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I generally desist from commenting on the antics of the West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee or her party members because I have always felt that lesser said about them the better. After all, their actions speak unambiguously for them and they do not stand in need of unsolicited assistance from commentators like me. The ongoing drama (involving the impending dismissal of railways minister Dinesh Trivedi) however has forced me to put my opinion of the lady on record through this blog, if only to vent my utter disgust and frustration with the state of affairs that she has created. Like Dinesh Trivedi, I too feel that somewhere there is a ‘patriot’ hidden deep inside me that yearns to speak out in protest at the open molestation of Indian Democracy and all that it is supposed to stand for.

Sitting in the Secretariat in Calcutta, Ms Banerjee is attempting to single-handedly derail the Union Railway Budget by insisting on the dismissal of the minister responsible for it (who unfortunately belongs to her own party). The ostensible reason for this is her concern for the ‘aam aadmi’ who cannot bear the fare hikes proposed by the minister, and for whom her heart bleeds no end. Quite conveniently however, the same duplicitous heart does not bleed for the aam aadmi in her own state when it comes to hiking the electricity tariff of the state-run power company for whose financial health she is directly responsible. The ministry of railways has long become a regional fiefdom, to be used (or abused) by successive alliance partners to further the cause of their home state. Ms Banerjee had been running it for three years with complete economic abandon, promising to build on railway land and with railway funds projects as fanciful as hospitals, management schools, sports academies, eco parks and even an odd museum in honour of Rabindranath Tagore, and all this without raising passenger fares for the sake of the aam aadmi. Quite obviously, as Mr. Trivedi pointed out, the railways subsided into ‘ICU’, to extricate it from which it became necessary to increase fares for the first time in almost a decade. Railways being an enterprise of the State, the cost of running it has to be borne by the ‘aam aadmi’ whether by way of direct fares or by government subsidies and budgetary support which in turn comes from the various taxes and duties paid to the exchequer by the common man himself. Mr Trivedi had the sense to charge the regular users of the service directly instead of making a poor villager, who seldom boards a train, pay more for every cake of soap or packet of salt. While this is common economic sense to most, the same cannot be said for Mr Trivedi’s populist boss who seems to lack sense in general, whether common or economic.

Ms Banerjee considers the railways portfolio as part of her extended cabinet, which is why she has already nominated one of her trusted flunkeys, Mukul Roy, as Mr. Trivedi’s successor. The latter however has shown great heroism by refusing to step down unless asked to do so formally either by the Prime Minister or his party boss. His prospects in the party and the ministry are obviously over, and he understands that well, but as a parting blow he would like to humiliate Ms Banerjee into dismissing him for presenting the most sensible railway budget in recent times. Whether Ms Banerjee is emotionally capable of humiliation is another matter, but Trivedi needs to be lauded for his sheer steadfastness in the face of shameless politicking by members of his party, including its Chief Whip who is using every sound bite possible to settle scores with Trivedi in a most revolting and vengeful fashion. It remains to be seen what role the Prime Minister will play in all this drama. My guess is that he will play the one he knows best – that of the silent spectator.

My final observation is on Ms Banerjee’s choice of replacement. The departure of Dinesh Trivedi will drastically bring down the mean literacy level of the Trinamul Congress, for he was an outlier to begin with. Being an alumnus of St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta and UT Austin, how he landed up in a party like the TMC is a mystery to me. His prospective successor, however, does not have to justify his existence in the party, for as his official Rajya Sabha profile indicates, he is not even a graduate (having cleared only Part I of his B.Sc course). Such is the farce of Indian democracy that we now stare at the possibility of an organization of 1.4 million people being headed by a man who would be deemed unfit were he to apply for the post of a petty ticketing clerk!

