Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

The Centre Cannot Hold

New Delhi is like a municipality under siege. The Supreme Court must oversee the details of the sealing and demolition of illegal structures; the Prime Minister must check for hygiene at the AIIMS in the middle of an apparent dengue epidemic... Where

Take a look at the broad thrust of headlines in India's national dailies on any representative day, and you will find a litany on lawlessness, crime, terrorism, disease, corruption, core shortages, and the ambience of a headlong hurtling towards disorder. Even in the Capital there is the sense more of a municipality under siege, than of the throbbing and dynamic heart of a rising nation.

The highest offices in the land are engaged in the quotidian tasks of the management of the petty affairs of a local administration: The Supreme Court must oversee the details of the sealing and demolition of illegal structures; the Prime Minister must check for hygiene at the AIIMS in the middle of an apparent dengue epidemic.

Meanwhile, signs of institutional decay are endemic, and the occasional and tentative efforts at reform too feeble and misconceived to have any lasting impact. Little legislative business actually engages the National and State Legislatures as they raise a daily storm over the latest scandalous disclosures in the news, and the electronic media transforms even the most serious issues into low entertainment. In all this, there is no evidence of any meaningful discourse on the critical transactions of nation building—the concerns that should be at the centre of the national and political focus.

For those who are eager to bury their heads in the sand—a significant majority among what passes for the Indian intelligentsia—there is relief to be found on the business pages, in the eight per cent rate of growth of the economy, and in the growing expectation that the US sees, and will build up, India as a counter to China's rising power.

This last is crucial: Very few in India still suffer the delusion that the country could compete directly with China, though there are a few who construct imaginary scenarios of China's imminent or eventual collapse into chaos because of the 'democracy deficit' there. On her own strengths, India's leadership does not appear to believe that the country can compete with China's economic and strategic rampage—given the concentrated, planned and systematic way in which China is going about consolidating its gains, constructing its strategic 'string of pearls' across the Asia Pacific region, racing across central Asia to construct a 'land bridge' from south-east Asia into Europe, constantly re-inventing national policies to the demands of a coherent strategic perspective and the rapidly changing realities of the ground.

Absent a comparable vision, India can only imagine an expanded role within the American strategic design, and this will always remain an area of dependence and uncertainty. International cooperation and technology sharing are, of course, integral to the development of any nation in the world today, and India cannot be an exception. But there is a vast distinction between cooperation and progressive dependence. India has, of course, much to be proud of in many areas of technology, but the technological base is still far too narrow, and external dependencies remain overwhelming.

Reportage over the last few weeks relating to—as usual—scandals in defence deals have also underlined the comprehensive failure of the defence research establishment in almost every significant sphere of advancement, and a continuing and total reliance on dubious imports for most of our vital needs.

Technology, however, is only a small segment of the spectrum of developmental imperatives that India's policy establishment and leadership are required to address—and to address with infinitely greater urgency, consistency and purpose than are anywhere currently visible. The dynamic sectors of India's economy are essentially those that have escaped the full weight of government control through accidents of history and the sheer pace of technological change over the past decades.

India's government and increasingly inept bureaucracy remain involved in far too many businesses, which lie outside the essential business of governance. Worse, areas where the government remains currently irreplaceable are falling into chronic neglect, with basic public services decaying across India's vast hinterland.

At the same time, thousands of crores are misspent in the name of certain pet schemes, which are the brain-children of some politically influential persons. It is a pity that much of this expenditure is sanctioned through the Planning Commission, and that government functionaries fudge figures on monies spent and results achieved, to get more and more additional funds for sheer misuse. There was a time when the bureaucracy could intervene to prevent such expenditure, but that time is now long past.

Let the government once make a survey of totally wasteful expenditure on its many schemes, and from which no benefit accrues to intended beneficiaries (though, by way of corruption, it does reach many unintended recipients) and simply prune away all such programmes, focusing national resources on the specific core programmes for development, research on new technologies, education and the creation of skills. Through this simple expedient, we would achieve successes far beyond our present grasp.

The bedlam of India's political discourse and the lack of policy focus is, in some measure, a natural outcome of the nature of parliamentary democracy and the tenuous equations of power that have been established in the many fractious and ideologically discordant alliances that rule India and many of its States.

Uncritical armchair apologists for India's democracy have sought to explain the confusion and directionlessness of political life in terms of a loose accommodative process that approximates the inchoate will of India's diverse peoples and pressure groups, and there have been numerous believers in the so-called 'policy of masterly inaction' which is credited with some of the country's successes in recent history.

These, however, are mere alibis, ex poste justifications of whatever may come to pass. Democracy must not be perverted into a negation of leadership; it cannot be a constant pandering to the lowest common denominator or the loudest and most violent clamour. Leadership must guide the mass of opinion into activities that are consistent with the national purpose and the fundamentals of nation building.

This, however, is only possible where the leadership shares a coherent vision of such purpose and enterprise, and much of India's leadership appears sadly bankrupt in these resources. There are, nevertheless, at least some who are inspired by and committed to the national interest, and it can only be hoped that these few will eventually find the will, the determination and the foresight to lead the nation out of its present morass.

K.P.S.Gill is a former Punjab DGP and is currently advisor to the Chhattisgarh government on Naxalite affairs. This piece first appeared in the Pioneer