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Volume XLIV, No.49

Reflections On Our Time

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by Nikhil Chakravartty


The concluding functions that brought the curtain down on the year-long celebrations of the golden jubilee of the ‘Quit India’ struggle of 1942, presented in sharp relief the slump in morale allround.

With all the exposures of mega corruption in which the wielders of power have been entangled, and the unashamed buying of MPs so that the reins of the government do not slip out of one’s hand—all the homilies and harangues at the August 9 celebrations sounded so hollow and could stir up no emotions except embittered frustrations at the sorry state to which this great country is reduced.

The functions in the Capital were all Congress shows. Only as cosmetics, a solitary Chandra Shekhar could be seen or the frail figure of Aruna Asaf Ali brought in and presented with a cluster of new coins which, of course, have been heavily devalued from what they were worth in 1942. No doubt the memory of that momentous chapter in our struggle for freedom has been receding into the background with every passing year, and the steadily depleting ranks of freedom fighters have been virtually reduced into a toothless endangered species, as could be seen in their annual ceremonial turn-out at the President’s tea in the Moghul Gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

This year’s August 9 kept to all the protocol format; there was no deviation even to the last detail of getting crowds in hired trucks. But there was no fire in all the speeches—words fell as clichés, not the clarion call of yester-years, when dedication and service were the mottos, not self-service and enrichment as the perquisites of power as it is today.

The moral collapse of the entire system is witnessed allround. The tallest among the rulers do not bother to ward off the charge of heavy bribe-taking that the ruling establishment has little means to disentagle itself from allegations of having swallowed large-scale kickbacks on government purchases abroad. What brings out, sharp and clear, is not only the wide prevalence of corruption in public life, but worse still, the conspicuous lack of any sense of disgust at such sordid operations in politics. To be corrupt has ceased to be a badge of shame in the upper set of society. Rather the giver and the receiver of large-scale bribery among Members of Parliament can strut about with impunity as any stigma of ignominy on such a score has ceased to be a handicap in political life today.

The injection of large amount of money—mostly black money—into the election process has become the subject of common complaint after every general election since the birth of the Republic fortythree years ago. Such complaints have grown with every general election, and this has assumed menacing proportions in the last ten years in particular. Alongwith massive infusion of money in electioneering have come direct tampering of the freedom of the voter, widespread rigging and forcible booth-capturing—making a mockery of the entire election process.

But money-power and muscle-power are not the only threats to our democratic order. Alongwith these have come the blatant recourse to appeal for votes along caste and communal loyalties. From the very first general election in our country, this vicious practice has been resorted to by practically all parties. It may sound strange to an outsider from another country, but every observer of the political scene knows that in our country communal and caste loyalties have been continuously gaining sustenance from the manner of functioning of our election system. With the passing away of the first generation of the rulers of our Republic who carried the prestige of the leadership of our freedom struggle, the quality of politics deteriorated and with it came rampant recourse to means that destroy the very fibre of democracy. In other words, we are today faced with the dilemma that our election process and practice have strengthened and not undermined such flagrant aberrations of democratic culture. The experience of a general election thus helps to debilitate the fibre of our democracy. Where caste rules and communalism flourishes democracy recedes and gets emasculated.

The economic strategy as adopted after gaining independence set out with the objective of achieving growth with social justice. While growth was certainly registered, the attainment of social justice was vitiated with widening economic disparities and the neglect of rearing a vast home market in a country of over 800 million because of the failure to inject adequate purchasing power. With the unfolding of the technological revolution on a world scale, the imperative of getting uplinked to global trends has become undeniable, but this has been sought to be achieved, in the last two years, by the uninhibited recourse to the market economy.

While the euphoria over it has spread in the upper-income brackets, the lower-income groups, who constitute the vast majority in this world’s largest democracy, are faced with the grim prospect of having to bear the burden of this so-called liberalisation strategy. The concept of the mixed economy which, with all its drawbacks, represented the true balance of forces in this country has been systematically dismantled in the last two years without any attempt at seriously reviewing its rich experience of four decades—a unique record of economic experimentation.

Instead, the present government without the least sense of self-respect has sought to impose a structural adjustment programme as laid down by the super moneylender multilateral agency from abroad. Now after two years of drum-beating about the virtues of the imported strategy, the operators who have managed to capture economic decision-making, have been nervously realising—though even less slowly conceding to the public—that our economy, particularly after this recent breakneck overhauling, is not moving along expected lines, and thereby it threatens to be a breeding-ground of serious social tension. In a country of widening economic disparity, social tensions involving millions often lead to the outbreak of large-scale violence which threatens to destroy the very foundations of our national integrity. In other words, the new economic order now being ushered in holds on to the prospect of widening disparities in society and with it, the weakening of the sense of unity and cohesion in this great nation.

What is indeed strange is that while the economy of the country is being modernised, the social forces of obscurantism and superstition, so long dormant, have begun to assert in a menacing manner, never seen before. Atavistic practices and return to the numbo-jumbo are gaining more and more adherents even among the educated elite. In fact, resort to religious rituals has ritually become part of the VIP protocol for many public functions. The liberal outlook, so long regarded as inherent in the modern industrial society, is getting a beating in the hands of inert conservatism. This is resulting in the intolerance of bigotry asserting over an order of mutual trust and harmony. Caste and communal prejudices have been sharpened, and within the respectives communities, the cast-iron orthodoxy seems to be taking over.
From this state of affairs, one can hardly escape the conclusion that while we have to modernise our economy we can hardly escape the imperative of undertaking social reforms with a deliberate sense or urgency. Long discarded social taboos and worn-out rituals are being revived and enforced with gruesome inhumanity, undoing the century-old crusade of our proud social reform movements. A society in turmoil, drifting towards darkness.

It has become fashionable nowadays to blame our foreign-policy establishment that this country’s voice, once listened to with respect, carries no weight today. This argument makes out that when the world had bifurcated into two superpower camps, we could command more weight in international affairs than we do today. Without in the least underplaying the shortcomings of our foreign-policymakers, it is necessary to remind ourselves that in the Cold-War confrontation, we could command respect not only by our wits but by the moral authority of a leadership that had led unarmed millions to pull down the mightiest imperial power of the times. Through the corrosion of public life today, the virus of corruption eating into the vitals of our politics, the image that we have built abroad for ourselves is that of a country wistfully carrying the beggar’s bowl, and all the time worried that the mighty moneylender must not be displeased. No foreign policy worthy of respect can be conducted by any regime bearing such a pathetic picture of itself. When immorality reigns at home, one cannot play the moral superior abroad.

And yet this expanding cesspool of degeneration in our conventional public life, does not represent the totality of the reality of this great country of ours. In distant nooks and corners, among myriads of activists, fighting out social oppressions and injustices, bringing the light of knowledge to the unlettered, making them aware of their just dues and instilling into them the self-confidence to aspire for a better life—there lies the focus of hope and true salvation. And unto that heaven, this great country is bound to arise and awake. That shall ring in the festival of true freedom and not the monotony of worn-out sermons from the ramparts of the Red Fort.

(Mainstream, August 21, 1993)

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