In situations like these, when a mockery is being made of people’s aspirations by selfish, insular politicians, one cannot help but be cynical. Someone recently remarked that politicians like Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee represent a breed of ‘popular dictators’ who are a dangerous combination of propagandist, demagogue and megalomaniac all rolled into one – a kind of Himmler, Goebbels and Hitler in the body of one person. I could not help but agree though I wondered what could be at the root of this problem. I do not think that it is necessarily a lack of wisdom on the part of voters that is responsible for the rise of such people to seats of power. Rather it is a poverty of choice which forces people to gamble between two known devils in the hope that one of them will turn out to be less harmful than the other. Also at fault is the parliamentary system of democracy we practice and which ensures that regional satraps can hold national interests to ransom at whim. Given these constraints, we have been trudging along a path of compromise – a middle path which essentially leads nowhere. In spite of all the romance associated with its size and longevity, the greatest tragedy of India’s democracy is that it has had to settle for mediocrity.

When tomorrow Mamata Banerjee succeeds in replacing Dinesh Trivedi with a half-educated stooge of her choosing and getting him to roll back the fare hike, it shall be just another instance of retrogressive mediocrity winning over progressive and visionary leadership, just another step on that much-trodden middle path.

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Photo courtesy ibnlive.com

Of late, quite a few people I know have asked me for my opinion on the Anna Hazare affair and I have been averting comment. What with all the rumpus and brouhaha generated by the so-called ‘movement’, I found myself irritated with and disinterested in the entire affair. Now that the episode is well behind us, I feel it is possible for me to reflect dispassionately on the past events and lay down my thoughts on some of the issues surrounding it. I have been surfing the internet for opinion pieces on the issue and most of the ones I came across tended to veer towards extremes – either thoroughly dismissing Anna Hazare as a passing irritant, a blackmailer of democracy, a misguided old buffoon who had no sense of the times (like Arundhati Roy’s diatribe against Hazare, reeking obviously of communistic drivel and conspiracy theories)  or else eulogizing him as a modern-day Gandhi and his movement as the harbinger of great changes to come. One cannot expect today’s media to be objective on any issue and it is no surprise then that the more I think about it, I realize that the reality lies somewhere in between the extremes. A rare opinion piece that I found was this, and I feel it puts the issue in somewhat proper perspective. I wish more opinion pieces were written in this vein.

The first question to which I applied my mind was that of the the size or magnitude of this ‘movement’. It is being hailed by many as a mass revolution of the kind not seen since the days of the freedom struggle. All I can say to such commentators is that a basic appreciation of scale and proportion of events is manifestly beyond their grasp. In this age of social networking, when the concept of ‘motion’ is defined by the number of likes on one’s status message or the number of times it has been ‘retweeted’, it is very easy to call an event a mass movement. Even in terms of the awareness that it generated, I suspect much of it was confined to the watchers of 24×7 news channels and Facebook addicts- essentially the urban young and middle-aged. The few who actually ‘moved’ in this movement were the ones who turned up at the Ramlila Maidan, the epicentre of all activity. But even the crowds that assembled there are not a measure of the scale of the movement, for Ramlila Maidan is no far-off Dandi which takes an arduous march to reach, but a centrally located, well-connected public square in the heart of the country’s capital city. I can atleast vouch for the fact that in downtown Jamshedpur, in the corruption-ridden state of Jharkhand, the response to Anna’s call was really muted and I think it must have been the same in any city outside the NCR.

But inspite of all this, it must be conceded that Team Anna are good strategists. They chose their timing (August 15) and location well, and were able to capture the attention of urban India in the shortest time-span and with the least amount of effort. Add to this the government’s stupendous ignorance of elementary statecraft which led it to arrest Anna Hazare and jail him even before he had said the word ‘go’, and you have actually created in a flash a modern-day Gandhi and a crusader against an immoral and highhanded authority. No wonder that even those who were not sure until the last moment if ‘they really were Anna’ were converted as soon as they heard the news of the arrests, if not in the cause of the Lokpal but at least to uphold their own civil liberties.

