If war is too serious to be left to generals, our current situation is too serious to be left to politicians. We all have a responsibility — for causing the crisis, no less than trying to cure it
“Lloyd George is rooted in nothing; he is void and without content; he lives and feeds on his immediate surroundings … an instrument and a player ... play(ing) on the company and played on by them ... a vampire and medium in one.” Our politicians hardly merit comparison with the great Welshman, but they fit Keynes's trenchant description all too well. They are not only fiddling while Rome smoulders, they are themselves incendiaries. The total inadequacy to the needs of our politico-administrative apparatus is our single worst peril. It comes from the kind of considerations, or thinking, that nowadays shape our decision-making and behaviour: what Marx called kleinburgerlich — ignorant, pettily self-seeking, parochial, inappropriate if not wholly irrelevant, of course with no thought of India.
This is no passing phase, the growing pains of democracy; we cannot delude ourselves of everything turning out fine through our innate capabilities or that mysterious protective force which we fondly imagine always saves us, or through economic growth — which itself is suffering for the same reasons. As even the rosy-eyed trumpeters of India Shining, India Rising, India Unbound now lament, “things are really bad”; they cannot get better without immense, immediate effort.
Frighteningly, those best positioned to do something seem unaware of either the crisis or the spreading despondency. The instruments of state have become increasingly dysfunctional, the failure to implement policies or perform even routine duties now aggravated by the failure to take any decisions. There is one root cause: our decisions and behaviour are shaped by considerations unworthy of a serious people. Our once greatest asset, the quality of mind developed through centuries of a great intellectual tradition, has deteriorated; worse, the mind actually applied works at such low levels, and for such low purposes.
This closing of the Indian mind stunts us by debasing us and imposing a conformity that precludes self-correction. In State after State, from Karnataka to Rajasthan, Gujarat to Uttarakhand, personal ambitions and factional fights consume political energy: not one issue of public interest is involved. The outrageous attack on a great cartoonist is only one triumph of this pernicious mentality. What we did to our greatest painter, to a brilliant study of the variorums of the Ramayana, the vandalising of a scholar's office, the periodic outbursts against “outsiders” in one State from another, cannot be overlooked as harmless peccadilloes. They encourage intolerance, debase culture and vitiate the policy-making so desperately needed for our future. Most depressingly, governments embrace surrender, the yahoos prevail.
Such decline goes beyond politics, and that mistrusted tribe, our businessmen: standards have plummeted in all walks of life. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, every profession finds profit in unprofessionalism. That makes salvation more difficult, but we must start somewhere, and our politico-administrative complex comes first.
Blame but abet
That it has made itself unable to perform needs no elaboration. Our political masters and permanent officials blame but abet each other. Again the root cause applies: the purposes and values driving them bear no relation to professional integrity, much less to public need. Blaming our political evolution is escapism: doubtless, coalitions make decisions harder; and the rise of elected dictators in our States harder still. But when circumstances change you must devise new methods to deal with them: there is no sign of anyone trying.
G.S. Bajpai often stressed “politics may be the art of the possible, but leadership is the art of making things possible.” Our Prime Minister's determination on the nuclear deal, like it or not, was almost our last manifestation of leadership. Like all politics, coalitions require political management. Congress dependency on the DMK is no excuse for all the sins permitted; the DMK was dependent in Tamil Nadu on Congress support but did the national leadership exercise that leverage for any national purpose? The Congress bafflingly prefers to forget Narasimha Rao, who understood India better than any PM we can hope for, but he steered them successfully even as a minority.
All our political parties are in disarray, but the way the Congress handles itself is doing us the most harm. It is both bewildering and alarming that it declines so precipitately under such a qualified Cabinet. It not only has the sharpest political mind in the business, it also rejoices in more experienced, educated members than we can look forward to in the near-future. Then where can salvation come from?
We can never improve unless we recognise that we have been reverting to our traditional ways of functioning: everything is personal. The modern state is an objective focus of loyalty, supposed to serve all national needs comprehensively and requiring the cooperation and obedience of all its citizens. We have never as a people outgrown the phase of the state being the monarch. “L'Etat c'est moi” remains the natural order, loyalty is to a ruler — and to the family. Human nature does change its manifestations if not its essence, but needs time — or a new religion. Whether political science can devise ways to channel our habits to suit our needs is problematic. But it can't happen unless someone gives a lead. There is no force at work amongst us propelling towards that end, but surely there are enough in India to provide a start.
Lest this effort be guilty of our weakness of supposing that to analyse a problem is to solve it, here's a suggestion: if our major political parties agreed to sink not only their (mostly indiscernible) differences but their cheap one-upmanship on just a handful of our country's vital needs, hope would catapult. Kashmir, the North-East, defence preparedness, internal law and order immediately suggest themselves, but make your own list. What our masters need to grasp is that their winning or losing elections is not determined by these issues: even if they have no sense of national need, they can afford to be statesmanlike without self-denial.
Guilty of inaction
If war is too serious to be left to generals, our crisis is too serious to be left to politicians. We all have a responsibility — for causing the crisis no less than trying to cure it. Democracy depends on the integrity and initiative of its citizens, and we in India acquiesce, if not indulge, in too many bad practices, preferring to cut corners, ignore traffic lights literally and metaphorically, bribe the cop or clerk, rather than observe, much less enforce, propriety. Nothing could work better than our becoming better citizens, but that is not going to happen, at least not autonomously. But those who have some power to effect changes have been the most guilty of inaction.
Our intellective classes have the power of thinking, our media of projecting that thinking, our businessmen of paying for attention to them by the politico-administrative complex that can give them effect. Each category professes helpless despair. If they could pool some part of their resources and efforts to press for action of general benefit — commission thinkers to propose practical solutions, support media campaigns to press for them and do what they know best to get our lords and masters to implement them, we might at least see light.
Silly? Unworkable? Useless? Anyone got a better idea — or are we just reconciled to doom? It does not take many people to bring about change: just one charismatic leader has been known to transform things. One does not appear often, but a more broadly organised effort can work. A minimum cooperation between parties is not too much to ask for, but it will need pressing for. That is where this sort of nationally-purposed grouping of experts, media and businessmen could work wonders. If nobody is willing, disasters are inescapable — and will come all too soon.
Iqbal's warning has become imperative: Vatan ki fikar kar, nadaan/ musseebat aanay wali hai/ teri barbadiyon ke mashware hain aasmanoon mein/Na samjhoge to mitt jaoge, Hindustan wallo/Teri dastaan tak na rahegi daastanon mey. “Worry about your country, idlers, misfortunes are coming your way. Indications of your disasters are fluttering in the sky. Fail to understand, Indian folk, and you will be erased, even your history will not remain part of history.”
(The author is a former ambassador to Pakistan, China and the United States, and a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs.)