Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi
Byline By M.J. Akbar : A middle-aged government
Let me first record my deep pangs of envy whenever I see a column written by an American. There is never a shortage of fresh subjects for him or her. That, as you are aware, is the first law of columns: stay as far away from your last theme as possible. Repetition equals boredom and boredom kills a reader faster than stupidity. In America the highest authorities step in to rescue a dull week. Vice-president Dick Cheney shot up his good friend Harry Whittington instead of quail, to give an example, guaranteeing the wastage of a few forests of newsprint in comment. The most exciting thing an Indian vice-president does, alas, is write his autobiography. He also presides over a House of Parliament in which an MP might tear his hair or tear his shirt. It says something about Indian political culture that tearing one’s shirt can be more revealing than an autobiography.
Indian politics is more exciting than an Indian government, but the adrenaline of politics follows a bell curve. It peaks around elections and disappears into the slough of despond after the results. Politicking is a continuous activity, full of sliced backs and hypocritical fronts; politics is continual. We journalists are fortunate that elections now come around at fairly regular intervals, and that the Election Commission stretches each one to its maximum tensile strength, stopping the process just a step before complete and sudden breakdown. The longer the political game the more the number of fouls, errors, wrong passes, egomania and hopefully a penalty or two. That’s the stuff of headlines and sermons, the meat and potatoes of media. The Indian government, in contrast, just hums along, making announcements that interest no one, and pronouncements that are either innocuous or illusionary. How much staccato can you get from a hum?
But at least a hum makes some noise. A transition makes none. That is why no one has noticed a remarkable transition in Delhi.
The Union Government of Dr Manmohan Singh has slipped into middle age.
In a very important sense, that is literally true. Everyone knows that time flies, except when it stands still, which can be even more painful. Two years have disappeared since Dr Singh ushered in yet another dawn in the history of our democracy. A government is elected for five years. Delete the last year for goose pimples and jitters as everyone moves into election mode and goes into best-behaviour, and you are really left with only four years. So we are smack into the middle of this government’s natural life.
There are many ways in which we react to middle age. There are those for instance who worry much more about what is on top of their heads rather than what is inside. They welcome middle age by filling bathroom shelves with hair dye and spending extraordinary amounts of money on hair transplants. Others give way to the indifference of sag, letting their appetites do the talking and their stomachs do the bulging. Dr Manmohan Singh is lean and has not interfered with his hair. He has accepted middle age with realistic pessimism. I don’t think he quite has the courage to acknowledge a misspent youth. If you examine the record you realise, with a bit of a start, that government has virtually stood still for two years, rotating upon its hidden anxieties and apparent contradictions. Witness the evidence in two key areas, which could have formed the reputation of this government and perhaps reformed India in the process.
Its economic policies are still trapped in a tug of war between the critical periphery, the Marxists, who are right in Bengal and left out elsewhere, and a shrinking core, the Congress. Two years ago there was upbeat talk of reform with a human face. The face has been promised a facelift that might or might not become a reality in 2015. Economic reform is still in embryo, waiting for sufficient heat to facilitate its emergence.
Similarly in the crucial area of relations with Pakistan there is stagnation. President Pervez Musharraf, for all his extraordinary worries, has been more articulate, imaginative and original in the search for options on Kashmir. (Note: I used the word "options", not "solutions"; but the search for peace can only be done through the cluster of options.) Delhi’s response has been as swift and inept as a kneejerk. Heaven knows who does the thinking in Delhi. I rather suspect no one. The old foolishness of treating Pakistan as a "failed state" that will crumble under the pressure of its own fissures seems to have returned. Hence the strategy of stall, pretend and buy time. This middle-aged government has not heard of spectacles, so it has lost the vision it once possessed, and which Dr Manmohan Singh epitomised in his early days. Don’t expect anything spectacular anymore.
The rational Dr Singh seems to have concluded that he cannot be sure of how much time he has left. He wants to use the remaining bit of his term in office to do just one thing, and perhaps not much more. That one dimension is to improve relations with America. He genuinely believes that the final equation between India and the United States, once the give and take has been worked out, will shift the balance in India’s favour. India’s nuclear status will be recognised, and India’s economy will benefit from flows of capital and technology. There is nothing wrong with seeking good relations with America, and everything right about it. Only the very stupid would object to this on principle. On the other hand, you don’t have to be very wise to realise the merits of the old adage: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Dr Manmohan Singh, spurred perhaps by the thought that time is running out (middle age angst, really) is moving at a speed that seems reckless to many thoughtful Indians who worry that India’s most precious national asset, its nuclear military capability, is being compromised in the process. If this feeling becomes a conviction, this middle-aged government will not get passage to any other age. The Indian street has been nourished by the view that America is a democracy at home and a dictatorship abroad (I heard this again from an official at Mumbai airport on the morning of writing this column).
Indians do not make good stenographers. They simply do not like taking dictation.
High drama is good for journalism and columnists, but not necessarily so for the country. A middle-aged government should be averse to risk. They do say that one is most vulnerable to fatal heart attacks in middle age.
-Back to Main