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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 43, October 15, 2011

The Plain Point of View

Wednesday 19 October 2011, by Uttam Sen

The vital spirit or animating force unleashed by liberalisation always presented an encouraging line of vision for the freewheeler. When the hope was rendered into tangibles, the outcome was mixed. In some cases the margins of performance error grew in inverse proportion to the rectitude of the past. Antecedent conditions, however, happened to include red tape and procrastination. There would equally have been wholesome success stories of material gain within the parameters of sound judgment. However, when the tide turned, errant movers and shakers found themselves on the chopping block. It would stand to reason that with time and experience, efficiency and transparency will become inclusive and mutually re-enforcing properties.

But for the instant, the average person without an axe to grind can take a relatively more indulgent view of the situation than the seriously encumbered. If the human condition rather than fate drive men to their ultimate decisions and actions, the incipient moment of change also happened to be the turning point. There were many interludes from the early nineties in India and the world, including a debilitating balance of payments crisis. What transpired behind the scenes could at best be the common man’s guess. Denied access to a credible reality, his conclusions could be dismissed by the gentry as simple-minded. But he had to find a meaning. Sanitised feedback could not stanch the gut feeling, the intuitive understanding, that a massive state apparatus had been spared the blushes (a bit like Washington in the US debt crisis) but at a price. Life had to go on without tell-tale blips on the radar of public knowledge and those who made it possible may have secured sneaking popular approbation, not out of blind faith or reasoned conviction, but because of the likeness the approval of a fait accompli presented to an uncertain laity’s own circumstances. The anachronisms and their consequences had to surface over the longer run.

Like most elements in the human narrative writ large, we were better off following the events as we got to know them than jump to conclusions on people left to make the hard decisions. The importance of information and debate cannot be overstated despite a distressing affinity with the Tower of Babel when confusion reaches fever pitch. But to their credit, state and civil society (or a section of it!) successfully rallied to pre-empt divine intervention and make sense of the script. Two decades later, Anna Hazare edged towards the sticking points in his own way; the government as such, notwithstanding internal dissensions, forged a dialogue that kept the Constitution intact while promising as much constructive change as possible, with the stated aspiration to adjust for the better, for which public intercession was presaged because people had to come to terms with an objective reality that was not necessarily the unqualified handiwork of the state, and on that assumption could not be entirely handled unassisted. (Both sides appear to be teetering again, and people would be hoping, perhaps imperceptibly facilitating, a return to the restraint with which the first phase was seen out. The equipment and outlooks of the two sides, particularly the rank-and-file, are so dissimilar that a measure of mutual jeering has to be lived with.)

THE issue of corruption was only a piece of the action. Babus’ breaking their ritual bureaucratic shackles to impress their principals was one thing, but the guardians themselves playing to the tune of their “partners in global progress” was another. Prices, of petrol and LPG, had to go up because absorbing the shock was necessary for higher overall growth. The modus operandi of land transactions had to be modernised but the soil had also to be made available for industria-lisation. Neither proposition was objectionable in essence, as long as spirasing costs did not bring the common man (upgraded by most public speakers to the middle class) to his knees. Industrialisation was necessary but not if the local sub-culture bundled illiterate (or even literate but disempowered) people out of their rights to legitimate compensation. The underdog found defenders, namely, political parties, sometimes proactive leaders, and/or the socially-conscious, who jumped into the fray to protect him. Their most noticeable success was prompting a re-think on the poverty line trivialised by the rupees-twentysix-thirtytwo-rural-urban bench-mark. The government had to play for time, sometimes mend its ways. The earlier opacity was disappearing here and there with queries out in the open: why was the government wary of corresponding reductions when crude prices fell? Was it trying to subsidise diesel? If protection for the landowner was genuine, why the inviting loopholes in the Bill? And could a patently exclusionary statistic translate into an official guideline?

The middle classes, and certainly the well-heeled, can separate the wheat from the chaff: the technocrat or functionary under duress from the over-the-top pusher, liberalisation with a greater objective (for example, higher growth, among other reasons, to subsidise welfare) and organised loot, industrialisation, if necessary to keep pace with a competitive world, or merely as ancillaries for bigger principals. Corruption is not a one-point theme, nor are liberalisation and industrialisation his bugbears per se. The bourgeois is moving on to the substance and has large chunks of the global middle class for company as they increasingly question the government. One had only to listen to protestors in Washington charging the government with total denial of their condition. A little further down the road, the mass of ordinary persons, and not just specialised NGOs, will be asking why people in other parts of the world must suffer for the sins of commission committed on their soil. The good life generally is not percolating to all and sundry, many are facing scarcity of the means of subsistence, quite apart from the broader issue of greater global equivalence for future sustenance.

But latter-day maturity is often obviating the simplicity of arbitrary or combative divisions between ruler and ruled, or rich and poor: a prominent Congressman has restated his preference for holistic reform, making mincemeat of tampering with poverty-line figures, the world’s second richest individual has spoken out for the Democratic goal of taxing the rich. There could be wheels within wheels, for example, the Indian Government upholding the cause of Libyan and Syrian sovereignty against the grain of opinion that India is now plighted to the market and its associations (mental or otherwise) no matter what. Pages can be taken out of seemingly remote history in a world that is more literate and better informed than ever before, despite the paradox of rising inequality, hunger and want, and indigence amidst affluence. Just for the record, French naval armament workers, post-World War I, effectively rescinded the establishment’s decision to strike a country trying to find its feet. For that matter, the discerning Indian national churning of the thirties, indisputably inspired by the same European bottomline of equality and freedom, and the events surrounding them, brought us into alignment with the expectation that the freer flow of ideas would one day make global opinion less fragmented and more comprehensive in its judgment. At the time of writing the impending Supreme Court session on the 2G scam was being awaited with bated breath, but if the plain point of view is acquiring its ordained universality, the outcome will be seen as part of a wider process.

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