A robust challenge to cynicism

A robust challenge to cynicism

By M.J. Akbar | 14 June, 2014
Regressive aspects and elements of the status quo are being dismantled, piece by piece. This is an attempt at reformation, not a revolution.

More has been written about Indian Muslims than has ever been done for them. If they could convert six decades of Congress hypocrisy into cash, Indian Muslims would have been living like monarchs in fairytales. The facts of their existence are more harsh.

Very rarely has this acrid truth been distilled as neatly as Prime Minister Narendra Modi did with a single example during his powerful speech to the Lok Sabha during the debate on the President's address. Three sentences were sufficient: "When I was young, I saw a Muslim mechanic repairing cycles [in his shop]. Today his third generation is doing the same thing. Why is their condition still so abysmal?"

Why? Why are they trapped in a swamp? Why is the grandson not taking his business forward with the help of a degree of technical education? Why has this family skill-set become stagnant? Why has that shop, symbolic of a hundred thousand such establishments across India, remained a hole in the wall? Congress, which has risen to power on Muslim votes for decades, has no answers.

Poverty hobbles a nation and, as the PM said, the first duty of government is to destroy this curse wherever it exists, among the oppressed, tribals, Dalits, minorities or in any caste demographic.

The consequences were spelt out with equal clarity: "If any organ of the body is not healthy, the body is not healthy..." A strong nation cannot have a weak limb. The Prime Minister knows that this limb must be strengthened. Poverty hobbles a nation and, as he said, the first duty of government is to destroy this curse wherever it exists, among the oppressed, tribals, Dalits, minorities or in any caste demographic. We cannot let an Indian child go to bed hungry. Why cannot we have a simple home with a toilet for every Indian family by 2022? Broadband in every village? Electricity around the clock? A clean country, rid of garbage and filth that poisons life and nature, by 2019, as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary? These are not luxuries in the 21st century: they are bare necessities.

Every speech by a Prime Minister addresses many audiences, particularly in this age of multiple mass media. The most significant feature was the Prime Minister's challenge to the cynicism of many in the political super-elite, who have acquired such a vested interest in failure that they seek to bury every dream before pregnancy. An India where 65% of the population is young will not accept this. Trust Indians, Modi said, and they will make it happen. History was witness to the power of Indians. Mahatma Gandhi turned the mightiest empire in history, that of the British, into jelly when he rescued Indian nationalism from the narrow confines of the political class and converted our freedom struggle into a mass movement. There has to be a mass movement again for freedom from hunger, homelessness, and indeed helplessness.

Innovative politics is barren without innovative policy; and Modi will seek new ideas from the intellectual malls of our nationwide brainpower, as well as mine fresh options from the recesses of government thinking. This will require a critical mass of ideas, held together by radical sinews. A hundred new "Rurban" cities cannot be built with bricks designed a hundred years ago. Any grand vision is so easily punctured by slipshod shortcuts in implementation.

The principal objective has been stated in the President's speech: poverty alleviation, the template phrase that defined the approach of previous administrations, is not enough. The Modi government wants poverty elimination. Was everyone in that great hall of Parliament listening? The heavy-lidded languor of some MPs was evidence of the size of the task ahead. But closed eyes are less of a problem than closed minds; and the biggest hurdles will come from the obstinate who did not want to hear what they had just heard. One is not talking just of Rahul Gandhi, who seems so disinterested in the very concept of Parliament that he did not know which language he wanted to take his oath in, and kept fiddling with his mobile phone during the PM's speech. Rahul Gandhi is going to be a problem for Congress, not for government. The larger reference is to those for whom a seat in Parliament is a source of personal gain rather than public service.

The Prime Minister refused the camouflage of generalisations, of phrases like "criminalisation of politics" which seek to soothe public opinion without aiming to do anything specific about MPs facing criminal charges. The PM had a simple solution for the widespread belief that too many MPs have criminal records: the accused should demand a fast track verdict within a year. The innocent can remain in the House; the guilty could shift to less salubrious quarters.

Regressive aspects and elements of the status quo are being dismantled, piece by piece. This is an attempt at reformation, not a revolution; an effort to cleanse the temple of democracy, not to demolish it. This is neither going to be easy, nor quick. But the process has begun.

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