By Swapan Dasgupta
In 1921, India was in ferment. After prolonged drift, it had found its voice in a man variously described as 'Gandhi baba' and 'Gandhi maharaj'. He united the country in open revolt against an arrogant Raj. Lawyers abandoned their practice, students left their studies and babus resigned their secure jobs in response to his promise of "swaraj in one year." The moment was heady.
For one Indian, 1921 was however a time for reflection. From his rural arcadia, Rabindranath Tagore detected "a spirit of persecution, which is not that of armed force, but something still more alarming because it is invisible…The sight that met my eye was, on the one hand, people immensely busy; on the other intensely afraid."
India 2010 is not the nation of 1921, not by a long stretch. Yet, there is something eerily reminiscent of the cocktail of headiness and suffocation Tagore experienced.
The concern may well stem from a personal proximity to the epicentre of the earthquake rocking politics, business and the media—all pillars of the Indian Establishment. For the past three months, the country has been shaken by a scam fever: the outcry over the Commonwealth Games, followed in quick succession by the Adarsh Housing Society scandal, the Karnataka land scams and the 2G spectrum loot. Simultaneously, there were the infamous Niira Radia conversations which (to borrow a British MP's observation on WikiLeaks) have redefined "public interest" to mean "the public is interested."
If India was simply experiencing a turbulent bout of ethical cleansing, excitement would have been coupled with gleeful endorsement. For some time, citizens have agonised over India occupying the twilight zone between a banana republic and a mafia state. To that extent, all moves to stem the decline and purify the system need strong encouragement, even if enthusiasm is couched in understandable cynicism.
Tragically, apart from hitting some targets the scam season has inflicted serious collateral damage and vitiated the atmosphere. The Radia tapes may have provided immense voyeuristic pleasure to those unfamiliar with and, perhaps, even envious of the cosy smugness that defines an incestuous establishment and those on its periphery. But initial inquisitiveness has quickly given way to a vengeful iconoclasm based on the facile assumption that India's entire wealth-generation process is centred on cronyism and corruption.
It is understandable when Arundhati Roy deduces from the tapes that the "state has been corporatized" and that thanks to big money the institutions of "this so-called democracy", including the judiciary, are "being hollowed out." It is also predictable that voices of post-colonial condescension in the West should celebrate "The rotting of new India." What isn't clear is why India's middle class should throw its moral weight behind this carpet bombing exercise.
What the Radia tapes indicated was not a single-minded desire of corporates to subvert every institution but their gritty determination to overcome a difficult, if not hostile, business environment. The cronyism that underpinned the Government's 2G spectrum policy was not the creation of the FICCI and CII or, for that matter, one of the Ambani brothers. It stemmed from the enormous discretionary powers enjoyed by a minister and a departmental autonomy that flowed out of the compulsions of coalition politics. Indian entrepreneurs had two options: to either play the game by rules set by venal politicians or opt out.
Radia's conversations are indeed revealing. But far from revealing "how corporates manage everything in this country", as lawyer Prashant Bhushan told the Supreme Court, they illuminate the path India Inc had to negotiate to remain in business. They also reveal that apart from having to manage a minister unconcerned with India's larger growth story, businesses had to also cope with the no-holds-barred assaults of competitors.
Yes, there was subversion but there was a context to it. Gentlemanly capitalism had been elbowed out by a treacherous business environment centred on arbitrariness. Yesterday it was a telecom problem, today it is one of environmental blackmail and tomorrow it could be something altogether different.
Instead of fighting the cancer, a lynch mob has, however, set its sights on mocking the famous, destroying reputations and creating a mood viciously hostile to entrepreneurship—the force that has propelled India's growth story.
In 1921, Tagore feared that along with the courts and colleges, "reason and culture…must be closured" and India forced to genuflect before "some mantra, some unreasoned creed." Today, while trying to cleanse the system, we may well be throwing the baby out with the soiled bathwater.
It's time to pause and focus the pent-up anger in the right direction.