A stray insight sometimes goes unnoticed. Manmohan Singh’s closed-door meeting with handpicked editors last month generated controversy about the UPA’s communication deficit and its failure to manage perceptions.
The PM’s statements about his readiness to be covered under the lokpal were deeply unsatisfying to a public longing to hear a more resounding clarion call for a more honest and transparent India.
Yet one statement of the PM needs deeper scrutiny. There is too much cynicism, said Singh, and such an atmosphere of cynicism in the country is dangerous.
The atmosphere is indeed overwhelmingly cynical and negative. An avalanche of negativism, bad blood and name calling seems to be rolling out of almost every public institution as well as from the citizenry. Mutual trust and respect has all but evaporated. The contemptuous language used by politicians seems to be mirrored by society.
Is there reason to be so negative? What has happened in the recent past is remarkable by any standards. Throughout the history of independent India, there are instances of the rich and powerful manipulating the law and getting away. The kin of the super rich believe that laws are to be followed only when abroad on campus.
India has always been their mere playground.
Yet now, today, in a tectonic shift, the dominance of elite over the law has vanished in the blink of an eye. Extremely powerful politicians and corporate leaders, who would have been untouchable by the law in another era, now find themselves behind bars.
Dayanidhi Maran, scion of a ‘big’ family of the DMK, is the latest VIP to find himself in the gaze of the law. Suddenly, troubling questions of conflict of interest among elected representatives — be it the Marans of Tamil Nadu or the Reddys of Karnataka or the Pawars of Maharashtra — are being debated and scrutinised with vigour. Some of them will still get away, but at least a beginning has been made.
The 2G scandal has become a national catharsis. A powerful anti-corruption mood — some of it politically manipulated, some of it spontaneous but most of it with undeniable public support — has forced accountability, forced a debate and forced an electric shock through the system, leaving us all scalded.
Are all institutions necessarily failing?
Is the entire system just one big ‘DK Bose’, to use the fashionable phrase from Delhi Belly? Not really.
Some of India’s institutions do work and do deliver on their constitutional obligations. A determined Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) stands out as an institution that has performed its watchdog functions well, unearthing violations and scams from the 2G spectrum deals of 2010 to the functioning of the Commonwealth Games.
A dynamic Election Commission continues to deliver fair and violence-free verdicts. In violence-free elections in Bihar and West Bengal, the voice of the voter has been upheld by an efficient machine that sees itself as a servant of the people and not of any political party.
The Supreme Court may be accused of judicial overreach by its repeated rap on the knuckles to the UPA from issues ranging from black money to Salwa Judum. But the fact is that it has stepped in where the government’s systems have failed and forced action and introspection, however grudgingly.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), accused of being the lapdog of the State, has — nudged by a hyperactive judiciary — pursued cases against the politically powerful with reassuring relentlessness. Security agencies too seem to have brought terror groups under some control.
The shockingly wide network of Hindu extremists responsible for some of the blasts has been cracked. The culpability of Islamist groups has been tracked too. Home minister P Chidambaram may be unpopular with the Sangh parivar for cracking down on ‘saffron terror’ and the CBI’s actions against Amit Shah may have alienated the BJP.
Yet, these are only the flip side of the same upholding of the law that has sent A Raja and Suresh Kalmadi to jail.
Corporate elitism and sleaze remains a concern, but we are also seeing the beginning of massive acts of corporate philanthropy. Wipro’s Azim Premji has transferred R8,000 crore worth of his shares to a trust to fund rural education, Nandan and Rohini Nilekani have donated $11 million towards the cause of sustainable urban development. BR Ambedkar once said that India would never be a true democracy unless social democracy accompanied political democracy. Social democracy, or liberation from birth-based privileges and hierarchies, is perhaps a long away, but it’s making its presence felt subliminally in key areas of the economy and polity.
So perhaps this is the time to believe in India and play a constructive role, not surrender to numbing hatred and dismissal of the System. In Haryana, Kerala brides, purchased by their Jat husbands because of the shortage of women, are teaching their husbands to have more girl children and slowly transforming the brutally patriarchal world of Haryana society.
Society is alive with positive energies. If environmentalists and corporates, and civil society and the government, learn to trust each other, instead of seeing the other as a mortal ‘enemy’, a true democratic spirit of give-and-take would be established based on mutual respect.
There are two ways to deal with the undoubted daily horrors. One is the Arundhati Roy way, which simply dismisses Indian democracy as a sham. The other is to be a Neelam Katara and fight day after day against a history-sheeter like DP Yadav, fight the criminal justice system and fight until the judiciary wakes up, takes note and makes amendments to the criminal procedure code.
Believing in India may be hard work. But negativism and cynicism are not what Gandhi and Nehru lived by.
(Sagarika Ghose is deputy editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal)