Friday, April 15, 2011

In an acoustic shadow

In an acoustic shadow
By M J Akbar

Third Eye - Byword in India Today April 15, 2011

The question was moot: should a government rush in to pre-empt a crisis with some deft foot-play; or does it make more sense to wait, bide your time and see if the crisis falls into a ditch on the way to your doorstep? The context of this conversation over an amiable lunch in New York was Cairo's Tahrir Square, but it could so easily have been Jantar Mantar in Delhi.

Long experience in power has taught the Congress to wait. So much can happen along the way. A challenge can run out of steam, get diverted by the unforeseen, split into disarray by dysfunctional leadership. Why develop a long-term strategy when short-term tactics will do? Those at the pinnacle content themselves with minimal verbal intervention, leaving noise in the custody of mid-level leaders who can be disowned in a crunch: ministers without political flesh, or hapless spokesmen taught to spin. When you talk every day, who listens? And if anyone does listen, who remembers?

Time is generally an ally of establishment. Governments prefer the pace of sober elephants; and Congress is an elephant with a long memory, heavy tread, institutional demeanour and the amoral ability to crush the skull of an enemy without a pause in its stride when opportunity beckons. But what happens when such an elephant slips on a banana peel? Is that a comedy or a tragedy? Probably a bit of both, to that merciless spectator with a permanent pass to the arena, the voter. Even if the elephant does get back on its feet, its dignity is lost, its majesty punctured.

The UPA Government has slipped in a peculiarly silly manner, repeatedly sending invitations to a whole bunch of bananas as if one or two might be insufficient to destabilise its bearings. Its fatal flaw has been a complete miscalculation about the nature of India's anger against corruption. It dismissed the challenge as yet another ploy from a bedraggled opposition, or, more boringly, some phantom right-wing lurking in the dark shadows of the national psyche. It has encouraged pro-establishment elements to howl against imagined conspiracy, just as it did in the case of Jayaprakash Narayan nearly four decades ago.

The roar that is echoing through the country is the voice of the people, not a political party. The default position of a government under siege is to retreat into an 'acoustic shadow'. This is a term from warfare. The shadow is a strange zone in which you can see the flash of cannon fire but cannot hear any sound, although the thunder may be perfectly audible to those further away. This almost metaphysical condition serves as an unconscious suspension of a faculty that can register some dangerous truth, creating a psychological comfort zone. The UPA is ensconced in this shadow.

Dr Manmohan Singh might have been more comfortable in this crisis were he a complete cynic. He is paying a heavy price for some residual sincerity thoroughly inappropriate to the politics of UPA survival. If all politics is touched by theatre, then the central characters obviously become instruments of high drama.

Dr Singh is principal lead in a five-act tragedy, but neither as Macbeth nor Othello. You can almost see the developing split in his personality as he struggles, Hamlet-like, to be or not to be. His instinct tells him to be; then his lawyers turn up and suggest that he buy time with rhetoric or manipulation of detail, as if this nation were nothing more than a debating society. India expects Dr Singh to act; his lawyerministers tell him to argue.

His dilemma might be explicable to a sympathiser, but will not be condoned by the people. Action involves high risk to his coalition. The arrest of A. Raja in the telecom case has already strained the Congress' flexibility with the DMK to breaking point; the next stretch heads towards the Karunanidhi family. You can flay a scapegoat with as much flourish as you wish, but you cannot condemn the high priest of the temple where you have prayed in partnership. Still waiting in the wings of accountability is a middleweight like Sharad Pawar. Can Dr Singh drop Pawar in his much-promised reshuffle after the Assembly results in May? No.

The government is mired in the status quo, and the status has become septic. Gangrene will waste Congress limbs even as it cripples allies. The only escape route is drastic action, which is improbable, or a general election, which is impossible. In theory there is no threat to the UPA. But governments are elected to rule, not merely to survive. In their present mood, Indians have distilled governance to a single demand: eliminate, or at least control, corruption.

Instead of meeting this crisis head-on, months ago, Dr Singh has allowed the crisis to implode in a serial sequence. Time, they say, waits for no man; but even less so for those who wait for their time to come.


Anoop Verma said...

I have always been a great follower of M J Akbar, there is so much that one can learn about India from reading his books, articles and essays. In the present article, his focus is completely on the errors that the government of Shri Manmohan Singh has made in dealing with corruption. I agree with these views completely. Manmohan Singh ji has failed to keep up with the expectations that we had from him.

However, I continue to even more suspicious of this so-called anti-corruption crusade by Civil Society. By what criteria are they saying that they represent the entire country? Did they talk to each and every Indian? They have already expressed their contempt for voters as well as politicians. By what criteria are they saying that the five members of the panel chosen to represent the so-called Civil Society in the panel that drafts the Lok Pal bill are the only five saints in the entire country?

How does on acquire the halo of a saint in this age of cynicism that has now truly dawned in India?

Corruption can also be directly proportional to the political power that a man has. A person with zero amount of political power has zero scope for being corrupt and hence he has no alternative except to be completely honest. A person with huge amount of political power has ample scope for being corrupt, and he might as well turn out to be corrupt.

The five saintly individuals put forth by the Civil Society have already declared their assets. We are satisfied with that. But declaring assets is not enough. We still don’t know what lies inside their mind. What if they are guilty of - “Thought Crime!” You may not have taken a bribe, but at some point of time, maybe in your dreams, you might have lusted for a bribe. If someone has lusted for a bribe in his or her dreams, then he cannot be called completely honest, because at a subconscious level they are lusting for an opportunity.

So the ultimate test of honesty can only come when a person has been given absolute political power and still chooses to be honest. I don’t think these five saintly individuals have ever enjoyed absolute political power, the kind of political power that Shri Suresh Kalmadi or Shri A Raja has had the chance to enjoy in recent past. So how can these five saints call themselves completely honest? It is remotely possible that if they had enjoyed absolute political power then they might not be able to control their emotions.

The bottom line is that there aren’t any saints. Everyone is corruptible. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Pick up the holiest saint from anywhere in the world and give him absolute power, you will soon have an outrageous sinner in your hands. The fight against corruption should never be dependent on individuals, because every individual is equally capable of being corrupted by political power. Rather we should focus on changing the system, so that no one individual is able to attain absolute power.

If at some future date we have a Lok Pal with absolute power, as is being envisaged by certain anti-corruption crusaders, then I have no doubt at all that the institution too will fall prey to hubris and it will become as corrupt as any other institution in our socialist government.

Rajiv Kumar said...

It is completely delusional to compare Tahrir Square with Jantar Mantar. Mr. Akbar you do much better when you do research and write thorough books but your columns like the present one are nothing but typical Indian rant. In middle east the uprising to get democratic institutions and here you are supporting hoisting of unelected bodies. God save India from columnists like you!

Anandh said...

The congress still survives in the legacy of mahatma gandhi. I see congress as a political party. Unfortunately many people see congress as "freedom fighter". Till the perception that congress means "freedom fighter", the struggle will continue. It happened during JP movement. India is not same after that. And it is happening again. India will not be same after this. It doesn't matter what happens next, but India will never be the same. But only time will tell whether the movement is towards prosperity or rouge government