The next question is that of democracy and whether the tactics employed by Team Anna amounted to a subversion of democracy as some, particularly politicians, have pointed out. I do not see how that can be true. Involvement of non-parliamentarians in the drafting of legislation is an ordinary affair and most bills brought by the government are drafted by experts or bureaucrats who are not parliamentarians. Members of the public, whether in form of NGOs or pressure groups are perfectly justified in seeking representation on a drafting panel, particularly when the envisaged bill is of burning interest to the nation, and it is finally up to the parliament to accept the bill in that form, modify it or reject it altogether. However, the modus operandi adopted by such pressure groups and the government’s reaction to them sets the tone of as well as precedent for future political discourse. In Anna’s case, it was fast-until-death (and pass-the-bill-by-nightfall-or-I-die) which, howsoever justified it may seem to those who are reminded of the fight against the British Raj, is essentially a strong-arming tactic representing complete abdication of reason and appeal to popular sentiment. Unlike the Raj, Today’s government is of our own making and this kind of opportunistic and bulldozing behaviour to bring it to its knees does not really set Anna and his team apart from the very politicians they want to crucify.

Now to the deeper issues in tackling corruption and whether the Jan Lok Pal, if and when it materializes, will achieve anything significant in that direction. From what I understand, the Lok Pal will be another punitive institution to add to the host of such institutions already existing – like the ED, CBI, CAG, CVC, law courts etc. No matter what shape the legislature gives to the Lok Pal, it will be practically impossible for a body comprising of 10-12 persons to attack corruption at the grassroots – which is where it resides and hurts most. As far as the Rajas and Kanimozhis are concerned, the ordinary people are not concerned with their fate, and they are best left at the mercy of investigative journalists and their own fair-weather colleagues. Indian bureaucracy consists of an estimated 3.5 crore government employees spread all over the country and beyond, and it is no laughing matter trying to bring them under the ambit of anything. Investigative and punitive bodies can at best scrape the surface when it comes to dealing with corruption in this behemoth of an organization, and that too only in the rare cases where the wrongdoer has been foolish enough to leave his tracks uncovered.

For any real change to take place, systemic interventions aimed at changing the behaviour and culture of the bureaucracy need to be introduced. (For an example of what I mean by systemic change, take a look at Chief Economic Adviser Kaushik Basu’s policy paper on decriminalizing the act of bribegiving. Drawing from game theory, he suggests that such a simple intervention can reduce the incidence of corruption in the country significantly.) Policy makers could also take cues from the corporate world in this regard, which has evolved several elegant mechanisms to align the organization’s desire for performance with employees’ fundamental greed for money and advancement. Volumes can be written on such mechanisms, but the moot point here is that the approach to eradicating corruption has to be systemic and not superficial, and the whole idea of Lok Pal belongs in the latter category. Viewed as a first step, it is perhaps desirable, and indeed Anna Hazare’s agitation shall be successful if it serves as a warm-up for more serious discussions to follow in its wake.

Finally I would like to reflect on the person of Anna Hazare in the capacity of a leader and reformer that he is being made out to be. Parallels with Gandhi are being drawn and bandied around effortlessly. (Business schools are in fact already hailing the campaign as a fit case study on leadership.) I cannot say if he is made of the stuff that great, transformational leaders are made of. In fact, I doubt if he considers himself anything more than a Gandhian and an activist, and in the recent episode it was only too evident that he was being used as a mere façade, a figurehead of sorts for the movement while the masterminding was being done by others under his brand name. Leadership I feel is more about long-term vision and bringing about fundamental changes and taking people along (Gandhi went from village to village educating people about the ills of a subservient existence) rather than sitting in one spot and strategizing for the next hour or planning the next move.

Be that as it may, the very fact that so many people flocked to the Ramlila Ground when he announced his fast betrays the deep-rooted angst in people against the rotten system that they are forced to be a part of. They were not looking for a Gandhi at all and they would have rallied around anybody who was willing to go on a fast against corruption. It also betrays a poverty of good leadership of the inspirational kind in our country today, for given the dearth of choice, people can not afford to discriminate. In fact this movement was as much about identifying with a leader as it was about fighting for a cause and it would do our nation a whole lot of good if the politicians of the day are able to read the writing on the wall and rise to the occasion.

Of Gandhi’s arrival in Indian politics, Nehru wrote in his Discovery of India:

And then he came. He was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths; like a beam of light that pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes; like a whirlwind that upset many things, but most of all the working of people’s minds. He did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the millions of India, speaking their language and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition…Political freedom took new shape and acquired a new content.

In our anxious wait for that badly-needed ‘whirlwind’, we seem to have been swept off our feet by a storm in a teacup.

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