Marie Antoinette has found a worthy successor in Ajit Pawar. One can be reasonably sure that Pawar has not heard of Antoinette. As the number 2 man running one of India’s premier industrial states, he is not expected to keep up with European history.
So it is only fair to assume that he does not know about the late 18th century French princess’s notorious comment “Let them eat cake” when she found out that the impoverished peasants of her country did not even have bread to eat. While it has remained doubtful whether Antoinette actually said those words, they continue to be attributed to her. Few words sum up the cruel obliviousness of the ruling classes more effectively than these. Until now, that is.
This brings me to Pawar, who is the deputy chief minister of the Indian state of Maharashtra. The farmers of Maharashtra have for long faced the problem of acute water shortage which in turn leads to degrading poverty because of failed crops, serious indebtedness and even suicides.
A farmer named Bhaiyya Deshmukh in the drought-stricken district of Solapur has been on a protest for the past nearly two months to demand that water be released in a local dam. Deshmukh has been protesting in Mumbai, the capital of the state. At a public rally a couple of days ago Pawar finally chose to address the issue in the glorious tradition of Antoinette.
Speaking in his native Marathi and speaking to an uncomfortably complicit audience the 53-year-old politician said, "Paniz naahi tar kai sodta? Mutata kai tithey?" (What do we release when there is no water? Shall we urinate there?"
Discovering that many in the audience had evidently found humor in his crassly tasteless dismissal of a genuine existential threat, Pawar added, "If we don’t get to drink water, we won’t be able to do even that (meaning urinate)."
He makes a good, logical point here. If people don’t drink water, what will they discharge? And if they cannot discharge, how do we replenish our catchment areas? It is a real Catchment 22 situation. As Dr. Sheldon Cooper would say, Bazinga!
He also referred to the problem of power outages and chose to joke about it. He said something to the effect that because there was no electricity he had found that more children were being born. His implication being that when it is dark people have nothing better to do than breed. When lights are off, libido is on sort of thing.
And with that he flushed any pretense of the seriousness of government’s purpose. I grant that humor is an effective antidote to life’s many problems. But then there is humor and then there humor as understood by Antoinette and Pawar. Humor does not make a good substitute for policy solutions.
Unlike Antoinette, Pawar at least the merit of contesting elections in order to acquire a powerful position in his state. It is not as if he does not understand the hardships faced by his state’s farmers and others because of the chronic water and energy crises. It is just that he thinks that he can dress up his own helplessness/incompetence/frustration in street level humor and get away with it.
The comments understandably caused an outrage which forced Pawar to unconditionally apologize. One can always accept his apology and move on but there is a bit of a problem with that. We now know how the second most powerful man in Maharashtra views the harrowing problem of water crisis. He is basically throwing his hands up in exasperation. And you know what happens to men who urinate with their hands off. There is the real danger of soling themselves.