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STATE OF THE NATION - An advance report card of the future

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By Cutting Corners - ASHOK MITRA
  • Published 6.06.08

Chikmagalur on the Nilgiri foothills was a special situation. Indira Gandhi was damsel in distress, chivalrous Karnataka had to bail her out. It was slightly less of a moral challenge in the case of her daughter-in-law; gallantry, however, re-asserted itself and she could romp home from Bellary. But those were ancient times. The dynasty with the big D has meanwhile lost its lustre; it has also to compete with similar species at the local level. The people in Karnataka have anyway finally made up their mind; they had enough of the two political formations — one supposedly leaning towards the Vokkaligas and the other representing Lingayats — which played Cox and Box in the past decades in the name of running the state administration. They have now opted for the unknown devil, the Bharatiya Janata Party; what has been at work is a try-anything-once kind of practical philosophy.

It is the broader context of the Lok Sabha polls round the corner that should rather rivet attention. As things look at present, the big fight will be between the party of medievalism and the one flaunting pre-puranic fundamentalism. Since neither is likely to have a clear majority in the House, caste-or ethnicity-based religious parties will fill a large part of the space. Inevitably, horse-trading will be at its briskest. On such issues as national sovereignty and defence of secular principle, the Left has been making the appropriate noises. Given the mindset of the sentinels in charge of their main bastion, West Bengal, the Left could, however, soon be the source of much schadenfreude on the part of its adversaries; its current status as an important ginger group within the United Progressive Alliance might be in jeopardy.

That could only raise further the stakes for the regional parties. They have already tasted blood. Some of them have captured power at the state level. They will not hesitate to use the clout they have acquired as hard bargaining counters at the time of the putting together of the new administration, as well as subsequently. Whoever forms the government is bound to be continually vulnerable. It will be a regular ‘cry of prices’, the expression used by the economist, Leon Walras, to describe the process of a free market equilibrium. The caste-or ethnicity-based parties will sell themselves to the higher bidder, be it the Congress or the BJP. The ideological pretensions of either party will have nothing to do with it.

We will therefore enter the epoch of cynicism. The BJP has of course gone on record: it strongly disapproves of the Bush-Manmohan Singh nuclear deal and the clauses of the Hyde Act. But wait till it assumes the reins of government — as it hopes to do — in the late spring of 2009 or even earlier; it will be no surprise if it falls back on the plea that international agreements are sacrosanct notwithstanding change of regime within countries. The plea it proffers is not important, for such pleas are a dime a dozen; it is the attitude of mind which is.

Cynicism, though, has the virtue of ubiquitousness. Should the Congress be ejected from power in the forthcoming polls, perhaps a group of ‘progressive’ Congressmen would emerge overnight and pledge to fight, fight and fight again, the reprehensible provisions embedded in the Hyde Act; it would be cruelty to animals to enquire where they were all this while.

The uprising of the Gujjars is only a foretaste of things to come. The moment the new government takes office in New Delhi, pressure will mount on it from this or that regional or ethnic or linguistic or caste group to grant some additional favours to it, otherwise it would raise Cain. The government will dissemble for some while, and then go a quarter or one-half of the way to meet the demands made on it. When that affair dies down, another conflagration will rear its head in some other part of the country on a similar issue. The government will be having a harrowing time. But even if you have tears, it will be pointless to shed them for the regime. For there are compensations. The turn of events will allow the government to raise its defence and security budgets. Appropriations under these heads are disposed of behind the veil of secrecy. It will accordingly be bonanza time for commissioning agents and those who have to be satisfied by such agents.

Gross domestic product growth fetishists will have other concerns. They could worry that malallocation of resources of this nature might affect the tempo of development. They are unlikely to have much custom. In any event, whichever party — the BJP or the Congress — takes the oath of office next year, the finance minister is likely to be Washington’s man. That is also something India Incorporated would like to happen. Life and living have been recently so delightful because of the benign presence of the patron saint 11,000 miles away. Once the saint vets the finance minister, everything is going to be hunky-dory, industrial and commercial circles in India will feel assured that, irrespective of the colour of the government, the economy will run on an even keel and the sensitive index will grow, grow, ever grow.

Accelerated GDP growth under globalization will be uneven growth, leading to resentment, riots and the rise of more pressure groups. But there is a positive side, too, of all that will be taking place. Thanks to globalization, young people from the luckier sub-set all over the world have learnt to speak the same language, dress in identical apparel, listen to the same music, play the same genre of video games, and converge on the vast tableau of the internet. In the process, they shed several old inhibitions. Their non-philosophy of life may indeed begin to influence the attitudes of their elders. As a result, hesitant, modest doses of rationality could start getting injected into minds steeped in orthodoxy, superstition and the weirdest kind of prejudices. At least there is no harm in hoping along these lines; hope is still a free good.

Even as this flicker of optimism is reckoned as a visible reality, at the other end three-quarters of the nation will be denied the opportunity of sharing the spoils of spiralling GDP growth. India will continue to be a wide scatter of battlefields: big battles, small battles, battles of assertion, battles of revenge, battles for the sake of battles. People dispersed over the different regions will go their separate ways and pursue their particular avocations. Every now and then, the persistence of the horrendously skewed income distribution will create messier situations with the aggravation of social tensions. As a corollary of such developments, this or that regime at the state level will conceivably begin to behave like independent units. For New Delhi, discretion should be the better part of valour. After a long series of discords, tussles and encounters, the states have discovered that the precariousness of their finances is hardly relevant, it is the will of the people at the grassroots that counts. If such a situation calls for greater devolution of sovereign rights to the states, it will make more sense for New Delhi to give in, otherwise many of the battles, now more in the nature of skirmishes, will turn into wars. Take all this as an advance report card of the future. Movements in the international price level of either foodgrains or oil will not make any difference to it.