Between scam India and slum India

Between scam India and slum India

By M.J. Akbar | 31 October, 2010

It is entirely appropriate that a nation whose motto is Satyameva Jayate should discover a metaphor for ravenous loot in a Mumbai building society called Adarsh. Greed is the new religion and all are welcome to feed at her trough. Nothing else is sacrosanct; not the highest offices in public service: Chief Minister, Army chief, Navy admiral, or top bureaucrat through whom the file must pass. If there is a flat to be stolen in a housing society sanctioned for the welfare of war widows, then every single one of these crooks is ready to cheat the blood of Kargil martyrs. Thomas Friedman did not know how many puns danced on the head of a simile when he called the world as flat and began his journey in India.

There is no shame left. It is tempting to ask whether there is an India left when most of its ruling class has abandoned every principle in its composite, vulgar commitment to theft, but hopefully India is larger than its ruling class.

Which came first, hypocrisy or greed? Tough question. I would give primacy of place to hypocrisy, since that is the cloak behind which greed flourishes. Hypocrisy is always a great temptation in a democracy, since compromise always begins in the name of either realism or service. The gap between true expenditure in an election and officially sanctioned levels is the principal propeller of corruption since it becomes the justification for taking illegitimate "donations", which of course is the polite word for bribes.

The stink of hypocrisy now permeates through all levels of authority, and institutions — like our defence forces — which cannot co-exist with corruption. They will be corrupt or a force; they cannot be both. The list of officials who stole from the Kargil dead is almost embarrassing: politicians, senior IAS officers, top defence officers. It was a rigged lottery handout.

It was robbery from the graveyard of Kargil martyrs. Those back-scratching cronies who distributed Adarsh flats between themselves should not be tried for corruption. They should be punished for treason.

But of course that is asking for too much from rulers who have become venal beyond belief. The system believes it can satiate any level of public anger with the meat of a scapegoat. Suresh Kalmadi was the officially nominated sacrifice for the putrid rape of public money during the Commonwealth Games. Ashok Chavan, Chief Minister of Maharashtra, will possibly have to resign because of Adarsh, unless he can, quietly, blackmail his superiors in Delhi by threatening to reveal how much cash he has been passing on to them.

We are being fooled by a clever set of manipulators in Delhi. Ashok Chavan did not become corrupt on the day media discovered that he had not only changed the terms of reference to cheat the "heroes of Kargil operation who bravely fought to protect our motherland" and then calmly stolen at least four of their flats for his family. He was corrupt the day he was made a minister in the Maharashtra Government. He was promoted to Chief Minister not because he was competent but because he knew that the formula for upward mobility in the Congress, the happy combination of loyalty and corruption. When Delhi now puts on a mask of high outrage, it is only because it thinks this is the only way in which it can postpone retribution from the voter.

The voter does not live in Adarsh. 62% of Mumbai lives in slums. The distance between scam India and slum India is measured each day in the newspapers, but discomfort prevents us from noticing. Even media seems reluctant to shorten this distance. While the front page of Saturday's newspapers in Delhi were full, justifiably, of the Ashok Chavan-led pillage, a small story on page 3 told of an unknown mother who left her two children, a boy, Pukar, and his sister Dakshina, outside a "mazaar" [a saint's shrine] just outside the office of the Election Commission in Delhi, the home of the guardians of democracy. She gave her children all that was left with her, a bag with milk and some clothes, and told them she would return in an hour. She never returned. Her last trust was faith in the shrine. The children, said the temporary caretaker of the "mazaar", Wazir Shah, cried the whole night. The children are now in a shelter.

They will learn to deal with the hungry, homeless, loveless reality that is the destiny of half of India while a thin skim ravages national wealth, and those in-between are trapped between dreams and insecurity. But will Pukar and Dakshina accept their "fate" and ignore Ashok Chavan and his fellow gangsters in the way that their helpless, nameless mother did? I hope not.


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