Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Image of India: Terrorised & Tarnished

by Percy S Mistry.

9.30pm on 26-11-08 started sixty of the most ignominious hours for India. In that time its global reputation for competence disintegrated. TV screens around the world witnessed the unwinding of cumulative brand-building over fifteen years. India's image as a potential future super-power changed instantly to one of a brittle, incompetent, state. Sixty hours of mayhem, by just TEN semi-literate misfits, humiliated a nation of a billion in the eyes of the world. They underscored the dysfunctionality of a political establishment with misplaced priorities. They highlighted: (a) the lack of communication and coordination in our multi-layered system of government at city, state and central levels; (b) the confused, bureaucratic nature of our intelligence and security apparatus; and (c) the gross inadequacy of Indian forces of law and order to deal effectively with terrorism, despite its frightening frequency on our soil.

All our key agencies proved incapable. Yet many are now rewriting for posterity their roles with images of personal courage, sacrifice, 'martyrdom' and glory. Miles of footage and reams of prose make it redundant to repeat the trauma of those painful, insufferable hours. But much of it is now being criticised for revealing our public faults without air-brushing. The aftermath of 26/11 shows the deadly 'paralysis-cum-obfuscation-cum-foot-in-mouth' disease infecting our polity. Unfolding evidence suggests that central and state agencies had sufficient early warning, of sufficient specificity to be 'actionable', from a variety of internal and external sources, to take prophylactic action. Yet the state went into denial. The scale of the state's default in not performing its most basic duty - i.e. protecting its territory from attack and its citizens from harm -- is becoming clear. To its rulers, Indian lives are cheap. As Maharashtra's Home Minister, 'Dance-Bar' Patil succinctly put it: "small things happen in big towns"!

The anxiety of our government to divert attention from its failings led to immediate bellicose sabre-rattling against our perennially hostile, insecure, and even more incapable neighbour, to appease domestic outrage and baiting by the Opposition. Even if the ISI is behind this attack, our way of going about making the connection obvious to the world leaves much to be desired. We are being too shrill and indignant. Our ex-post handling of a still unfolding crisis could yet become a sub-continental tragedy, if we do not rise above ourselves to air our grievances more effectively, obtain redress, and protect India's interests over the long-term.

26/11 has revealed many things about India that we were content to obscure from ourselves but must now face frontally and do something about. First, we have to acknowledge openly that serving the Indian public could not be further from the minds of our political class. The statements made by satraps in every party after 26/11, prove that beyond reasonable doubt. Should they be taken at face value? Yes. Can they all be cases of misspeaking? They reflect a visceral contempt for us who are obviously seen as lumpen morons. We vote these sad excuses into office (despite their ignorance, malfeasance, self-enrichment and criminality) time after time. Thus we establish that we do not care for ourselves or how we are represented. They seem themselves as our masters (netas) rather than our servants (naukars). We collude in perpetuating that ridiculous notion; thus giving our democracy a particularly nasty twist.

Second, what comes across most clearly from 26/11, is how disconnected our political class is from us. It is apparent that, apart from undertaking the tedious task of seducing and bribing us at election time, our political class (with the exceptions being counted on two hands) exists to serve itself: i.e. to enrich, empower, indulge, protect and insulate itself from us; using the resources we provide but they command as their own. Our Treasury has become their piggy-bank. Our forces of law-and-order have become their vassals and servants used to serve their personal needs and political ends not ours. Our bureaucracy (endowed with some truly exceptional people who are badly used and abused) has become their machinery for their own political gain than for advancing our national interest.

Third, state-provided security of political megalomaniacs has become more important than the security provided to protect our lives. And, despite this tragedy, political goons at every level of government -- including those who go out of their way to destabilise our societies, divide and fracture us by accentuating ethnicity, caste and language, and open themselves to retaliation -- are surrounded by policemen putting themselves out of real harm's way. When will this absurdity cease? How many more of us have to die before things change? What will it take to dismantle the perverse, ridiculous, VVIP culture that disempowers us all?

Fourth, our great institutions of state have become political instruments for taking advantage of us in every way imaginable. Maharashtra, affected by the most vicious act of terrorism yet experienced was held hostage to the political machinations of the Congress and NCP for days before appointing a more capable Chief Minister. Is caste politics emblematic of a 21st century India? And should choices for the Maharashtra CM be confined to a list of the dubious?

