Friday, January 21, 2011

Fig Leaf

Fig leaf
By M J Akbar

Third Eye (Byword) - India Today
January 21, 2011

Government is instinctively equated with power; and we expect the powerful to fall with a thud like an oak tree that makes the earth quiver. The ambience of authority makes us oblivious to another possibility. A government can also fall like a leaf. The time between twig and turf can stretch beyond the laws of gravity as the leaf is tossed by gusts of wind, or even driven up by continual storms. The turmoil of movement creates the illusion of life, but the truth is that the leaf is dead the moment it drops from the tree. Descent may take time, and burial even longer, but the fact of death cannot be changed.

The life of a government is measured by the gauge of credibility. It would be altogether too dramatic to write an obituary of the Manmohan Singh Government so soon. It may not be dead, but it was getting discredited. A double squeeze, of inflation and corruption, is sucking the breath out of this coalition. These two angry constituencies are not necessarily the same, although there is of course overlap. But the poor who are comparatively indifferent to corruption, dismissing it as an exchange of wealth within a broadband to which they have no access, are in despair over the escalating price of their basic needs. And the better off, who are comparatively indifferent to inflation, describing it as the inevitable price that an economy must pay for growth, are livid at the blatant loot that seems to have become a way of authorised life in Delhi.

A government might be able to handle one monster, but a combination of two leaves little room to manoeuvre. The urban middle class, Dr Singh's strongest support base, cannot quite get the logic of a reality in which the price of food rises by 30 per cent and the number of troops in the Kashmir warzone is reduced by 25 per cent. The middle class would much prefer the reverse.

The voter cannot understand what is happening because no one in the ruling class bothers to explain any statement or decision. If a big wheel like Home Secretary G.K. Pillai had some private information about a matching and verifiable downscaling of Pak forces on the other side of the Line of Control before he announced a unilateral reduction as part of a larger peace deal, he did not let us know. Instead, within 24 hours Pillai was standing on his other leg, accusing Pakistan of soft-pedalling on anti-Indian terrorism.

The two don't add up, unless I have lost my ability to count. Anything can happen when you live in Delhi.

Our human tendency towards drama has stretched the meaning of anarchy into the realm of confusion, violence and mayhem. But the pristine meaning of the word is more relevant: "lack of organisation and control, especially in society because of an absence or failure of government". The prime minister obviously cannot admit this in public, but he was responding to a growing perception of "absence or failure" when he decided that a reshuffle was necessary. This is too early for a normal shuffle; a mid-term correction should take place in the middle of the five-year term, not after just 18 months. A climate of crisis, and the hope that Dr Singh would reassert control of the ship of state, created expectations that would have been always difficult to honour. In the event, it was a bland sideways shuffle, rather than slash and burn of the ineffective and corrupt. But hidden in the seeming nonevent was a sharp message written with a scalpel. This shuffle has separated cronies from capitalists. That is the meaning of Murli Deora's shift from petroleum to corporate affairs. This first step needs to be supplemented by a great leap forward.

Every deal in a coalition involves give and take. Has the prime minister given more than he has taken? No one has been dropped; upliftment was cosmetic. Praful Patel, for instance, may have risen in status but dipped in influence. The most optimistic pro-prime minister gloss on the exercise is that this is a lastchance saloon before the real cull begins. Well, some of the big boys in this UPA have shot their way to survival before, and they will not go down without putting some lead into their opponents.

The leaf is still trembling on the tree; and it is in Dr Manmohan Singh's ability to ensure that it gets new life or breaks off. But he does not have much time.


Learner said...

Akbar Saheb,
There is so much fun reading what you write- one can also feel the fun you have writing it. You writings also show how by working hard on something for a long time, one can get as close to perfection as possible- राह पकड़ तू एक चला चल, पा जाइएगा मधुशाला.
God bless you and give you long life and good health.
Warm regards,

Wali said...

Dear Mr. Akbar,
I have been a quiet fan of yours for a considerable length of time. Rarely have I missed a piece in 'By Line' or 'Third Eye'.
'Fig Leaf' is a story told beautifully as you always do! What amazed me the most was that, as a Bangladeshi, one could change a few words of 'Fig Leaf' and make it a perfect story applicable to Bangladesh!
How very similar is the situation in these two neighborly countries!
Corruption, food price inflation, public perception are all very similar.
The only difference in public perception is, what your people think of Pakistani insurgents, our people think the same of Indian BSF deployed in Indo-Bangla border!
Mr. Pillai can't do much about the former, but he can definitely do a lot about the later, I'm sure!

With warmest regards,
Waliul Haque Khondker
Dhaka, Bangladesh.