The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting
Tucked away in the middle pages of some newspapers, there were, a few days ago, two stories that readers may or may not have noticed. One was about the amount being sought for the system of roads called the “golden quadrilateral” — six-lane highways linking the four metropolitan cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and Chennai. Work on these has already been taken in hand, and some sections have been completed. Much, however, remains to be done before the whole project is in use. A large amount of money will be needed to complete it, and a cess on fuel prices has been proposed to provide at least a part of the enormous amount needed.
The benefits of this project hardly need stating. Goods can move in larger quantities, and move faster between these four cities and places in between; we already have in the market articulated trucks made by international giants like Volvo which can use these new highways with more safety and comfort for the drivers. The pressure on the railway system will ease much more; there will certainly be additional employment and the availability of more goods and products all over the country will mean greater off-take, and a resultant upward swing in the economy as a whole.
The other story that was briefly noticed in a few newspapers and journals was about the initial steps taken towards the beginning of work on the linking of rivers through a system of canals, a project that has been put into the capable hands of Suresh Prabhu, former minister for power. Granted that all we have at the moment are statements and exciting visions of what it will all mean, but there is little doubt that the project will eventually take off; the problems of water scarcity and the scourge of devastating floods are inducements enough. It will, naturally, involve astronomical sums of money, but as Prabhu persuasively pointed out, the rate of growth of the gross domestic product, as the project progresses, will mean that the cost will work out to be a small percentage of the GDP, and that amount can and will be found.
The implications of these two projects on the economy, if and when they are completed, are difficult to take in all at once. Goods moving faster, more economically, more safely, in larger quantities, water scarcity in huge areas becoming history, floods too becoming nightmares which transmute into legends. Employment for tens of thousands in the building of these gigantic projects, making it possible for them, when they’re completed, to generate enormous numbers of new jobs of different kinds. These may be dreams, but they are tantalizingly close to being realistic goals and objectives rather than flights of fancy.
Except for one thing. The thing we call the processes of democracy, as practised in many parts of the country. In Uttar Pradesh, by that redoubtable lady, Mayavati, and by her implacable enemy, Mulayam Singh Yadav; in Gujarat, by the darling of the louts in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Narendra Modi, who must be trying, like Lady Macbeth, to wash the blood of innocents from his hands with the same degree of success; in Bihar, by the comic character, Laloo Prasad Yadav, who spends his time lolling about on a charpai when he’s not sitting on a throne like a Mauryan emperor; and in some other states, which we will come to a little later.
Consider what these creatures mentioned above have been doing. The lady in UP is loudly denying having asked for a percentage of whatever money each legislator is able to extract from various people and organizations, including the government, and as a counter-measure has started an investigation into the money spent by Mulayam Singh Yadav when he was chief minister. In between, she has equally loudly been defending the huge amounts of public money spent on her birthday, saying it was for the benefit of the public, really. Incidentally, who in his or her right mind would like to celebrate her birthday' What remarkable attribute does she have apart from a monumental ego and a voice like a foghorn'
The real answer is of course that she herself celebrated her own birthday, as anyone with a monumental ego would. But to come back to the point — all she’s been doing is just that, celebrating her birthday, trying to fix Mulayam Singh Yadav, and defending herself against the videotape of her demanding a cut from her legislators. Any time spent on the welfare of the state, on trying to bring it back from the financial mess it’s got into' Not in the slightest.
Take that man, Modi, now. It’s all very well for the Confederation of Indian Industry to apologize to him — we know why they did that. But what exactly has he done for the state, except letting a few thousand of its inhabitants be killed off' Nothing worth mentioning, but then he’s not the sort of creature who’d be interested, because development for him doesn’t make news. Rabidly communal statements do. At least in Gujarat, but not in Himachal Pradesh.
As for Laloo Yadav, what can one say of him except that he’s finally made it to the television ads ' What a mess that state, Bihar, is in! Law and order non-existent — kidnappings; assaults; murders committed with impunity; the police force a paunchy and impotent lot, more concerned about their daily chai-pani than anything else; education in a shambles; the economy in a mess; the state’s coffers empty with not even enough to pay the employees.
Now what would the golden quadrilateral or the project to link rivers mean to them' Mayavati probably hasn’t even heard of either; Modi would be only vaguely interested, except to ensure more water from the Narmada so that the Sabarmati flows, with Modi grinning in a boat on the borrowed water; and Laloo Yadav would in all likelihood querulously demand to be told what his share of all this would come to. And yet these are leaders, elevated to the highest offices in the land (never mind Laloo for the moment) by that process we call democracy, that concept before which we genuflect and offer prayers.
Will the likes of these let the two projects be completed or will they see them as exciting opportunities to make more money and arrogate more power to themselves' In other words, will these projects survive the democratic process in these states' Every-one will have his or her own answer to this question, so let us pass on to another.
No one would ever dream of clubbing the chief minister of West Bengal with this lot. But in his state, what precisely has he done to make, say, industrial growth possible' Yes, we know about the marvellous work of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation and all the rest of that. What about the militant unions, those gangs that are laws unto themselves' Will they allow the golden quadrilateral to be completed in that state' Or the river-linking project' Or will mobs of aggressive, violent thugs barge into the offices of these projects demanding jobs for their followers, and threaten destruction and assault if their demands are not met'
Answers to these questions make one ponder on the condition to which we have reduced democracy in this country. In the name of democracy, we excuse fundamentalist hatred and violence; in the name of democracy we excuse chaos and economic paralysis; in the name of democracy we let corruption and robbery actually control and shape the way governments function. One wonders how long this must go on, before democracy crumbles into something dreadful and of our own making.