Books

Book Review: After Five Years of Modi, a Stark Choice Before India

John Elliott's 'Implosion' provides a credible view of India’s progress over the years since independence: muddling along through a judicious mix of 'jugaad', corruption, expediency and pragmatism.

Implosion turns out to be the classic curate’s egg, “good in parts.” In fact, it’s not unlike India itself, the vast subject that it seeks to examine: “Very good in some parts.” It analyses India’s progress (or lack of it) through the reforming 90s till the advent of Narendra Modi. The revised and updated version published earlier this year (the original was published in 2014, before Modi became the prime minister) has a new section of five chapters that “review and analyse what has and has not been achieved by the government along with the new problems that have emerged.”

The best part of this curate’s egg lies in its conclusions spelt out starkly in the preface:

“India has to choose. For the first time since shortly after independence in 1947, there are two sharply contrasting routes that the country can follow. One is to become a primarily Hindu nation with the Bharatiya Janata Party and its fiercely Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar in control and with Muslims and other minorities being regarded as second-class citizens. The other is to continue with the tolerant secular traditions set by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.”

The choice isn’t new as John Elliott points out. It was there in the 1930s and 40s in the years leading up to independence. However, the choice is now starker and more apparent after five years of the Modi government. It was evidently kept well hidden in 2014 when Modi was swept to power as Elliott observes:

“Tired of the ineffectual corrupt Congress party and its United Progressive Alliance government led by Manmohan Singh, voters hoped that Modi would bring that change while keeping the Bharatiya Janata Party’s divisive nationalism in check. The task was to deliver economic growth and job creation, reduce inflation and run a government that took decisions and then implemented them…”

Elliott emerges deeply disappointed. He concludes that “Modi and his government have not met the targets, expectations and hopes and have not done what was needed to fulfil his acche din promise.”

A perceptive economic journalist with long years of experience in this country, Elliott provides a credible view of India’s progress over the years since independence: muddling along through a judicious mix of jugaad (arguably his favourite word, and ‘chalta hai‘ his favourite phrase), corruption, expediency and pragmatism.

John Elliott. Credit: Twitter

Corruption

He looks at how corruption has permeated virtually every aspect of life, questions the utility of the dynastic rule of the Nehru-Gandhi family, explores the impact of liberalisation and traces the build-up of social unrest over corruption, rape and exploitation of land: “India punches below its weight, failing to achieve what it could and should be doing,” writes Elliott.

Having stated the obvious while laying down his agenda, Elliott moves on to what is clearly his forte: straight forward reporting and a great many insights into how things worked from the day Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao said in 1991, “we have got to get rid of the cobwebs” and then asked the then finance minister Manmohan Singh to “go away to your office and work out some details” that set the economic reform ball rolling.

Elliott tracks the progress of reforms until they begin to sputter out amidst a welter of scams: coal scams, land scams, environmental clearance scams, Games scams, spectrum scams, on and on endlessly. These are by now well-documented and some have even turned out to be more than a bit suspect.

The spectrum “scam” is a case in point in which the then Comptroller and Auditor General, Vinod Rai, a retired IAS officer with no known skills in either auditing or accounting came to the conclusion that spectrum to which no value had been attributed until then, had been sold at a “presumptive loss” of Rs 1766.45 billion in 2008.

Also read: The Next Five Years Could Change India Forever

Subsequent attempts to sell spectrum at a much reduced reserve price of Rs 140 billion met with poor success. This corruption bogey has probably affected decision-making even harder than corruption itself, but this finds no mention in Elliott’s book.

‘Cost of time’

Like others in the media, Elliott has done well to focus on corruption as a major deterrent to economic reform and development. However, he has failed to see that the process itself, the lack of transparency and even more the inability to ensure that decisions are taken quickly and transparently, has led to corruption. The cost of time is far more than the cost of corruption. In India, there is no concept of the “cost of time.” Corruption does not slow the process down, it is time overruns that inevitably lead to corruption or “speed money” as it is known worldwide.

John Elliott
Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality
Harpercollins (revised and updated 2019 edition)

There does not seem to be any large industrial malefactor in jail at the moment. Virtually all of them have either fled the country or, worse, are at large within the country, whereas numerous officials, including some who are possibly blameless and above reproach according to their honest contemporaries, have been incarcerated. Things have reached such a pass that the bureaucracy as a whole, tardy at best, now refuses to take any decision no matter how legal.

