Sunday, May 25, 2008

So Many Obvious Things To Do Way To Do Them

Arun Shourie
"The mandate is for a coalition government", the pundits declared in 1996. "Coalition governments have worked for decades in Europe. Why will they not work in India?", they demanded. The obvious answer was that Indian politicians are not European politicians. That at every turn the outcome will be in the hands of persons who have no scruple, no ideology, no idea, no shame. But this was rejected as carping, as specious pleading on behalf of communal and fascist forces. Several coalitions later, how does that rationalisation of 1996 look? So, the first lesson is for analysts: Do not contrive rationalisations.

The second one is for us, readers: Do not believe them. Do not let these eye-shades blackout the quicksand in which the country is. The ones who fabricate rationalisations are not as much expert analysts as they are experts at manufacturing analysis which will cover up what they want to see happen. In 1996, the result was ambiguous: Our friends read into it 'a mandate for coalitions'. In 1998, the result was ambiguous again: They read into it 'a mandate for secular forces'. Each 'analysis 1 had the virtue of providing a ground for keeping out the side they wanted kept out.

The mega-rationalization, the Mother of All Rationalisations so to say, has not been merely about seeing one bunch in office rather than some other. It has been about casteism: "The masses are coming into their own", these progressives have declaimed. It has been about every casteist politician: "Man of the masses", these progressives have declaimed. "Keeps the masses spell-bound", "Kept the House in splits", they have declaimed about his buffoonery. "Corruption, what is being done to institutions, these are issues only in your drawing rooms", they have scoffed -- in their drawing rooms, and ours.

Apart from being an abomination in itself, casteism is what has fractured the electorate. That has resulted In fractured legislatures. And that has placed the fate of the country at the mercy of every unscrupulous clutch.

This is the sequence which has to be reversed, and to do so the rationalization has to be seen through. The allied rationalization is as ruinous. As standards - in legislatures, in the way ministries are run - have plummeted, we have been told, "But all that talk of standards has been a colonial hang-over, now the masses are coming Into their own". "What is all this talk of merit?", the casteists demanded during the reservations debate. "When the system has no merit, where is the ground for demanding that an individual has the merit required' by that system to perpetuate itself?"

It is typical of our times that this foolishness found favour with some judges of the Supreme Court itself. Well, governance, legislation - all these are tasks which require even greater expertise and specialization, which require temperaments even more specific to them than space engineering.

Just because a person has been born into some socially disadvantaged group, just because he is 70 per cent illiterate, just because he can be as loutish as the next man at a pan-shop does not mean that he is equipped to run ministries or decide matters of law and Constitution.

The institutions cannot run without the very traits which these "representatives of the people" dismiss as "elitist, rectitude, restraint, civility truthfulness. Unless this 'masses-coming into their own' rationalization is set' aside, we will continue to reconcile ourselves to the shout" and stalling and wheeling and dealing of our legislators. And ruin will be unavoidable. As is always the case, the primary responsibility for the ouster of a government rests with itself.

But there are two features of discourse which injure governance in general. As the press has been the main instrument which politicians are using. these features, the press is the one that should wake up to them.

Our newspapers have become mega-phones for the unsubstantiated charge. The more outrageous the charge, the more prominence It gets in them. T-90 tanks have not even been purchased, trials are to be held this summer, but allegations about millions having been made on them are broad-cast all over. A former finance minister says he has nothing beyond the allegations of a former adviser, the adviser says it is not his intention or his job to provide evidence. But the allegations are broadcast all over.

For me, not just this trait but this phase is typified by Jayalalitha's statement about Agni-II: The government has caved m to pressure from arms dealers in London, it has surrendered to foreign powers, and halted the development of Agni, the Statement read. Agni-II had already been tested earlier in the day.

Assume for a moment that the missile had not been tested that day. This statement would have been the box-item on front-pages the next day. "The specific charges a leader" of Jayalalitha's stature has made must be examined by a JPC", it would have been argued in orchestrated statements.

"After all, we have not made the charges, an alliance partner of the government has", the statements would have stressed. And newspapers would have revered in giving these "follow-up demands" as much importance.

The effect achieved, the allegation would have been forgotten, its place taken by the next fabrication. Remember the use that was made of the Jain Commission report? The purpose achieved, a week had not passed and it was not even mentioned. The onion-crisis disappeared from the front pages the day polling was over last year. That was soon followed by story upon story of atrocities being heaped upon helpless Christians. The tarnish complete, the atrocities suddenly ceased!

