For a country notoriously prickly about criticism by outsiders, we are strangely at ease with brutal self-flagellation. In the current sado-masochistic mood of "sab chor hain," we are happy to find convenient whipping-boys for our general angst and anger. All this may even have been a good thing if this churning would logically lead to a process of cleansing. Yet, instead of a potential purge, what we see on display is just gladiatorial fisticuffs that have stripped away the veneer of civility to reveal an ugliness of discourse that is almost unbearable. At least at the moment, it doesn't look like much good can emerge from all the hand-wringing and chest-beating. If anything, the sense is of overwhelming chaos — almost as if one pull of the thread could unravel the entire body-politic.
Just a month ago middle-class pride was seeking (misplaced) affirmation in the American president's visit. The politics of that visit were so clearly driven by India's economic boom, especially in contrast to the US's own demoralised markets. We were happy to put India's corporate chieftains on display for the Americans and derive vicarious satisfaction at the world looking at India through their eyes. Now we are looking at all the same business names with suspicion, fear and borderline loathing. Clearly, both narratives are oversimplistic and emotional. But what is evident in a surface reading of the present reactions is a sudden lack of confidence in the health of the nation.
The 2G scam and the complexities of the telecom policy may not be fully comprehended by many people. But A Raja has become an obvious metaphor for all that is diseased and rotten within the power matrix. The delay in the Central Bureau of Investigation raids on the former telecom minister has only underlined the general mood of cynicism. Notwithstanding the discovery of the ‘Raja Diaries' (a la Jain Hawala and Madhu Koda), not many believe that swooping down on a man who had more than a year to destroy any potential paper trail, has any real meaning at all. If anything, the raids now seem like too little. Raja will most likely be interrogated and prosecuted soon. And with the Supreme Court proposing a special, fast-track court to investigate the scam and the allocation of the spectrum licences, the real story may well lie beyond him.
But action against Raja may not quell the simmering discontent. Already, the knives are out on all sides and no target seems to be ducking, making for the worst sort of spectator sport.
So, you have Ratan Tata slugging it out with Rajeev Chandrasekhar in a war that blurs the lines between business and politics. You have whispered and fevered theories about which corporate empire may have benefited from the selective leaks of the Niira Radia tapes. You have an unrelenting and newly-aggressive Opposition that won't budge on its demand for a joint parliamentary committee probe into the 2G scam. And while, the Opposition has been very careful not to cast aspersions on Manmohan Singh — whose own impeccable integrity remains unquestioned — the internal upheaval within the Congress is obvious to all political watchers, as are its turf wars.
Ironically, those who tracked the government formation in 2009 are aware that Singh was, in fact, personally opposed to bringing back either A Raja or TR Baalu into the Cabinet (he got his way with the latter). But if the government does concede to the demand for a JPC (still unlikely), the PM will probably have to explain to a parliamentary panel what prevented the government from acting against Raja sooner.
Many believe that corruption — which had ceased to be an electoral issue in the last couple of decades — is back to being a gamechanger. Yet if anyone were to bother to disentangle the strands of this debate and separate fact from rhetoric, the real conflict is structural and ideological.
Whether it is spectrum, gas, land or iron ore, the real fight is over how natural resources should be used and distributed in a growing economy. In addition to the telecom wars, all the recent controversies — be it Karnataka, Maharashtra or Orissa — have revolved around the allocation of these resources.
The structural conflicts are within the Congress itself, unable to decide between a genuine free-market model and a tightly controlled State-run architecture. In many ways, the UPA has been at war with itself, unable to reconcile its own ideological confusions. The contravening pulls and pressures of the UPA are apparent in almost every policy debate- whether it is tribal rights vs Vedanta; environment protection vs Lavasa or land-acquisition vs big business. The BJP and the Left are both on the winning side of the spectrum scam debate, but the larger ideological conflict shadows them as well in states like West Bengal and Karnataka.
More than the intersection of business with politics, the other big truth to emerge in recent weeks is the opacity and ubiquitous power of the political system. It is quite evident that this system is eventually driven by its own interests and prevails over all other interventions. India may claim to have embraced liberalisation two decades ago, but crony capitalism and the overwhelming power of the politician over key economic policies, makes it obvious that there is no auto-pilot model yet for economic reforms. Nor is there any consensus over what this model should be.
Apart from nailing the guilty in the 2G scam, these are the questions an enlightened discourse should be focusing on. Instead, fuelled by an evangelistic and sometimes oversimplistic media narrative, we may have created a situation where real thought is getting drowned by all the noise.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.