The Prime Minister, true to his style, puts forward many new theses, be it economic development or managing the polity or the expansion of our foreign policy perceptions. Though his political legitimacy and credibility is at a discount, the man has been discharging his obligations, in the given context, in an exemplary manner, to use a hackneyed academic sounding word! After all the PM is a highly academically inclined person in the first phase of his career.
Now, the PM said at a New Delhi seminar that in a democracy it is difficult to make faster economic progress as quick and timely decisions are curtailed by the very democratic processes and decision making. He of course didn’t say but meant that more so in a coalition government he is heading. The coalition government under him is now proceeding more and more in an unbridled capitalist path, observers in Delhi, more so the media fraternity, are writing about. The present government , they note, are also falling into the trap of the NDA mode of governance.
A sort of Indian shining, more given to urban middle class conspicuous consumption. To the neglect of the rural India, rural poor even after the announcement of the EGA.
There is this growing scepticism, nothing wrong if scepticism grows in a healthy manner in an open society. Instead of getting spoon-fed by the official propaganda by headlines-grabbing announcements or the various expositions of new theses, as we are now fed by the PM and his more smart FM and their colleagues.
There was this recent NDTV talk show in which the subject of the Indian Oil executive Manjunath’s brutal murder by the oil mafia was discussed. The subject of the debate was “Was Manjunath’s murder a waste? A very heart-rending episode, an IIM-Lucknow graduate from Bangalore and he was upright in preventing the adulteration of fuel by the mafia and he was brutally murdered one day without himself perhaps knowing how powerful the mafia gangs are in that part of India. Those who participated in the debate were all highly motivated and some very distinguished persons. There were T.S.R.Subramaniam, former Cabinet Secretary of the Union government and Mr.Prakash, a former DGP of UP and some were the class mates of Manjunath and also there was his professor at the IIM. The tenor of the debate was that one can’t fight the political system that is prevailing in the country. Many said, old and young in the audience, that there are still idealistic youth who start out with much determination to live to some ideals and values but later on gradually have to either give up their earlier enthusiasm or meet with unpleasant ends, transfers, demotion, plain harassment by superiors or even brutal ends young men like Manjunath. Of course this debate is not very unusual given to India’s current middle class mindset or for that matter the mindset of the so-called powerful and privileged.
The message is clear and loud. You can’t fight the system. You can’t reform the system, except in some cosmetic way by those who want these cosmetic changes for keeping themselves perpetually in power. Of course, everyday event bear witness to this rather not very original discovery. What is happening lately, is that somehow or other the system catches up with criminals in politics. This is the positive change in my opinion. The criminals could vary in status and power. The ones commonly find with this description these days are pressured by so many agencies, they could evade arrest or even jail but somehow or other the higher institutions, be it the apex court or the Election Commission to the rescue of the common man and so when the filing of nominations for fighting the elections comes the declarations of the candidates brings out many unsavory details. Or, when the EC effectively supervises elections as was done recently in Bihar, even the most powerful have to bite the dust! Once Lalu Prasad Yadav was considered invincible but was unseated! So, the bigger parties, be it the Congress or the BJP, not to speak of the lesser parties or the regional powerful ones.
Our democracy is evolving, evolving in a positive way only. Even the democratically elected and constituted government like the present UPA is found wanting when it comes to governing. The recent appointment of 17 judges of the Madras High Court at one go, when their group photo appeared in the local papers gave an amusing look, considering as if the honourable men and women in robes looked like new comers to a school or an institution that didn’t reveal how high they were in public esteem. Yes, even when it comes to routine appointments to higher offices our democracy seems to have slowed down lately. The excuse is coalition politics! Yes, politics, as distinct from polity, is not an honourable profession any more. There are so many low points in doing politics that the last thing that gets noticed is transparency or efficiency or courage of conviction in taking decisions. Our incumbent Prime Minister, a very honourable man indeed, is made a bearer of the cross for other peoples’ sins!
The recent Natwar Singh episode gives an insight to the various forces that operate in the inner recesses of the power structure. We might be a successful democracy. But we are not successful in serving the interests of the larger interests of the largest number of people. We seem to be an oligarchy, the government seems to function for serving or coming to terms with the various vested interests that have a vice-like grip over the governance of the country. All in the name of democracy but done in the name of meeting the wishes of a corrupt group of politicians and also businessmen and other vested interests.
The various laws are passed with much fanfare and yet their implementation seems not anybody’s concern.
Take the latest Right to Information Act. The high-paid officials are appointed but their work had been stifled by the various hindrances. The Prime Minister wants the Act to disclose file nettings but the officials’ decree otherwise! This is just the tip of the iceberg. The more serious issues are the very power and prerogatives of the Prime Minister. In the Natwar Singh episode, the PM came out in poor light. He was demonstrating to the entire country how helpless he was. There was this Minister who was trotting up his links with the high family in the political hierarchy and he was almost browbeating the PM and even the very government’s foreign policy positions. He seemed to be telling to everybody that he was the very maker of the foreign policy. So, he seemed to be telling he was not wrong in the oil-for-good programme and his hints were dark and foreboding. It seemed at one time he might bring down the very government of which he was a part.
