Indian Politics


The Indian bureaucracy, it seems, is not without a sense of humour. Really perverse humour, but humour nevertheless.

Lalgarh, like Nandigram and Naxalbari, has become another addition, courtesy West Bengal, to our socio-political lexicon. Here’s an article where one of the Maoists has said that their movement’s raison d’être is the Government – or more accurately, the lack of it. So whether it is healthcare, roads or irrigation, the People have taken matters into their own hands and seem to have a done a surprising amount of work. And it’s not just Lalgarh – it is estimated that in around a third of India’s total districts, the state really doesn’t exist – which is why, from time to time, it tries to prove its existence by swatting a couple of hapless citizens to keep the rest of us in line.

So it was with some surprise that I read this piece about the performance appraisal of civil servants. Given this country’s experience with the performance appraisal system for politicians – also known as elections – you will forgive my scepticism about this whole business. Performance and Government really don’t belong together in the same sentence. Not in India, at least.

Even if one discounts surveys like the one quoted here, which ranks Indian bureaucrats – and by implication, the Indian state – as the least efficient among the 12 Asian nations surveyed, very many Indians would agree that the state, where it exists, rarely rises above its torpor and lethargy, and where it doesn’t exist, well, it just doesn’t exist. So how on earth, with the state absent from about a third of the country, and in self-aggrandising mode in the rest, can people in the various branches that make up the civil services actually give themselves and their colleagues 10/10? But that’s exactly what our fine Babus have done.

Like I said, these people have a devilish sense of humour.

Unfortunately, as always, the joke’s on us.

All of you know that I can always be relied upon to point to a dark cloud for every silver lining that you see. Well, there’s no more need to despair. The cynic has decided to hang up his boots. I have decided to join the ranks of the jubilant and the optimistic, as we look forward to another five years of magic.

And while seeking to validate (to myself, primarily – you know how old cynicisms die hard) this sunny outlook, I came across some observations that make me feel we are on the right path.

For starters, India is clearly bucking the global recession. We are getting richer and wealthier. Evidence lies in the fact that the combined declared net worth of our 543 MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha is Rs. 3075 crores. Or 5.66 crores per MP. Not bad. And before anyone tries to puncture my balloon by pointing out that this total could be influenced by a few extreme values (a most regrettable tendency of this measure of Central Tendency!), do consider the fact that of the 543, there are 300 that have assets of at least 1 crore. The comparable number for the 14th Lok Sabha was 154. An almost 100% rate of growth. Not bad for an allegedly poor country. I’m already feeling better about myself. Ready to take on the world and all that.

The number of criminals has also shown a fairly robust increase. There has been a healthy increase of 17.2% in the number of MPs facing criminal charges (from 128 to 150), and an even more spectacular increase of 32.7% in the number of MPs facing serious criminal charges (from 55 to 73). Numbers that have beaten Street Expectations! No wonder the Sensex was up 2110 points. Good news again – we are moving towards a more inclusive society, with none of those old, regressive prejudices against criminals.

Finally, while no figures have been quoted to buttress this claim, it seems that the number of MPs belonging to political khandans has also hit a new high. Which we intuitively know to be true, and which is also reassuring because it tells us that that basic unit of Indian society, the family, the parivaar, the kutumb, is thriving.

My only wish is that we see this trend to its logical conclusion. Why don’t we have a government that actually combines all these stellar qualities? A family-based model of governance that is also wealthy, progressive and inclusive. One that has all the right boxes ticked when it comes to caste, region, religion, gender, criminal sensibilities and the lot. But that ain’t the best part baby – just wait: we already have all the right people for this. What do you think of a government that comprises Daddy, Amma, Behenji, Didi, and Bhaijaan? And, to ensure we don’t lose sight of our great heritage in this mad rush to be a superpower, we need a spiritual advisor. Every good Indian family has one. Enter Guruji.

So what do you think, people? Wishful thinking, or can this be India’s reality someday?

I never thought this would be possible, but over the past few weeks, my cynicism has hit new highs! I have been observing the circus around us, and all I have to show for it is an increasing sense of dismay and dread.

For starters, here’s another brilliant example of Indian lawmaking: under-trials in India can’t vote. But what utterly confounds me is the fact that while an under-trial can’t vote, he sure as hell can contest elections and even become a minister. Go figure.

