No year is an island. A sequence of events will always demand its consequence, without respect for something as transitory as a calendar. Neither time nor logic pauses on 31 December and takes a holiday on 1 January. Sleaze was the theme of 2010; it has already oozed into the building drama of 2011. The link is Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s brief statement on the eve of 2011: to “cleanse” governance. New Year resolutions, traditionally, are known to have a short life. If the Prime Minister thinks that this too is a promise designed for amnesia, then his government will have an equally short life. Indians are angry. So far this anger has not turned destructive. Beware the day it does.
The cynic has a right to ask: what was the Prime Minister doing for six years? He talks of cleansing the government, but who has been in charge of this government? Surely Dr Singh was not referring only to Opposition governments and handing out good character certificates to his own coalition? A revealing aspect of “sleaze 2010” is that the bulk of theft has taken place in Delhi, compared to which Mumbai and Bangalore are really small potatoes. Why did Dr Singh permit wholesale loot by UPA ministers? He has been in power from 2004; bandits became billionaires under his watch.
Dr Singh’s statement is a sort of confessional, but the Indian voter is not a Catholic priest, who will forgive colossal sin just because the penitent has bared his heart in confession. The voter wants accountability in political life, and has seen nothing but tokenism. The much-vaunted raids against scam-scarred politicians were little short of another scam, since the culprits have been given more than sufficient time to destroy the evidence and fudge the clues. “Let us,” says the Prime Minister, “dispel the air of despondency and cynicism.” But who and what is the source of the Indian’s despair? It is the Government of India that has made the Indian cynical.
If the Prime Minister does not act, the last chance to save his reputation is gone. If he acts, his government could be in serious peril.
This cynicism inevitably also became the prevailing mood in government. We watched, in 2010, a deeply fractured system turning upon itself. Some people at the highest levels of authority leaked what are now famous as the Niira Radia tapes because they could not stomach, anymore, the smug satisfaction on the faces of highway robbers. The Opposition had very little to do with any of the revelations that have shaken the Singh administration to the edge of instability. It was a wing of government that provided details of the colossal and wide-ranging malfeasance in the Commonwealth Games to the media. How can you read about the various levels of loot, from construction deals to toilet paper, and not become cynical? It was the vocal Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh who halted the Lavasa township project despite the fact that Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar is closely connected to Lavasa. Sharad Pawar has said publicly that Lavasa is close to his heart. His critics believe that Lavasa is close to his wallet as well. Once again, it was not the BJP or the Shiv Sena that put Lavasa at the centre of public discourse, but a UPA minister.
Dr Singh is sincere in his intentions; but is he capable of delivery? The people have had enough of good intentions. They want accountability and insurance against further loot. The contradictions in the Prime Minister’s stance are evident. When he waves his big stick, he must first strike against his own colleagues. Can he do that and hope to survive? He is, of course, trapped. His personal image has raised expectations which he has not been able to fulfil, at least as far as corruption is concerned. If he does not act, the last chance to save his reputation is gone. If he acts, his government could be in serious peril. There is sudden momentum in the drawing rooms of Delhi, as politicians discuss new options in an uncertain Parliament. The government has, foolishly, gifted a disunited Opposition the opportunity to unite over the demand for a joint parliamentary committee investigation. The JPC is slowly becoming a symbol of government’s evasion. It is not widely known that Dr Singh would have happily agreed to a JPC. He has been prevented by his party. In the process, the Congress has weakened its own Prime Minister and strengthened the Opposition.
The government should consider itself lucky that the people are only cynical. They are increasingly linking exorbitant inflation, which the government has been unable to curb, to corruption as well. What is mere cynicism and anger today could become rage tomorrow. Democracy has inbuilt valves for the release of rage, but it is unwise to test the tensile strength of these valves too often. If government behaves like an immovable object, the people will, sooner rather than later, turn into an irresistible force.