The increasing upper crust impatience with our messy democracy and the rising new,post-Jantar Mantar clamour for quick-fixes for the most complex problems in governance, all conveniently blamed on our rotten politics, bring to my mind an exchange at a recent institutional investors’ conference which I was addressing on contemporary Indian politics. Just a little bit disconcerted by how many questions were being asked on the curse of caste-based reservations, I did something wicked. This was a crowd of nearly 500 of the best paid, globalised Indian finance whiz-kids, in hundred-dollar Hermes ties, seven-figure (in dollars) bonuses and fancy cars. We have here, fellow Indians with the finest jobs in the world, mostly with an IIT/ IIM education. Both institutions have also had caste-based reservations for ever. So how many of you here are tribal or Dalit?
Not a single hand came up.
Sensing a QED moment, I turned the knife. Okay, please tell me how many of you at least count a Dalit or a tribal among your friends or acquaintances? Or how many of you have even shaken hands with a tribal or a Dalit?
Not a single hand came up again.
That’s because the Dalits or tribals our class of PLU interacts with are not equals, I said. They are only our domestic servants, drivers, people who wipe our windscreens at gas stations, iron our clothes, polish our shoes. Even when one of them drives you for a weekend’s break at a hill station, he sits on a different table, or more likely in another dhaba, rather than eat with you. That’s why you need legal, constitutional and, howsoever you may hate it, political intermediation to bridge that divide, I said. Or they will invade our gated communities, burn our cars, poison our pugs.
There was silence for a moment, but then protest. Why was I bringing dirty politics into what was, after all, a simple question of merit? After all it was just our politics,and the corruption it brought in its wake, that was responsible for these inequalities, no?
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This week’s argument, however, is not about merit or caste. It is about this growing upper crust disenchantment with the soft management and messy execution that democracy brings. There should, therefore, be a quick,managerial, and by implication extra-parliamentary, solution. And there should be preventive, even prophylactic, safeguards so things can’t go too wrong. Read once again the statements that some of our latest TV stars, members of Team Anna, have been making to support the argument that the prime minister be brought under their Lokpal. Shanti Bhushan said it first: What if Madhu Koda or A. Raja becomes prime minister? Arvind Kejriwal elaborated and asked what if indeed, because it was quite possible given our coalition politics. And a prime minister in India, he said, knows so much on issues of national security. So what will the Lokpal do then, if he thinks that the man chosen prime minister does not look worthy of the job? Put fetters on him? Give him a bad ACR? Tell the cabinet secretary to keep secrets of the state from him? But most importantly, how would this Lokpal then determine that a really bad, unworthy guy has become prime minister, presuming that nobody actually charged with serious corruption can get there even in the current system? If he is a tribal (Koda) or a Dalit (Raja), it would be a dead giveaway, you’d suppose. You expect social and intellectual elites to be, what else, but elite. But this is now treading dangerous territory.
The upper crust in India is displaying an arrogant new authoritarian streak that has no patience for the dirty unwashed, the bhookha-nangas or the jahil-ganwars who man our politics or vote to elect them, for the price of a sari, 100 rupees or a bottle of liquor, to quote Anna’s immortal line. They do not particularly want a dictatorship, but a more controlled, less noisy, better managed and guided democracy. This is the new Indian elite’s Singapore fixation. The government will be elected, of course, but only from amongst People Like Us, and then we will get a cabinet as academically accomplished as Singapore’s. And yet, if they go astray, as people in power often do, there should be a senior minister, a minister-mentor or whatever you call him, a Lee Kuan Yew of our own to keep them in check.
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The Indian elite’s concept of its own Lee Kuan Yew is this civil society version of the all-powerful Lokpal, answerable to none and selected from amongst us PLUs, by who else, but PLUs. If you look at the Team Anna version, the Lokpal will be selected by all upper crust, well-educated people: predominantly IAS officers (former CECs and CAGs), Supreme Court judges, civil society representatives (nearly half of whom are also former civil servants), and the prime minister and the leader of the opposition to represent the elected classes as well as the corrupt, stupid voters. This Lokpal institution will be untouched and unsullied by politics. It will keep the politicians in check and, should a really bad-sounding guy get to the top, do something pro-actively to prevent him from doing any damage. This is never going to fly, because this is India with all its complexities, diversity, inequalities, problems and so on. This is not anodyne, disciplined Singapore (which I love to visit), because if it was, half of this government would have been locked up in jail already for chewing gum, and particularly for sticking it under the finance minister’s desk.
This impatience with the noise of democracy, the tendency to blame everything on politics and the search for managerial, short-cut,extra-democratic solutions by executive fiat of some sort, or the kind of T20 approach to law-making exemplified by the candles-at-Jantar Mantar crowd, is an even greater irony given that this year marks the 20th year of reform. Today’s chattering classes owe their new globalised stature to this reform, which came out of our politics. Today, every chief minister, every political party talks investments, infrastructure, aspiration. Yes, there are problems with our politics and governance and both need reform. That reform is challenging and messy and needs imagination, patience and persistence. It needs better education for the voter, not contempt for the voting classes. It needs better, deeper, wider democracy, not less of it. What will never work are these quick, elitist and even escapist solutions imposed from outside the parliamentary tent by a privileged few who seem to believe the TV studio is the new Lok Sabha and you don’t even have to be elected to get there.
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