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ON A SINKING SHIP

The vote-on-account budget was presented in the Lok Sabha amidst silly slogan-mongering that makes a mockery of the serious business of governance. It shames us as Indians to see elected representatives behave like they do when India is struggling to restore a semblance of dignity in the public domain as it attempts to reinvent itself. The challenge is stiff, what with new compulsions fighting for space in a corroded framework that was corrupted over the last many decades by self-serving politicians and an exploitative bureaucracy that remained unaccountable to the law and to civil society. The result of that disregard for good governance, integrity and transparency is now evident in the streets of India and in every institution where the majority has begun to assert its rights.

The anger that has erupted across all layers of Indian society is frighteningly blatant. The Aam Aadmi Party has built its fast-growing, potentially formidable, base on this ‘national anger’, which must be seen in the context of the confusion that accompanied the restructuring of the economy since the 1990s. The failure of the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime to introduce radical administrative reforms as well as to initiate the re-writing of archaic and redundant economic laws to deal with a changed economic and social environment triggered the rapid dilution of integrity in governance. That is when the real rot began.

Costly silence

The administrative machinery was allowed to fiddle with the system. While dealing with entrepreneurs who needed clearances and no-objection certificates, bureaucrats stalled fines and demanded bribes. The men and women who generated the wealth for India had been partially released from the stranglehold of repressive policies of a command economy. Yet, they were not fully liberated within the new system.

In this messy system, babus interpreted needs and requirements with the help of their limited wisdom. ‘Disabling’ laws that were enforced at random by insecure, corrupt babus seeking an opportunity to make hay within a failed system compelled private enterprise to indulge in illegal and untenable transactions with the bureaucracy. Proposals began to be cleared through bribes. The political class condoned the corruption by not making the babu accountable. Soon, the babu became the boss, in a manner of speaking, and governance fell apart. None of the leaders fought the decay from within. No prime minister forced radical reform. Gradually, the political and administrative lines merged and one protected the other, making the regime insular and disconnected from the stakeholders of this great nation state.

The horror reached its zenith during UPA-II, a government that could well have restructured the regulatory apparatus and the archaic laws, thereby liberating India’s soul from repression and toxic corruption. Corruption aggravated and was indirectly abetted because the cabinet did not think that it was important to bring about reform. The United Progressive Alliance was satisfied with a patchwork and each time the stitches fell apart, someone would thread it up again. This culture of jugadh has been the principal reason for its demise as a political configuration. Arrogance, often described as ‘silence’, has been the poison that destroyed the UPA. The inability to engage with India, the utter lack of respect for India’s creative industries, the desperation to clone middle America as the model of development, and so on, have rightly landed the UPA regime in a pickle that is fast becoming rancid. The impending confusion as the system unravels and the fear that a sane restructuring may not happen with the immediacy that is required to bring integrity into play are scary.