Fifth, our political system has now become completely dysfunctional in form and substance. Present political machinery is inherently incapable of delivering good governance no matter how well-intended it might be; which it is not. The senior Mrs. Gandhi's imperial hauteur triggered the end of one great national party. Since her ascension, Congress has become a private family business that no one but the family can run. But family members are not wise, knowledgeable, or capable. If they were, they would not have kept as Home Minister someone who had proved himself so grossly incompetent (though sartorially elegant) time and again, just because he was loyal. They are unable to distinguish between their political interests and those of the country. They live off an unfortunate legacy of involuntary sacrifice. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has done some good. But it has also done much harm to India's economy, polity, and the integrity of its social fabric with profoundly mistaken strategic choices. What this family should do now is leave India to find its own feet without them. They could let India dispense with the curse of dynasty and allow what was once a great national party to rebuild itself, so that talent, not heritage and surname, are valued. They could let capable young politicians rather than sycophants kowtowing to the family come to the fore.

But, just as Congress has degenerated into becoming a family firm, the BJP has morphed from various preceding branches of an 'opposition' to Congress to go the communal route; hinting none too subtly that democracy should be replaced with a tyranny of the religious majority. An accompanying trend to the mutation of the two national parties has been the emergence of fractured regional entities posturing as political parties when they have no beliefs, values, or philosophies about economics, politics, social development or governance. But, playing on themes of caste, creed (greed?) and language, such parties have gained local traction. They are the price that India now has to pay in the form of dysfunctional coalition governments in which the national parties provide a platform. The rest represent caste interests (dalits, yadavs, thakurs, gujjars, marathas, brahmins ... the list is endless) or a Marxist Left incapable of learning. They are available to the highest bidder. They need ministerial office for immunity from prosecution and enrich their privy purses. But we have no defence from them.

Sixth, our ability to exert any real political choice and discipline over those who supposedly represent us, when they go astray, has disappeared. Since one political coalition is as venal as the other we have no real choice. Our laws for investigating assets disproportionate to known income as a check on political malfeasance have fallen by the wayside. Indeed no politician cares about being prosecuted for amassing wealth illegally. Many are happy to reveal ill-gotten gains publicly. They are aided and abetted by laws intended to encourage equal opportunity, but instead provide perverse incentives for entrenching the caste system through a pervasive and pernicious system of preferences. In all these ways, we the Indian public, have become complicit in the ethical disintegration and corruption that engulfs us; that makes India a lawless, non-compliant, undisciplined, ungovernable society, in more ways than one.

26-11-08 is a wake up call to all of us that we have let things slide too far. We have tolerated the evolution of a system of misgovernance and a political ethos that is damaging to our lives, and to the integrity of India as a nation. This tragic episode underlines the reality that India has no bright shining role in the world unless it focuses on upgrading radically and immediately the ethics, machinery and institutions of governance in the same way, to the same world standards, that so many Indian corporates have attained in the last two decades.

We all need a state that functions. We need a presidency that commands respect not derision. We need a legislature that works effectively. We need lawmakers who are not our worst, most conspicuous, law-breakers. We need a government that governs well, provides essential public goods like law and order (which no other agent can provide) and caters to our interests. Instead we have a government that does everything but govern, and caters only to the interests of those in government. We need a government whose business is governing, not running businesses. We need a judiciary that delivers justice, not endless delays and the denial of justice. We need a legal system and police forces that function to serve law and order, and not to serve the pecuniary interests of legal professionals and the security of politicians.

This is not as elusive as it sounds. In public service we have some extraordinary people, though they are swimming against the tide in an ocean of mediocrity and incompetence. We do not lack the knowledge or financial resources to make our government work and perform alongside the best governments in the world. What we lack is the political culture and will to make it happen. But we also lack in our desire as citizens to demand the best. Why?

Because: seventh, we are pretty lawless ourselves. We pride ourselves on our individualism to the point where we do not notice how antisocial we are. We take short cuts as a matter of course every day in every way. We seek preferences at every turn, and look for favoured treatment through political connections to employment, promotion, licenses and other forms of advantage. The way we drive on the roads, cross streets, or queue for buses, trains or tickets at a cinema, shows just how unruly and undisciplined we are. We have not yet come to accept what is taken for granted in developed societies: i.e. that laws and rules apply to us in every aspect of our daily lives. They are not applicable only to others. We need to become a law-abiding, compliant society to reduce the frictional losses and transaction costs of selfish and undisciplined behaviour. We need to care not just for ourselves but for our neighbours. We need not to keep just the inside of our home clean while allowing common areas outside to be filthy. We need all these things more urgently than we need anything else to develop and grow. We need them sooner rather than later.

If it were not for our own faults as people and as citizens, our government and polity would not have so many. Nor would we be so tolerant of them. If it were not for our shortcomings, our forces of law and order would not be as pressed as they are in normal circumstances. And if we justified our demands for better security and governance, by improving dramatically our own standards of behaviour, we might eventually get them. It is one thing for others to terrorise us. It is quite another for us to terrorise ourselves on an ongoing basis.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks you for posting this. We need more such debtaes and discussions to bring the groups who have distanced themselves from the political class- the upper and middle class urban families, and educated youth.

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