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Living on the edge

India carries on in the face of pervasive, structural violence. But for how long, asks Bhaskar Ghose.

india Updated: Sep 04, 2006 03:56 IST

Once again the country is wracked by terrible violence. A violence that seems to lurk round the corner at the best of times, and occasionally rises to almost consume us, as it did in Mumbai recently. It has happened before, and we all know, will happen again. When and where are not relevant; it will happen, that’s all. What about the law and order machinery? What about our intelligence agencies? They will continue to run before the dreadful wind of terror, but only just.

Trying not to think of the grief, the pain and the torment of those who have suffered in the violence, one cannot help think that we have, for the last few decades, been living on the edge of an abyss. We have witnessed times of great hunger in our villages, where the sick, the frail and the very young have paid the price for some unimaginable official bungling. We have passed through times when the price of staying alive became too high for the poorest and the most deprived.

Somewhere, with frightening regularity, dreadful mistakes have been made, when governance has gone from bad to virtually non-existent. All of us have had ringside seats to witness the slow disintegration of the state of Bihar — the rampant kidnappings; election of criminals to what ought to be responsible positions as people’s representatives; roads disappearing in a thick sea of mud and stones; villages and even towns cut off from the rest of the state; power lines hanging useless from rusting poles. Like the blind Tiresias, we have seen it all.

Bihar, one would think, would have toppled into the abyss of total chaos, and yet it stays just short of that. As does Jharkhand, where, in large areas, the writ of the state does not run, where village dwellers, mostly tribals, are slaughtered to establish other centres of power. Neither the state government nor the government at the Centre do anything effective, and Jharkhand too appears set to fall over the edge. Yet, inexplicably, it does not.

This is a country — perhaps the only one in the world — where the capital city has neither the water nor the electricity to function as a city should. Not just occasionally, but as a matter of routine. And the authorities responsible for providing these are manifestly incapable of doing anything, and, again, the government at the Centre does nothing either. Oh yes, they hold meetings, as they no doubt do about Bihar and Jharkhand, and they announce some measures. But nothing happens thereafter. If the water and power crises ease up, it has more to do with the arrival of the monsoon than anything else. In another city, this chronic incompetence may have led to chaos. But Delhi survives.

One mentions Delhi only because it is a symbol — it epitomises the sense of being perched on the edge of an abyss, and staying there.

And then there is the ordeal of that giant metropolis, Mumbai. Hit last year by a terrible flood, and now by another wave of violence. On both occasions it has been taken to the edge, and yet has not gone over it into chaos and anarchy. Not because of anything wonderful that the authorities did, either last year or this time when the bombs exploded. In fact, the one impression that has become general is of an administration surprised, caught staring with its jaw hanging. It knew nothing, obviously, even though the police came in quicker after the blasts than the municipal corporation last year.

What is it that takes us to the edge of the abyss, and then keeps us there? What takes us there, we all know well enough. Collective incompetence, but more particularly, a terrible emptiness where there should be firm leadership. Let’s take the incompetence first. We spend thousands of crores on intelligence services, and what do we have to show for it? One is not saying that the State ought to be, or is capable of being, omniscient; but it can certainly be well-informed, and if it adds a bit of shrewdness to that, it ought to be able to reach somewhere into the minds and systems of those who have made the killing of ordinary people their profession. Are our intelligence services good enough? Are they working in a coordinated, planned manner? One doesn’t need to answer these questions.

But the key is, if one may repeat oneself, leadership. Merely because a party wins an election does not mean we have leaders. Leadership of the people is something else; it means someone like Jawaharlal Nehru. That is what is meant by stature and leadership — the charisma and sheer magnetism that draws people together. In a country where many different peoples and cultures have come together, it is vital to have leadership of this kind. And one has to admit that that kind of leadership simply isn’t there.

Having said that, though, one needs to go to the other part of the puzzle. Why is it, then, not going over the edge, or why has it not done so yet? There clearly is no simple answer to this, but it would have to do with the people in general. They have gone about their work, and kept the country functioning after a fashion. And, yes, governance has not vanished totally; it too continues after a fashion. And thus we hang on, near the edge of the abyss, but not toppling into it as we should have.

What it is about the people, one cannot really say — in Mumbai, Jharkhand, or Bihar. But they carry on, one imagines, not because they are making a collective statement, but, as one resident of Mumbai put it, because they have no choice. A living has to be earned, children have to be fed and sent to school, ailing parents have to be cared for. The daily compulsions, the very ordinary, routine compulsions, together become a statement for order, for a degree of sanity.

Just as one recognises this as an element in the process of keeping the country together, one also sees, with a good amount of trepidation, that it cannot be something that the machinery of the State can presume to rest upon. It cannot allow incompetence and inaction to exist, because the fabric of everyday life may give way at some stage, perhaps when it is tested by another crisis. But because it is still there, there is that little time in which the State can get its act together.

This is not an easy task, when there is a lack of direction and of a firm vision. But it ought to be clear to those responsible for leading the country today that the instruments they now have simply cannot work. Rather than listen to the smooth, well-constructed excuses that will now be served up in the shape of reports, notes and classified information, it would be wiser to discard what has obviously not worked and use some other instruments.

When these new instruments are being picked up, it has to be remembered that the cost of picking, once again, instruments that do not or cannot work will be very high indeed. It may be so very high that the country will simply not be able to afford it. Living on the edge of the abyss may not then be an option.