BEWARE THE IDES OF JUNE
by M.J. Akbar
Byword - In India Today
There is something about June that does not quite agree with Congress fortunes. On June 25, 1946, the Congress accepted the Wavell plan to protect a notional form of Indian unity, only to walk away from its decision in a fortnight and open the party to accusations that may have become archaic, but never quite disappear from history books. On June 4, 1947, the Congress accepted the partition of India. Mahatma Gandhi, sitting in Delhi’s Dalit colony, mourned: “Today, I find myself alone… (even Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru) wonder if I have not deteriorated with age.”
Gandhi, Patel and Nehru would have got together to cry on June 26, 1975 when Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency, and the country hovered in anxiety and fear while her son Sanjay repeatedly expressed the thought that dictatorship should continue for another two decades. Maybe the old guard knew about the June malaise: Jayaprakash Narayan launched the movement that precipitated the Emergency in June 1974. Indira Gandhi’s second terrible historic blunder, Operation Bluestar, took place on June 6, 1984. A closer scrutiny of dates and events would surely produce more interesting data, albeit on a sliding scale in descent.
The follies of June 2011 may seem squalid, particularly when juxtaposed with some contemporary characters who have seized centrestage, compared to the great confrontations over nationalism, democracy and federalism in Junes past, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the fury that has seized Indians over black money and corruption. A complacent and even arrogant Congress is showing every sign of doing precisely that. It believes it can mollify Anna Hazare and vilify Baba Ramdev just as it once thought it could ignore Anna and deal with Baba by stroking the latter’s ego. This is a petty strategy for a profound problem.
The voter is recording every scene of this volatile drama in his subconscious, and that montage will determine the next elections. History tells us that it is virtually impossible to defeat the Congress until it takes a very determined vow to defeat itself.
Paradoxically, the problem of corruption is a consequence of success. Before 1947, the British did not need to ferret away black money, because they could pick up as much white money from India as they wanted. Empire apologists, or their Indian sycophants, rarely acknowledge the war debt that Britain owed India after 1945, and which it could not pay when free India needed the money most.
The black economy was a marginal fact for three decades after freedom, because when you don’t have much of an economy, black economy can’t be much of a deal either. In the 1960s and 1970s, smuggling was a theatrical reality for newspapers and movies, but it did not penetrate the bloodlines of the Indian economy. Today, corruption is leukemia. The Indian is both awed by a figure like Rs 1.76 lakh crore, as well as nonplussed by it. It is so fantastic that it floats into the notional. What makes Rs 1.76 lakh crore real is the fact that Indians have to pay Rs 176 at every corner every day to get every small thing done by government, or indeed the multiples they pay as a bribe to twist the law or ignore it. The result is a deadly mixture of rage and guilt. Underlying both is a gradual conviction that if matters continue as they are, the nation state will corrode. The young are at the forefront because they want to protect an India they know will blossom once it is rescued from those who have infected its bloodstream.
This national fury has found a legitimate target in the politician, because the political class has outstripped all competition to become the most obnoxiously rapacious exploiter in modern history. Businessmen at least provide jobs. Politicians fatten files when they are not fattening themselves. In 1739, Nadir Shah looted Delhi for three days, and we have not forgotten. Politicians have welcomed the 21st century with loot on an unprecedented scale.
It is ironic that this loot has taken place under the watch of a decent Prime Minister who has kept his personal distance from the sack of India. But Dr Manmohan Singh’s financial integrity is of little use to Indians when he presides over a Cabinet weighed down with the corrupt. He refused, for years, to recognise guilty colleagues because that would have brought his government down, although he knew precisely what they were doing. This continues to be true. The current crusade is being led by non-political actors because Indians no longer trust their politicians. There is stain on every side. It is necessary to note that when they believe a politician to be honest, they reward him with reelection.
If 2004 was the best year in Manmohan Singh’s life, then he might, when he gets to write his autobiography, rue the day he was reelected in 2009.