India these days seems to be in ferment. If one picks up a newspaper one gets hit by headlines that certainly do not bode well for the country, at least, not in its immediate future. While one can discern a severe churning taking place in the country’s social, political and economic life, the government, at the same time, is largely perceived to be drifting along.
Protests against governmental actions/inactions both, at the Centre and in some states have been raging for months. Tamilnadu in the South has witnessed an agitation against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant that is only few months away from attaining criticality. The pathetic fate of far-away Fukushima in Japan and its ill-fated victims have justifiably induced fear in the surrounding villages of Koodankulam. People in general have become resistant to the idea of nuclear power and fearful of the nuclear power plants. Another anti-nuclear protest by villagers earlier this year in the idyllic Konkan region in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri District against a mega Nuclear Power Park had boiled over for weeks and had even become violent.
Acquisitions of fertile lands under an antique law for mining, industry and power – thermal or nuclear – in pursuit of double-digit GDP growth gave rise to agitations of farmers and tribal communities in several states. The government has been hard put to subdue them. The country has also seen protests in the North-East, in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, as also in the Himalayan states of Himachal and Uttarakhand against construction of dams for irrigation and generating hydro-power. While people, especially rural and tribal communities, have become more alert about safeguarding their rights and livelihoods, the governments, both at the Centre and in the states have been tardy in shedding their autocratic attitudes and have failed to take people into confidence before conceiving projects that impinge on their wellbeing. Today, with information being available at the remotest of outposts ordinarily people refuse to be taken for granted by governments and their functionaries.
A decades-old movement for creation of the Telangana state (to be carved out of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh) has gathered strength and is continuing now for months with no solution in sight. The Congress Party which had merged the region with the then newly-created Andhra Pradesh more than half a century ago against the wishes of the locals and against its own better judgement has now been facing the music. With passions running high, life in the state and its capital, Hyderabad, is paralysed with considerable impact on it administration and economy.
The social activist Anna Hazare’s two successive fasts, with unprecedented country-wide support, for enactment of a strong “Janlokpal” (anti-corruption ombudsman) law and later the government’s capitulation are recent history. India Against Corruption (IAC), led by Hazare and his team, are still hitting headlines. It has decided to canvass against Congress candidates at the 2012 state polls if the Parliament reneged from its commitments given during its last session for legislating for a strong “Lokpal” – the reasoning being the Congress leads the coalition at the Centre. Although the context might be different, IAC’s efforts of swinging elections away from the Congress remind one of the campaigns of The Tea Party in the US during the 2010 Congressional elections.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s first tenure appeared sedate until, of course, the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, insisted on signing the Indo-US Nuclear Deal even at the cost of losing support of one of his important allies – the Left – risking his government’s survival. The government did survive and win the “Confidence vote” only after the “cash-for-votes” scam exploded in the Parliament in 2008. The Congress-led ruling combine’s brazen efforts to soft-pedal investigations into the scandal invited a scorcher from the apex court. And yet, the trial that was hurriedly commenced, based on seemingly skewed investigations, appear to be farcical as none from among the beneficiaries – the Congress-led UPA government – of the scam has so far been hauled up. After IAC’s massive anti-corruption movement the government’s attitude appears somewhat brassy.
UPA I’s survival by dubious means has come to haunt it in its second avatar. All the scams that are currently hogging the headlines are of UPA I-vintage. The biggest of them all – allotment of 2G spectrum – saw a cabinet minister, a member of parliament (both of a southern ally) and a few corporate honchos into the jail, besides embarrassing the Prime Minister who tried to hide behind the nebulous “coalition compulsions”. He was, nonetheless, forced to act by an aggressive Supreme Court. Later, even the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) got into the act, putting the finger at the loss of incredible hundreds of thousands of billion rupees.
The relentless media exposes of scams of another few hundred thousand billion rupees during the run up to the Commonwealth Games in 2010 forced the Prime Minister into action to have it investigated by a former CAG. Having shot himself in the foot, he lost credibility. And, it led to a curious crisis of confidence that stalled governance and induced a policy-paralysis even as sycophants of Sonia Gandhi undermined his stature by repeated assertions about eligibility of her son to occupy the highest executive position.
Today, the busiest organisations are the courts, especially the Supreme Court, and investigative agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation and other police outfits. While virtually every day there are reports of court orders pulling up a public organisation or an individual, every new day brings also the news of a big wig either being put in the coup or refused bail. A large number of politicians of different hues are in Delhi’s infamous Tihar Jail. While the Law Minister, strangely, feared for drop in investments with so many corporate heads in jail, the apex court was taken aback when warned by a government lawyer of destabilisation of the government if it went after high functionaries like the home minister, a case for whose prosecution contributing to the 2-G scam is also currently being heard.
A recent headline spoke of “scams, graft (are) hitting growth”. Indeed, GDP growth has slowed down. Scams and graft could well have been very important reasons. No less important has been the reason of inflation which has been biting the industry and the common man, the very aam aadmi, whom the UPA swore by. The prices have gone through the roof and what hurts the most is the food inflation that has moved beyond 10%. The declining value of the rupee has pushed a few more millions below the poverty line. And yet, the government unmindfully has sought to peg the poverty line at a ridiculous Rs. 32 .00 and Rs. 26.00 per day in urban and rural areas, respectively, fuelling fresh controversy. None in the government seems to have bothered to enforce checks on the inflated prices of essentials like vegetables and food grains. While the prices of agricultural produce rule high squeezing the common man the farmers commit suicide and, ironically, the cartels and middlemen make their piles. Even, the middle classes have got the wrong end of the stick with repeated hikes in interest rates to combat the prevailing inflation, pushing, inter alia, housing and automobiles out of the reach of many.
Economic growth has, on one hand, been accompanied by growth in numbers of billionaires, enriched ministers and MPs/MLAs, rising numbers of private aircraft, luxury yachts and high-end luxury cars and, on the other, by huge numbers of discontented and resentful poverty-stricken, malnourished and hungry – by some estimates around 60 million (77% by the reckoning of the late economist Arjun Sengupta) – in rural and urban India. Jobs remaining scarce, petty and other crimes have shown an inordinate rise. Snatchings, thievery, rapine, kidnappings etc. have become common. Worse, while mafias stalk the honest and whistleblowers, murder and rape have registered a sharp rise. Security of life and property has become tenuous.
Polarisation in politics has bred acute intolerance for a contrarian view. Two prominent IAC activists were assaulted – one was beaten up on camera for holding views on Kashmir disagreeable to the extreme right and the other for canvassing votes against the Congress if it did not fulfil its commitment of legislating for a strong Lokpal.
While pursuit of economic growth has made only the rich and the unscrupulous prosperous and happy, it has spread unhappiness and misery among a very large section of the people. At the same time, it has demolished the anchors of Indian society in a mad rush for money; the get-rich-quick syndrome is eating into its moral fibre. Ethical life in India today has been shoved on to, no, not the back seat, but the boot. Reversing this now well-established unholy trend might well be an impossible proposition.