Our system, as I am saying, is improving but it fails to catch the thieves at the final stage. Natwar Singh was ousted, again by not a combination of the genuine party men but by interlocutors, the very upstarts and the turn coats, party hoppers and others. This does speak well for the health of the political system. The major party has no legitimacy for having nurtured men like Anielf Mathrani who at one point could have also brought down the government. Such was the precipice to which the Congress party allowed itself to be drawn into a messy oil deal. Natwar gone but what about the role of the Congress party which name also figured in the Volckar report?
So, the system leaves the lingering sense of guilt on unnamed, untraced names, very much like the Bofors?
There are so many doubts in the minds of the public but these doubts are not openly expressed. For various reasons. The press in India, while nominally free, is afraid to expose, as they do in the UK.
Even the news report that act like that of Natwar Singh that is akin to another incident, in this case, involving the former French UN Ambassador Jean-Bernard Merimee, is now behind the bars for getting the contract for six million oil barrels. In India can we imagine such an action possible? Have we ever punished one politician for having taken bribes or put any businessman behind bars for having violated so many laws? In the advanced countries ,in the USA and UK, more so in the USA which is the bastion of capitalism we see so many once-powerful CEOs hand-cuffed and sent to jail for violating the corporate laws. Can we name one instance where we can feel elated without triumph of democracy or rule of law when any senior bureaucrat similarly caught and put behind bars. That is one reason why I never care to read about the many raids by the CBI now and then. All these much-publicised raids remain publicised for the day only, there is not even news about any follow up. There is no news whatever that the ill-gotten wealth was ever seized back by the government. Every one has a patron in Delhi and asks Mr.Aniel Matrani, perhaps he has more wisdom up in his sleeves! He had seen it all and he had done it all and now he must be feeling at the top of the world, given his enormous power to dislodge this government itself, if only he chooses to do so. Who knows what our system is capable of?
Our system one day might mature enough to do this job as well. Who knows the power of democracy. The power of democracy, as I see it, is a mix of the many stringent laws plus the public anger. When public awareness leads sheer helplessness, then it erupts in public anger. When public anger erupts then everyone goes off the public stage. Our own democracy doesn’t seem an exception, seen in the light of past events.
It is not as if democracy makes exceptions for some individuals. Even in totalitarian states, it is not so. It is now proved that the many atrocities of the most powerful men in our own age, in the late 20th century and may be very soon in our time too, are thrown out once the people find the leaders lost their morale to command the respect of their subjects. I hope that India is not an exception.
The very many noteworthy laws to curb corruption, to unearth black money, to raid and book the tax evaders and so many others, big and small laws. They have all become unworking with the rise of the black money economy and with the weakening of the firm authority of the government in our democracy. Black money estimates are often made and the latest report puts the figure at 20 per cent of the GDP. Over-invoiced imports(rs.20,000 crores plus),20 per cent of the costs of public projects(Rs.60,000 cro0es plus),Real estate and services, professionals hiding incomes Rs.3,00,000 crores plus),Subsidies diverted Rs.50,000 crores)industry book manipulation at 10 per cent of output Rs.75,000 crores).Quite a huge slice? Not, say many experts. Given India’s peculiar tax laws and other restrictions and lack of an open economy much of the black money by businessmen and political class are hidden away in foreign banks. Indians have a penchant for hoarding wealth in various ways, gold, real estate, agriculture properties and in sheer bravado of running political parties with unaccounted funds! This last feature differentiates Indian politics and Indian corporate class which is now part of both the ruling as well as the Opposition coaltions. What applies to Delhi political scenario very applies to the politics in the state capitals!
One more crucial component to the present malaise of the democratic governance is the rise of corruption new levels of shaming us into one of the most corrupt nations in the world. The latest Volcker report and its aftermath give us a shadow of things to come. The much more sensational expose is the MPs caught on the camera accepting bribes for raising questions. Some questions were plain silly! This reflects poorly all branches of the government. India has just signed the UN Convention against Corruption and it is an irony at the present time when big names are suspect in the corruption index and Parliament is seized of the MPs and their ethics of conduct. December 9 is observed by the international community as the International Anti-Corruption Day. But then is India’s signature to the UN Convention merely ritual or are we going to fight corruption seriously? The political and bureaucratic level corruption is the one scourge that we have failed to tackle in the last 50 odd years. Transparency International declared India as the 31st most corrupt country among the 102 countries surveyed. Of course, Indian democracy is the largest and our press and media are very active and everyday we can expect the big and mighty might be felled!
The blame of coalition government for lack of transparency is indefensible. May be it is the very undemocratic nature of our party structure, our various hierarchies of the power structure, the lifetime job guarantees to our bureaucrats, self-petuating bureaucracy all have added to the unworking of a genuine open and democratic government.