Why Modi should be wary of tobacco lobby

The central government's clean streak takes a knock as party leader bats for tobacco lobby sacrificing the interests of the society.

 |  3-minute read |   02-04-2015
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In Eastern democracies like India, the public image of a political party often matters more than its actual performance. The party image revolves around three pivots. The first is: How clean is the government? Then how strong is it in protecting national interest on the security front? The third and unfortunately the least important is: How has the government performed in core areas of governance and economy? By all accounts, the Modi government would get a high score if one were to compare its performance in core areas and the economy with the first year of previous governments.

But on the flip side, it suffered a major jolt last month on the national security front because of its pacifist actions on Kashmir. The government's blundering gave a psychological upper hand to the separatists who were till then in awe of Narendra Modi's robust image, nothwithstanding the unprecedented Modi initiatives at the international level to protect India's geostrategic interests against the designs of giants like China.

The third achievement of the Modi government has been the great transparency it has brought in governance as evident in the saving of lakhs of crores of rupees in coal and spectrum bidding, appointment of clean officers in high positions by dismantling the transfer-posting industry and reining in the bureaucracy besides ending the corporate raj in the government sector, signified by the espionage cases filed against government personnel and corporate officials for trading in government documents. But this too has come under attack now with a parliamentary committee headed by the BJP MP from Ahmednagar in Maharashtra, Dilip Kumar Gandhi, clearly marching to the tune of the tobacco lobby in the country, which is responsible for 9,00,000 deaths every year due to tobacco-related diseases, mainly cancer.

The committee was to decide by April 1 whether the size of the pictorial warning on the cigarette packet should be increased to over 80 per cent from the current 30 per cent. The tobacco lobby had been politically active trying to derail the proposal as studies have found that the advertising and pictorial campaign against intake of tobacco has great psychological impact on smokers and tobacco chewers, thus dissuading them to leave tobacco and affecting the sale of tobacco products. Gandhi virtually gave in to the pro-tobacco lobby at great cost to the BJP government's clean image at the centre by deferring the decision. Gandhi said, "There is no Indian survey report to prove that tobacco consumption leads to cancer. All studies are done abroad… We have to study the Indian context, as four crore people in states like Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh are dependent on bidi-making through tendupatta".

Gandhi's sweeping statement that left the BJP leaders red-faced triggered speculation. The most virulent among them was whether the honest Dr Harshvardhan was deprived of the health ministry portfolio because of the pressure of the tobacco lobby and whether the present health minister JP Nadda was also allegedly batting for the gutka czars whose lifestyle marked by expensive cars and Bollywood style mansions has often been the envy of many in the corporate world. Nadda, of course, reiterated his government's resolve to increase deterrents against tobacco consumption.

Indeed God has his own way of warning his followers if they are on the wrong path. Cancer patient Sunita Tomar, 32, who had been the face of the Union health ministry's anti-tobacco campaign suddenly died of cancer but only after shooting off a message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing her strong disapproval of Gandhi's pro-tobacco lobby statement.

This signal is enough for Modi who is persevering to carve out a clean image for his government so that it is fit enough to take the requisite strong decisions to put the country back on track. Significantly, Modi has persistently refrained from taking any action against errant party leaders for their often embarrassing public stands. Now is the time for him to reverse that policy and act to set a deterrent example.


Uday Mahurkar Uday Mahurkar @udaymahurkar

The writer is deputy editor, India Today.

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