By M J Akbar
Elections are four years away, and when the sun rises on that a May morning in 2014, the price of fuel and food might be the last thing on the electorate's mind. Why worry about judgment until face to face with Providence?
Sensible Roman emperors feared but two eventualities: barbarians at the gate, and a shortage of corn in Rome, citadel of free citizens and heart of empire. While generals were dispatched to deal with the former, the emperor treated the availability of food as a personal responsibility. A hungry populace could be dangerous to the emperor's health.
In 23 BC, the divine Augustus enhanced his godly reputation during a food crisis by purchasing grain with his private wealth and distributing it to a quarter million Romans. In 19 AD, his successor Tiberius, clearly a more mature economist than his populist predecessor, calmed food riots with a price freeze, and compensated merchants with a subsidy.
There is no known instance of an Emperor Sharadus Pawarus throwing his arms up in his toga in the middle of a corn calamity and letting it be known that he was a bit tired of distribution hassles and his time would be far better spent as Caesar of ICC (Imperial Coliseum Circus). This, particularly now that the punters had displayed a pronounced eagerness to pay inflated prices for a seat at a shortened form of gladiatorial gore, in which one side had to die within 20 bouts while vestal non-virgins cheered each slash with an acrobatic 'rahrahrah' and sponsors offered to arrange a vestal meeting at a suitable price.
Abdication of responsibility while clinging to power does not suggest the happiest of analogies. Such indifference during this simmer of discontent is a symptom of complacency that descends easily on those blessed with re-election, particularly when anaesthetized by the image of high growth. Pawar and Murli Deora can shrug and carry on. Elections are four years away, and when the sun rises on that a May morning in 2014, the price of fuel and food might be the last thing on the electorate's mind. Why worry about judgment until face to face with Providence?
Roman emperors were less smug. Theoretically, they held their jobs till death; in practical terms, death was only a short stab away. The emperor knew that you cannot rule unless you are able to govern. Curiously, democracy seems to have legitimized the opposite. If you want a contemporary instance of being in office without being in power, check out Srinagar. Is there anything in common between the fuel-protest bandh in Delhi and the curfew in Kashmir? The circumstances are different, but the complaint is the same: the government has gone deaf.
Governments seem unaware of a dangerous phenomenon called buyers' remorse. Voters may not have the luxury of returning what they have purchased to the store, but their remorse can suck credibility out of authority. German chancellor Angela Merkel was re-elected last October in an election that broke the back of the Opposition. In nine months, the back is healed, and Merkel's united front is in a clinic: 77% of Germans believe that she has lost control. That is the key to authority: are you in control of events, or do events control you?
In 1971, Indira Gandhi won the most astonishing endorsement in our electoral history; by December that year, she led the nation to military victory over Pakistan and was declared a veritable goddess. By the summer of 1973, the charismatic George Fernandes had halted the nation in a railway strike, and Jayaprakash Narayan was stirring from retirement. Inflation – the supply of corn, if you wish – was the principal reason for buyers' remorse. The government limped towards Emergency, gulled by the belief that it had destroyed the opposition. The most dangerous opposition is not that of political parties, but of people.
Nearly four decades later, we have terrorists at the gate, a crisis in the kitchen, Naxalites in the courtyard and the hedge dividing us from Pakistan is on fire. Nero may not be the emperor, but he does have the agriculture and food supplies portfolio.
Sharad Pawar is the first Union minister publicly to admit he has passed his sell-by date. But at least he spent a lot of time in the store. If the younger lot doesn't watch out, they will putrefy in the warehouse.
Contemporary India is beginning to resemble a multiplex in a contentious marketplace, with different simultaneous movies: a violent drama in Kashmir; a stodgy farce in Delhi; an oily family soap opera in Tamil Nadu and a buttered one in Punjab; a B-film in Maharashtra; a tragic and tiring re-run in Gujarat; a faux David-Goliath mythological in Bengal; tales without a script in the northeast, while in some parts of the country the caretakers have simply turned off the lights and gone to sleep. Who cares?