You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender I coulda been somebody,” says Marlon Brando to his screen brother in the Elia Kazan classic, On the Waterfront. His lament was that the big brother should have looked out for him, taken care of him just a little bit. His grief was about his future being bartered. It is a grief that finds resonance in India in 2013. It is this very lament of failed expectations from the big brother—the government—that is fuelling the outrage across homes. Middle Class India justifiably feels the nation should be a contender in the world; they believe India can be somebody. If only! They see the wretchedness of politics bartering away a promising future at the altar of survival.
In Parliament and outside, the blame for failure has been pinned on the limited liability politics practiced by the Congress and the leadership of Manmohan Singh. It is tempting to accept the proposition. Contrast the facilities extended to the Italian marines and the failure of the government to intervene for Sarabjit Singh. Indeed, in the past week, almost every day there was a demand for the resignation of the Prime Minister, even by the sister of the deceased Sarabjit. There is no doubting precipitation of sloth and aggravation of failure since nine years.
There is also no denying a sense of disquiet. For many—and certainly to the rational observers—both the public rage and political response seem disproportionate. The chorus for resignations and war-mongering by agony-addicted anchors on television was matched by the rush of political leaders, the state mourning, ex-gratia and post-event instruments of gratification. Is outrage the only option for families of fishermen from Tamil Nadu and Gujarat imprisoned in Sri Lanka and Pakistan? Where will this all lead both sides to? Must decibels dictate governance? Would there be a state funeral for every prisoner who returns home in a casket?
The crux of outrage lies in the rising cult of evasive politics, fuelled by the aggregation of indecision. The arc of indecision extends for decades. Sarabjit was arrested in 1990; he claimed innocence and waited 23 years for the government of India—six prime ministers and as many regimes—to back him. The incursion by China at Daulat Beg Oldi is the consequence of decades of complacency (the only serious attempt was made by A B Vajpayee). It is not just the external front. One instance should suffice: every inter-state river-water dispute in India is over three decades old and none is resolved.
No national political party—or the long tail aggregation of noisy regional parties—can claim immunity from blame for indecision and atrophy. Or corruption! This week, Sushma Swaraj declared the UPA the most corrupt government since Independence. That did not detain the Congress from declaring a day later that the BJP held the world record for corruption in Karnataka. In the 2G case, neither the PAC nor the JPC has answered the big Q. The BJP blames the 2G scam on the UPA while the Congress relocates it to 1999 under NDA. In coalgate, the BJP carbon dates the scam to the UPA regime and wants the Prime Minister to resign. The committee on coal and steel wants all allocations since 1993 cancelled. Truth and indecision is mired in moral equivalence.
Consequently, every crisis presents its own great apparently insurmountable chasm—between the problem and resolution. Resolution demands continuous communication of objectives and outcomes by regimes. There are those who subscribe to this and others who don’t. Narendra Modi is investing his political capital on growth, prosperity and pride. His colleague Murli Manohar Joshi rubbished the global growth model in Parliament. P Chidambaram espouses the cause of investment-led growth on a global road show while his colleagues in rural development and environment specialise in stalling projects. Essentially, no party has one agreed view.
Every issue that enrages Indians owes its genesis to this politics of expediency and ambiguity of objectives. India’s voters have long treated governance as a function outsourced to professional politicians without recourse to due diligence. The politicos have treated elections as a toll-gate where a premium has to be paid for passage to power and pelf. The emergence of a critical mass of middle class voters and creeping urbanisation is dismantling this status quo. Ergo, the very visible attacks on the establishment led by an expanding vocal brigade.
In a democracy, leaders are obliged to explain decisions to their people, the sovereign. In India, political leadership frequently fails to even explain indecision. The nub of the current conflict lies in the wide disconnect between politicians and their constituents. Middle Class India lives in the 21st Century. It has experienced the gratification of instantaneous response for cash-on-counter mobile recharge, IVRS-enabled phone banking and giga-hertz speeds. Politics is, however, located in the 19th and 20th century and thrives on delays and indecision.
Politicians in India are yet to fully absorb the import and impact of information saturation, 24x7 news cycles, 377 million urbanites and the fact of over 120 million television-connected homes. The viewers watch, compare and wish for real change. Political parties must engage and deliver. Aspiration is now embedded in the political argument. The emerging middle class, they wanna be somebody. India is at an
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change