What about the fact that all candidates, across all parties, seem to be millionaires and billionaires? Some inherited their wealth. Some are self-made businesspersons and professionals. And then there is the vast majority whose net worth runs into many hundreds of millions, and no one has a clue about where this money came from. It’s such a cliché, this “impoverished-nation-rich-politicians” bit, but it seems to be the hallmark of Indian politics today. There can only be two explanations. Either only the rich become politicians, or all politicians become rich. Neither answer bodes well for the sham we’ve got going.

Then there’re these amazing news-blackouts that happen. Varun Gandhi is hauled over the coals, but Srinivas and Laloo’s peccadilloes are looked upon way more indulgently. The amount of coverage given to Modi in connection with the Gujarat riots is phenomenal. We are united in condemning, over and over, his acts of villainy and the many acts of commission and omission that followed. But when it comes to news reports that Teesta Setalvad coached, tutored and made witnesses lie in the Gujarat riots case, cooking up macabre incidents and concocting crimes that apparently never happened, the sense of national outrage is missing. The talking heads on TV maintain a studied silence, as do the pundits of print. And I fail to see any outpourings of rage in the many blogs that are so quick to judge, condemn and crucify otherwise. (Update: The CJP has questioned the veracity of the report, the TOI journalist stands by his story, and the SIT chief refuses to comment on whether the ‘leaked’ reports were true or not. We’re still no closer to the truth.)

Comparisons may be odious. But one can’t help recall how the US navy’s snipers kicked Somalian butt and rescued the Merchant Navy Captain held hostage. Would we ever have had the courage to do something like that? Will we ever be respected as a nation, forget feared?

When Harbhajan and Dhoni skipped the Padma Shri awards, our Impartial-Election-Commissioner-turned-Sports-Minister started foaming at the mouth. But some idiot has actually filed a lawsuit against the duo, alleging hurt and defamation. Hundreds of other issues to choose from, but this moron was offended because two cricketers found the opportunity cost of attending an award ceremony too high. Clearly, unemployment is a serious problem.

The first phase of polling saw a voter turnout of 54%. That’s it. Just 54%. Good going, India. And most of them would, predictably, have voted based on caste, language and religion. Everyone forgot the famines, the hunger, the suicides, the malnutrition, the desperate and unhealthy squalor that so many of our fellow citizens live in. Development, the criminalisation of politics, security and safety weren’t concerns. All that mattered was the surname and caste-certificate of the candidate. Was he one of us, or an outsider? Well done, people! That should see us change. That should ensure we prosper. Go India Go!

Did I forget to mention that I find it funny that most political parties in India are run like fiefdoms? They are autocratic – either autocratic-dynastic (most of the parties – Congress, DMK, NCP, NC, SP, SS etc), or first-generation autocratic (BSP, AIADMK). There is no such thing as intra-party democracy. Tell me, how can we trust any of these people to safeguard the country’s democratic institutions and systems when they clearly don’t believe in democracy in the first place?

To sum up, is there anything to smile about? There are criminals and law-breakers who will represent us and make laws. The increasing evidence of the unaccountable and immense wealth of candidates points to a rotten and hollow political system. Laws are modified and conventions broken to ensure politicians, as a class, proper and survive at our expense. With each passing session, individual freedoms and liberties are curtailed. The law and the police seem to have become instruments of oppression, used to subjugate the citizen. We naively join the happy chorus of the “we-are-a-democracy-and-an-emerging-superpower” song, forgetting that while the political parties themselves don’t practise democracy, when we deign to vote, we do so based on issues of caste, language and religion. We deserve each other.

A few years ago, I had taken a guided tour of the Louvre. The guide stopped in front of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”. As she explained the significance of the painting to us, one sentence really hit home. Pointing to the dead bodies Liberty was marching on, she said “Delacroix painted those to remind us that liberty does not come free. You have to fight to obtain freedom, and fight to preserve it. And perhaps die for it”.

Are we taking too much for granted? Is that why we, the people, are systematically squandering the most valuable thing we have as a nation – constitutional democracy? Is that what will finally hasten our transition into a failed state?

All we Indians have achieved as a nation is to prove to the world, that yes, you can fool all of the people, all of the time.

Never thought I’d say this, but our esteemed health minister has finally made a good suggestion. Hallelujah! And since I’ve been quick to pounce on his follies, it’s only fair I tip my hat when he proposes something that actually makes sense.

Dr. Ramadoss, like many of us, believes that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code must go. (Section 377 makes sex between two men a criminal offence.) Of course, the scrapping of this section falls outside the purview of his ministry, but for whatever it’s worth, his support is important. Here’s to more judicious ideas from our enlightened rulers, rather than the ones we’ve been used to seeing!

