Some years ago, this columnist chanced to visit the corridors of Mumbai’s pricey Breach Candy Hospital when the incomparable Raj Kapoor was in his final days of life in a room there. Knots of people congregated outside the door of the room where the thespian was, most talking, some smiling, a few laughing at what must surely have been an unrelated subject. However, as soon as a media person got sighted, the talk would cease, the smiles and laughter get retracted, and the most sorrowful of countenances would in seconds form on faces that wore very different expressions before a scribe or a cameraperson was sighted. Our politicians react in much the same way as did the visitors to the Kapoor bedside. Each time elections come by, they sacrifice those holidays in London and the Maldives, don homespun and tramp through miles of slush in heat, cold and rain. With each step, they repeat the mantra that “the people are supreme”.
Really? Since when? Certainly not from 15 August 1947, the date at which “the country” became “independent”. For although there were cosmetic changes, in substance, little got altered. Before and after, those outside the privileged portals of government had to get permission before carrying out even actions that are the right of any citizen in a genuine — as distinct from what may be termed a “colonial” — democracy. Indeed, based on the facts (as distinct from perceptions and theories), a case could be made out that in the so-called “post-colonial” system, all that happened was that the political upper crust of governance took on the mantle formerly worn by Whitehall, while the civil service (which continued unmolested despite having been created by London as an instrument of repression) got transformed into the Raj. Those Brits holding fort in India for the greater glory of the Mother Country. Certainly, our politicians and civil servants have the view that they, and they alone, have the right to take the final decisions about the future of the country. Decisions that almost always get taken with personal or sectional interest firmly in view.
Hence the hysterical reaction within the political-administrative phalanx about Anna Hazare and his movement. For here has arisen a man who forgets that this phalanx alone has the qualities needed to govern India effectively. Forget that over the past 65 years their record in governance has been abysmal. If there has been some small improvement in people’s lives, it is despite the exertions of this indigenous class of colonialists. Only when this ruling stratum gets weaker relative to its strength in more palmy days, does the rest of the country escape, to an extent, from the stifling clutches of a system of governance that places a premium on implementing the Lowest Common Multiple whenever it can. Whether in agriculture or in industry, in healthcare or in education, habitation or energy, the policies pursued have been suboptimal, which is why voters respond so strongly to the few politicians such as Narendra Modi who have somehow escaped from the colonial complex found within the politico-administrative phalanx created by the British Raj and preserved and strengthened by the tenets of Nehruism.
In no democracy would the administrative system have the panoply of powers that is extant in India. At each level, from the village to the megapolis, government agencies spin webs designed to trap the citizen, who can escape only after payment of a bribe. If the anger of the people at the colonial treatment meted out to them by their self-professed “servants” has boiled over during the term of the UPA, it is because — as during the period of Indira Gandhi — the governance structure has since 2004 been engaged in a systematic increase in its discretion and in its reach. Some months ago, a friend in Bangalore had the misfortune to be within the list of taxpayers subjected to raids and harassment by the Income-Tax department in the zeal of its officials to meet the arbitrary quotas that have been set for them since Palaniappan Chidambaram took over the Union Finance Ministry in 2004. Mani Shankar Aiyar waxes eloquent all across the world about the rich texture of democracy in India, not surprising from an individual who has always depended on the exchequer for his monthly paycheque. Were he to witness a tax raid, see families forced to remain indoors for days at a stretch, watch as cupboards get overturned and records get taken away — sometimes for ever — he may have at least a faint quaver in his voice the next time he brags about our democracy.
For both officials and their political masters know that democracy is a farce in India, and that the only nostrums that work in practice are money and power, a duo that almost always appear in tandem. Coming back to this friend, his wife, who was in the final stages of pregnancy, was dragged about the city to multiple locations, in the course of which she delivered prematurely. Thus far, there has not even been an apology for such conduct. And why should there be? Mistreatment of the citizen by the ruling caste is commonplace.
Dropcap OnContrast this with the ferrying around of Sonia Gandhi. Once, this columnist had the misfortune to have his flight land a bit before that carrying this distinguished daughter of privilege did at Palam. For more than an hour, he had to wait along with other motorists while the great lady dawdled inside the airport. We were freed from captivity only when Sonia Gandhi’s immense cavalcade swept past at an accelerating pace, the very tyres indicating contempt for those waiting out of sight in the shadows, much like “unseeables” waited in gullies in Kerala while the upper castes walked past. To her or to Manmohan Singh or to the many thousands of others in the post-1947 colonial matrix of power, it is a given that only from within their ranks can there be people found to man the fastnesses of government. A Nandan Nilekani is an aberration, when he ought to be the norm. The political class and the administrative echelons of the IAS and the IPS spend much of their time infiltrating into as many nooks and crannies of the governance structure as they can fit into, whether these be airlines or wheat storage yards, intelligence agencies or old-fashioned policing.
The Jan Lokpal Bill suggested by Anna Hazare challenges the monopoly of power within the politico-administrative ruling caste that has done so little to the country, yet gained so much from it since 1947. Small wonder that they are apoplectic at this small, unprepossessing man who had had the nerve to say that Old British or New British, enough is enough, and that the people deserve to be free.