One fine weeknight earlier this year, my sisters and I decided to have a rather fun TV dinner so that we could enjoy a particular show together without one of us having to run to the kitchen during the breaks. So, I decided to order some vada paos of different varieties that had just been introduced by a new chain of fast food restaurants in town. To ensure everyone got to taste everything equally, I unthinkingly ordered six vada paos of three varieties between the three of us when I should actually have ordered two each of just two varieties for an equal distribution.
When the meal arrived, my sisters too got confused and it took them and me a while to spot the simple error in calculation. “If this were your school test, you would have got a zero for such a mistake,” one of my sisters scoffed as I nodded sheepishly.
Math was never my strong subject even in school. Thus, I could fully understand and sympathise when Prime Minister Narendra Modi jumbled up his A-square plus B-square formula during an earlier Canada visit, though that speech was not a spontaneous one and his speech writer should have ensured he got it right.
But now the lack of scientific temperament in this government is going beyond mere “climate change in our old bones” and “Ganesha’s plastic surgery with an elephant head” explanations. Even highly educated ministers are confusing Einstein with Newton and denying the application of even basic arithmetic, let alone algebra, in our economy.
The simple math is that the auto sector is down by crores of rupees, the auto and its ancillary industries are down ten lakh jobs, inventories are growing, so companies are shutting down production – and I and my friends are getting tens of messages every week from all the top car brands offering heavy discounts for new vehicle purchases.
In all the years that I was aspiring to buy a car, I have never had such easy terms offered to me before, which I had to turn down. I was then saddened when the agent asked if I could recommend friends who might buy to help them clear the stock sitting in the yards that is causing them millions of rupees. The math on that one was quite mindboggling.
But not as much as when one bold television anchor asked BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra if he knew how many zeros there were in five trillion. Patra did not know and, I confess, I did not either, though the anchor did – there are twelve zeroes in a trillion. But I now wonder if our Finance Minister, a Jawaharlal Nehru University graduate, had known that either when she read out her budget speech in Parliament.
Not knowing how many zeroes there are in a billion or a trillion, however, is no big deal in a country where most people do not even earn in lakhs (five zeros), let alone crores or even millions — ten lakh make a million, ten million make a crore. Someone please work out the zeroes on those figures for me, though it would be very nice if more zeroes could be added to my annual income with the number one at the head of that figure.
Like former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao had told his Finance Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, “You can add as many zeroes to the economy as you like, I am the number one who is firmly standing with you. Because without my support, without the number one, those zeroes will mean nothing.”
I wonder if anyone in this government has the good sense to realise the profundity of that statement and acknowledge that the math, even the zeroes, does mean something. Even to my garment manufacturer friend who has exported much less than last year and seen the zeroes in her bank balance steadily dipping; even to my trader neighbour who has imported fewer electronic goods this year from China than he did last year; even the builder who had sold fewer homes since May 2019 following a downturn in the real estate market. All that is obviously due to gravity.
Now the pull of gravity may or may not have anything to do with math, but the theory of relativity certainly does and, as a school student, I certainly knew the difference between Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. The apple clearly did not fall on Einstein’s head and from all the illustrations in my school science textbooks, I could clearly place Newton and Einstein in different eras, one in the 18th century and the other in the 20th. And, indeed, Newton was a mathematician who discovered gravity by accident.
However, his theory of mechanics was improved upon by Einstein whose theory of relativity concerned both gravitational and non-gravitational pulls – beyond just the basic Newtonian theory of every action having an equal and opposite reaction. Which today is applicable more to politics than to physics.
So Sambit Patra, the medical doctor, might sneer at the anchor and cover up his ignorance by asking Rahul Gandhi, the development economist who knew the value of escape velocity in alleviating poverty before many of us, to reveal how many zeroes there are in a trillion first.
Piyush Goyal in successive clarifications may mix up Einstein with Newton and Sitharaman may confuse taxis with private cars and millennials with unemployed youth for justification of this government’s failures. But our economy continues to nosedive with the zeroes steadily reducing and Narasimha Rao’s figure of one is in danger of crumbling altogether.
You are then left with not even as many zeroes as would have been worth one’s while. Even if you are, as Rao said, those zeroes today are just that – zeroes without value — if they do not have the support of one man, the Prime Minister, in this case Modi, to fall back on.
Because Modi is the supreme number one and he stands proud and alone. He really has no need of zeroes. Let alone twelve of them that could make a trillion.
I am ordering some more pakoras tonight. I am in the mood for a feast! How many should I order for three?