Khiyali Pilao: The Barmakide’s Feast


We associate the famous Arabian Nights chiefly with jinns, jewels and mysterious dancing girls peeking at the Sultan through seven veils. But frippery does not create a classic; substance does. One of the most substantive stories of the fabulous Arabian Nights is called ‘The Barmakide’s Feast’.

The Barmakides were named after their patriarch, Khalid ibn Barmak, who was a Buddhist pramukh [Barmak is a corruption of pramukh] in the city of Balkh before it fell to the Arabs. His virtues were acknowledged and he was rewarded with high office after he converted to Islam. His son Yahya ibn Khalid became one of Sultan Harun’s al Rashid’s closest friends; and the clan became so powerful that it was widely considered to be richer than the Caliph of the Abbasid empire.

The story goes that one of the Barmakid nobles invited a group of the poorest citizens to his palace for a meal. They were seated on glorious carpets while the host, in splendid robes and ornaments, sat in the centre. He clapped his hands and ordered the meal to begin. Servants came with platters, and told the host that the first course was a delicate kebab. The platter was, in fact, empty, but the host pretended to pick up a kebab, put it in his mouth, and exclaimed how absolutely delicious it was. His bewildered, impoverished and hungry guests, too afraid to disagree, copied him, and outdid one another in praise of the food. The charade was repeated, ending with the pilao; the praise got more ecstatic, and everyone burped heavily at the end to indicate thorough satisfaction.

Indian voters are never foolish. They make up their minds on the basis of hard-lived experience, not notional whimsy. Voters want the credible horizon of New India, not the false sustenance of khiyali pilao

The rest of the story need not detain us. What is etched in popular memory for more than a thousand years is a metaphor of deceit, of a rich man distributing an illusion to those most in need of real food. In India this metaphor has a Hindi name: khiyali pilao.

Rahul Gandhi has offered history’s biggest degchi of khiyali pilao as the central offering of the Congress manifesto for the general elections of 2019, when he offered Rs 6000 a month to “20 percent” of the population, without specifying how precisely they would be tabulated or, more important, how the scheme would be financed. The illusion was noticed immediately. He was asked where the money, estimated at over Rs 3.6 lakh crores, would come from. Rahul Gandhi replied that financial details would be placed before the people at some future date.

Why should they be announced later, rather than with the scheme? A number of reasons come to mind. The most obvious is that there is no plausible answer to the question, unless you want to believe that someone has done some number-crunching but Rahul Gandhi does not understand the mathematics.

In either case, it stands to reason that Congress has no desire to discuss a reality check that would puncture the illusion it is trying to sell to the poor. It is probable that Rahul Gandhi thought he could get away with a Barmakide’s feast because he felt he had done so in the recent Assembly elections, when he promised a debt waiver to farmers. The real reasons for the slim and fortuitous Congress victories in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were different. Indeed, Congress started the election campaign in much better shape than it ended. After victory, truth had to change the narrative. The Karnataka government is no longer in its infancy; but the amount of debt that has actually been waived so far is around just Rs 3000 crores, which is miles short of the promise. The younger Madhya Pradesh government has managed to write off Rs 5000 crores, largely under pressure; but that too is a small percentage of the promise. It is little wonder that anti-incumbency is rising in MP within less than six months.

Rahul Gandhi has offered history’s biggest degchi of khiyali pilao

If Rahul Gandhi cannot do the math, others can. A quick look indicates that were someone to actually implement the “Khayali Pilao” our fiscal deficit would rise from the current 3.14 percent to somewhere between 6 percent and 7 percent. All subsidies to the bulk of the rural and urban populations, would have to be slashed or stopped. This list of backlash outcomes merely begins with this.

The most dangerous consequence, high inflation, would reduce the value of the promised freebie very quickly. Irresponsible governance is an invitation to inflation. One of the most important achievements of the Narendra Modi government has been its ability to keep inflation, particularly of basic consumption goods, on a tight leash.

On 20 March, Bloomberg published a report noting that the Indian rupee, once among the worst performing currencies, had become the best currency in Asia. Its expectation was that the dollar would go down to Rs 67 by June. Around $5 billion has come into India from abroad recently as the market priced the advantages of a Narendra Modi victory in the coming elections. We could forget about all this if a weak and irresponsible coalition takes office.

Indian voters are never foolish. They make up their minds on the basis of hard-lived experience, not notional whimsy. They know what they have got in the last five years: a dedicated and sincere Prime Minister who works extremely hard and is incorruptible; a rising economy that has improved the quality of life and brought greater security to all; a government that has given the first fruits of growth to those who need it most, including life and health insurance to the poor; an unprecedented growth in infrastructure. This is only a very short precis of achievement. Voters want the credible horizon of New India, not the false sustenance of khiyali pilao.