February 19, 2020
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Our Tropical Sickness

The national habit of muddling through things has potent dangers

Our Tropical Sickness
Illustration by Sorit
Our Tropical Sickness

Scandal and panic, but finally a pretty good show, even though criticism still persists. Already the anodyne banality resumes sway: “Oh, ours are the ways of the Indian wedding. Chaos and screaming, then everything falls into place!” Such complacency not only aggravates the faults so brazenly flaunted over the Commonwealth Games (CWG), but also imperils our stability, our security, and indeed our very nationhood.

Thoughtlessness, disregard for the national interest (even for minimum duty), cronyism, venality, shoddiness—make your own list. In the seven years we had to prepare for the games, not one sign of pride in efficiency, of doing things well and on time—or of shame in doing badly. Worse still, what ought to matter regarding a serious issue matters not a fig to the forces that determine what we do. Apart from a handful of dedicated people, the considerations that have come to prevail in decision or action are wholly unsuitable to the problems—and unworthy of a civilised nation, leave alone a great power.

Consider just a few major problems: Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast, the socioeconomic components of the Maoist-exploited insurgencies, law and order generally, failures in providing health, education and other basics of society, the poor infrastructure of roads and ports, the lack of any clear strategic frame of reference or of the defence build-up essential for our security. The vices reflected in the CWG are at work in all these.

The image aspect is not insignificant. If the criticism is true, why no punishment? If exaggerated or malicious, why no credible rebuttal? Effective PR being a necessary instrument in political affairs, we damage ourselves immeasurably by neglecting even the rudiments of persuasiveness—witness Pakistan’s repeated successes against us in this field—even on our own soil (recall Gen Musharraf in Agra). Our standard attitude is: “These little things don’t matter.” In fact it’s part of a larger want of statecraft.

What is most frightening is that running through all our failures is a seemingly congenital defect. No responsibility towards the needs of the State—almost no sense of what the State means. The use of State power for the purposes of State seems to escape even sophisticated leaders, content as they are with exercising patwari power, granting or extracting favours, jobs, bribes. India’s political evolution has been historic: we compressed within decades the processes of democratisation, which elsewhere took centuries—and usually bloody revolutions. This has spread, if still incompletely, political power to hitherto underprivileged, even oppressed, segments of our peoples. This is the surest basis for stability in the long run. But then long runs, after all, are the totality of several short runs.

The immediate problem, one may say, is the dominance of the parochial. Local leaders are doubtless clever; many may do much for their localities, even have sound understanding of peoples’ wants. But how many bother about national needs, even in Delhi? We are  being destroyed by small men with small minds pursuing small ends. We have abandoned even minimum standards of quality—in thinking, in behaviour, in manners and morality no less than in performance. True, the many Indias we live in also include those leading the world in infotech, building a refinery quicker and faster than any competitor, and making our manufacturing world class. Delhi’s Metro proves that even our public sector can excel, to say nothing of our military.

But dragging us down is an old India— sloppy, shoddy, slothful, utterly selfish— which we are unable to outgrow. In fact, we are rushing backward into it. This backsliding India threatens to stultify growth, deny us even the consolation that if we keep growing at over eight per cent, the world will keep paying attention.

History abounds with awful examples of a whole people ignoring warnings and inviting disaster. Think of France in the 1780s, the 1840s, or the 1930s—with moral decay compounding the inability of rulers to cope with challenges. Alexis De Tocqueville’s remarkable prescience in 1848 has frightening parallels for India today (see box). But why look further than our own history: mid-18th century India betrayed all of the weaknesses we exhibit today, and then, too, the world sought us out for our riches.

Aldous Huxley’s experience of our messy ways reminded him of Lear’s lines: ‘There was an old man of Thermopylae/ Who could never do anything properly.’ We are just not a practical people. It’s not a matter of intelligence; our brain power is famous. But where’s good, down-to-earth common sense? Convoluted, tangential, thinking?

Agar, magar, aur mumkin goya
In charo ney Bharat khoya.

We just tie ourselves up in knots, in matters great or small.

