Byline by M.J. Akbar :Watering Hole
Governments do not generally fall; they erode. They dislocate before they disappear, slip by little slip.
A government is the opposite of a jigsaw puzzle: it starts as a jigsaw without the puzzle, and ends as a puzzle without any jig. It begins not as a jumble of little pieces in a bag that has to be laboriously put together, tile by tile, but as a fully formed scenic panorama, offering bright weather, fresh flowers, flush fields, and smiling children. Then, without anyone paying much attention, a nose falls off here, the sky gets punctured there, the balmy weather is sabotaged by a bad monsoon, inflation twists the smile.
When you take another look at the jigsaw, disarray has replaced array. Ambitious ministers, once so brilliant in their plumes, are plucking one another’s feathers with leaked documents. Bureaucrats pick up the tatters and redefine policy to their own ends, certain that distraught ministers will have neither the time for nor the interest in governance.
No one hears the sound of a falling chip, for its passing whisper gets lost in the surrounding din. Not all chips are equal. Those on the margins of the larger picture do not affect its core. But when a chip from the core disintegrates, or falls, it leaves a hole through which you can see the heart of government, and scan its ideology. One such small chip fell off last Friday evening and exposed the dangerous myopia that has seized the Manmohan Singh government.
Finance minister P. Chidambaram told a television channel on Friday that he could not understand why people did not mind paying ten or twelve rupees for a bottle of mineral water but made such a fuss when the price of wheat went up by one or two rupees. That throwaway remark revealed the mind of a government that has forgotten how it came to power, one that was elected by India, but cannot think beyond the logic of the elite.
Bottled water is the privilege of less than one Indian in a hundred. At the height of this baking summer we in this newspaper published a picture of children in Madhya Pradesh slaking their thirst in punishing heat by drinking from a public hose. That is how the poor of urban India get their water, and along with it the killer diseases that become little more than a paragraph in media. Rural India still, by and large, depends on nature. We have systematically turned some of our greatest rivers into polluted swamps for most of the year and destroyed the environment that feeds the rain cycle. On 21 June, S.K. Mishra, the eminent former civil servant who now chairs INTACH, and Prof. M.G.K. Menon, scientist and ex-Union minister who is the current president of the India International Centre, are conducting a discussion on the tragedy of the historic Yamuna, being strangled to death by pollution, encroachment and misrule. Their theme? "All this is happening because of the nexus between various vested interests and those who are directly responsible for protecting the river and its environs…"
Modern India’s extraordinary destruction of its water supply, in both quality and quantity, is collective suicide. The water that came from the goatskin of a bhishti of the Gunga Din variety a hundred years ago, or was offered in cool earthen pitchers fifty years ago, was better than the squalid liquid that emerges from a contemporary municipal tap. Indians who vote drink this water; Indians who rule drink bottled water, or buy small water-purification devices for their homes. Ten rupees, it is perfectly true, does not matter to the ruling class. But a rupee matters to the poor who eat wheat. The finance minister’s statement was not the view of an insensitive mind. It was the remark of a mind that has forgotten the difference.
Fortunately for governments, such erosion-chip-sentences do not add up to news: the television channel did not even challenge the comparison. It was not tantamount to a finance ministry policy statement either. But it does reveal the priorities of a person who plays a crucial role in policy formulation. And somewhere in that great collective consciousness of public opinion, it registers.
Paradoxically, the big story does not have as much impact on events as the small story. The headlines at the moment belong to the elections for the next President of India. The ruling coalition’s nominee is in effect Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s candidate. Her victory will be Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s victory, but her defeat will be every other partner’s defeat as well. That is the loop which has been effectively used by the Congress leadership to round up the allies behind Mrs Pratibha Patil, a lady who has climbed the charts from obscurity to limelight with a rapidity that rejuvenates Delhi’s faith in astrology.
A big story may have a dramatic beginning but it generally has a pretty tame ending, because every player knows the self-destructive powers of drama. Those who have something to lose take great care to protect what they possess. Whether their stakes are high or low, they are happy as long as they have a seat at the table. They are still in the game. They have to have a very strong reason to upset the stability of the table. It is certain that the table will topple eventually. Already a couple of props have been placed under a leg or two to prevent it from wobbling. But why cut off a leg before the life of the table comes to its natural end in five years?
The big story, with its tame ending, can preserve a government, but it is the small story, with a twist in its tail, that determines the fate of an election.
It is curious, therefore, while all the powerful leaders spend so much time on the management of the big story, no one has any time for the small story. The Congress spent a month tossing at least twenty names into the air, waiting for some to be shot down by allies, some to sit still on the tarmac, unable to fly, and yet others to float until they could be brought down by lame excuses. Raisina Hill is still echoing with the yodel of broken hearts. The hearts might have been of variable size, but they belonged to some pretty heavyweight egos. The more adept will swallow their bitterness and soldier on, but it will hurt. For the senior contenders this is the last dream. It hurts to walk through the live ashes of your lost ambitions. One Congress leader has publicly said that if Mrs Indira Gandhi were alive she would have made him President. He believes it, so it is true for him.
When was the last time that the Congress, and the ruling alliance — to be fair, any alliance, including the preceding NDA — spent a month, or even a week, discussing how to bring clean water to every Indian, and a clean environment to every river?
If all goes well for Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi, their candidate will become President in July, and the Prime Minister will make a speech in August and feed the hungry with a reshuffle in September. Parliament will sit, MPs will stand; a Budget will be presented before anyone realises it is the last Budget of the government. The politics of elections will then begin.
They will fight the elections with a slogan in one hand and a bottle of mineral water in the other.