On Republic Day eve, the five top news headlines reflected the state of the nation. The first was the tragic story of the Malegaon additional district collector, Yashwant Sonawane, who was burnt alive by the oil mafia while checking kerosene theft. The second was finance minister Pranab Mukherjee claiming that the government couldn’t reveal the names of those who had stashed black money abroad. The third was of the BJP’s Ekta Yatra being stopped at the Jammu-Punjab border amid protests. The fourth was about Deoband chief Maulana Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi being pushed to quit for he had allegedly made pro-Narendra Modi remarks. The fifth headline was of a young student attacking the father of murdered teenager Aarushi Talwar outside a court with a cleaver. Anyone who watched the news that night would have been aware of the multiple challenges that confront the republic as it enters its 62nd year.
Take the Sonawane case. That oil mafias exist and kerosene adulteration is hugely profitable is no secret. An estimated 40% of kerosene is diverted towards adulterating diesel or petrol or for resale. Six years ago when Indian Institute of Management graduate Manjunath Shanmugam was killed by the oil mafia in Uttar Pradesh, the government promised a ‘clean up’. The kerosene ‘marker’ system that was introduced was discontinued after it was found to be an ineffective adulteration check. The fact is that the muscle of the oil mafias has less to do with policing and more to do with flawed government policies. If petrol costs almost R60 a litre and subsidised kerosene R12 a litre, the price differential is a temptation for oil black marketers. Documentary evidence suggests that a small percentage of the subsidy on kerosene reaches the poor, exploited as it is by the middlemen. Yet, governments seem reluctant to review oil policies that result in the killing of honest and brave officers like Manjunath and Sonawane.
If flawed policies aid crime they encourage corruption too. For the first 50 years of Independence, almost entirely governed by the Congress, punitive rates of taxation encouraged India’s super-rich to not disclose their income and park it overseas instead. Tax evasion for a long time was linked to high rates of taxation and the unfriendliness of the tax administration. Draconian powers with tax officials created a system that thrived on bribery and corruption.
Mukherjee now speaks of a five-pronged strategy to deal with black money and of creating a legislative framework. He speaks of a proposal to introduce an amnesty scheme to bring back black money by setting up a task force. Good idea, but only a temporary measure if the past is any guide. What purpose will another committee really serve? Creating another bureaucratic web to tackle the problem of black money will only accentuate the problem. The truth is that there has been a marked reluctance to go after the prime beneficiaries of black money. The government says that a secrecy clause in the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement with Germany prevents it from naming the individuals with foreign bank accounts. But why should this secrecy clause concern a third country, in this case Liechtenstein? Unless you name and shame those who have thrived on a black money economy, a long-winded prosecution process will be no deterrent.
If corruption has stained the Congress’s khadi, religious extremism has tainted the BJP’s saffron. The BJP claims its Ekta Yatra was driven by a belief that unfurling the tricolour at Lal Chowk would send a firm signal to Kashmiri separatists. But it has only polarised an already scarred border state. Hoisting the tricolour, when seen through the prism of confrontational street politics, appears as a sign of political opportunism. If a message was to be sent to the separatists, it should have been done by focusing on what the BJP’s own Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee once described as the need for ‘insaniyat’ in the Valley.
While the BJP is playing with fire, so are the Deobandis who want to remove their head, Maulana Vastanvi, for his alleged support to Narendra Modi. Vastanvi reportedly said he was happy to see Muslims participate in Gujarat’s growth story. If this is indeed what he said, why should it arouse such a strong reaction within the Deoband leadership? Would it prefer that the Muslims in Gujarat remain marginal and isolated? The resignation of the Maulana will feed into the worst kind of stereotype of a frozen mindset, one that breeds communal prejudice.
And then there is the story of Utsav Sharma, a fine arts graduate who seems to be in the habit of making murderous assaults outside courtrooms. Sharma may be suffering from a psychological disorder, but he is in a way symptomatic of a rising culture of mindless violence. Be it ragging, road rage or honour killing, there are many Indians out there who seem to relish the idea of taking the law into their own hands. Not the ideal way to celebrate 61 years of the Indian Constitution.
Post-script: Oh yes, the news on Republic Day eve also carried the list of Padma awardees, many of them truly accomplished and deserving. But how about an award for the aam aadmi, the average upright citizen who keeps the idea of India alive in these tough times?
(Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network)
*The views expressed by the author are personal