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Because of an unusual preoccupation with the Congress party’s affairs – the laudable Bharat Jodo Yatra and the equally unfamiliar experiment in an internal election process – the narrative-makers continue to keep the nation looking away from the larger emerging picture: Narendra Modi’s Naya Bharat is beginning to look a lot shabbier than the Old India.
Just a cursory glance at random acts of commission and omission reveals a nation that has been forced firmly to embrace a debilitating mediocrity but which is being relentlessly told to celebrate and exalt our leadership’s achievements and stewardship.
Let us taste a few nuggets of reality, minor and major.
First, recall the second T20 cricket match Sunday night between India and South Africa. Play was held up twice, once for a longish period, on account of a kind of power failure. The site of this national embarrassment was Guwahati, the seat of a “double-engine” sarkar. Simple, routine, day-to-day administration falls apart.
From Assam, we move to Gujarat, the gaddi of the original “engine” inventor. A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the National Games in what the newspapers breathlessly called a “glittering” function, the triathletes could not swim in the Sabarmati as the river was too polluted. The event had to be moved indoors. The river did not become polluted overnight; the organisers must have known all along. Yet none dared to say something was amiss in that haven called Gujarat. The callousness and inefficiency on display at the iconic event, in fact, merely reflect the malodorous reality of everyday governance. Yet, after 20 years of BJP rule, the citizens in Gujarat seem used to being short-changed.
It may appear grossly unfair to build an argument on two somewhat isolated incidents. But the newspapers are full of reports of breakdowns, small and big, all over the country, just as in good old bad days. It requires considerable credulity and naivety to continue to believe that just because the nation is blessed with the leadership of a yugpurush, every functionary of the vast Indian bureaucracy, at all levels, has become a super-efficient, corruption-free and transparent agent of good governance. Yet propagandists continue to spend billions of taxpayer rupees to paint Potemkin colours over every stinking village.
Let us consider a tale from one such village: the murder of Ankita Bhandari in Pauri Garhwal district in Uttarakhand, a state enjoying the blessings of a double-engine arrangement. A female employee is dead at a tourist resort; there are allegations of foul play. The place is owned by someone with close connections to the ruling party. A mob makes its presence felt, without anyone suggesting a return of jungle raj. And bizarrely enough, a bulldozer, that symbol of administrative high-mindedness, is pressed into service at midnight; again, there are allegations that the idea was to destroy incriminating evidence. Sordid calculus of greed and venality working overtime.
The names are not important; the pattern is. The terms of exploitation remain unchanged. Another time, another day and the cast of characters may be different but the tableau of everyday misgovernance and daily malfeasance – promoted and protected by the ruling party of the day – keeps rolling on. The nearly forgotten saga of the mysterious death of a young female is symptomatic of an unchanged India, notwithstanding the untiring exertions of the self-proclaimed pratham sevak.
Or, let us re-acquaint ourselves with a member of the Union Cabinet, Narayan Rane. Last week he was rebuffed by the Supreme Court as he sought judicial indulgence for illegal construction in his property in Mumbai.
Rane is an old-fashioned politician of Old India. This class of political operatives and functionaries earnestly believes that a public office entitles them to cut corners, that a minister must invariably use and misuse his discretion in favour of the rich and the crooks. He has been in many political parties but is now a member of the very honourable party, called the BJP, guided and inspired by a very, very noble leader. Yet neither membership of the Union cabinet nor the company of a new band of deshbhakts would deter him from pursuing habits and calculations of the old India. It is, of course, not known if Rane has been reprimanded by the commissars of the new morality for so brazenly seeking judicial endorsement for the blatant abuse of power.
Beyond individuals are the uncured structural infirmities. An official report, as cited by Business Standard, noted: “393 infra projects show cost overruns of Rs 4.65 trillion.” This is a staggering figure, an utterly incomprehensible amount of national wealth, many times more than the calculation of black money Baba Ramdev, the great economist, used to make during Manmohan Singh’s days. But, of course, there is no misguided or conceited Vinod Rai to call it a theft or a notional loss to the national exchequer.
All this is an outcome of structured misgovernance, leavened by under-performance, incompetence and venality. Those familiar failings of the old order are now back with a vengeance – if they ever really went away, that is. But as long as the prime minister and his ministers keep tantalising us with dreams of national glory, pride and deshbhakti, we will not be allowed to notice the toll this entrenched mediocracy has taken on our collective sanity. We have lost our sense of smell.
Nor are we allowed to point out that touts, middlemen, small and big corruption, incompetence, and indifference to public weal – the familiar blotches of Old India – have reappeared after seven years of the Modi coat of paint.
Admittedly, Modi’s India is being defined by a different set of codes and by a different armoury of slogans and symbols, which may be enormously self-satisfying to a majority in the country and certainly much more profitable to a new class of contractors and corner-cutters. The old order persists, with gently tweaked rules and laws; only the nameplates outside the operatives’ offices have changed. A Hindufied India is not necessarily a morally superior place.