This feature is compounded by the studious neglect of facts -- even when these are set but in a readily accessible form. For two months, those atrocity-stories about Christians were on the front pages.

When facts about them were nailed, and the stories were shown to be fabrications, newspapers looked the other way. For three months, newspapers had been blowing up every allegation that Bhagwat and his wife made. When George Fernandes disclosed the facts on Doordarshan, and in a book-length paper, the newspapers all but blacked them out. The feature results in part from ego: Though they, too, see within days that they have been used, by that time the papers have got committed to the falsehood they purveyed, and they are loathe to show themselves up.

In part the exclusion of facts results from laziness: It is so much easier to repeat an allegation than to excavate and analyse facts. In part it results from the new creed about what "the reader wants": "The reader is not interested in details", the dogma goes. But so systematic and pervasive is the neglect of facts that it cannot be put merely to these fortuitous factors.

It results in much larger measure from design: The papers come to the view that a government or a minister ought to be out -- that is putting it too high: The correct expression would be that it becomes fashionable to take the view that a government ought to be out, that an individual ought to be pilloried; as the allegation serves to weaken the government or individual, it is paraded about; as facts which nail the allegation would come in the way of that design, they are ignored.

Either way, this allegation-mongering is destructive in the extreme. When the issue Is as serious as, say, defence, the harm it does on that issue alone should compel us to wake up to what we are doing. Worse, allegation-mongering thickens the air of negativity in the country. In the anxiety to run down the particular government, not just politicians who seek to replace it but the press, too, dampens achievements from which the country as a whole could, and should have taken heart.

It has also become the fashion to put on airs of skepticism. Indeed, to discover something suspicious in every proposal has become proof of independence. Steps which are necessary are thereby killed in the womb.

Just see what was happening as the Vajpayee government was being voted out. In his interview on the Bhagwat matter, George Fernandes revealed that there is a project which has been regarded as so secret that there is just one file about it, that file is kept in the personal custody of the Prime Minister, that when he hands charge to the next Prime Minister he personally hands that file over to his successor. He was talking of just one matter. One can assume that there are several other matters knowledge of which is limited to the Prime Minister. Parliament voted Vajpayee out. Without any idea whatsoever as to who would be replacing him. Yet, it is that unknown person to whom all these secrets will have to be made available.

Is that any way for affairs of State to be safeguarded? To prevent such leaps into the dark, as also to minimise the sort of bargaining which has followed the removal of three Prime Ministers in succession -- Deve Gowda, I K Gujral, and Vajpayee -- the German Constitution has two excellent provisions. By virtue of Article 67 the only way for the legislature to remove a Chancellor is to pass a motion reposing confidence in someone else. A successor is put in place by the very act by which a Chancellor is removed. By virtue of Article 68, should the legislature fail to elect within three weeks a successor to some Chancellor whose confidence-motion it has rejected, the legislature stands automatically dissolved.

Under the Swiss Constitution, the Premier is elected by the whole House -- he is elected as an individual. He may choose ministers from any party in the House. Ministers can be removed for grave misconduct by the House, and their place can be filled by others. Even the Premier can be removed and another one put in his place. But the government continues, and so does the legislature for the full term.

The sorts of things which have been happening in the last decade cry for some alterations of this kind -- this is the third year in succession that even the most elementary function of Parliament, that of passing the budget will not be performed in any satisfactory way. To consider and propose alternatives, the Vajpayee government had announced that it would constitute a commission. The commission was to have been headed by a distinguished former President. It was to have had the very best jurists and others as its members. The commission had but to be mentioned and all sorts of suspicions were raised about "the real purpose" behind the proposal, all sorts of theories were put out about "the hidden agenda" behind it. The result? A government which had enough problems as it was, thought it best to let the matter die. The result? A thing for which events cry out remained unattended. Parliament voted out a Prime Minister without any idea of who would step into the office as a result.

It isn't just a government which has gone. It is this Lok Sabha -- for the next government will be as dependent on the word of persons whose word cannot be trusted. And if it indeed be the case that the electorate is so fractured that there is no prospect that even three or four elections will yield a Lok Sabha any less fragmented, then it is not just this particular House which has gone, it is the system as, we have known it. But nothing can be done, it seems. For enacting the changes which would save it lies in the hands of legislators and leaders who are the direct beneficiaries of the stalemate. Do the conduct, caliber, priorities of parliamentarians we saw on TV last week hold out any hope that they will attend to reforms?

In the meanwhile, the world leaps ahead. As do our problems.

Truly, an abyss whose depth we have numbed our brains not to comprehend...

The Observer
April 23, 1999

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