A few dictionary meanings of pontificate include ‘to supervise’, ‘to administer’ or ‘to be in charge of’. The names such as Ponty, Kanda, Reddy, Jaiswal, Raju and Singh, and there are many others like them whose names you and I may or may not get to know, certainly ring an ominous bell about the state of the affairs in Indian states, especially those dominated by regional parties. These are the very kind of people who appear to pontificate over the affairs of states today.
Every state has its fair share of Pontys and Kandas who have seen their fortunes and clout rise with the rise of regional polities. Such controversial tycoons appear to call the shots in states even as they negate the ideals of liberalisation, transparency and fair play.
It is public knowledge that states continue to wield considerable power of patronage when it comes to some lucrative business sectors such as liquor, real estate, education and mining. But states and their political bosses do not appear to be using their clout to promote entrepreneurship or innovation. Instead, they end up creating controversial business satraps who are willing to share the spoils with their benefactors, provide safe investment platforms for their ill-gotten wealth and act as front-men for their family enterprises.
While each and every move by the Centre is scrutinised by various bodies such as the Supreme Court, the media, public-spirited lawyers, RTI activists, civil society, state administrations in India are more often than not spared similar frequent and deep probes.
There are many reasons for this. At the state level, it’s a small and cosy world. Top politicians cutting across party lines, judges, bureaucrats, policemen, lawyers, journalists and businessmen are part of an exclusive club. Money and muscle power rule the roost. People lack a safe and effective platform from which they can launch their tirade against corrupt practices. Lokayuktas, just like the Central Vigilance Commission, have not really delivered while public activism has not caught on in smaller cities the same scale it has in metros like Delhi and Mumbai. To top it all, the scale of corruption may not appear big or sensational enough to make headlines for channels or newspapers to pursue it week after week, forcing authorities or courts to take note of it. Or, for that matter, make it politically attractive enough for the Opposition to make a noise about it.
News mediums also prefer to focus on stereotypes such as communal cases in Assam and Gujarat, Mamata Banerjee’s antics in West Bengal, Nitish Kumar’s quest for law and order in Bihar, the Naxal problem in Chhattisgarh, mining scandals in Karnataka and so on. The decision-makers in the media also appear to think that people would rather focus only on mega scams rather than worry about how rules were bent to help a particular individual grab a R100 crore bridge contract or how the liquor distribution licence has been monopolised by an exclusive cartel of businessmen for decades.
If one takes a look at the top players in sectors such as real estate, liquor distribution, education and mining across states, one realises that it is dominated by a ‘favoured’ few who are known to be close to one of the leading political bosses of the state. While most of these individuals see their fortunes swing with the rise and fall of their masters, some like Ponty Chadha and his brothers appear to have mastered the art of keeping everyone happy so that they prosper irrespective of whoever rules the state.
Perhaps it’s high time states are made more accountable and their decision-making is made more transparent. For one, businesses in states are no longer ‘small’. It’s common to find enterprises worth thousands of crores in many states, which has serious implications for states’ revenue, development and free competition. If India has to foster the spirit of liberalisation and mass prosperity, it cannot continue to take a soft stand on corruption and inefficiency at the state level.
Shelley Vishwajeet is an independent public space analyst
The views expressed by the author are personal