Sunday, March 26, 2006

Misty Mistakes

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Misty Mistakes

The Great Indian National Crisis that can trace its origins to Allahabad, was brewed in Delhi and made ears tingle across the world, was sandwiched between two incidents. Entranced by the hype of the capital, no one had much time for Jharkhand or Orissa: starlit India can never really compete with neon-lit India. The news from the dark states flitted through a few columns of newsprint and disappeared into that great cyberspace of indifference which India reserves for the unwanted.

A friend who was in Brazil during the week of the seismic sacrifice was startled to discover that Sonia Gandhi’s resignation from the Lok Sabha was rubbing sleep out of his jet-lagged eyes in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil’s media has even less international news than America’s, but 10 Janpath was staring at him from the television screen, Sonia Gandhi at the microphone and Rahul Gandhi waited literally in the deferential shadows. Since the information came without much context, my friend had no idea of either the reason or the consequences of the resignation.

He felt a bit flat therefore when I suggested that the truth was far less dramatic than the news. It begins in the shallow waters of personal animosity, and ends in the swamp of political trivia. This story has no legs. The Congress wrote the first chapter when it used a much-ignored technicality to get Mrs Jaya Bachchan unseated from the Rajya Sabha. Power is the sibling of complacency and first cousin, arrogance. It must have been a combination of both that fooled the Congress into believing that there would be no second chapter. Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s name was written in the second chapter, since she too held an office of profit while being an MP. In fact there emerged a third chapter, with smaller players tumbling out of safe cupboards and sending their resignations. And there might be a fourth chapter since there is at least one Congress minister from Andhra Pradesh who believes he can brazen out the turmoil if he keeps his mouth shut and his purse open. But of course all eyes are stuck on the second chapter.

A power behind the throne has a distinct advantage over the throne. A king must be always seated on the throne, because that is the demand of office, or risk being dethroned. The power behind the throne can sit anywhere and remain as powerful. Whether Sonia Gandhi is inside the Lok Sabha or outside it makes no difference to the power structure of the Congress or the Congress-led coalition. She remains the primary decision-maker in the dispensation of political assignments and favours; the real dealer in any Cabinet shuffle or reshuffle, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in an advisory (or possibly cautionary) capacity. Just to reinforce her supremacy the Congress puts on daily shows of breast-beating and has said that she will remain leader of the party in the Lok Sabha even though she has quit the House, and the vacancy she leaves behind in the National Advisory Council will not be filled. The government was just being its normal obedient self when it adjourned the budget session in order to issue an ordinance to enable Mrs Sonia Gandhi to remain an MP. Such fidelity tends to make your eyes watery, so naturally no one could see what the future held. Watery eyes are a slippery disease. You never know which misty mistake will suddenly cause the slippage that leads to a sudden general election. I am not suggesting it will happen. I am merely pointing out that it could happen.

Certainly no one in Delhi, whether government or its many courtiers, had any time for the two events on either side of the Great Indian National Crisis.

On Monday 13 March, the Maoist Communist Centre of India hijacked a train in the Latehar district of Jharkhand, the 628 Down from Barwadih to Mughalsarai, which had about 50 passengers on board. I call them troops because they were in uniform; they were wearing battle fatigues. They stopped the train, took the radio communication systems from the guard and driver, detached the vacuum pipe between the bogies and the engine, locked the compartments from the inside and ordered the passengers to remain calm. The railway authorities only realised that a train was missing when it did not reach Kumandi railway station, a distance of half an hour from the previous stop, despite seven hours having elapsed. Apparently anything less than that is still considered a "normal" delay. They did not even bother to investigate when the driver of a goods train informed them that he had seen a stationary train with its lights off. The police eventually reached the spot. Details are hazy but the local administration has given out the story that the Maoists, or Naxalites, melted into the forest at the arrival of the police, which is now apparently launching a vigorous hunt. You may have heard tales of such vigour before.

The vigour was certainly on the other side in a town called Udaygiri in Orissa on Friday the 24th of March. Some 80 Naxalites, including a contingent of women revolutionaries, launched a multiple offensive at dawn. The jail was their main target, from which they freed more than 40 prisoners; but they also attacked the police station, a camp of the Orissa Special Armed Police, the treasury office, the tehsildar’s office and a telecom tower. The district collector, Binod Bihari Mohanty, lived to fight another day by taking shelter in his neighbour’s home. His official residence was presumably less safe. The police lost two men in a two-hour battle, and three Naxalites were apparently killed, but we cannot be sure since they took the bodies with them. They also took, as live hostages, the officer in charge of the local police station, Ranjan Mallick, and the jailer, Rabinarayan Sethi. They also looted enough arms to sustain themselves in the future. The police, naturally, have launched yet another vigorous hunt, this time in the Gajapati forests.

Two completely different narratives are being played out in different worlds, over a common timeframe: the story in the neon lights has absolutely nothing to do with the story in starlight. Disparity has been a timeless part of Indian life, and has not disappeared in the shine of either Atal Behari Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh. But it is the duty of the politician to link the two worlds. The bridge will be heavier on one side; but it will not break down as long as the other side is buoyed with hope: the hope that sheer and heartless poverty is not going to be a permanent fact of life. A democracy is designed to keep hope alive, but it needs democrats who understand that this is their fundamental responsibility. If hope cedes ground, then the vacant space will be filled by violence.

While Delhi contents itself with the theatre of the absurd (and sometimes the audience of courtiers is more hysterical than the principal actors), violence increases its domain across the breadth of India. It was once a thin belt, with occasional bulges, running through the middle of the country. It is now a fat belly, spreading north and south, growing obese on despair.

The drama of Delhi has no legs because it is running on empty: empty rhetoric, simulated slogans. There might be some forward movement if the law of unintended consequences takes over and drives mistakes that lead to accidents, which damage the relationships that keep an alliance together. Why do I consider this forward movement rather than regression?

Once, government was meant to bring the starlit world into the concern-structure of the neon-lit world. These days only a general election creates a meeting point between the two.

The elite rule India. But the poor rule the ballot box.

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