New Delhi: A few years ago, on expressing surprise at seeing a few ministers disembarking from their multi-lakh worth SUVs at the Congress office in Itanagar, a lower rung party worker laughed at my observation, saying, “The standard rule here is, minister or not, the moment you get your MLA funds, you go buy an expensive mobile phone, designer goggles, an SUV and look like a politician. Public work can wait.”
Politicians flaunting their riches through swanky cars, designer bungalows and expensive holidays is an ugly reality today, not just in remote Arunachal Pradesh (where SUVs can’t anyway be put to good use since the state has some of the country’s terrible roads) and the rest of the northeast, but across the country, and across party lines.
Surrounded by gun toting security men – some paid from public money and some personally hired – this political class is the new elite, who has long forgotten what a public representative ought to do or be. It is perhaps best represented by that immortal photograph of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Chouhan being lifted around by his security officials during a visit to a flood affected area. Lest sahib’s feet get soiled by the dirty flood waters!
Then you hear about an aberration also related to the floods. From the northeast – yes, where now there is no dearth of MLAs and ministers zigzagging in their SUVs through the wretched roads, leaving behind a trail of dust for the common man to take a whiff of.
The aberration – rather aberrations – were noticed during the recent floods in Manipur and Assam, and across party lines.
First, about Manipur. Since July 3, a short video clip has been circulating in social media showing the state minister for public works and a senior BJP leader Thongam Biswajit Singh lending a hand – and legs too, literally – to repair an embankment along with state disaster response force personnel, local youth and others.
As per some media reports, Biswajit, an MLA of the state’s Thongju assembly constituency – and one of the chief ministerial contenders in the March assembly polls – went to Kongba Erong and Ucheckon Lai Moriba area on getting information that the Kongba river had breached the embankment in those villages and if not repaired soon, the settlements nearby would be swept away.
The minister rushed to the site, only to join the villagers, and the state disaster response force personnel. Soon the Manipur police and CRPF personnel present at the site too jumped into it. Together, they reportedly managed to repair the breach on the embankment.
At a time when every little movement of a minister is tweeted, either by him or his ‘staff’, Biswajit, otherwise active on social media, stood out for not posting that video or any image of him getting his hands and feet dirty for public good on twitter, etc.
Also, at Lilong in the state’s Thoubal district, reports said, irrigation and flood control minister Letpao Haokip was joined by his department’s parliamentary secretary L. Rameshwar and Y. Antas (he contested the March assembly polls from Lilong AC as an independent and lost to Congress’ Muhammad Abdul Nasir) to control another breach made by the river Imphal.
If these were impressive conducts by a public representative, then came another similar story – this time from neighbouring Assam, yet another state reeling under the annual floods, where the toll has been more than 70 now.
Here, Congress MLA from Mariani, Rupjyoti Kurmi, along with the villagers, was reportedly repairing an embankment at Halao Pathar area of his constituency since July 7, without waiting for the government agencies to respond to react (Many district officials failed to meet the April 30 deadline given by the chief minister to them last December to repair the embankments). Some photographs and a video clip on social media showed Kurmi carting mounds of earth with the locals to strengthen the embankment and thereby protect the area from coming under the rolling waters.
On July 19, we saw some more images on social media, showing Kurmi carrying on his back a sack of rice – part of the relief material – to the flood hit people of his constituency.
Though there have been many reports of embankments giving away to the surging waters due to the nonchalance of MLAs, ministers and district officials in Assam and Manipur, leading to huge loss of life and property; the likes of Kurmi and Biswajit certainly stand out as aberrations.