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No power to the people

The artificial ruckus over the Indo-US N-deal is an unfortunate example of how completely disconnected politicians are from people, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Aug 31, 2007 02:48 IST

The fracas over the Indo-US nuclear deal, 123 Agreement and Hyde Act has revealed one chilling fact. It has revealed how easily the elite politics of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the India International Centre — politics that have no resonance with the people — can dominate Parliament and government. It has also shown how so- called ‘people’s representatives’ are bizarrely removed from the people and how a complete non-issue has become a reason to talk of a change of government. The dangers of becoming distant from voters were revealed in the ‘India Shining’ campaign of the NDA when debates in the CII and the financial papers were seen to be reflective of the entire country. Now there is a similar danger that the UPA government is becoming a prisoner of Lutyensland and confusing gossip sessions in Central Hall and strategic studies seminars with the concerns of Indian citizens.

The crux of the Indo-US nuclear debate is as follows. The pro-deal argument is that it opens a door for supply of nuclear fuel without India having had to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is truly an enormous concession given the fact that nuclear proliferation is such a dominant US and international concern. If the deal goes through, India will be able to buy nuclear equipment not just from the US but also from France and Russia. The deal will give India electricity, high technology and catapult the economy into high growth. An economy growing at 8.5 per cent needs electricity above all and the deal will bring bijli to Bharat. By way of example, experts cite that almost 80 per cent of France’s electricity supply is nuclear. China, too, has invited bids for four nuclear power plants between 1,000 MW and 1,500 MW at Sanmen and Yangjiang.

The anti-deal argument is that the deal is too expensive, it will make India dependent on the US for fuel supply, and India will become a servant of America which bombs and invades countries at will. In response, the pro-deal argument says that most Indians support America anyway. The biggest foreign investors in India are American. By the end of the Cold War over a million Indians were resident in the US, as opposed to almost zero in the Soviet Union, and few Indians, perhaps, have yet learnt the Cossack dance or the works of Anton Chekhov. The Indo-US deal is only an affirmation of the massive people-to-people contacts that already exist between India and America: government has simply followed where the people have led.

But has any politician or leader bothered to explain what the deal means or does not mean to the people? Has the Prime Minister addressed the country on the deal? Has the leader of the Opposition talked to the people? Does the Indian voter even have a right to know what the deal is? In a television story recently, most MPs confessed they couldn’t tell 123 from 420.

The artificial ruckus over the Indo-US nuclear deal is an unfortunate example of completely disconnected politicians and, perhaps, an equally disconnected media, both entities united in their JNU-IIC mentality. The Left is supposed to uphold ‘people’s issues’. If the Indo-US deal is a ‘people’s issue’, please can the people be informed why? The Left says it will launch mass agitations against the deal. What will be the slogan that will galvanise the Indian masses? “You don’t send your son to America; let only the bureaucrats’ kids go?”

Apart from the nuke deal, here are some other issues that parliamentarians could turn their attention to. Bihar is experiencing the worst floods in 30 years. Three million have lost their homes. Thousands are living on highways, or under trucks and government relief consists of throwing bags of sattu at those who have lost everything. On the flood debate, Parliament could not even get a quorum.

In Chennai, the garbage disposal problem is so acute that residents in certain localities can’t sleep at night because of the stink. Urban infrastructure, be it in Chennai or Mumbai or Kolkata, is almost non-existent. Poverty has still not been banished. According to a shocking recent report, 836 million Indians live on a per capita income of less than Rs 20 per day. For 40 million Indians per capita income has improved only from Rs 9 per day to Rs 15 per day.

Here’s something else MPs can think about. More than 40 died in the twin blasts at Hyderabad last week, many of them students. What did the Hyderabad police do after the blasts? Did they immediately cordon off Lumbini Park and Gokul Chat Bhandar and seal the bomb blast site? No. Did they launch a methodical investigation to track down the culprits? No. What happened instead? The bomb blast site became a tourist spot for visiting VIPs, bystanders and the media. VIPs from Y.S.R. Reddy to Jana Reddy to L.K. Advani tripped over bits of crucial forensic evidence, roaring, ‘Bring back Pota’ or ‘the HuJI is to blame!” A dog was seen sniffing at blood. Camerapersons were seen dashing about.

Is this not just a little bit ridiculous? When the London terror threat occurred this year, what did we see? Did we see the British Prime Minister grandstanding at the bomb blast site screaming out a political speech about how Pakistan has hatched the plot? What’s the first thing we see about bomb blast sites in London and New York? We see yellow police tape cordoning off the evidence. Media and VIPs are strictly forbidden. The police go about methodically tracking evidence. By contrast, India has lost the highest number of lives to terrorism (after Iraq); over 3,000 Indians have died since 2004 in terrorist attacks and India’s police are still fire-fighting on terrorism. Bringing back Pota or blaming the ISI are only highly visible rhetorical flourishes. What is needed, instead, are substantive steps and a professional realisation that the 21st century terrorist is winning, leaving India’s 19th century police force to scratch their heads.

Do the MPs care?

The blame immediately shifts to the media — both print and electronic. It’s the media that’s responsible. The media do not show floods. The media do not show poverty. The media sensationalise blasts. The media are luring politicians to become trapped into a hall of mirrors where reality doesn’t matter. Is this true? Twenty-first century media, like all technology, is an amoral being. Its avalanche of images is anarchic. Floods, parties, police brutality, fashion, riots, food, starvation, murder, justice, cocktails, nuclear debates — media provide the democratic noise of everything Indian, the media cater to all tastes.

The media play their role, politicians must play theirs. It is unfair to blame the media for the politicians’ own lack of self-belief and confidence to remain committed to the needs of voters. That a JNU-IIC debate could so completely dominate national politics over the past few weeks, even setting off a chain of events predicting the government’s fall, is only a little short of a farce. The in-house elitist chatter about the Hyde Act, 123 Agreement at a time of floods, collapse of urban infrastructure, bomb blasts and a horrifying poverty report reveals a grim truth: that India’s powerful are closet-monarchists whose contempt and scorn for the people is so deep-seated that they prefer to live in fortresses from where the public can barely be seen.

Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN IBN.

First Published: Aug 31, 2007 00:26 IST