Mark Twain, the American humorist, was obviously being cheeky when he said, "Do not put off till tomorrow what can be put off till day-after-tomorrow just as well." But procrastination and paralysis are the two words that best characterise the crisis that has beset contemporary India. In two bewildering years we have hurtled from being a proud nation to a self-flagellating, self-loathing country. It's an inescapable irony that a year meant to mark the 20th anniversary of economic reforms is one in which all the symbols of wealth-creation have come under scrutiny and suspicion.
If you map the journey of India from the socialist 1970s to the post-liberalisation 1990s, where we stand today - at this crossroad of negativity and hate - it becomes even more paradoxical. For decades India's middle class - that was created from an ethos of hard work and higher education - fought the propensity of the West to tell the India story in picture postcards of poverty. The prickly, denial-filled irritation at the success of a movie like Slumdog Millionaire was illustrative of how the middle-class had perhaps lurched to the other extreme. We sought affirmation and validation in how many Indians made it to the Forbes Billionaires list, living our aspirations through them. We didn't want to be told about slums, grime, malnutrition and the number of children dying from starvation right at the bottom of our 'New India' skyscrapers.
Today, as we sink into the plush leather of our car seats, too busy to look up from our Blackberries and iPads, we remain unmoved by the outstretched little hand at our window. But neither do we embrace the heroes we once did. In our collective, fickle and always volatile imagination everyone is a thief. The politician, the industrialist, the police officer - forget everything else - we don't even spare our cricketers the wrath of our instant judgement. Our new champions are anarchists who want to overthrow the system.
How often are we as harsh on ourselves? For an entrepreneurial people, known to have the jugaad to find innovative solutions to every problem, we remain paradoxically enslaved by the culture of 'sifarish'. Whether it's a school admission, a job or an opportunity to jump the line at the airport, how often have we hesitated to use a network of contacts if we have them? Sure, you could well argue that this mismatch between demand and supply is the failure of the State and people fall back on 'sifarish' out of desperation. But how about a little test: try to buy or sell property and insist on paying or receiving money in 'white' or by cheque only. I'd be surprised if you succeed. My attempts to find a house have been consistently stalled by otherwise perfectly regular folk who want a big chunk "under the table" to save tax.
Now imagine if a political leader had been found guilty of tax evasion. Wouldn't us self-righteous journalists condemn him or her without a chance at the person asserting his or her innocence, cheered on by a gladiatorial, angry public? Would we even pause to consider the hypocrisy of our response?
Of course, this need for introspection about a malaise that afflicts us all does not take away from the fact that a serious governance and leadership deficit triggered this meltdown to begin with. Crony capitalism has become a near-cliche to explain this unhealthy love-affair between Big Business and Politics. But, actually the problem may lie in not too little control, but too much political control over natural resources like land, spectrum and iron ore. In other words, we need not more government, but less, if we are to avoid a socialist hangover of the Licence Raj in a different avatar. It was Confucius who wrote that, "in a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of." In the turmoil that India finds itself in today, we are ashamed of both.
Public anger has ballooned into the occasional hot air, only because of the gigantic vacuum of leadership and legitimacy created by the UPA over the past two years. Yes, the anger is often irrational, misdirected and even dangerous. But when a country loses hope in its leaders, it inevitably turns negative. The only thing that can stem this destructive energy is an antidote: hope. As a people, we need to believe again and for this we need a galvanising force; one that takes us beyond the systemic failures and endemic corruption that have made us a morose people.
Jaswant Singh - a rare, thoughtful voice in the din of adversarial politics today - says the "ossification of politics" extends to all parties and he wouldn't even separate himself from the crisis that confronts India today. Among the first to question why those accused in the telecom scam should not be granted bail as per the principles of jurisprudence, he warns against the lynch mob society we have become, but concedes that India is at this point because of a failure of politics.
If there is small reason for optimism in the midst of this dire uncertainty it is that Parliament has had two reasonably intelligent and robust debates on inflation and internal security. It's even had the odd moment of agreement. If politicians don't use this as a start to reclaim a space arrogated to them by the Constitution, they shouldn't crib later when the interlopers take over.
As for us, let's go back to Mark Twain, who quipped: "It is easy to find fault, if one has that disposition. There was once a man who, not being able to find any other fault with his coal, complained that there were too many prehistoric toads in it".
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.