NEW YEAR NON-THOUGHTS- Contraries and contradictions, as usual
That cliché of confusion being worse confounded hardly fits. The impasse over the lok pal bill is not a new low in the political absurdity otherwise known as India; it is a faithful reflection of that absurdity. Nothing goes with anything else. Yet, no cause for worry, everything goes with everything else. You attempt to inconvenience your adversary by adopting his or her platform as your own; he or she makes an instant counter-move that leaves egg all over your face. It is the Left who, with its long record of extra-sensitivity over Centre-state relations, should have questioned the proposals concerning the ambit and modality of the selection of the lokayukta. Instead, the Trinamul Congress walked away with the prize.
Of course, on the issue of bringing the corporate sector under the vigil of the lok pal, the solid phalanx of nearly all the non-Left parties was predictable. Almost each one of these parties has a symbiotic link with this or that corporate group, or with several of them. Leaving this issue aside, it was a genuine free-for-all. The goings-on in Samsad Bhavan in the fast fading final week of the old year brought back memories of Arab sheikhdoms during the many decades of the 20th century: Sheikh A broke bread at Sheikh B’s tent in the morning, the two pledged to liquidate Sheikh C before mid-day. Come lunch time. Sheikh A was seen confabulating with Sheikh C on how to do in Sheikh B as expeditiously as possible. Late afternoon, Sheikh C had a change of heart and mind, and was closeted with Sheikh B even as Sheikh A forged a new alliance with Sheikh D so as to arrange a joint expedition against the forces gathered together by Sheikhs B and C. However, soon after sundown, it transpired that the Sheikhs A, B and D had sealed a great entity to vent their wraths on that deviant devil, Sheikh C. Close to midnight, a communiqué gets issued: Arab unity is not something negotiable in the market place, the Arabs are one and indivisible, no conspiracy can tear them apart; a decision has been reached to constitute a United Arab Sheikhdom, all heathens should better beware of the just deserts awaiting them. Come daybreak, nobody talks of the United Sheikhdom, the sheikhs resume their game of alternately coalescing with and conspiring against one another.
The no-winner no-loser denouement of the lok pal bill will be lived with till the Uttar Pradesh poll — and beyond. Assembly elections are to be held in four other states too; they do not however matter, only Uttar Pradesh does: don’t you know, the population of this state is of the same size as Pakistan’s? In addition, it has already given us five prime ministers, three of the five coming from the same family. A fourth one from the household is — at least, in his own reckoning — the heir-presumptive to the position. The outcome of the UP poll is reckoned to be bellweather of whatever the future holds for this nation.
During the campaign in Uttar Pradesh, the deadlocked bill will be the shuttlecock to be flung about. Theists die hard. Some of them do not have the least doubt that once this election in the northern state is over, India will be out of the present mess, things will fall to their place, even as Uttar Pradesh decides whether it will stay as an integer or prefer to be a bit of a pentagon, the lok pal legislation will get a definitive shape. Perhaps it will, it will at the same time still mean all things to all men. But let that pass. For, for some believers, the February-March poll will also settle once and for all whether the country will henceforth be ruled by the till-now-taken-for-granted crown prince. The prognosis proceeds further such that, with relative quiet descending on the political fronts and frontiers, the economy will mount back to the primrose path of deliriously high growth rates.
Free thinking allows scope for all possibilities. A somewhat more confident assertion runs as follows. India will remain unchanging, or, as they say, as it changes, it will remain the same. Nor will it be in any danger of losing its position as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Call it a paradox, call it an enigma, perhaps at the root of the uncertainties besetting the country is its wide diversities. The nation’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was in fanatical love with these diversities. A mystical unity underlying the heterogeneities was the pet theme in his discourses. All the time he was wont to urge countrymen to be proud of this unity in diversities.
