The problem

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THE third anniversary of the third BJP led dispensation at the Centre was marked by little cheer. And despite Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Advani waxing eloquent about the many achievements of the regime few missed the significance of the absence of Prime Minister Vajpayee and other NDA allies. Even the relatively successful conduct of the recently concluded elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, unlike a similar exercise held at the same time in neighbouring Pakistan, was unable to bolster the mood. The BJP, after all, had just suffered a humiliating rout in its base area of Jammu setting the stage for its principal opposition party to assume power in the 15th state in the Union. Brave talk that ‘we may have lost but democracy has won’ cuts little ice in the current political climate.

Evidently, despite having survived for three years, a sharp contrast to its earlier innings of 13 days and 13 months respectively, the ruling coalition continues to be marked by tensions with episodic crises rocking its shaky foundations. Recurrent stories of an apparent rift between the two top leaders, the increasingly assertive role of the sundry organisations of the Sangh Parivar and the need to turn a blind eye to the perfidies of the allies have ensured a veritable collapse of even the common minimum agenda for governance, forget more complex policy initiatives towards restoring peace in insurgency affected areas or ensuring greater harmony in the region. Despite the recent moves at demobilisation, the fact that close to half a million troops are still amassed on our western borders at great social and economic cost, is proof enough that not all is well in Bharatvarsha.

True, not all our current ills can be laid at the door of the regime ruling the Centre. Politics, particularly electoral politics, has long been in a state of flux with no party being in a position on its own to construct a majority. And while electoral verdicts at the state level do, in the main, result in a stable regime, the same cannot be ensured at the level of the Union. Unfortunately, given both our political system and culture, managing fractious coalitions becomes a near impossible task. What suffers, given the centrality of the state in our polity, is coherent policy formulation, and worse implementation.

The task of forging a consensus – on policies, institutions and mechanisms – has been made more difficult by the BJPs aggressive social agenda; its foregrounding of Hindutva and cultural nationalism has added to the insecurities of our many minorities, the most recent example of which is the continuing mismanagement of riot-affected Gujarat.

Earlier this year, we witnessed a horrifying breakdown of all norms of civilized behaviour in a state that the BJP presents as its experiment in social engineering. The carnage of March and April, even by conservative official estimates, left over a thousand dead, many more displaced and made internal refugees, and the strengthening of a mindset that affords little space for remorse, much less reconciliation.

Despite dozens of official and non-official reports on Gujarat 2002, few of those allegedly responsible have been charge-sheeted and convicted. Chief Minister Modi’s Gaurav Yatra, matched unfortunately by the rhetoric of the opposition, has deepened the climate of insecurity. More disturbing, however, is the clean chit provided to the state administration by the Central leadership, in effect signalling that aggressive, competitive politics will remain the norm till elections are held in the state.

Not only has no attempt been made to resettle and rehabilitate the riot affected, barring by a few civil society organisations, there is little effort to improve the business climate. The overtly anti-minority, anti-Dalit sentiment is slowly, but steadily, acquiring anti-outsider undertones causing many professionals to relocate. That this is happening in a state long perceived as well run, welcoming and investor friendly, all for ostensible short-run gains, remains a sad reflection on our democratic culture.

If Gujarat, or J&K, or the insurgency affected states of the North East represent one facet of our breakdown, the current standoff over the sharing of the Cauvery waters reflects another. And this time around neither party in confrontation belongs to the ruling coalition in the Centre. The problem is an old one. But despite the existence of a Cauvery Rivers Authority, a dispute settlement mechanism involving not just the riparian states but the Centre, and clear interim directions by the Supreme Court, the parties concerned refuse to budge from their respective positions and seem set for an ugly confrontation. No better example can be cited about the contempt in which legal, constitutional institutions and mechanisms are held by the political class.