Consider a random  sample, or add your own. Employing great experts, we produced endless rules and organisations to enforce a ‘Master Plan’ for our nation’s capital, ending up with a congested slum-infested monster, the holy cow of an inviolable Lutyens’ Delhi rendered unrecognisable except for a tiny bungalow area (how shabby the occupants keep it doesn’t bear telling). Periodically howling about the smuggling of antiquities, we contrived a regime driving everything underground, making these great creations of our civilisation virtually unavailable, whereas others, from Italy to Japan, manage admirably (what we salvaged, thanks to Curzon, gathers dust, with museums more like barely visited mausoleums, but that’s another sad tale).

Our national airline made us proud: the slogan in Geneva was you could set your watch by Air India’s punctuality, and smaller nations like Singapore turned to it to get started. But there’s another story too. Our Light Combat Aircraft was planned 30 years ago, the engine we wanted cleared in 1985. Yet we are no nearer getting it off the ground. For decades, too, the cry goes up that China has built roads and other facilities up to our borders, which we simply must match, only to yield to laments that nothing is being done. How many times has Kashmir erupted into seemingly irretrievable crisis, again and again giving us the chance to work out enduringly decent settlements, only to have us again and again do nothing till the next outburst? In the Northeast, the same neglected obligations and opportunities, corruption tempered by incompetence, subsidised rice never leaving Gauhati except for illegal sale. Legislatures were meant for reasoned debate; we have turned them into veritable bear-pits.

Everybody makes mistakes, but endlessly displaying the same mistakes shows a real sickness. We suffer from a politico-administrative complex far more extensive and powerful than America’s famous military-industrial complex. Politicians and bureaucrats blame each other for ruining governance, but both collaborate in the ruination, as do we all by acquiescence in wrong-doing. So extensive is the rot that reform looks hopeless, but a small start might help.

Another national error is imagining that to analyse a problem is to solve it, so here is a suggestion. It doesn’t take many to transform a whole country. If even a few leaders from different power-bases—business, the media, and of course government, but not least the public—were to pressurise our main political parties to observe a self-denying oath not to play cheap politics with just a few key issues—Kashmir, the Northeast, the law-and-order apparatus, defence preparedness—not only could we all breathe easier about these looming disasters, the spread-effect could restore our potential for greatness. Was the effort for an all-party consensus on nuclear liability (howsoever flawed) a flash in the pan? The subsequent attempt regarding Kashmir, howsoever late or limited, stirs hope. Otherwise, a poet (George Meredith) reinforces Alexis de Tocqueville: “In tragic life...no villain need be/ We are betrayed by what is false within.”


The writer was India’s ambassador to China, Pakistan and the US, and retired as secretary at the MEA.)

History Speaks In Sudden Revolutions

Alexis de Tocqueville’s speech in the French National Assembly on eve of the revolution of 1848:

“You can say, because there is no visible disorder...there is no revolution at hand. Gentlemen...you are mistaken. Disorder...has entered deeply into men’s minds. See what is preparing itself amongst the working classes.... Can you not see that their passions, instead of political, have become social...that they are gradually forming opinions and ideas destined to upset...society itself, until it totters upon the foundations on which it rests today?...Do you not hear them repeating unceasingly that all that is above them is incapable and unworthy of governing them; that the distribution of goods prevalent until now throughout the world is unjust; that property rests on a foundation which is not equitable? And do you not realise that when such opinions take root...they are bound to bring with them sooner or later...a most formidable revolution?

What, at different times...has brought about the downfall of the governing classes?...The effective reason which causes men to lose political power is that they have become unworthy to retain it. The class that was...the governing class had become, through its indifference, its selfishness and its vices, incapable and unworthy of governing the country.

Do you not feel...that the earth is quaking once again...a gale of revolution in the air?...And it is in such times that you remain calm before the degradation of public morality.

Public morality is being degraded...its degradation will shortly bring down upon us new revolutions.... Do you know what may happen a year hence?...But what you must know is that the tempest is looming.... Will you let it take you by surprise?

Legislative changes have been spoken of.... These are useful, even necessary but...it is not the mechanism of laws that produces great events...but the inner spirit of government. Keep the laws as they are, if you wish, keep the men, too, if it pleases you.... But in God’s name change the spirit of government; for, that spirit will lead to the abyss.”

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