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SMALL SIGNS OF THE TIMES
- An experience of young people’s scepticism about governance

With nine months left for another Lok Sabha election, last Monday’s national debating tournament at Jadavpur University — “Voxpop 2013” was their fancy name for it — may not have been without a political message. Nothing obvious and, of course, it was unintended, but the youth whom P. Chidambaram was later to call India’s second face seemed just a wee bit impatient not just with the present government but with governance.

The immediate effect of the debate on “This House believes that the CBI should be accorded constitutional status” seems to have been to drive the Central Bureau of Investigation into hiding. When I searched the web for the “official website of India’s premier law enforcement agency for the investigation of corruption cases”, as it proudly calls itself, the blank screen said “Not Found” and below it, “The requested URL was not found on this server.” If the CBI is diligently pursuing its motto of “Industry, Impartiality, Integrity” instead of glossing over one major scam after another, it’s in some secret corner unknown to the great Indian public.

If any CBI representatives listened to the speeches, they would — or should — have been overcome by a profound sense of unease. For neither the four speakers who demanded constitutional status nor the four who refused to concede it seemed too impressed by the CBI’s performance. I waited for the paeans of praise, to hear from the young hopes of our future their pledge of faith in a righteous government whose premier law enforcement agency would cleanse the administration and bring wrongdoers to book. There wasn’t a whisper of it.

Instead, the scepticism on display indicated growing disillusionment with processes and institutions in an India that is Bharat where the 42,800 who admit earning more than a crore of rupees annually are probably greatly outnumbered by those who make no such admission, thereby escaping more than Chidambaram’s 10 per cent surcharge. If criticism wasn’t strident that was only because of what William Beveridge called the “secret preference in the Bengali mind for the milder virtues such as patience and charity” in India Called Them.

The CBI is only one aspect of distorted governance like Calcutta’s unresponsive fire brigade is one aspect of the city’s (and state’s) non-functioning or malfunctioning administration. The Lok Sabha hasn’t become lily-white since the damning evidence N.N. Vohra unearthed. A proposal for members not only to declare their financial and business interests but to acknowledge them when taking part in debates has been hanging fire since 1966. Though the Rajya Sabha did introduce such a register, the ethics committee chairman, Ram Gopal Yadav, complains that “the practice of members declaring their interest before speaking in the House is still rarely done”. The judiciary is bogged down by a massive backlog of cases. The bureaucracy bends in anticipation of every passing wind. A defence chief being named for the first time in a kickbacks scandal doesn’t mean others earlier did not merit naming. If Wednesday’s Lok Sabha slanging match between Yashwant Sinha and Kapil Sibal demonstrated that the two sides are equal in fishmarket abusiveness, they are probably also equal in what Sinha calls “gobbling up money”. There’s little to choose between Coffingate and Coalgate.

The media are supposed to be the great antidote. The Press Council has already reported exhaustively on how the aberrations of “paid news” and “private treaties” make media houses partners in crime. Now, Tavleen Singh confirms in Durbar that individual journalists are equally complicit. “In an insidious form of bribery they are offered not just access to leaders and foreign junkets when such leaders travel abroad, but nominated seats in the Rajya Sabha, subsidized housing and all sorts of other perks.” If joint parliamentary committees sweep scams under the carpet, as Derek O’Brien told the Rajya Sabha, B.R. Lall, a retired police officer and one-time deputy director of the CBI, described in Who Owns CBI: The Naked Truth how investigations are manipulated and derailed. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

That was implicit in Monday’s speeches. The motion wasn’t lost or won for it wasn’t put to the vote. But had the two principal proposers — Sneha Mondal, a computer science student at Jadavpur playing the prime minister, and her deputy, Abhishek Pal, who studies civil engineering, also at Jadavpur — won as a debating team, it would have meant that students expect constitutional status to reform and energize the CBI. Since the laurels went to the two who opposed the motion (Agnidipto Tarafder, a fifth year student at the National University of Juridical Sciences, and Aruni Roychowdhury, studying computer science engineering at the Heritage Institute of Technology), it could mean that Jadavpur students believe the CBI is already so immaculate it doesn’t need overhauling. Or that it is beyond redemption.

Sayon Banerjee, an English undergraduate at Jadavpur, would not have been adjudged the best speaker if his warning against the danger of “unparalleled power” in the CBI’s hands had not reflected the general mood. Perhaps he had in mind Krishnanand Tripathi’s sorry tale of harassment by a CBI determined to avoid exposure through the Right to Information Act. (The government has since obligingly exempted the bureau from RTI probings.) Other comments indicated that students think reforming the CBI is all right but empowering it is not. Shreya Paul, another Jadavpur English undergraduate, warned against political manipulation. Waled Aadnan, an economics Masters student at Presidency University, stressed the importance of accountability. Taniya Bhardwaj, a political science graduate from the same university, was one of several speakers to invoke the grim spectre of Frankenstein’s monster.

Others took up that refrain. Some, in their excitement, confused creator with creation, calling the monster itself Frankenstein, but that all too common slip made little difference to the overall feeling that while an effective CBI must be free of government control and political interference, it should not function as an intelligence agency or a power broker. Its authority and actions must be supervised by the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission.

But for this sombre message, “Voxpop 2013” was fun with Jadavpur University Debating Society office-bearers fluttering around in unaccustomed saris. Students played at being prime minister, deputy prime minister, leader of the Opposition and chief whip and a somewhat obscurely named Third Front functioning as the general body. Not that the JUDS’s promised replication of the House of Commons was very realistic. In fact, the subdued politeness of the speakers bore little resemblance to the hurly-burly of Westminster where the length of two swords still separates Treasury and Opposition benches. The Lok Sabha’s murky politicking seemed even more remote. Morarji Desai trying to oust Indira Gandhi, Charan Singh successfully ousting him, and V.P. Singh forever plotting against Rajiv Gandhi provided no role models for Abhishek Pal or Aruni Roychowdhury, the two deputies who loyally backed their leaders instead of stabbing them in the back.

The JUDS is obviously too small a sample for definitive conclusions about more than 600,000 million under-25s. Another forum in the same university might beam a different message. Nevertheless, the informed scepticism of apolitical middle-class boys and girls at a good university who are expected to be conservative careerists with a healthy respect for the institutions of State that sustain and fulfil their ambitions can’t be ignored. When one of the proposers inadvertently let slip the term “failed state”, a leading Third Front member at once jumped up to point out the own-goal. But no one disagreed with the description.