There is the naughty story of how, at a mass meeting, Nehru, waxing eloquent on the splendours attached to the nation’s rich diversities, went overboard and was heard to declaim: our country is a grand concourse of varieties, oddities, contradictions, with each contributing to its strength; India has villages, it has cities, it has beautiful poetry, but it can also gloat over the scientific talent and technological skills of its people; it is at work, it is at play; it has agriculture, it has industry; we have big industry, but small industry too is taken care of, why, we have employment, we have unemployment as well. Were he still around, who knows, he would perhaps have made an additional embellishment: we have integrity, we are not lacking in magnificent corruption either.
The dear old prime minister’s perception was dead right. India continues to be the country of contraries and contradictions. The code tucked in the national psyche says, “Live and let live.” Contradictions therefore need not be resolved. The lok pal bill may finally emerge as a statute, but, given the multiplicity of interests that will insert specific caveats before they permit the legislation to go through, it is likely to be toothless enough for even the most corrupt ones in society not to have any problem in co-existing with it.
It will be the same story with everything of substance in the polity. For instance, crowds championing the cause of this or that caste will occasionally riot on the streets or threaten to withhold their votes and thereby snatch some extra benefits for themselves. At the next round, it will be the turn of another set speaking up on behalf of another caste or community to repeat the exercise and wrest some extra dividends for them. Once, the phenomenon of quotas really gets going, it should be possible to stretch it to unbelievable lengths, so much so that the sum of the allocations to different allottees often exceeds the total allocation specified for a given project. The upshot will be disappointment, sporadic uprising and chaos. But, then, if it comes to that, it is always possible to increase allocations by issuing fresh treasury bills, which supposedly goes against the grammar of sound financial management. The International Monetary Fund can initially frown at such a practice. It can be quietly talked to and made to see reason; even the Fund has of late begun to learn the lessons of political reality; it has been able to do very little to correct the economic mess in the United States of America and Europe, why lecture to us?
There will be other problems though. Both inside Parliament and out of it, just anywhere in this far-flung country, voices will articulate the demands of millions and millions of needy and deprived people. These will be of a different category than the fun and games of reservations, and call for separate assuaging. On the other hand, those organising the standard pressure campaigns will gradually grasp the nitty-gritty of agitation games. It will be foolish to push too hard a regional or sectarian demand.
In any case, very few of the concessions announced percolate all the way down to advance the material welfare of the caste or community or group in the name of whom the demands are pitched. That is, however, not the overt concern of the principal players engaged in the political chessboard of India. They, most of them, endorse the dictum of one step at a time. Winning some of the points at issue should do for the present; at the level of functional politics, a kind of temporary equilibrium is reached.
A major group — the tribal community — is however missed in the equilibrium. That story is now well known. Even for the tribals, though, it is no longer the aura of dumb submission, they have been ensnared in a game that is, to say the least, gentlemanly and is cause for concern for participants in the regular tournaments. A certain quota of funds has to be kept aside to deal with these deviants and with similar others roaming in the hills and valleys of Kashmir.
Altogether, there is never a dull moment. Fusillades of gunfire to subdue the rebels keep pace with ritual fasts in the Ramlila grounds; a royal dynasty strains to legitimize itself by preaching food security and practising liquidation of the public distribution system; a prime minister who does not know why he is there but who likes being there; a government having allies who are less to be trusted than the formal opposition; an opposition consisting of different formations greatly mindful of maintaining a safe distance from one other; a polity where political ideology has been reduced to garbage; a budget where defence and security hog the appropriations while public spending on education, health and social welfare is perfunctory; workers who are forced to go through the seemingly endless season of joblessness; farmers who allegedly indulge in suicide when they could have sold their crop to purchasers representing global retail outfits at gorgeous prices.
Never mind all this, there is still always another day and another year. There is only one question mark. In an ambience of faster-than-light communications, it is extraordinarily difficult to hide two phenomena under the carpet. One is increase in prices, the other is rapidly disappearing foreign-exchange holdings. A rising spiral of prices can be sought to be disciplined by imports from overseas. Recourse to this measure, however, entails running down exchange reserves and at the same time weakening the external value of the domestic currency, which itself can provide impetus to a further decline in foreign exchange holdings. Such morbid thinking should not detain India; it is sui generis.