Asked if he prayed for America’s senators, a chaplain to the United States Senate once replied: “No, I look at the senators and pray for the country.” That might well be said of India’s legislatures as our republic steps into its 71st year. Seven decades is of course only a blip in the countless millennia of Indian nationhood. But these 70 years, especially the last 30 since the reforms initiated by P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh laid the foundations of the modern state, could be crucial in defining the future.
Although it’s fashionable to call India a rich country of poor people, a more accurate description would be a poor country of ultra-rich people. They have always been with us. It’s forgotten amidst the excitement of an upsurge of billionaires — 63 tycoons who own more money than the 2018-19 Union Budget of `24,47,200 crores, according to Oxfam’s latest report Time to Care — that for many years Mir Osman Ali Khan, the last ruling Nizam of Hyderabad, was reckoned to be the richest man in the world with an estimated wealth of $230 billion. It’s also forgotten that Ratan Tata’s forays with Tetley Tea and Jaguar Land Rover are not India’s first ventures in international commerce. Until 1952 the Maharaja of Baroda owned a controlling share of the equity in Fortnum & Mason, the chic food shop in Piccadilly that a footman of Queen Anne’s started in 1707 and which is still grocer to Queen Elizabeth II.
The Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh reforms opened the gates to the creation of new wealth. As in post-Soviet Russia, the subsequent capitalism blurred the distinction between the government and tycoons so that it is often not clear whose is the upper hand, who orders and who obeys. That interaction is one factor shaping the future. Another is the calibre of politicians. Criminal charges hang over the heads of 233 Lok Sabha members — a 44 per cent increase since 2009 — who are not at all coy about their alleged misdemeanours. They themselves set down the information regarding murder, attempted murder, crimes against women including rape and kidnapping, culpable homicide, house trespass, robbery and criminal intimidation in their sworn affidavits, even to listing the 204 criminal cases that didn’t prevent a Kerala politician being elected to Parliament.
There are several explanations for what outsiders might regard as self-indicting candour. Some would say that the candidates had to come clean because they would have been found out otherwise, which might have been worse. Others argue that litigation is so commonplace as to be meaningless, and cite the old story of the villager who had four annas left in his pocket after visiting the weekly fair and couldn’t think of a better way of spending it than making a police diary against his neighbour. False allegations occasion neither surprise nor shame. Nor do police stations and law courts baulk at accepting obviously fabricated charges. How-ever impeccable the high courts and the Supreme Court might be, India’s lower judiciary must be the worst in the world. Deploring the imposition of British jurisprudence, Penderel Moon of the Indian Civil Service cited instances of witnesses who were for sale and their concocted evidence leading to innocent people being executed.
Some hardened criminal-politicians are actually proud of their record. Others who have been weaned on the myths and legends of the supposedly golden age of Hindu ascendancy to which India is being dragged back innocently believe that the Mahabharat and Ramayan sanction and even glorify cleverness on the shady side. If stem-cell therapy was common then like plastic surgery and artificial insemination, and if Ram piloted his own aircraft while Arjun felled his foes with nuclear darts, there is no reason why the credulous should disbelieve pretty but not especially moral tales like the legend of Ashwathama or the ocean being churned for its nectar. Being astute practitioners of the art of the possible, politicians have their finger on the public pulse, and know it has been dinned into generations of orthodox Hindus that it was smart to call an elephant after a great warrior and kill it in order to trick and vanquish the warrior’s otherwise invincible father. The epics bestow respectability on legends in which th
e simple place implicit faith.
No wonder Indian courts do not admit the common law doctrine of Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, “false in one thing, false in everything”, meaning witnesses who testify falsely about one matter can’t be believed when testifying on any matter. Our lawyers argue that falsehood is often necessary to establish the truth.
Not that flirting with falsehood is a serious impediment to development. But the Oxfam report should give food for thought to a government that ostentatiously proclaims its commitment to the poor and whose flamboyantly-attired head boasts of starting out as a lowly chaiwallah. Credibility matters. The colourful Republic Day floats concealed many of the basic weaknesses of our situation — the infrastructure is worn, foreign investment is shrinking, agricultural production is far from robust, “Make in India” hasn’t taken off, banking is in a mess, unemployment is rising, corruption is rampant.
Victorian England bristled with social contrasts and conflicts but it was also the age of scientific inquiry, technological innovation, social experimentation and imperial expansion, with no constraints on thinking and scholarship. The fear here is that our universities and other academic institutions are being brought under official control, with the democratic consensus behind the government faltering as independent thinking yields to empty bombast. Not only does the economy seem to be stagnating back to the so-called “Hindu rate of growth”, but India’s poor performance is dragging down global progress.
If the Senate chaplain looked at our governance, he would probably pray not just for the country but for the world.
The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author