Geometry mentions that somewhat intriguing concept, an asymptote: a line continually approaching another — a horizontal — line, but never quite meeting it. Can it be that this country is now very much in an asymptotic state? It seems at every moment inexorably moving towards a total breakdown, but the grim event does not actually take place; instead, a reign of near-chaos keeps asserting itself in every sphere.
The ambience of approaching doomsday is made up of several mini breakdowns in different arenas. Consider first the confrontation between the government and the office of the comptroller and auditor general: a series of reports submitted by the CAG has not been to the government’s liking and even caused it acute embarrassment. The CAG, according to the complaint that has been voiced, is straying beyond its constitutional ambit and walking into the government’s preserve of policy formulation. Is it? Article 149 of the Constitution reads as follows: “The Comptroller and Auditor General shall perform such duties and exercise such powers in relation to the accounts of the Union and of the States and of any other authority or body as may be prescribed by or under any law made by Parliament.” The office of the CAG claims it has reached some conclusions and made certain observations concerning the manner in which the authorities have gone about awarding spectrum allocations or coal blocks. If, in the CAG’s assessment, the government has deviated from acting in accordance with the rule of law, protestations by the government cannot be the end of the matter. Should these protestations fail to persuade the CAG into revising its earlier judgments, the issues can only be sorted out by the Supreme Court; neither parliamentary debates nor press conferences can clinch the matter. Till the nation’s highest judicial authority has spoken, there can therefore be no surcease of the impasse arising out of the disputations between the government and the CAG.
A few of the revelations caused by this or that CAG report have meanwhile led to a major fall-out. One important, hitherto considered axiomatic, attribute of a parliamentary system of governance has been given the go-by. The dictum of collective responsibility is no longer applicable in India, the prime minister himself has put forward the point of view that, in a regime featured by a number of coalition partners, the head of government may not have any control over official acts and activities of a cabinet colleague belonging to a coalition partner; he has accordingly sought to excuse himself from the culpability of the 2G spectrum allocations.
The prime minister, though, is in no position to make the same plea in order to walk away from owning responsibility for any fiscal impropriety in the award of the coal blocks, since he himself was in overall charge of the coal department at the time most of the allocations took place. The main Opposition party is demanding the prime minister’s resignation and is confident it will succeed in igniting the emotions of the country’s masses on the issue. It plans to disrupt the functioning of Parliament, which in turn would ensure a fresh poll for the Lok Sabha in which it hopes to sweep the board. Such calculations, are inducing the party to drag the impasse into all parliamentary activities. For a number of other political parties, however, an immediate poll is quite a dreadful prospect. The Congress on its part is of course fully aware of the deepening discontent across the nation over mounting prices, pervasive worklessness and rampant corruption at high places; it would hate to face the electorate even a day earlier than when it must in 2014 to satisfy the legal stipulation.
There is at present only one way the parliamentary logjam could be resolved which could also bury the controversy between the government and the CAG. The allotments of coal blocks, made at the discretion of the prime minister since 2004 — aggregating to 150 or thereabouts — are yet to be made operational; that is to say, no extraction of coal has yet begun to take place from the allotted mines, presumably because global economic conditions have adversely affected the export demand for coal. The allotments can be cancelled, vindicating, ex post, the regime’s claim of no real loss to the public exchequer on account of the allocations, the conscience of the CAG will be satisfied and the Bharatiya Janata Party, too, can claim a grand political victory. Whether recourse is to be taken of auctioning for fresh allocations or whether coal mining should henceforth be the prerogative of state undertakings as the Left ideologues are demanding could be the subsequent item on the agenda.
The government is plainly reluctant to accept this solution. There is such a thing as honour between thieves. To cancel the coal block allocations now will involve a major breach of trust: call the transactions by whatever name, fat commissions must have been collected against the grant of the coal concessions by persons who for dear life cannot be named. The pith and substance of what can be described as a late-night volley by the ruling party played into an awkward corner is riveting indeed: why, if our people have made money from coal block allocations, BJP leaders too did the same thing in the past.
Matching the impasse in national politics is, some will say, the state of doldrums in economic policy-making. The Washington lobby and the corporate sector have been expressing together their unhappiness at the supposedly stalled economic ‘reforms’ which, in their view, have in consequence dragged down growth in gross domestic product. There is little substance in this kind of whimpering complaint. The essence of the further reforms these growth fetishists are advocating is providing more tax and other reliefs to the affluent sections and imposing stiffer burdens on the poorer classes. This is precisely the programme the authorities have been experimenting with in the United States of America and Europe to counter the recession which set in there five years ago. The result has been to further deepen the crisis in the two continents. Those who discarded John Maynard Keynes to enshrine in his place Milton Friedman are, however, slow learners. Their general approach is also doggedly class-oriented. The story of India’s recent economic growth and non-growth is straight and simple enough. The country’s economy grew in the early years of the new century because of an explosion of exports. Of late, exports have shrunk, growth too is contracting. In the circumstances, what is called for is compensation for the loss of export demand by creating demand at home via increasing the scope for income and employment among the poor and middle classes. By imposing further burdens on the poor — the centrepiece of the ‘reforms’ favoured by the newly installed, but comprehensively retrograde-minded, finance minister — would mean sending the economy hurtling towards graver disasters.
It is therefore not an altogether bad thing that the constraints of coalition politics are likely to play the role of a decelerator in so-called economic reforms. The regime in New Delhi depends for survival on parties which have their own political arithmetic and economic agenda. They can be depended on to exercise their option to veto New Delhi’s economic wish list, thereby tightening the logjam in economic decision-making.
It is not just in the economic sphere, though, that symptoms abound of the Centre’s fast losing grip. There is the extraordinary instance of the West Bengal chief minister, sort of a congenital loose cannon, who leads a party the infrastructure of which represents society’s crudest lumpen elements. They — and she — think their kingdom has come; she gets away by saying and sometimes doing the wildest of things, for has not she 19 crucial votes in the Lok Sabha? She makes freewheeling allegations against the judiciary. Ask her an inconvenient question, you run the risk of arrest. If a news story goes against her, that has been planted at a consideration. The rule of law does not operate any more within her demesne; New Delhi merely looks on.
Determined efforts on the part of successive Congress-led regimes at New Delhi to deprive the states of adequate financial resources to sustain decentralized development responsive to people’s needs and priorities at different levels are now having frightening consequences. Vulnerable groups in remotest parts of the country have reached a decision. Since in their view there is no government around to take care of their problems, they will proceed on their own. Two such deprived groups in Assam, seeking land to live on, are fighting it out. The administration, so-called, watches helplessly. The conflagration has repercussions all over the country. Suddenly, groups of Indian citizens have travelled to the bitter truth that they might soon need passports to transit from one part of the country to another.
Little by little, a great many focal points, big and small, of discontent have emerged in different corners of the country. The locales of discontent gradually get transformed into epicentres of disability. In Jammu and Kashmir and the northeastern states, the government has committed the additional folly of giving the army the head in a desperate bid to keep things under control. A retired army general does not any longer fade away; he joins active politics, and perhaps dreams that, when the crunch comes, he would draw support from within the serving army.
Altogether it is a grotesque mess. But — and this is the puzzle and the dilemma — even the most striking mess does not sink in the great ocean of catastrophe at one go. There is such a thing as the inertia of large numbers.