There are three striking features about anniversaries. The first is their sheer arbitrariness — what, for example, is so significant about the 100 days we so love to observe? The second, and this applies mainly to societies (not India) which have a marked sense of history, is their commercial potential. The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall proved very lucrative for publishers, just as ‘royal’ occasions in Britain are a good time for the producers of memorabilia. Finally, the decision which anniversary to observe and which to ignore is dictated by expediency and politics.
This week India will be commemorating the first anniversary of the jihadi attack on Mumbai on November 26 last year. If initial trends are any indication, it is likely to become another occasion for media-sponsored indignation by celebrities — the spurious enough-is-enough syndrome until the fire next time. It will also be the occasion for some mindless repetition of meaningless homilies such as the mantra that “terrorists have no religion”. That their astonishing conviction stems from theology is something we can’t discuss in polite company. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, quite fortuitously, will not be there to share the popular grief over independent India’s most astounding show of ineptitude. He will be busy telling those Americans who care to listen that India harbours no ill will towards those who are determined to set our house on fire.
Despite the odd outbursts of anger at those responsible for the monumental cock-ups in Mumbai, the anniversary of 26/11 is good news for the Government. Since it is just not done to inject partisan politics into the proceedings, India will use the occasion to demonstrate its amazing resilience, the proverbial stiff upper lip we didn’t even know we had. Politically speaking, Hindu fatalism and the cheapness of human life are the best guarantees of a pernicious culture of non-accountability.
This week, however, marks another anniversary. Exactly six months ago, on May 22, Manmohan Singh was sworn in Prime Minister for a second time. It was an occasion that was greeted by most Indians with a sigh of great relief: Not because the electorate was star struck by the first innings of the UPA but because it spared India a bout of instability and Madhu Koda-type governance at the Centre. The UPA-2 assumed office with everything going for it: Continuity at the top, enhanced self-confidence of the Gandhis, a stronger Congress and weakened coalition partners and, above all, an Opposition in total disarray. The UPA-1 was a post-election construction and was prey to conflicting political pressures and blackmail. There were no mitigating factors holding back UPA-2.
Six months is too short a time to judge a Government’s performance but it is sufficient to assess the broad direction in which it is heading. It allows us to take a call on where India will find itself at the time of the 2014 poll.
Sadly, the broad conclusions don’t inspire great confidence in the future of a country that believes it is a world power and doesn’t behave like one.
To begin with, there are unmistakable signs of the Government pulling in different directions and Cabinet Ministers doing their own thing. The sugar kerfuffle which led to Delhi being overrun by angry farmers was a classic example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was up to. The contentious Ordinance was blamed on Sharad Pawar’s proximity to an organised lobby. That was always well known. Why did the Cabinet not apply its mind to the Ordinance in the first place?
Cabinet Ministers, it would seem, love doing their own thing. Mamata Banerjee has chosen to use the Railways as a parallel administration for West Bengal. Her priorities are building sports stadiums, shoring up bankrupt Bengali newspapers, giving lectures to Bengali IAS officers and even indulging Maoists; trains comes low down on her dhobi list.
Mamata, it may be said, is not under the political control of the Congress. Moreover, she has to be indulged for her undeniable success in breaching the hitherto impregnable Red bastion in West Bengal. But that rule doesn’t apply for Jairam Ramesh who appears to have put self-glory ahead of everything else. It would interest the PM to know that officials are mortified over what Ramesh may concede inside the ‘green room’ at the climate change conference in Copenhagen next month. His perception of national interests seems at odds with the national consensus.
Giving Ministers autonomy is a good thing but the Cabinet seems to be operating like a confederacy. There are pro-China Ministers, pro-America Ministers, and pro-highest bidder Ministers doing their own thing. The External Affairs Minister, on his part, is emerging as the Shivraj Patil of the UPA-2 Government. The impending Commonwealth Games fiasco epitomises the crisis triggered by a lack of direction. No wonder the Finance Minister despairs of the alarming state of public finances — the austerity drive having been quietly punctured by angry politicians. As for reforms: What reforms?
What is particularly alarming is that the collapse of the Opposition has injected into the Congress an astonishing degree of arrogance. Thus, convicted killer Manu Sharma is let out by an unfazed Delhi administration to drink in pubs and campaign for his father; Madhu Koda is handled with kid gloves because of a fear that he may talk; the scandals of A Raja are left to the media to unearth because officials can’t displease the DMK; and, as for the soaring price of food, no one is responsible.
It would have been a good time to be in the Opposition. Except that the Opposition is busy either spinning yarns or imagining that the future lies in gau, gram and, presumably, gobar. India has got the Government (and Opposition) it deserves.