That is the photograph of Gaffar Mollah, a one-time rickshaw-puller who, thanks to a recent uproar in the mass media, has suddenly become one of the most recognizable faces in West Bengal, if not yet all over India. Goes to prove my contention that, given a little bit of luck and pluck, just about anybody can become a fifteen-minute celebrity these days.
He is the face of the dark underbelly of all that has been going on in the name of the development of the state of West Bengal over this last decade. As I said somewhere before, I once read ‘development studies’ avidly as a student of economics: the ground reality now makes me weep (but look, the happy cynic would say – isn’t this the apotheosis of the social-democratic dream: even a rickshaw-puller can aspire to live the five-star life in today’s India? What else is upward social mobility all about? You are just an elitist old fool for whom the grapes, unless you can get them yourself, are always sour…)
I should just like to say a few things here. First, don’t act holier than thou about ‘our sort of folks’ and pin all the blame on the Gaffar Mollahs and the political leaders who patronise them. They are simply on hire to do all the dirty work that the bhadralok don't want to soil their hands with; they are only members of the ‘executive committee’ (to borrow a Marxist phrase) of the moneyed elite who almost always manage to stay out of the undesirable kind of limelight – all bhadralok, doctors, engineers, actors, lawyers, NRIs, high-flying bureaucrats and businessmen of various hues – who create the demand for land that inevitably brings into being the landsharks and their godfathers. Where there is a demand, there will always be supply, sooner or later, by straight means or crooked. And when something is chronically scarce - such as land - the crooked means will always be resorted to, because the straight and narrow path is so difficult and unpalatable. So don’t call Gaffar Mollah or his political masters crooked while absolving the Raj Kishore Modi type or companies like Wipro and Infosys (see this news item) as ‘good’ businessmen, and the moneybags who want to luxuriate in the Vedic Village sort of vice-dens as ‘nice and innocent’ people; that is where you will go wrong. Nor do you need to shed too many tears for the farmers who are now up in arms (emboldened by the Trinamul landslide) against the land sharks – they are motivated by no nobler a sense of mission than to wring more money out of the buyers, now that all that hot money has driven prices up a hundredfold or more. All those farmers’ sons are now salivating over the imminent prospect of driving about in SUVs and lazing about in multiplexes and pubs, young and nubile and greedy females on their arms. Also remember: the Gaffar Mollah sort of fools deserve some pity. When the axe falls (as it does sometimes), chances are always ten to one that it is they, rather than their bhadralok patrons, who will be shot dead or locked away in prison for the crime of getting caught, while their real masters, the money-bags, can get away without getting singed, let alone put into serious trouble. So don’t envy Gaffar Mollah his few years of luxury.
Only, once and for all, get rid of the notion that a man deserves admiration or respect for the kind of car he drives, or the kind of hotel he stays in, or the amount of marble and granite in his house. Always try first to find out where the money came from. There will be no change for the better in India until every household begins to believe once more that one honest and hardworking man, though he makes only a humble living, is worth more than ten thousand rich and flashy crooks. And remember, too, that it is a really warped sense of values that can allow you to claim that the government doctor who gives protection money to his local neta so that he may not be posted away from the town where he has built up a cushy private practice (which gets the money to buy a bungalow in Vedic Village) is not a crook, but the neta who takes the money is!