not feel that they belong to the winning side.
Rediff.com called a Cabinet minister in one of the BJP-ruled states to share these views. The conversation went something like this:
What's going on? Why is your party looking to be in a shambles? Why are we not hearing coherent views?
There is no issue in the 2009 election. I am unable to catch any so far. Because of an adverse and buffoonish media, we are projected weaker than we are. The media is more tuned to Sherry Rehman's (Pakistan's information minister) resignation or Jaitley's sulking than on the issue of insecurity and economy in India.
What is your take on the Third Front?
It will be a bloody messy game. Once the results come, I foresee that parties will be broken, MPs will be bought and politics will bring shame to Indian democracy.
So who will lead the nation?
Whoever comes to power will not be able to run the country for more than two years.
Don't only highlight what is Advani having in him or not having in him. Look at the other side! Where is the leadership in the Congress? Where is the national leader? I can tell you that Advani will win by no less than two lakh margin. People do count 50 years of toiling in public life.
Why is Advani not doing something about Rajnath Singh's ongoing tussle with Arun Jaitley?
It hardly affects us. These people in New Delhi are for you (the media). The state BJP leaders are already working. We have hit the road. People are worried about the security of the nation, jobs and their future. Our leaders in New Delhi belong to the Rajya Sabha. Their tantrums don't percolate to my villages. They are not our future. The people's future is in the states of India. Akbar Road (the Congress headquarters in Delhi) and Ashoka Road's (the BJP headquarters in Delhi) politicians are not counted in our scheme of things!