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A SPEECH WITH A DIFFERENCE

The address to the nation by the president of India on the eve of Republic Day is normally a fairly sedate affair, uncontroversial and restricted to homilies. So the contrast this year was marked. Rarely has a president spoken with such heartfelt candour on the perilous state of the nation on course for a general election in a few months’ time. Although he spoke of “an anthem of despair from the street”, he cautioned against treating government as a “charity shop” and added that “those in office must eliminate the trust deficit between them and the people.” Further, he said, “those in politics should understand that every election comes with a warning sign: perform, or perish.” For such an experienced statesman to have to issue such dire warnings is indicative of how accident-prone India has become.

Fifty years ago, the British prime minister, Harold Wilson, said that “a week is a long time in politics.” So it should perhaps not be surprising that the euphoria which greeted the installation of Delhi’s new “representative” government has evaporated in a miasma of disappointment. Bengal has four decades of experience of the uncomfortable transition from street protest to governance. And, however painful the journey was, it has managed that transformation fairly successfully. Even allowing for the occasional ‘government-sponsored bandhs’, those in power have learned the distinction that must be drawn between protest and governance. But like so much else emanating from Bengal, that message seems to have been lost in translation by the time it reached Delhi, where it is now commonplace for the chief minister and his cabinet to sit in dharna outside government buildings supported by a dubious logic of self-confessed anarchy. Further, and inexcusably, the Delhi government has encouraged State-sponsored vigilantism laced with prejudice and xenophobia in an effort to wrest control of the police force.

This drift towards vigilante forces whether in Delhi, Chhattisgarh (the Salwa Judum) or in Bengal (khap panchayats or kangaroo courts) has become a dangerous invitation for mob rule to settle scores. The strength of civilized nations is the process of law that has been systematically developed over 2,000 years to give the accused the right to defend himself or herself. Take away that right and you have truly entered the avenue that the anarchists seek. And the role of the government in a democratic enterprise should be to reinforce those systems, not to abuse them by allowing leaders to take the law into their own hands. Once you pander to street justice, it is only a small step away from the lynch mobs with which the Ku Klux Klan terrorized America. Significantly, that organization also reflected majority public opinion of the time.

Much of our overwhelming anger emanates from the despair that the president cited of the people reading daily accounts of bestial crimes committed against women in India’s towns and villages. Will corruption remain the only source of public anger, or will honest political leaders recognize that personal probity is not enough when their colleagues are not only making money, but cocking a snook at judicial processes that have indicted them?

After a period of invisible governance, rampant inflation and unchecked corruption, India is desperately seeking new leadership and direction. The forthcoming election will be crucially important for India’s future in this respect. Increasing affluence and wider education have broadened access to media and communication. Consequently, news, comment and opinion are available across a wide cross-section of the voting public. So, neither can there be an excuse for ignorance nor for squandering a vote which could influence the character of the new government to be formed at the Centre.

Opinion polls suggest that neither of the two major national parties will gather a sufficient majority to form a government on its own. As a result, responsibility may well flow to the smaller regional parties to coalesce into a meaningful combine. In turn, that means the voter in Bengal could be pivotal in deciding the course that the nation will be taking. In 1996, the then chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, claimed that his party committed a “historic blunder” in not participating in the Central government. Better that history should not be repeated if the opportunity presents itself again.

But for that to be meaningful, the voter needs to think what are the priorities not only for Bengal but also for India as a whole. Reckless populism has infected state after state and is draining the exchequer in a way that can only lead to economic catastrophe. So there has to be a less wasteful way to empower the nation. Anyone who has led industry in India or seen Indian students abroad will tell you of the incomparable capacity Indians have for hard work. Harnessing that through investment, enterprise, growth and employment will give continual and longer-term benefits than the short-termism of seductive hand-outs. Couple that with such commitments as stamping out corruption at all levels, educating the public against majoritarianism and prejudice, providing a genuine sense of security, and you begin to chart out a nation that we can all be proud of.

In his speech, Mukherjee stated that “each one of us is a voter; each one of us has a deep responsibility; we cannot let India down. It is time for introspection and action”. As he watched the ‘Beating Retreat’ ceremony that marks the end of Republic Day celebrations, that too in the course of a week which also witnessed Barack Obama’s ‘State of the Nation’ speech claiming a turning point in America’s fortunes, the Indian president might have been wondering what sort of nation he will be heading next year. As Indians, we justly pride ourselves on the solidity of the democratic processes we have constructed when the electoral process in so many countries around us have collapsed. After years of drift, we cannot now afford a period of instability. We owe it to ourselves to elect a government which can deliver on our expectations.