As some sane voices have been raised against dragging the country’s military into the election arena, there is palpable indignation discerned against the political discourse in the ongoing election season having descended to a vituperative narrative “beyond the fitting medium of desire,” in Lord Byron’s words. Consistent with what appears to have become a distressing norm for its frequent election bouts, the electorate has been facing a blizzard of utopian dreams, clichés and catchphrases wrapped in competitive populism unleashed by political leaders of varying hues, young and old. It only fuels the lava-wave of aspirations that can’t be quenched by an air of triumphalism unleashed by the ruling dispensation nor the existential trickery of those already tested and tried.
The endemic deficiencies that continue to plague the country remain buried. Although conceding that pockets of the country have had material gains, people living longer and better-fed, the glass in real terms remains more than half empty. After all our 12 Plans and countless promises, India is home to one-third of the world’s absolute poor. The 13th edition of the Global Hunger Index pegs India almost at the bottom, at 103, among 119 countries, way below China (at 25), Brazil (31) and even neighbours like Nepal (72) and Sri Lanka (67). Much like its abysmal international ranking on human development, the World Bank’s Human Capital Index shows India competing poorly even with most of its neighbours in South Asia.
Two primary services, cardinal as a bedrock for nation-building—education and health—vie, one to be labelled more dreary and dismal than the other. Although there are more children in schools today, they are learning less. The country that once feared a ‘population bomb’ now celebrates its ‘demographic dividend’. But it faces serious dearth of employable engineers and technicians, teachers and nurses. Government hospitals groan under inadequate and inept health services. As many as 130 million Indians have no access to basic healthcare. Almost 2 million children die before reaching their first birthday. More than a third of its children are stunted at the tender age of two years.
No leader explains the malady inherent in too many, too small farms to yield a viable livelihood, driving thousands of debt-ridden farmers to committing suicide. Is loan waiver for farmers the panacea for their woes? So also is little acknowledgement of dodgy lending to favourite corporate borrowers by bleeding nationalised banks. India’s richest 1% grossed 73% of the wealth generated in 2017, while the wealth of the poorest half—670 million—rose by only 1%. They all opt for an easy life, shying away from requisite reforms; for example, to rid the state from sick state enterprises or archaic labour laws. A young nation, India has long been ruled by a tangled web of antediluvian laws. The civil services, a leviathan with immense power, remains obese and bloated, corrupt and parasitic, alienated from the aam aadmi (common man).
A grand paradox the nation espouses. It has handled with distinction highly complex tasks—the decadal census of 1.2 billion people, elections for 900 million eligible voters, launching satellites, earning kudos for its software prowess. But its abysmal record of doing simple things is astonishing—in providing the basic public services of sanitation, water supply, health and education. Ganga remains ever so maili (dirty). Hallowed heritage sites are exploited and encroached, parks are raped, wildlife poached, public land is grabbed. Major cities are a mess, continuing to be drowned in monsoon, year after year.
The country misses the cardinal societal values of civility, gentleness and concern for each other. Choices made between doing what is right versus what is convenient ring an alarm bell. The critically hurt and bleeding on the roadside, needing instant help, are ignored by passers-by who just shrug or, worse, shoot videos on phones. Macho disorderliness descends upon us in queues—at airports, or to get into a bus, an elevator, or anywhere. The country awakes with daily staple of gory happenings. The republic is betrayed by schism of castes, sub-castes, tribes, communities, regions, religions, languages, splintered into ethnic and communal divisions, socio-economic disparities.
Democracy, in an ugly way, has also extracted its own price. Institutions meant for furthering/safeguarding its essence and ethos are decimated. The sanctity of Parliament and state legislatures has turned into sanctimony. Often, parliamentarians are seen sneering, shouting, shoving and shoeing, than discussing and legislating. For transient expediency, state governments constantly choose to forsake their rajdharma (duty of the rulers), bending before mobs on rampage, be it for eking out job and education reservation quotas, or ban on a film or book.
None among them across the entire spectrum presents a statesmanlike realistic appraisal of major social and economic ailments that have for long festered the country, along with a cogent agenda to confidently face the rapidly evolving societal and technological megatrends across the globe. “We, the people” recall the tryst the made over 70 years ago. While it has a lot to rejoice at its gains as it needs to ponder much that has gone awry. What did swaraj (self-rule) mean for the common folk—a life of dignity, free from want, with roti, kapda and makaan, free from the fear of daroga and patwari, and those who exploit and extort.
Those already ensconced on the Delhi gaddi (seat of power) and most others consumed by hunger for supreme power are unable to dispel popular cynicism, which Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed in the context of England that they “think they are free. They deceive themselves; they are free only during the election of members of Parliament. As soon as they are elected, the people are their slaves.” Like the way the soldiers in Norman Mailer’s novel, ‘The Naked and the Dead’, talk the language of anomie, the country’s young, in particular, are torn in hope from their dreams, living on thin line of disbelief, between uncertain future and credulous past. The country, ostrich-like, continues to wallow in self-delusion, fed on extravaganza of promises, hostage to petty politicos.
The real transformation India needs is a leader with humility, self-restraint and compassion, a statesman-like initiative to seek societal convergence and build vital consensus on seminal issues of cardinal national importance.
Senior fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development, Delhi. Views are personal