So everyone’s now waiting for the trust vote. Miles of newsprint, hours of TV footage and megabytes of blogspace have been devoted to this over the last few days….even though our over-the-top news channels did find the time to splash the SRK-Salman tiff as well. Comic relief.

I don’t even know why this fiasco is going on. Do we seriously expect MPs to vote on the merit of the issue? Do we actually believe that anyone is actually concerned about that much-bandied-about-term, the national interest? Can anyone with any degree of sense fail to see that in the final analysis, it’s going to boil down to money? For after the whips have been issued, there will still be those who can tilt the scales either way. This is their time. This is why they entered politics. This is why they didn’t pursue any education or learning. This is why they chose to walk away from a respectable life. This is why they learnt – to borrow from Mark Knopfler – the dirty tricks. This is where they are finally rewarded for a lifetime of wearing itchy khadi and pretending they care about us.

Now, will somebody explain to me like I’m a four-year old what effing difference does it make to our lives at this point of time whether the government stays or goes?

Because my humble submission is that it will make no difference. Zero. Zilch. Nil. Not because we can do without a government, mind you – but because can anyone – anyone – actually make out the difference between these guys? So the present lot goes, and a new – perforce – “rainbow coalition” comes in. To my mind, the economy will still continue on its downward spiral, terrorists will still strike at will, babus will still take bribes not to do any work, the cops will still shove their lathis up the commoner’s arse, the farmers will still wish for more or less rain depending on where they are, women will still get raped with impunity (and I do not mean this facetiously or flippantly at all….I’m dead serious), children will still die of malnutrition and disease, female foetuses will still be aborted, most of India will still suffer power cuts and drink unsafe water, we will still defecate and spit on the streets, the poor and the unprivileged will still suffer discrimination and hunger and news channels will still pretend that the puerile crap they broadcast is newsworthy.

Or to put it differently, people will still live, fornicate and die.

Now, will somebody explain to me like I’m a four-year old what effing difference does it make to our lives at this point of time whether the government stays or goes?

The Election Commission of India wants the Representation of People’s Act of 1951 to be amended so as to enable them to regulate the registration of political parties in India. That this is indeed a serious problem can be seen from these statistics: we now have 50 (yes, you read that right!) registered recognised political parties and 900 registered unrecognised political parties.

Check out this article.

The EC has a two-stage system for recognising political parties. Stage I is registration. This means that only registered parties can be recognised. Stage II – to move from registered unrecognised to registered recognised depends on whether or not the party in question can demonstrate political activity of some kind for five continuous years. There are also some quantitative benchmarks based on the percentage of votes polled. Considering 50 parties have made the grade, I guess the quantitative benchmarks are not very stringent.

Then there’s this whole to-do about the RTI Act and the sources of political funding. Obviously, the political parties do not want the act to apply to them. So what’s new? Political parties, in time, will make sure that no laws apply to them and their members. They will be, one fine day, legally above the law.

What is interesting is how these two aspects tie-in, courtesy another news item that points out how unknown parties attract huge amounts in funds, and there’s no accounting for this money. In other words, it’s a money laundering racket!

Here’s another interesting piece of news.

We are like this only. What do we expect when any sub-caste of a sub-caste, or a small enclave within a small district within a state becomes the basis for yet another political party? The fragmentation of our politics is an inevitable outcome in a place where linguistic identity, caste or sub-caste affiliation and religious distinctiveness take precedence over lack of development, farmers’ suicides, inflation, lack of education, lack of healthcare, lack of water, lack of nutrition, lack of electricity, lack, in fact, of a basic minimum standard of living.

Is that a good thing or bad? It is both. What is good is that it has enabled marginalised voices to be heard. On the flip side, it has ensured that the fear of the other, the outsider becomes the sole force binding such groups, and everything else then takes a backseat. Because any failure is then the fault of the others. And the sad fact is that this clout and immunity is used as a front for a whole host of illegal activities such as money-laundering, among others.

Is this going to change in a hurry? I don’t think so. If anything, it’s going to get worse, and as smaller and smaller groups embrace the politics of identity and distinctiveness, we may soon have neighbourhood political parties. Like the Mylapore Dravida Nadar Catholic Kazhagam, or the Nizamuddin East Punjabi Hindu Khatri Janata Vikas Manch.

Oh well. At least we can be proud that everyone has a voice in this country. And equal opportunity to launder money!