The revenge of the samosa


It adds significant collateral damage to the reputation of Nitish Kumar


There is no retribution harsher in politics than the revenge of the samosa. Every politician knows this much. The surprise is that Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, and his patriarch, Super Chief Minister Laloo Yadav, both veterans of electoral battles as well as administration, forgot a fundamental principle of democracy: you never feed the treasury from the menu of the poor. The poor have little by way of luxury, and a low-cost evening savoury is one of their few moments of pleasure in a tough day.

In budgeting parlance there is something called a “sin tax”, a regular resource base for any government. This is a tax on items like liquor and cigarettes. You could, if in a particularly puritan mood, stretch the sin-range to luxuries like expensive hotels. But no finance minister in his, or her, senses ever squeezes money from the beedi.

It is too early for the Bihar electorate to get angry with a government it has just place in office, but the 13.5% value added tax of samosa and bhujia opens up space for something more deadly than anger: ridicule. The sarcasm – and no one does that better than the Bihari — will cut across class, creed and caste because the samosa is unique in its appeal across distinctions, a true item of mass consumption. Indians invented fast food long before multinationals discovered its appeal. We also had the good sense to keep fast food a home industry. It is a business through which a poor man can also earn a living. The producer and consumer are often within the same socio-economic zone.

Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav must share the barbs; for while the origins of this decision lie indisputably in the CM’s office, the finance minister of Bihar belongs to Laloo Yadav’s party. This is one instance when Laloo Yadav cannot chortle in private at what Nitish Kumar does in public.

The samosa’s revenge was evident soon enough, and Nitish Kumar is now trying to mitigate the political offence by suggesting that he only intended the tax for a costlier form of packaged samosa. It is not the afterthought which will stick, but the thought. This amendment is obviously a fudge, because bhujia is also on the punitive list.

It also gets curiouser and curiouser. Why tax mosquito repellents, for instance? Mosquitoes do not vote. And they can be occasionally lethal. Of course, this his does reveal that mosquito repellents have a huge market in Bihar, and the government expects high returns. Revenues from Patna alone could pay for a fat department of government. The state is infested with mosquitoes. It is equally obvious that there is not much industry in Bihar which can generate tax revenues; there is nothing else to tax. Government, therefore, is trying to profit from its own past failure. Word will spread – as rapidly as mosquitoes.

One does wonder about how such silly mistakes are made by persons with experience, whether in politics or bureaucracy. It could be because they do not have to pay for either samosas or bhujias when in power. The cost of afternoon chai and accompaniments comes from the administrative budget.

The British Prime Minister David Cameron, who belongs to the refined-dined aristocracy of his land, once tried to get psychologically cozy with the masses by standing outside a stall and eating Britain’s version of the samosa, the Cornish pie. Cameron made a mess of the staged event, for he had no idea how to eat humble pie. As a public relations exercise it was a disaster, and the press did not let him forget this opportunism in a hurry. But Cameron was never going to tax the pie, even though he has a finance minister, George Osborne, who has made it a mission to balance the books. If Osborne cannot be credited with as much success in this objective as he might have hoped for, at least you cannot fault him for trying.

The samosabhujia tragi-comedy comes at a time when the Laloo-Nitish government is just beginning to lose a bit of sheen for reasons that are definitely not funny. Crime is back with a vengeance in the state, as criminals get political patronage. There is a growing sense of fear in rural areas. Officials are getting orders from the parallel Laloo Yadav network, and they understand better than anyone else where real power sits. By itself the samosa’s revenge may have been contained, but in an environment that is encouraged by both memory and experience, the samosa adds significant collateral damage to the reputation of Nitish Kumar.