India: Beware of a patient people’s fury

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

(Published in Inquilab on 19 May 2013)

Gujarat is paying American PR firm, APCO Worldwide, millions of dollars to build and promote Brand Narendra Modi for nothing. It should be actually writing those checks in the name of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

If Modi eventually moves to Delhi on his blood-soaked chariot, Narendra Modiit wouldn’t be because of the dazzling development that he is supposed to have ushered in but because of the good offices of the man the Gujarat chief minister mocks as ‘Maun-Maun’ (‘Maun’ is silence in Hindi) Singh.

Would you blame the Indian voter if he goes ahead and elects Modi’s party given the fine mess that the Congress has made of governance and mandate of the world’s largest voting population? It’s as if the grand old party is driven by a death wish.

Just when you think this government cannot get any more inventive, it ManmohanSinghcomes up with more to surprise you. Skeletons constantly continue to tumble out of the cupboard.

Scam after multibillion rupee scam; it’s like open season for swindling public money while good Dr. Singh remains asleep at the wheel. The opposition claims this is the most corrupt government in history. It could very well be right.

Isn’t this a cruel irony that all this has happened under someone who was chosen for the top job on the basis of his reputation for integrity and incorruptibility? Indians looked up to Dr. Singh just as they looked up to Dr. Abdul Kalam — they still do — and identified with their amazing, inspirational success stories. Both epitomized traditional middle class values and belief that hard work, honesty and pursuit of knowledge in the end pay and help transcend one’s humble roots.

Dr. Kalam, a fisherman’s son, built India’s successful missile program and was associated with the country’s ascent as a nuclear power before entering the imposing palace in Lutyens’ Delhi from where the British ruled the empire.

Dr. Singh, the architect of India’s economic transformation in the 1990s, too has had modest origins and burnt midnight oil studying under candlelight in Gah, now in Pakistan, before progressing to the Oxbridge glory and leadership of the great republic.

He may not have won a single election but it was Dr. Singh’s clean image and what he seemed to stand for that appealed to both corporate India and middle classes and helped the UPA return to power in 2009.
That legacy now lies in tatters. After an array of scams claiming his ministers in the past couple of years — the latest being Pawan Bansal and Ashwani Kumar —the prime minister finds himself sweltering in the spotlight over the Coalgate which has sullied his pristine image.
When the meltdown started with Telecom Minister Raja’s 2G escapades, everyone blamed it on ‘coalition compulsions’ and the company that the good Dr. Singh was forced to keep. It was argued, and even opposition conceded, that the prime minister himself remained above board. Not anymore.

Since the coal ministry was under his direct charge when the sale of 1.7 billion tons of coal at throwaway prices took place between 2006 and 2009, Dr. Singh finds himself in the dock.

The CBI’s admission in Supreme Court that Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and officials in the PM’s Secretariat vetted and ‘edited’ its status report on the Coalgate provoked the court’s ire and scathing observations against the government’s interference in the probe and handling of the investigating agency. It has put the PM in the direct line of fire, raising question about his integrity.

Indeed, the Coalgate has started a forest fire that threatens to consume the UPA and Congress as the 2014 Election looms. Elsewhere this would have led to swift resignation of ministers and the PM himself.
But this government remains determined to hang on in there until 2014 come what may. So did Bansal and Kumar despite serious allegations and CBI probe against the former and the SC remarks against the latter. Both have gone now but not before inflicting more damage on the government’s battered image.

Meanwhile, Dr. Singh maintains his enigmatic silence. This silence of the soft spoken, accidental prime minister was once seen as golden in the cacophony of Indian politics. In Rajdeep Sardesai’s words, in this age of noise and high decibel politics, his quiet dignity was a reassuring bridge to an earlier era. That very quality has now come to haunt the Congress. Silence has become a curse.

To be fair to Congress leadership, it has stood by the PM steadfastly supporting him even as the government has been hit by one scandal after another. And it’s not just sleaze; the government’s response to numerous challenges facing the nation, not to mention the worsening law and order situation and crimes against women, has been one of pathetic indifference and ineptitude.

Yet Sonia Gandhi has resolutely backed the PM, just as he himself has stood by his tainted ministers, apparently in the belief that doing otherwise would undermine the government. In the end though, this inaction and perceived helplessness of the PM could prove the undoing of the Congress in polls next year.

But when it comes to corruption, the Congress doesn’t live in splendid isolation. The opposition BJP isn’t in any position to pontificate to the governing party. Two of its presidents were caught with their hands in the till and have had to leave in far from dignified circumstances. And we all know what happened in Karnataka, Jharkhand and elsewhere. The humiliating drubbing it has just received in Karnataka is nothing but a stinging rebuke and people’s retribution for the open loot and total breakdown of governance in the state under the “party with a difference.” But the BJP’s corruption is least of the people’s concerns given the far more serious threats its worldview and agenda pose to the well-being of the country.

Indeed, no party, perhaps with the exception of the Left, has remained unaffected by the disease. From dynastic and regional parties to caste-based outfits to those claiming to be led by higher ideals, no one can claim a spotless image today. Sleaze seems to run like blood in the body-politic.
India’s vibrant democracy seems to have done little to check its politicians’ unquenchable appetite for lucre. In the past year or two alone so many cases of plundering of national resources have come to light that their combined worth would exceed the annual budget of many a small African nation. And these are the cases that accidentally came to light.
Billions in public money have been stolen even as hundreds of millions in this vast land go hungry every day, craving for the basics of life and dignified living. More than 300,000 babies die within 24 hours of being born in India each year, a report by the charity Save the Children revealed this week. India accounts for around 30 percent of all newborn deaths worldwide, higher than that of many impoverished African nations. And we are supposed to be an emerging superpower and fifth largest economy in the world.

Blame it on crony capitalism or the glory of free markets that everyone wants to get rich quick today no matter how. If you are already rich, you want to become richer. Nothing is enough. More is less. And our leaders and politicians seem to be leading the way in this endless quest.

They say you get the leaders you deserve. So do we really deserve the current lot? I don’t know about that. But politicians have let down India and its incredibly patient people. Time and again. People’s patience isn’t infinite though. It’s running thin, especially on the question of corruption and bad governance. That is the takeaway message of Karnataka. Political parties, the Congress in particular, would ignore it at their own peril. Dryden cautioned against a patient man’s fury. India’s leaders should fear a patient people’s fury.

English version was published in the Arab News on 12 May 2013

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