How did this happen?
Baba Ramdev, the televangelist guru who flies private jets and hopes, through yoga, to reinstate the caste system and find a cure for Aids, cancer and homosexuality, sets the agenda for India — never mind that home minister P Chidambaram calls him ‘a mask’ for Hindu fundamentalists.
The democratically elected government of the world’s second-fastest growing economy, instead of addressing growing anger and frustration over endemic corruption, cracks down on peaceful protests and finds the time to mock a 15-second jig by senior Opposition leader Sushma Swaraj at the shrine of Mahatma Gandhi.
And so the daily news buffet of India is presented, stuffed with drama and garnished with hyperbole. Indians are an emotional people. Like our laundry, we like to let our emotions hang out. Whether cricket match or political arena, we like to expend and express our passions. In itself, being emotional is no bad thing.
Life is more vibrant and the mass media more compelling. Emotions and the mass media feed on one other, propelling India’s already high emotional quotient, or EQ.
A growing economy is well and good but the daily dramas that now rule public life in India are a major reason why the old media of television and print flourish, in turn making life’s dramas more dramatic than they are or should be. There is no measure of emotion — at least not that I know of — as of intelligence.
But if such indices were to be established, I would be willing to wager that Indians have the world’s top EQs.
India’s politicians now deride competitive populism in the media, but they love to participate in these daily national dramas. Politicians play a substantial role in raising the nation’s EQ, but they fail to recognise how rising EQ gives voice to, and raises, aspirations that they then spectacularly fail to address.
Don’t blame politicians alone for being emotional fools. We, who rail and rant at them, miss the wood for the trees; we tilt at windmills; we let our formidable national EQ drown India’s real priorities and concerns.
Corruption has indeed crippled the Indian dream and continues to mire too many hardworking, ambitious Indians in a bog of backwardness. The remarkable, sustained outpouring of emotion over corruption indicates India’s growing deficit of governance and the increasing disconnect of Delhi with the country beyond.
But the high EQ rallying around Ramdev and former soldier Anna Hazare has hidden from national view the unsexy but important solutions to corruption and a slew of rising threats to the India story. The high-decibel public dramas also accord governments across India relief from stickier problems.
Unceasing pressure on the government in Delhi is not going to immediately change the nature of politicians across 28 states. For instance, over the past week, as Ramdev held the nation’s attention, EQ-driven politics of things trivial and absurd continued as usual in two of India’s most corrupt states: Maharashtra and Karnataka.
In Maharashtra, UPA ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), clashed with the right-wing opposition Shiv Sena after NCP leader and deputy chief minister Ajay Pawar remarked that Sena supremo Bal Thackeray had not done “any constructive work” in his career.
In other news, the Congress-NCP government raised the drinking age to 25 and armed police were deployed to guard the statue of Waghya, a canine companion to medieval warrior-king Shivaji after the extreme right-wing Sambhaji Brigade declared the dog a figment of Brahminical imagination.
In Karnataka, the government’s Kannada Development Authority recommended that anyone who came to live in the state would have to pass a Kannada examination within 12 months.
As BJP chief minister BS Yeddyurappa said he favoured implementation “at the earliest”, public advocacy group Janaagraha revealed how Bangalore sub-registrars — who issue everything from land records to marriage certificates — are now India’s most corrupt.
Transparency and technology can greatly help the process of cleaning up governance systems. Citizen facilitation centres linked to computer networks in some Indian cities have eased lives, but the details of governance interest only some of us. For most, it’s easier to take to the streets to demand an almost superhuman lokpal or an end to the emotive but amorphous concept of black money.
With Delhi’s top ministers busy with political polemics, decision-making has slowed dramatically, if not stopped, in many ministries involved with critical reforms relating to land acquisition, foreign investment, food security, taxation, technology, education, labour laws, child sexual abuse and agriculture.
In any case, these are the boring issues that rarely register on India’s EQ.
There couldn’t be a worse time to ignore the details. The signs of a larger slowdown are growing. Food inflation is pushing many back into poverty and straining the middle class. Raw material prices are rising. Demand for many consumer goods, from cars to washing machines, is slowing. But emotions on the streets make better headlines, which in turn excite an already excitable people and pressure the government to be as excitable.
So central ministers join the thrust and parry of the daily drama instead of telling us what they will do about the economy’s vast unreformed areas, which now threaten to drop India’s growth rate below 8% after seven years of growth above that mark.
That may still seem like a lot (Germany, Europe’s powerhouse, grows at 3%), but it won’t be enough for India, where employment is already falling behind growth. At least 50 million Indians are unemployed, some 200 million are under-employed.
They, too, could get our attention if they went on hunger strike — but then they are already hungry.