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DISENCHANTMENTS AND EXPECTATIONS

Nothing could illustrate the India of the past, of imperious and aloof government, better than the prime minister’s recent press conference — his third in ten years. The delivery and content were so anodyne that one wondered why he bothered. It added very little knowledge about why the United Progressive Alliance government has drifted for the last five years, why a team led by eminent economists could not pilot India’s performance to better than the average global trend. Anyone can manage a market environment that is benign. What distinguishes a statesman is the ability to lead and deliver in adverse conditions. If, with three days grace, we could make the event part of the dying days of 2013, it could have been seen as scraping the bottom of a year of disappointment, which we entered with frequent government promises that the worst of inflation was over, and sunnier days were just round the corner in the next quarter of the year. Those hopes were repeatedly belied. As prices galloped month after month and the real value of savings diminished, the only salvation might be that we will become eligible for the government’s food security act as our incomes fall.

The UPA government’s disdain in reaching out to its public and communicating with it is in marked contrast to the experiment that Delhi is witnessing in its new state government formed by the Aam Aadmi Party. We know there are caveats. That government is barely a few weeks old. Delhi is only a small state compared to the population size of India. It is urban and not rural. But what is heartening is that the elected representatives are listening to what their electorate has to say. And the elected are reacting positively to opinion, whether it is to form a government or to deny its chief minister housing that is out of keeping with its philosophy against ostentation. Further, the new government is trying to deliver on its promises swiftly even if it is not in full measure.

These elected representatives are making no show of wearing what has now become the political uniform of khadi kurtas or sporting a five-day-old stubble. They seem real and look like the man or woman next door, sharing similar anxieties and sensitivities — people like us, not born out of political pedigree. Their endeavour at mass contact and interaction with their public is evidently genuine, not photo-ops, and is a marked departure from the practices of both national parties. There is no talk of a high command or a politburo. What you see is what you get.

The Congress spokeswoman ridiculed these achievements by pointing out that her party was 128 years old and would not be affected by this fledgling new entrant. She would be well advised to recall that the Whigs who later metamorphosed into the Liberal Party in Britain and vied with its opponent Tories to lead the government of the United Kingdom for around 200 years, were eclipsed by the entry of the fledgling Labour Party in the 1920s. History does not support imperiousness when it loses touch with the people.

To be fair, there are similarities here in Bengal. Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamul Congress government swept to power three years ago on the promise of change. She deserves equal credit for her rejection of the trappings of power, be it in her accommodation or her chosen means of transport. But the occasional public outburst admonishing government officials and, more tellingly, her inability to respond convincingly to the outcry on scandal and, in particular, her retreat into denial in the face of alleged instances of rape, are damaging her and her party’s image. People ultimately want to see both tangible change and performance that delivers perceived benefits from growth and employment.

These are lessons that the AAP should heed. All popular governments enjoy a three-month honeymoon period. But, eventually, the scales will fall off the eyes of the public when it realizes that the prosecution of high-level corruption does not necessarily remove the bribes they have to pay for lower-level officials to perform what should be their rightful duty. Trapping higher officials involved in corruption cases of hundreds of crores of rupees is good for headlines in the media, but it does not deter, say, the gas agency demanding a bribe to deliver a replacement cylinder of cooking gas. Further, being pushed from behind by the herd is no substitute for leadership which balances populism with affordability and invests in the requirements of the future, be it in education, public health or business investment to create jobs.

Whether with corruption or with rape, there is a tendency for governments to project that the laws are inadequate and that a change in the law will, in itself, be corrective. The reality is that the existing laws are generally strong enough to prosecute against either. The problem is with the pursuit of those laws to bring about swift, effective and visible punishment. To take a case in point, it is now more than a year since the Delhi gang rape tragedy of December, 2012, which provoked such a national outcry that the UPA government was forced to change the law four months later. These toughened laws have not prevented the hideous series of rapes throughout India week after week. The law cannot be the sole means of deterrence in the case of rape. What is required is the commitment and determination of government leaders to pay heed to public distress, instead of attempting to diminish the incident, and to be seen as pursuing the accused to the point of punishment.

So the disenchantments of the past year are being replaced by a new year of expectation. Whether the AAP succeeds nationally in the general elections, now a few months away, is not crucial. The important factor is that it has brought about a game change, from which it will be difficult for politicians to look back. The urban electorate is unlikely to allow itself to be taken for granted, or to accept being addressed through remote press conferences to which they cannot gain admission. They want their representatives to talk to them and listen to them.