Examples like the above can be cited ad nauseam. Only last month, the country celebrated the birth anniversary of Jayaprakash Narayan, hailed by many as the second Gandhi, the architect of the anti-Emergency movement, and an advocate for electoral reforms and clean politics. The high regard in which JP is held is brilliantly illustrated by the rare unanimity expressed by the political class in rejecting the Supreme Court and Election Commission directives to reduce criminalisation of politics. Clearly, those who seek electoral office, across party lines, are unwilling that voters learn about their antecedents – criminal record, assets and outstandings to public financial institutions. An exercise of ‘informed choice’, evidently is too radical to contemplate. Are we surprised that our political class is held in such low esteem?

If politics is too troubling, the news from the economic front adds little cheer. The recent downgrading of the country’s credit rating by Standard and Poor, this despite healthy foreign exchange reserves, only highlights that after a few years of reasonable growth, the reform process seems stalled. Numerous legislations, in particular those dealing with financial sector and labour reforms, lie undiscussed in Parliament. The story about the disinvestment and privatisation process is no different.

The acrimonious debate about state versus markets misses the point. What is needed, if we want to achieve high growth rates, is to set up new institutional mechanisms that facilitate wealth creation, improve investor confidence and free the entrepreneurial spirit without sacrificing the interests of labour or those in the informal sector. Equally, to massively invest in infrastructure and skill upgradation such that our enterprises become technologically efficient and competitive. An obsessive preoccupation with fiscal deficits, or protecting one’s own turf (evidenced in the disinvestment standoff), or overplaying the swadeshi card only results in a continuation of the status quo.

Few argue that this is easy, more so in an economy marked by recession and enmeshed in an uncertain global market. There is also no denying the rigidities of initial conditions – poverty and inequality. But if, despite overflowing stocks of foodgrains in our warehouses, respective regimes are unable to run massive food for work programmes designed to create and upgrade rural assets, then the failure is only political. The fact that millions continue to experience chronic malnutrition, five decades after independence, remains our greatest blot.

Another arena where the prognosis remains uncertain relates to security – internal and external. Foreign policy was long perceived as an arena of national consensus. No longer. The decision to ally more closely with the U.S., in particular its questionable ‘war against terrorism’, may well have contributed to not just alienating old allies but, more importantly, disregarding other arrangements. Relations with our immediate neighbours are hardly warm, even though it can be argued that the tensions are not all of our making. Similarly, in our obsession with cornering Pakistan, partly for internal political compulsions, not only did we go overtly nuclear thereby exacerbating fears in the neighbourhood, our arms buildup has created severe economic strain.

Our single greatest failure, however, has been one of imagination and an inability to both reform older institutions and create new ones – legal, educational, health, economic and technological – such that they are both inclusive and purposive. In the early post independence years, India, of all post-colonial Third World countries seemed best placed with respect to social infrastructure. No longer. Unbridled populism and mismanagement has brought even the best of our institutions to a sorry pass. Are we surprised that so many of our young, resources and opportunity permitting, want to migrate.

It is not difficult to add to the litany of ills, only adding to collective depression. What, however, is equally true is the amazing energy and vitality, particularly among the youth. It is insufficiently realised that India is a young and increasingly urban society, with new generations seeking to evolve new norms and values, express new desires, construct new lifestyles. There is little patience with earlier shibboleths, social restraints and taboos, the increasingly empty moralism associated with invocations of the freedom struggle.

The varieties of new business and occupations, the mushrooming of civil society organisations responding to both old and new problems, new leadership emerging from the panchayats, the assertion of local control over local resources, movements for transparency and accountability – each of these and more represents a new stirring, simultaneously exciting and dangerous. Exciting in the desire to look ahead rather than to the past, dangerous because expectations fuelled but unrealised lead to anomie and violence.

Societies in transition experience great stress, more so if the rate of change is greater than what our institutions are designed for. This issue of Seminar explores some of the contingent and perennial concerns that an old civilization but young society is trying to grapple with.