Pranab-babu taught history and political science before he took to politics. Having acquired no small reputation among his students as an exceptional classroom communicator, it is said, he peppered his classroom lectures with quotes from Bankim and Tagore, Shakespeare and Shaw.
Somewhere in his mind and heart, he remaines, quintessentially, a teacher and one manner of an experienced pedagogue marks his speaking style to this day. It is this: Punctuation marks occur only in writing, not in speaking, right? But, to goad sluggish minds into activity, teachers of an earlier era used to intone questions and their answers into their spoken sentences. For example, an old generation teacher would go: ‘Prince Siddhartha was born in…? Lumbini…'
Our finance minister’s speaking style is often, unconsciously and disarmingly, dotted with those most helpful interrogative intonings… ‘Senior politicians should not behave like petulant children… They should behave like…? Leaders…’ With this effective catechetical procedure, the point he is making invariably goes home.
Pranab-babu’s Budget speech on March 16 will be remembered by different people for different things. But for those like me who have admired and benefited from his professorial speaking manner, it will be remembered for his apt invoking of Shakespeare. To set the mood for the tough part of his proposals he turned to “immortal Shakespeare” in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene IV. He turned to a half-line uttered by the Prince of Denmark in white rage at his mother — ‘I am cruel only to be kind…’
One has to hand it to the teacher-minister. If he wanted to presage his subsidy-reductions or indirect tax hikes with a tone-setter, he could not have chosen a more apt line from Shakespeare. Sitaram Yechury responded by saying that if the FM needed to quote from Hamlet at all he should have quoted the more famous ‘To be or not to be, that is the question…’. The CPI(M) MP said that quote would have been more apt, for the Hamlet-like dilemma faced by Pranab-babu was ‘Should I help ‘India Inc’ or ‘improve people’s lives ?’. I wonder if the FM could really have quoted ‘To be or not…’, with Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s celebrated translation of those lines being ‘Ab jeenaa hai yaa marnaa hai, tay karnaa hai…’
The ‘cruel to be kind’ preamble will, for some days, be dissected for its cruel bits and its kind ones, debates ensuing on what the FM’s ‘cruelty’ can do in order to be ‘kind’. And the questions will be asked, apropos of Yechury’s observations, ‘Cruel to whom?’, ‘Kind to whom?’.
Budgets, subsidies, subventions and taxes apart, our country can do with Hamlet-like ‘cruelty’ elsewhere. I can think of ‘cruel’ measures, not fiscal measures, but steps taken by the State through a stringent application of existing laws and regulations, and in pursuance of national policy perspectives. These would be against:
• Mafiosi who, with political patronage and official connivance, illegally gouge out precious mineral ores, including and especially coal, making obscene profits in ‘black money’ which then find their way into election campaign expenses.
• Murderers who hound and hunt whistle-blowers, both official and non-official, silencing brave men and women, who have asked inconvenient questions, with death.
• Manufacturing houses — luckily in a minority but bringing opprobrium to industry as a whole — which, having obtained licences and infrastructure under our liberalised procedures, then go on to use land, water, electric power and fuel dazzlingly above their licit requirements, with no questions asked.
• Misconceived policy approaches that discount the calorie norm in calculating poverty, thereby making a mockery of poverty alleviation in a situation where a huge majority of the rural population is shockingly calorie-deficient.
• Misgovernance in the shape of ‘widespread inefficiency and gross mismanagement of resources’, as former President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan termed it, in the ranks of the administ-ration, at the Centre, states and local bodies, by heeding recommendations of the Administrative Reforms Commission set up by the UPA 1 itself.
Trenchant criticism, especially when true, is portrayed as the ‘disease’ while that which is criticised, is shown to be faultless, blameless. The same scene from Hamlet as contains ‘I am cruel to be kind’, also has the following lines spoken by the Prince of Denmark:
‘Lay not that flattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass, but my madness speaks:
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen. Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what’s past; avoid what is to come;
And do not spread the compost on the weeds,
To make them ranker. Forgive me this my virtue;
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg,
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good.’
The line — ‘Whilst rank corruption, mining all within, infects unseen’ seems to have been written for us.
And what about the kindness bit?
The State — not just the present national coalition, but any government of the day in the Republic of India — needs to be kind to none other than itself by heeding :
• Hamlet’s wisdom: ‘…do not spread the compost on the weeds, to make them ranker’ ( the ‘compost’ being indulgence towards the incompetent, corrupt and intriguing).
• Gandhi’s talisman: ‘…think of the weakest…’.
• Radhakrishnan’s advice: ‘Nothing should be avoided because it is thought impossible. The only relevant question is ‘Does it require to be done? Then we must try to do it.’
• Ambedkar’s plea: ‘We have work to do…’
• Kripalani’s humour: ‘Gandhiji made a major blunder: He told us to love our enemies. But we do not even love our brothers!... I have never learnt to love those close to me…’
I can imagine some former student of Pranab-babu, now perhaps a teacher, saying “… Many Budgets have been presented by him but this one will be remembered for his Hamlet quote…not the usual ‘To be or not to be’… but...’cruel to be?...kind’…”
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor)
The views expressed by the author are personal