By Sanjay Jha
Published in Tehelka/ Financial World on 14th June 2011
( India is not a banana republic. No country can grow at over 8% for a decade by just doing monkey tricks. Instead, it is like a “ mango republic” full of promise but delivering only seasonally).
Over the last week-end as a peculiar lunacy spread its contagious wings, I wondered if India was one of the fantasy lands in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh talked of the “ magic wand”, my apprehensions mounted. A diagnosis of the insanity follows.
The large economic divide between India and Bharat is assuming alarming proportions. India’s well-off now aspire to a 54” LED TV with 3 D glasses, while the vast majority worry about food inflation. The contrast is conspicuous, and disturbing. Just think about one of life’s greatest paradoxes; we pay obscene bonuses to our corporate high-fliers already on a millionaire list but there is much intense acrimonious dialogue over giving the poor driver/ housemaid a 20% increase. After all, how can that poor soul get such a prodigious windfall? Even paying those periodic bribes for instant remedies has now become unaffordable for the lower middle class. Now they are getting restless, their frustrations mounting to unbearable levels. When they read about the gargantuan corruption levels , they are aware that the misallocation of resources hurts them the most. The silent majority suffers in silence, succumbing to hopelessness. Suddenly self-appointed messiah’s emerge. Outside influencers like Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev are channelizing that disgruntlement. Unfortunately, they have raised outrageous public expectations and appeared deliberately provocative. That is a dangerous trend. The panicky capitulation to Anna Hazare by the government opened a Pandora’s box , and now quasi-revolutionaries each with their own axe to grind have surfaced . Ramdev was waiting with the controlled breathing of a yoga expert. Others may be queuing up.
The Hazare hullabaloo perhaps made the government become paranoid about “the butterfly effect”, a small innocuous event that escalates into a crisis which incapacitates. While initially it considered Hazare an exasperating fly in the ointment, it soon discovered that he could sting like a bumble bee without much of a fumble. Thus, the dramatic knuckling under to the dubious Ramdev. It was so bizarre that I almost thought I was watching a Ben Stiller spoof . For the record, Hazare is not a patch on Mahatma Gandhi; his constant self-glorification by repeatedly talking of “the second freedom struggle” sounds grating to normal human sensibilities.
The public disenchantment is further fuelled by a media on hyperbolic overdrive. In India we are witnessing the death of intellectual debate and the rise of acerbic carbon dioxide emissions. Unlike the politicians who are sometimes confronted with a Hobson’s choice with both feet on a banana peel, the media has the advantage of having theirs in both warring camps. But if not careful they will realize that one of them is in a swamp. How come no one had the perspicacity to see through the Ramdev humbug? . Of course, the UPA blundered. And the media justifiably reported the asinine, embarrassing genuflection. But better judgment and a balanced perspective vanished soon into the blue. The Fourth Estate sometimes displays as if it is itself not aware of its vital role in India’s democracy. The media surely matters. So does their good discretion.
Corruption is hardly a new phenomenon, and is not even India-centric. In five days, Ramdev wanted complex legislative rules framed on illegal foreign assets . It was outlandish to the core, like shooting fish in a barrel.. There were certain lynch-mob features incorporated in that piece of absurdity; hang the guilty. Worse, senior ministers misunderstood appeasement to mean obeisance. A tactical error. Compounded further by their expectation that a gentleman’s agreement with Ramdev will be duly honored. He did not. All hell broke lose, and UPA cried for heavenly benedictions .
Congress may have been ensconced in New Delhi for several years, but many non-Congress states have managed to set gold standards in corruption. Mumbai is the hub of hush money and slush transfers. By prevaricating on corruption measures , however, UPA actually subsidizes BJP/ Mayawati etc and their squalid ways. There is a remarkable paradox; despite the daylight fraud in Karnataka of the much exposed Yeddyurappa , the BJP does a salsa at Raj Ghat on corruption. Ramdev has a laundry list of suspiciously funded trusts, but no one cried foul play.
Everyone these days over-reacts to everything. India is not in any grave crisis. Half those protestors who travel on the metro and Delhi’s flyovers do so on government-created infrastructure. Somebody came up with a new socialist description; call the Congress a “ serving party”. Whew! Of course, the GOI too joined the frenzied bandwagon, by either appearing extremely clairvoyant ( pre-empting the Anna Hazare kind of effect ) or not even studying the polemical subject they were dealing with in Ramdev. Democracy is not a license to abuse or misuse. But in India, we are seeing preposterous manifestations of the same. The civil society with all its sanctimonious exhibitions is a fastidious lot suffering from delusions of grandeur , and hijacking core democratic processes.
Obviously, everyone castigated the “ missing” leaders in front of a million microphones. . 75% of India lives in the rural areas and 700 million face hunger pangs daily. They don’t watch TV to hear political parties go for each other’s throats at primetime. But UPA’s biggest voters in the 2009 elections was also the urban voter from the big metropolis. The UPA does not need to have the verbal diarrhea of BJP, but communicate they must.
What should worry the GOI is that corruption, like war, price-rise, terrorism, and natural calamities is a unifying factor; it cuts through ideological barriers, and therefore makes one susceptible to various forms of political blackmail ably mastered by some on fast forward. Civil society has mutated into a self-appointed kangaroo court. India needs to restore respect for its honored institutions.
Governance is never easy. Not the least in the worlds’ most diverse democracy of a billion mad-hatters, accentuated by economic inequalities, explosive non-Hindu growth rates and fractured electoral verdicts. Even with a magic wand, Manmohan Singh would struggle. Anybody would. Congress/UPA needs repositioning; it appears unnecessarily apologetic at the drop of a hat. Even a government has the right to correct its mistakes. Leadership, they say, is like swimming; you don’t learn about it by reading books. You got to get your feet wet. Jump into the waters. For a moment there is that sinking feeling, and then in a few strides you begin to float. And you stay afloat. The body refuses to sink. No matter what. The UPA must learn the freestyle quickly.
Ever since Ratan Tata said it, the poor fruit dominates political debate: Is India a banana republic? Actually, no! Not at all! It is more like a “mango republic”; it shows extraordinary majesty when in form like King Alfonso in the summers , but unfortunately, like the imperious yellow pulp it does so in seasonal installments. It remains for inordinate periods in hibernation as if it does not exist. As if it has lost trajectory, direction and motivation. India needs an enduring presence, a consistency; it cannot be constantly inchoate , chaotic or amorphous. Like the great fruit, it needs to reappear in various shapes and forms throughout the year even post the seasonal triumph. This is a perfect time for it do so.