Debating India

INDIA

Stem The Slide Now

Anita PRATAP

Thursday 18 September 2003, by PRATAP*Anita

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition du 22 septembre 2003.

The Indian middle class hasn’t unleashed its power yet. It has only complained so far, but it never acts.

Recently, journalist-turned-minister Arun Shourie wrote a series of articles highlighting India’s impressive progress in the fields of technology, business and commerce. His point was that we should stop being negative about ourselves because we have already become a world-class power in certain areas. This is true. It’s an achievement made possible by the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of the Indian people. Economic reforms gave them an inch of freedom, but they were so smart, they took a mile.

But the problem has never been the people of India. It’s the politics of India. While we take pride in our technological gains, should we ignore that we have the world’s largest concentration of poor people, that nearly 300 million Indians struggle without the basic necessities of life, that we have the world’s highest number of malnourished children? This list is long and it would be a crime against humanity if we ignored these depressing realities.

To be a genuine and sustainable giant, India needs not merely technological progress. We need to work hard and quick on our systemic failures. We take great pride in our democracy, and, indeed, we have achieved what we have only because we are a democracy.

But democracy today is seriously jeopardised by several entrenched realities. Unless we cleanse the rot in these areas, our growth and success stories will not sustain, let alone replicate.

The first major problem is the criminalisation of politics. If we don’t arrest it in the next year or two, we will be stoking the funeral pyre of our democracy. Right now, most Indians are cynical about politics and politicians. But cynicism will soon turn to despair, malaise to horror. The consequences of law-breakers becoming lawmakers is too terrifying to contemplate. And yet, this is happening. Criminals are leading power-hungry politicians by their noses and thereby tightening the noose on our democracy.

The second issue is the "judicial collapse" that even Soli Sorabjee has publicly admitted. The current situation is untenable. There is no justice, crime is not punished. The poor languish in jails while the rich get away after committing heinous crimes and frauds. No society can flourish if the rule of law disintegrates, if the justice system becomes so patently unjust.

The third is the politicisation of our bureaucracy. Increasingly, officers are selected for top jobs not on merit or seniority. Politicians and industrialists pull strings from behind to place their cronies in crucial jobs. Fourthly, procedures are opaque. The establishment misuses secrecy to cover up misdeeds, incompetence and corruption. And fifth is our political obsession with trivia and sectarian, divisive issues such as caste and communal conflicts. Our politics must focus on matters of governance. Political priority must be to educate and feed our children, build roads, provide water, electricity and healthcare in every village.

Poverty, corruption, unemployment, disease, exploitation, injustice. Our problems are so immense that it would seem impossible to tackle them. It is true we can’t tackle all these problems at the same time. But if two things were to happen, we would be well on our way to effectively tackling and perhaps even conquering these problems. The first is that we must have a prime minister who has true leadership qualities. This means he must be a visionary with an ability to inspire the people, he has to be convinced about India’s true destiny in the 21st century, he must have the strength of purpose to forge a new path and the courage to take on entrenched feudal interests that connive to keep India poor and backward.

A prime minister carries awesome authority. Nobody can thwart a bold, decisive and fair-minded prime minister.Just as a visionary and dynamic ceo can turn around a bankrupt company, so too an action-oriented PM can turn the fortunes of a country in a way that provides an enabling environment for all. India yearns for an inspiring leader, one who believes in action, not platitudes.

The second is that we must have the right people for the right jobs. Our bureaucracy is the steel frame of India and it has the power and the capability to deliver the goods. But only if it is led by upright, courageous, competent officers. It took just one man, T.N. Seshan, to demonstrate the power of the Election Commission, its ability to hold fair and peaceful polls by keeping criminals and politicians in check. It took one police officer, K.P.S. Gill, to crush terrorism in Assam and Punjab. Manmohan Singh guided the economic reforms sagaciously and the outgoing rbi governor Bimal Jalan managed our monetary policy brilliantly. Recent tendencies to fill top jobs with sycophants and the corrupt must be resisted vigorously.

Unlike in western democracies, the Indian middle class is yet to unleash its awesome political power. So far, it has chosen the path of least resistance, preferring to complain, but not act. If they don’t act by organising themselves into bodies and associations that exert compelling pressure on our establishment, India’s slide will be irreversible. They should act in their own self-interest. They stand to lose the most. The poor have nothing to lose and the rich can afford to lose. In any case, most of our rich have their children studying or living abroad. Instead of the middle class also striving to migrate, it would be far better if they got together to stem the rot. If our scientists and entrepreneurs can achieve technological progress, there is no reason why the rest of us cannot band together to achieve the political and social progress that our country desperately needs.

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