On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Constitution last Sunday, speaker after opposition speaker pointed out that while democratic norms have been tenuously maintained, the promise of social and economic equity is nowhere near being achieved for the bulk of the people, and that the system swamped by a tsunami of corruption and inefficiency at all levels of the government cannot cope. That this was declaimed with a straight face by many party leaders and members of Parliament facing grave charges of financial irregularity, malfeasance, and possession of wealth (bank accounts and properties) beyond “known sources of income” and were cheered on by many blatant bribe-takers, who for reasons of proximity to the Congress Party’s First Family have escaped investigation, suggests that the political class now thinks of the filthy lucre as only another entitlement, along with government bungalows to live in, fleets of government cars to cart them around, and armies of servants – from menial to civil service types, to help them live the good life at the expense of the taxpayer and to siphon off public funds. That those most responsible for the spreading misgovernance are shameless enough to muster the moral gumption to complain loudly about it on an occasion demanding serious introspection about how, why, and where the Indian system has gone off the rails, hints at the unrecoverable slide the country seems to be in.
Plainly, the system has broken down and the best its minders can apparently do is faintly acknowledge the problem. But even the Titanic needed its famous band to keep playing ostensibly to lift the morale of the hopeless people on board as the ship sank. That role of the Titanic band is performed by a bunch of policy intellectuals led by former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, who produced a document – ‘Nonalignment 2.0’ (NA 2.0), helpfully suggesting the principles and guidelines for foreign policy-makers to follow.
The initial reactions to this document after its release in end-February were negative. Critiques of NA 2.0 are on the net, in numerous blogs, op-ed pieces, media commentaries — the reason why the government never fully owned up to it and, in publicity terms, has dumped it. Much of its contents either because they restate familiar themes from public debates in the last two decades or revive the rhetorical slant of policies from a more remote past, seem to have only a passing relevance for the present and, even less, the future. But NA 2.0 does reflect the thinking of the Prime Minister, the ruling Congress Party, and the top bureaucrats and diplomats running the system.
If the historical knowledge of Indian foreign and military policy of most of our politicians, diplomats, civil servants, and senior military officers were not other than book jacket-deep and the country’s policy-making was not based principally on the past as contained in files, and precedent, with MEA and Defence Ministry officials fleshing out current policy options with an eye principally on previous notings in recent files, India would by now have been actualizing strong policy and capabilities for 2020 and beyond, and pondering the nature of the world in 2050 and India’s place in it, rather than wrestling mindlessly with themes that were long ago put to rest. Then again NA 2.0 is, perhaps, a side-effect of the country adrift in a Manmohan Singh-induced policy haze.
NA 2.0 can be faulted, and has been, on many counts. Its most questionable contention, among a host of problematic theses it has propounded, is its identifying “the power of [“the country’s] example” as the “fundamental source of India’s power”. Oh, really? It has been the central conceit of the Indian political class and intelligentsia starting with Independence that India stands for something unique, has extraordinary value to offer the world. The less there is to show by way of development and economic progress compared to, say, China, the more we seem to fall back on patting ourselves on our democratic backs. At one level this is nothing but a variant on the exceptionalist rant by every country. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, all countries are unique in their own ways, so what’s so special about India?
India’s “example” is defined as high economic growth rate combined with maintenance of democracy. Those in the developing world who, presumably, are waiting breathlessly to emulate India have actually waited for more than sixty years for this Indian model of development to pan out. Their wait gets longer because our system is still only a work in progress. The secret of delivering development to a billion plus people logically lies in effective democratic management of the state. In reality this is precisely what has failed the country. That the decrepit and slovenly apparatus of state serves only itself only adds to citizens’ woes.
Were there a self-cleansing and self-correcting mechanism, there would be cause for hope. In its absence, the system can be reformed radically only by its chief beneficiaries – the politicians and armies of non-performing babus from petty clerks to cabinet secretary. But there is zero incentive for them to do so. Moreover, a political class that cannot countenance the gentle ribbing by cartoons and a government craven enough to succumb to pressure to ban them from school text books, are unlikely to reform themselves or the system. India is thus destined to meander, without the end-goal in sight. What example is this?
Further, by any developmental criterion, using any set of socio-economic indices, of development produced by any of a host of international organizations, India ranks in the bottom quartile alongside states in sub-Saharan Africa. These statistics damn India’s “democracy”. That it is lauded more in the West than is taken seriously in the developing world, tells its own tale. The shiny Chinese model of fast-paced economic development and amazing First World infrastructure would appear more attractive. But, venal rulers of third-rate regimes may be enthused by the India model – it allows them to loot and mismanage the country, and also to preen themselves as “democrats”!
[Published as “Ïndia rolls down the hill” in the ‘New Indian Express’ on Friday, May 18, 2012 at http://expressbuzz.com/opinion/op-ed/india-rolls-down-the-hill/392714.html ]