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Saturday, 4 August 2012

Powerless in India (PO)

M D Nalapat
Shanghai in China has the district of Pudong, within which huge skyscrapers jostle for space, and a futuristic city skyline competes for attention with the more traditional visage of the Bund. City planners had expected Gurgaon to be Delhi’s answer to Pudong, a modern exurb of the National Capital that housed large numbers of hi-tech offices as well as those appurtenances of modern urban life such as shopping malls. Certainly there are now several dozen malls in Gurgaon, as well as software parks and office blocks that at first glance resemble their counterparts in San Jose or Seattle. Where the resemblance ends is when public infrastructure enters the mix. While the private sector has done Gurgaon proud, government agencies have shamed the town, vying with each other to produce shabbier buildings, pock-marked roads, negligible water supply and erratic power supply.

Although dwellings in Gurgaon cost a fortune to buy, a large part of which comes in the form of taxes, dwellers in them face more than six hours of power cuts each day, while water supply is usually assured for less than a couple of hours. The rapacity and criminality of the politico-official class in India is on full display in Gurgaon, a town where local police are often in the pay of mafias and where murders and assaults take place with ease and in profusion. Of course, such travails never disturb the repose of VVIP Delhi, that tiny sliver of the city where the governing elite reside. In those areas, power is on for 24 hours each day, as against the minimum six and usually ten hours that it is absent in other parts of the National Capital Region. Water flows in profusion, while roads are well maintained. Just as the British colonial cohort set themselves apart from the native population, India’s VVIPs segregate themselves from the rest of the people, giving themselves privileges that mock at the idea that the country is a democracy.

From cars with flashing red lights to special treatment at airports, VVIPs in India are as much a breed apart as the British were during the time of the Raj. Add to this the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru insisted on the entire complex of colonial-era laws and procedures getting retained after independence, and in fact substantially added to the powers of government, and one begins to wonder at the many apologists for Nehruvian ideology in the country and outside who tout Mahatma Gandhi’s chosen prime minister as the father of democracy in India. A democracy where the rulers set themselves apart from the rest and enjoy privileges denied to others, and where a citizen has to beg before some state agency or the other before being given permission to perform the most elementary of tasks Sonia Gandhi, the fount of power in modern-day India, is an unabashed votary of unbridled governmental power, and she has improved upon (if that be the correct word) the dirigiste legacy of her in-law family by ensuring that the Permit Licence Raj has made a comeback after the Congress Party got returned to office in 2004. This after twelve years of attempted liberalisation, which saw a small dilution in the powers of the state vis-a-vis the citizen.

After having introduced a raft of new taxes during his stint as Union Finance Minister in 2004-08,and presiding over a vicious increase in raids and harassment of taxpayers by the official machinery, Palaniappan Chidambaram was transferred to the Union Home Ministry after the terror attacks on Mumbai that took place on 26 November, 2008. There, he made certain to bring in new procedures that - for example - make it mandatory for any institution to get official permission before even holding a 
conference where guests from abroad are invited. India has become one of the least friendly places to hold a conference in, not that the government cares. Those at the top are busy doing what they know best, making money and sending it abroad to offshore banking havens.

For decades, India has faced terror groups that seek to undermine the state and reduce to hell the lives of citizens. Whether it is Mumbai 26/11 or the numerous other acts of terror that a somnolent state machinery has permitted to take place (unlike the US, where 9/11 was the first - and thus far the last - mass terror attack), these have had scarcely any impact on the lives of citizens. What damage there is to the country’s long-term prospects has been done by those in charge of it, by their misfeasance and graft. These have proved far more effective than terrorists in blighting the prospects for India to emerge as an economic success story, although thus far, they have escaped any penalty for their criminal deeds. The past few days have witnessed a national shame that has surpassed even the dismal 
record of governance of Sonia Gandhi and her hand-picked team. Nearly 600 million people have been totally without power for more than two days and counting. Across the north and east of the country, offices have closed and factories have turned silent.

And what has been the response of those in power? To reward the Minister for Power with a 
promotion. Sushikumar Shinde, who has presided over a dysfunctional ministry for several years, has just been upgraded to the status of Union Home Minister, where he is certain to repeat his stellar performance in the power ministry. But what does Sonia Gandhi care? All that matters to her is loyalty, which is defined as unquestioning obedience to the commands of her factotums. There are few at the top more compliant, indeed complicit, than Shinde and the man who has gone back to the finance ministry, Chidambaram, there to turn the screws even harder on the citizen and to choke growth from the 5% it has fallen to (as compared with the 9% inherited from the past) to the 2% level that economists regard as the natural rate of growth of a country where the political class is so venal and incompetent. The powerlessness of India has been on stark display these past few days, with not even an expression of regret from those responsible.

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