The tipplers who crowded liquor shops a few weeks ago must have thanked their lucky stars for the pathetic state of state finances. For the excise that states get from liquor sale constitutes a substantial part of their revenues; and this was the reason that chief ministers decided to open up booze.
This reminds me of Quintus Arrius’ message to the slaves rowing the Roman war ship in Ben Hur: “Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live.”
Those who like their drinks are allowed to do so not because of the great liberal principle that a man or woman should be allowed to exercise their free will and consume alcohol if they wish to, even if they indulge in some vice so long as they don’t hurt others; they are allowed to do so because the great ship of state has to keep moving. Or the Leviathan has to be kept alive.
Individual freedom, civil liberties, democratic rights don’t matter; states matter, the State matters.
Had state finances not been as messy as they are, our political masters would have continued prohibition by the backdoor for very long, if not forever. To paraphrase David Horowitz, inside every politician there is a moraliser and a tyrant screaming to get out. For weeks, prohibition was imposed all over the country in the name of fighting the novel coronavirus; it would have continued had it not been the empty coffers.
Profligacy of state leaders has saved us from the sanskari nightmare.
In fact, the gradual phasing out of the lockdown is also for the purpose of restarting the economy and replenishing the public exchequer rather than restoring the civil liberties and democratic rights that have been enshrined in the Constitution. Our politicians keep us alive to serve this ship of the State.
Thankfully, the economy was in such a bad shape even before the lockdown that it was not possible for the political class to keep the nation shut for a longer period. I find it odd to use ‘thankfully’ in the context of falling economic growth but it was this decline that saved us from the permanent, ubiquitous imprisonment.
As in the case with bad state finances ending prohibition, here too two negatives cancelled each other out.
Imagine a hypothetical scenario: Suppose there were no deficits in India, neither at the central nor at state levels; suppose there were huge fiscal surpluses instead of deficits at all levels. Also suppose the economy were booming in the pre-corona era — high growth in every sector and massive employment generation.
In such a scenario, what would have been the response of our political masters to Covid-19? An indefinite lockdown — at least till a decline in cases or, better, till a vaccine is invented and made available at mass scale. Politicians just love the lockdown.
Chief ministers from different parties clamour for its extension; one of them even threatened shoot-at-sight orders — apparently shooting us to save us from the virus!
And, by the way, it is not just Indian politicians who want to keep people under lock and key; many leaders in the West also want to do the same. Even in America, the ‘land of the free,’ there are Democratic governors and mayors who have locked down the people in their jurisdictions and kept the keys with themselves.
In fact, there are American politicians who have themselves violated the lockdown rules that they thrust upon their voters. And some of them were so shameless and insolent that they justified their actions.
No violations by the powers that be have been reported in India, which is not surprising, for the media has stopped being critical of anybody who wields the danda, literal as well as figurative.
As I have written earlier too, journalists are not only not opposing the violation of human rights and civil liberties but also instigating the authorities to further erode all democratic rights of citizens by saying such things as ‘yahaan lockdown ki dhajjiyan udai ja rahi hain’ (here the lockdown is being smashed to smithereens).
But is the media, shamelessly compromised as it is, beyond redemption? Again two negatives cancel each other out. The media is not only dishonest but also dishonestly dishonest — that is, a journalist or media house never remains faithful to the clients (companies, political parties, whoever, whatever) that purchase their services. Again, two negatives cancel out each other.
The filth all around that most Indians suffer also seems to have strengthened their immunity against flus. This perhaps explains the relatively lower effect of the coronavirus.
What saves us are the various manifestations of evil — profligate governments, bad economic policies, dishonestly dishonest media. Such are the ironies of this postmodern world.
(The author is a freelance journalist. Views expressed are personal)