Oh, what a game we’ve been having this last week or so. There we were, fans of the Reforms XI, waving our flags, singing our songs, knowing deep down in our bones it would be a sensational season. And who comes suddenly charging out of nowhere but our man Neymar, I mean Sadanand Gowda, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw him spearheading the attack. Even then we thought he would be stopped, what with the railway budget looming ahead. But there he is in the penalty area before you know it and he’s signing a 14.2% increase in passenger fares, a freight hike of 6.5% and season ticket price hikes of 100-200%. Oh, what a strike it was, a low, mean, raking shot that caught all of us unawares. The Reformist stands erupt in sheer joy amidst shouts of ‘Kill the commuters/Kill the commuters’. Free-market economists are doing the Kondratiev wave, a longer version of the Mexican wave, lasting about fifty years. Reformers 1, Populists 0.
But what’s this? Instead of celebrating the goal, instead of revelling in it, there is Gowda shaking his head and saying he didn’t do it. Oh, oh, he says it was an own goal by the Populists, pushed into the net unwittingly by the hapless Mallikarjun Kharge. Such a magnificent move and Gowda shies away from taking credit? What modesty, what sportsmanship. Never in the history of the game has such a great goal been so orphaned.
The fans don’t mind as long as they’re winning. They chant, “We want bigger, fatter bills/We want nasty, bitter pills”. And then, just when we were basking in its glory, Gowda calmly rolls back the season ticket hikes. A hush descends on Reformist ranks, while the Populists are beside themselves with excitement. “Ah Gowda, Gowda/What a backhander” the Reformist crowd mutters dejectedly. Reformers 1, Populists 1/3.
Never mind, morale is high. Nirmala Sitharaman, who has had an outstanding season as a staunch defender, wins the ball back and crosses to Ram Vilas Paswan, far on the left. Paswan has been a disappointment so far, but will he shoot straight this time? In his path is the mighty Sugar Lobby, the architect of many victories for both the Populist and Crony Capitalist teams. The reformers take up their chant, “Decontrol/Sugar and Coal”. But oh my God, that’s a brutal tackle from the Sugar Lobby and Paswan buckles under it, signing away higher import duties on sugar and interest-free loans in one fell swoop. Populists 1.33, Reformers 1.
Will the Reformers counter-attack? Looking for an opening is the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs. Ranged against them is the strong Farmers’ Lobby, known to bite hard and foul remorselessly. The CCEA has gone into a huddle, oh what’s going to come of it, the audience is biting its nails. Economists unfurl a huge banner reading, “Free kicks yes, free lunches no”. How high will they raise minimum support prices for kharif crops? Oh wow, oh wow, it’s fantastic, it’s even less than last year. The Farmers’ Lobby takes it on the shin. The Reformers dance the samba, singing “Hurray, hurray/The populists are blown away.” Reformers 2, Populists 1.33.
Best of all, we’ve barely started, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Pricing reform, labour law reform, the works, just wait and see what star striker Arun Jaitely does on Budget Day. Victory will be ours.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint
The views expressed by the author are personal