The breakdown

And this brings us to Elliott’s lead up from reforms to breakdown. In the last year or so of UPA-II, Elliott draws particular attention to two major episodes that received widespread attention not just in India but worldwide. One was the shocking rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in December 2012. The widespread outrage that it led to and the enormous wave of protests that happened thereafter left the establishment paralysed. It was spontaneous and impossible to control but because it came from a huge reservoir of “decent” Indians (of whom there are fortunately even now more than the others) it did not end up in uncontrollable violence – although the stupid establishment did its best to move in that direction.

The other was the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare. A seventh grade dropout – due to financial constraints – Hazare served in the army and retired after 15 years to return to Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra to begin a career as a social reformer. He had no connection with Mahatma Gandhi since he was 11 years old when the Mahatma was assassinated although much has been made in the media about his “Gandhian” antecedents.

Clearly a petty village tyrant, his methods at reform consisted of flogging village drunks with his army belt once they had been tied to a nearby tree by others. From such commendable roots Hazare came to occupy the Ram Lila grounds in Delhi  where he launched a “Gandhian” fast unto death for an anti-corruption drive holding the government of Manmohan Singh to ransom for a Lokpal Bill.

Elliott has clearly and correctly revealed in detail the systematic breakdown of rules, laws and regulations, the subversion of which have derailed the system under which India’s entire edifice has been built. Yet it’s odd that Elliott was unable to see how Hazare, a complete outsider to all of this, managed to dictate terms to a beleaguered Indian establishment collapsing under the weight of its own corruption. Without being an elected member, Hazare and his gang were literally dictating to parliament what sort of Lokpal (ombudsman) law India should have.

Also read: The BJP Is Digging Its Own Grave

To step back a bit in this direction, it’s even odder that Elliott, who has since seen the light saying that India “now has to choose between two sharply contrasting roots,” has been unable to unravel the linkages between Hazare’s anti-corruption movements and the Sangh parivar’s rise to pre-eminence. The Hazare movement was clearly backed by the RSS whose chief Mohanrao Bhagwat admitted as much in an interview to The Times of India:

“The links between Anna and the RSS go back a long way. It was the RSS that highlighted Anna’s developmental programmes for villages. We even got Anna to help us in our village development programmes. It was during these interactions that the RSS suggested to him to go in for a movement against corruption.”

Bhagwat also admitted that RSS activists were present at Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds when Hazare’s anti-corruption movement was at its peak. Anna Hazare may have provided the ideas and the rallying point for the movement but the RSS did provide the “ballast” that kept it going.

The problem with Elliot’s book is his complete failure to trace the rise of the Hindu right through the 1990s. The book does not take cognisance of the destruction of the Babri Masjid that took place on Narasimha Rao’s watch even as he dwelt at length on economic reforms and later on the Nirbhaya rape as also the Hazare movement, the link between Hazare, the demolition of the mosque and the pass to which India has now come to as Elliott so clearly identifies.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose sole aim is a Hindu India, ran the demolition of the mosque. It also ran the Hazare movement that mysteriously petered out after he went to jail and came out. The RSS provided the muscle and the men/women for both. It also provided the ballast for Modi’s rise to power including the loud and unruly manner in which they silenced L.K. Advani, Modi’s mentor in that fateful BJP meet in Goa on his triumphal ride to the throne.

It honed its skills in the Navnirman agitation of Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s before Elliott’s time, but as a journo who rightly claims India as his bailiwick, he should have known. It was this failure to know which led him to believe – in 2014 – that Narendra Modi was perhaps the answer to the reformists’ prayers in a country fast losing out in the never ending race to the idea of grow or perish. And the only thing that stands between that is a dynasty alas and antediluvian caste-based political formations. Jugaad, dear John, and chalta hai.

There is one common thread that runs through the demolition of the mosque, the Hazare “movement,” the rise of Narendra Modi and a Hindu India – the RSS. Elliot knows it now, many of us hacks knew it long ago.

Anikendra Sen is a journalist who shuttles between New Delhi and Kathmandu.

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