Sunday 9 October 2011

If, and when, the mighty fall (Sunday Guardian)

P. Chidambaram during a meeting in New Delhi last month. PTI
perception of invincibility is what allows rulers to continue to exercise their sway. For a considerable period of time, the British Raj was seen as impregnable. Although almost all the credit for independence has been gifted to Mahatma Gandhi and his followers, the reality is more complex. Indeed, the turning point was the dilution in loyalty of the Indian component of the army. When naval ratings followed on the "disloyalty" of those who switched to Subhas Bose and the INA during the 1939-45 war, even Winston Churchill knew that the time of the empire was over. A factor in the decision of so many to revolt was the defeat of the British in Singapore and Malaya. Their capitulation ensured that the image of strength that had thus far deterred action against them got dissolved.
We have seen a similar process at work in the "Arab Spring". Once Colonel Gaddafi was felled from his perch in Libya, the mobs started to collect in Damascus. Till then, there was fear and doubt. Once Gaddafi fell, both these restraints weakened. Of course, the fact that the UNSC is unlikely to allow NATO the same licence that the coalition grabbed for itself in Libya means that the Sunni population of that country, which has long been restive at the domination of the Shia Alawaites, may once again go back to sullen acquiescence. However, for this to happen, much more blood will need to be spilt in cities all over Syria, and Russia and China will need to ensure that their veto gets constantly used. If they falter, the Gulf sheikhdoms will march behind the cover of NATO and remove a regime that they see as a threat to their own existence. While the debate is about Israel, the reality is that Syria and Iran are seen with caution not because of their policies towards the Jewish state, but because of their opposition to hereditary sheikhdoms.
Of course, these days it is the US and the EU that is looking vulnerable. The 2008 financial collapse pushed a coach and six through the fiction that bankers in London and New York (not to speak of Zurich and Frankfurt) can be entrusted with the savings of folks from the GCC, India, China and other locations. The loss of confidence that exposure of the shenanigans of the bankers has created will mean the steady leaching of deposits away from these traditional pools of High Finance into China and — in time — India. Sadly, the Manmohan Singh government seems clueless about the need to make India as attractive a destination for overseas savings as Macau or Hong Kong have become. An example is its negative approach to Islamic Banking. India has more than 150 million Muslims, many of whom refuse to place their savings in institutions that charge interest. Overseas, billions of dollars from the GCC and other countries will come to the safer shores of India, were they offered a choice. However, in tune with its adherence to policies that benefit the US and the EU (as also China) at the expense of India, the RBI opposes Islamic banking.
Chidambaram has been the epitome of the Doctrine of Invincibility of the political class. In the 2009 elections, the returning officer miraculously “discovered” that he had won, when all the evidence was showing a different picture.
The RBI and the Finance Ministry can get away with policies detrimental to national interests, only because the top guns there have thus far been insulated from any real accountability. Top politicians in India share with the higher rungs of the bureaucracy an immunity from punishment that is not found in any other democratic country. Over the six decades and more of independence, the number of years spent in prison by the top rungs of the politico-bureaucratic system can be counted in the low dozens. This despite the fact that dozens of depredators continue their destructive work in each city of the country, exactly as they have been doing for so long. Only in the past year has there been some action on a scale that is different from the somnolence of the past, and for this, the Prime Minister needs a word of praise. Given the fetters on him by Congress "fund collectors", it is a miracle that so much has been done to send at least a few VVIPs to jail. The odds are high that A. Raja will soon be joined by D. Maran. Even more striking, there is a chance that Home Minister P. Chidambaram may have to return to the pavilion, should the Supreme Court rule that he needs to be investigated. It is a mystery as to why this has not so far happened, given his propensity to micro-manage major policies, and his penchant for getting involved in major decisions.
hidambaram has been the epitome of the Doctrine of Invincibility of the political class. In the 2009 elections, the returning officer miraculously "discovered" that he had won, when all the evidence was showing a somewhat different picture. He has shrugged off reports about his close family members dabbling in the stock market, making fortunes through "guessing" what government policy is likely to be. Across the South, real estate has been gobbled up by his relatives, a lot of it since 2004. Of course, none of this has attracted any attention in the Income-Tax Department. Friends and relatives of Chidambaram are considered to be honest, no matter what the evidence.
Should he find himself in a sticky wicket, despite the CBI's desperate efforts to continue his immunity, the odds are that this will have an electric effect on the country. Whistle-blowers will emerge, now confident that even the most powerful can be held accountable.
Will this be the "Singapore Moment" for India's VVIPs? Clearly, the time for accountability ought to have come decades back. Unless there is some fear of the consequences, the auction of public interest for private gain will continue. The weeks ahead will show if India has finally come of age, in that its system takes action against the powerful with the same zeal as it moves against a petty thief. Should Maran and Chidambaram fall, then it can truly be said that under the aegis of Manmohan Singh, India has had its Second Revolution.

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