India’s politicians, businessmen and civil society are collectively pushing the country to the edge of chaos. From complete opaqueness we are moving to an era of hyper-transparency where everyone is out to “expose” everyone else, signalling the breakdown of all norms and standards.
At one level, this is good. For too long we have tolerated a conspiracy of silence, where the rich and the powerful can do cosy deals between themselves at the cost of the rest of us and the country at large.
But we are now moving to the opposite end, where nothing is sacred, nothing is beyond reproach, nothing is barred. A former chief of the army staff wants to “gherao” Parliament over farmers’ demands. A civil society activist wants to overthrow the system — not very different from what the Maoists are seeking to accomplish by armed rebellion. A nuclear plant costing several thousand crores has been in limbo for more than a year in the name of civil society safety concerns. Why is no compromise possible here?
Accusations and counter-accusations are flying thick and fast, between the mainstream political parties (Congress and BJP) and between political parties and civil society. Civil society is also at war with itself: we started with Baba Ramdev and Team Anna last year; now there are at least four civil society movements to reckon with (Team Anna and Team Kejriwal, the lurking Baba, and civil society activists allied to Sonia Gandhi’s NAC), not to speak of other civil society movements in Kudankulam, tribal activism, or farmers’ movements. And we haven’t even spoken of the old wars — based on caste, region, community and religion.
Businessmen are at war against one another in pursuit of their narrow interests — spectrum, power, land, coal, and other natural resources. Instead of fighting in the marketplace, they are fighting their competitive battles in the corridors of power.
The nation is on auto-pilot and could be heading for a crash unless the main actors pull back from the brink.
If the nation were akin to an airplane in midflight, this is the current scenario: the pilots are at each others’ throats, the stewards are busy throwing cutlery and things at everyone, and the passengers are busy tearing up the seats and loudly demanding service. A plane on autopilot will not crash immediately, but it has to shift to manual command before the fuel runs out or it will crash.
India may not be exactly in this situation, but we are close.
It should be obvious to anybody that if we don’t hang together now, we shall all hang separately. It should be equally obvious to all that the old way of doing business has to end. Or we are essentially inviting the Maoists and jihadis to administer the coup de grace. India is just a few steps behind Pakistan, where the state and civil society are being pushed to the wall by the Taliban.
So why aren’t we able to act purposefully even now, when chaos stares us in the face?
The answer is that we cannot end the old system of intense corruption and cronyism — of which we are both beneficiaries and creators — without each one of us losing something. But once everyone is willing to sacrifice something, the solutions will become clearer.
Fear is holding everyone back.
The Congress knows it messed up badly over the last three years, and fears that the BJP may gain if it does not do something drastic. But beyond spending its way out of trouble, it cannot do anything. And spending recklessly means pushing the economy deeper into stagflation — a slowdown with ratcheting inflation. It is also neck-deep in corruption scandals, from 2G to Coalgate to Vadragate.
The BJP thought it was on an upswing, thanks to the Congress’ self-goals, but now all bets are off. Arvind Kejriwal has shown that when it comes to corruption, the BJP is no shrinking lily. The BJP is itself chest-deep in corruption scandals, from Nitin Gadkari to BS Yeddyurappa.
In short, the BJP and Congress are now in a political stalemate, which the next election will not break.
But does civil society have answers? Kejriwal may be creating political space for himself by targeting both the Congress and the BJP, but in doing so he has isolated himself from the rest of civil society — whether it is Anna or Baba or Aruna Roy. The anti-corruption movement has been reduced to a charade and is primarily playing to prime time TV audiences.
What Kejriwal will create is further stalemate. He has no solutions.
As for businessmen, the less said the better. They are as exposed as politicians and civil society. Some may well end up in jail, if the cases against them are proven in court.
Is there a way out?
There is, but only if all the above parties realise that that the old system cannot survive, and if they themselves have to survive, they must replace it quickly by everyone making a sacrifice.
Businessmen have to accept that they will have to compete for creating wealth and pay their taxes like anybody else. Wealth cannot come purely from rent-seeking behaviour. Politicians will have to accept that bribes are not the way to fund elections and power is not a licence to print money. And civil society has to accept that there is no free lunch. Kejriwal may lead them to believe that if corruption ends, power costs will fall. They won’t.
Everyone — barring the ultra-poor — has to pay the bill.
A way forward could be this: The Big Two political parties, now fighting for survival, and businessmen, who will see everything ruined by a steady drift to lawless chaos, and some of the more sensible civil society activists should jointly work on a reform plan. The key elements would be:
#1. Immediate reforms in electoral funding, where the state funds all major parties and top three candidates.
#2: A commitment to steady dismantling of excess regulations and discretionary power in the hands of bureaucrats and politicians. These are the fountainheads of corruption.
# 3: Immediate agreement on a Lokpal, with constitutional status, and the guarantee of a simultaneous reform of the police and investigative agencies to insulate them from political pressures.
# 4: A short-term amnesty scheme for the corrupt — where all penalties for past wrongdoing will be paid in money terms, but not end in jail. This can be open to politicians and businessmen, and people who have stashed away money abroad. I know this sounds unfair to those who have been honest and paid their taxes, but this is the only practical way to change the system without a violent overthrow of the state. In the absence of such an amnesty, powerful players will have no stake in change. And no reform is possible in a situation where every major politician or businessman can expect to go to jail for past sins. They have to be given assurances that there will be no jail, or else they will make things impossible for everybody.
If Congress, BJP, civil society and business can agree on these basic steps and legislation is put through on the basis of cooperation between the Big Two parties, we can have a sensible election in 2014.
If not, we are going to have chaos even after the next election.
India has already lost three years of demographic advantage in UPA-2 misrule. If the Big Two don't cooperate now, we could lose the rest of the decade in mutual recrimination.
If Congress and BJP do not act together, they will destroy each other.