The power of the small story

The power of the small story

By M.J. Akbar | 31 July, 2011
Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi

The big picture generates understandable excitement. Sholay will always get more hype than an "art movie", as state-funded cinema used to be called in the days when the state still had the will to hand out dollops to chaps wearing pyjamas and beards. But there is as much to be learnt from the intricacies of the small picture. The most famous portrait ever painted, Mona Lisa, was done on a small canvas.

Politics may be more reasonably compared to artifice rather than art, but the analogy holds.

Democratic politics rotates around two spheres, the shaded circles of power and the open arcs of the street. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is not one for populist fervour. He does not raise his voice, and the street demands theatre. But every so often he continues to dispel, in his unobtrusive manner, the myth that he is ignorant of the politics of power.

The dynamic of power within UPA2 is not controlled by the taut line between Congress and its allies. The Congress has, effectively, reduced its allies to impotence. It is measured by the relationship between the two poles of authority, Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi. The two work in tandem, of course, or the show would collapse; but there is also a constant two-way flow of tension as they approach a decision from different ends, or calibrate the means by which they can increase their influence without stretching the tensile strength of their equation to break point.

The appointment of Pulak Chatterjee to the Prime Minister's Office as Principal Secretary is a classic instance. Chatterjee works well with both, or he would not be in consideration, but his principal loyalty is to Mrs Sonia Gandhi. He has replaced T.K.A. Nair, who got the job in 2004 for many reasons, including the kind of quiet and confident competence which the PM admires, but mainly because he is completely devoted to the PM. So how does Dr Singh manage this transition? He appoints Chatterjee and promotes Nair. Rank is fundamental to power; Nair, as equivalent to a Minister of State, has precedence over Chatterjee, and protocol equality with the political appointee in PMO.

Dr Singh has conceded Croatia and taken over Yugoslavia. Old Europe is a fit metaphor for power-play, because its greatest skills were exercised not in times of war but in the territorial negotiations that followed. Dr Singh's old guru Narasimha Rao must be smiling from wherever God has placed him in the firmament. As UPA2 enters the decisive year of its term, for 2012 will determine whether it can revive or must perish, much will depend on whether its agenda is determined by the governance of politics or the politics of governance. Dr Singh would prefer the former; Mrs Gandhi, the latter. Dr Singh showed, during the nuclear deal, that he does not surrender to formal opposition; he is sending the same signal to informal opposition.

Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi work in tandem, of course, or the show would collapse; but there is also a constant two-way flow of tension as they approach a decision from different ends.

Dropcap OnThe DNA of a system can be traced from its small picture, as much as from its grand profile. The story of a vegetable-seller, Shamsuddin Fakruddin, now 19, tells us as much as we need to know about a judiciary that, on another level, refuses bail to those charged in the 2G telecom case when every reason for doing so has been exhausted. CBI demanded their incarceration because it argued that they might interfere with evidence. All evidence has been placed before court, but bail is still denied. Why? There is no explanation from the judiciary.

Which of course is the point: judges do not explain. Our legal system has become a variation of obiter dictum ["a judge's expression of opinion uttered in court or in a written judgement, but not essential to the decision and therefore not legally binding as a precedent"]. Delhi police picked up Fakruddin from Okhla Mandi in August last year, and accused him of stealing Rs 200 and an ATM card from the pocket of the complainant. He pleaded innocence. Delhi police charged him with theft and keeping stolen property. He was locked up in Tihar jail. The magistrate denied him bail. Nine months later, he was offered bail if he could provide a surety of Rs 10,000. He could not. The judge sent him back to jail.

How can a teenager who is considered so desperate that he wants to steal Rs 200 offer a surety of Rs 10,000? The maximum sentence for stealing Rs 200 is three months. Why did the police, in collusion with the magistrate, keep him in prison for a year? There are hundreds of questions every day in our courts without answers. Fakruddin defeated injustice in a brilliantly counterintuitive way: he accepted guilt, and walked way, since he had already served four times the jail term of his "crime". His real crime is poverty.

There is redemption: in public anger. The Times of India made the story of Fakruddin its front page lead, with a front page editorial against the injustice of warped justice. Democracy demands that we live by the law; it also demands that we change the law when it has become an ass.



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