Sunday, May 07, 2006

Look before you don’t leap

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar:Look before you don’t leap

The strife-ridden battleground of Indian politics has entered a phase of curious and paradoxical stalemate: the government is ceding space but there is no one to occupy it. In a sense, the government is losing the battle with itself. There is no one else to lose it against.

This fits in with a standard operating law of Indian politics: no one wins an election but someone loses it. But sequence must not overlap with consequence. We are still in the sequence stage. A wit might add that power is such a con that it takes no time at all to attach itself to sequence.

It is an old joke that the only success ever achieved by a government-appointed committee was the King James 1 Bible. The new, wry and sardonic joke in Delhi is that there is no one left to appoint to any more committees. Everyone is a member of some committee or the other. The ruling class of Delhi has three components: the has-beens, the wannabes, and those stuck in the middle. The has-beens are politicians and bureaucrats who have retired from government. But despite being closer to seventy than sixty, they have not yet tired of power and continue to exhibit an athletic hunger for minor perks and privileges. Even the has-beens, in other words, are wannabes.

Dr Manmohan Singh, the most successful bureaucrat in history, has found the perfect solution to this problem. He has converted governance into hundreds of committees. Tell him about any problem, from Kashmir to a shortage of knitting needles, and a committee is born out of the conversation. It is axiomatic that nothing gets done. But that, presumably, is the point. The point of existence is survival, not service.

It is entirely in character that the most successful bureaucrat in history has become Prime Minister of Delhi after being appointed Prime Minister of India. Dr Manmohan Singh understands Delhi. He is comfortable in Delhi. He knows the dance of the faithful in Delhi: two steps back and one step sideways keep you at a safe distance from trouble. The absence of trouble is the first principle of survival.

The governance of India is a different story and requires a different mindset. India needs a leap of imagination. Dr Manmohan Singh’s motto is simple: look before you don’t leap.

Delhi is not a single fact. There are at least two Delhis, and I am not talking of the old city built by Shahjehan and the new one crafted by Lutyens. There is one Delhi in which Indians live, and another Delhi where the men and women who rule India live. Sheila Dikshit is the guardian of the first Delhi, of real people, and a pretty capable one too. Dr Manmohan Singh is the presiding spirit of the other Delhi: of ministers, bureaucrats, and their service providers, from the humble dhobi to the obsequious magnate.

The Prime Minister of Delhi has extraordinary, even great, virtues. He is, to begin with, ruthlessly honest. Wisely, he never lets his personal morals extend to his ministers, who can be as corrupt as they want to be, as long as they don’t get caught. Dr Manmohan Singh is even more ruthlessly diligent. Prime Ministers normally leave three quarters of the files to their Principal Secretary; Dr Manmohan Singh’s ratio is the opposite. He gives his personal attention to virtually every file. But that is not the virtue needed of a Prime Minister of India, because all problems are not equal. When everything is sought to be done, there is the great danger that nothing might be done. The government of India is structured to look after all problems, which is why it has so many departments. The Prime Minister of India must concentrate his vision on the vital organs that keep a nation in the best of health during his temporary possession of office. At this point of time, the three great priorities should be, at least in my view, security, Naxalites and power.

Each one of these issues could demand twenty hours of work each day. Security means not only the elimination of terrorism and communal riots, but also a mature peace with Pakistan, negotiated with persistence. Instead we have a fits and starts policy. Every so often, without any particular reason or explanation, Kashmir jumps up on the calendar, shapes headlines for a day or two, and then melts away into indifference. There is no engagement. The Naxalites get perfunctory lip service, but in fact are treated like someone else’s headache: as a law and order problem to be dealt with by chief ministers. Power needs massive, concentrated, one-horizon, national and nationwide investment. Instead, the problem has been outsourced to the general managers of power plants. If they can raise output, very nice. If not, tough luck: the golden age of Indian civilisation did occur long before air-conditioning, isn’t it? If Chandragupta Maurya could do without electricity, who are you to complain about power cuts?

If this drift to nowhere has not induced any sense of panic (the panic of the lost) then it is largely because there is no Opposition. Indeed, if any political party displays the panic of the lost then it is the BJP. Those who have become used to positions, take time to adjust to opposition. That much is understandable. But two years? Getting on top of a chariot is not the best method to find your mind. You have to be on top of issues. The other political formations are like the Indians looking at Rumi’s elephant: you can never be quite sure whether it is a water pipe, a fan, a pillar or a throne. "Had each of them held a lighted candle," writes Rumi, "there would have been no contradiction in their words." But illumination commands too high a premium in our befuddled times.

Voters, generally, though not always, are kinder to the Opposition than to the government. If the Opposition is lost, it only hurts itself. If the government is lost, it hurts the people. It is really as simple as that.

Voters have faith and respect for the office of Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is the voice of Parliament, and often the voice of India. A Prime Minister who devalues his office betrays this great trust. The King James Bible does tell us that the meek shall inherit the earth. Indeed they might, and probably should, but it were best if they were kept out of the office of Prime Minister of India. Meek so often blurs into weak.

The temptations of Delhi are magnetic. Let me leave those who prefer Delhi to India with a sobering thought. The Mughal empire never really survived the shift from Agra to Delhi. Shahjehan moved halfway through his reign; and his heir, Aurangzeb could barely hold what he had inherited, as he himself realised on his deathbed. Does the Mughal empire seem too remote? The British announced the change of their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911, but effectively moved in 1931. For more than two hundred years the British had continuously expanded their possessions and their influence, from Burma to Persia, from their base in Calcutta. Sixteen years after the Viceroy of India became the Viceroy of Delhi, the British packed their bags.

The attractions of Delhi can be fatal.

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