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Rudderless state

Published : Jun 15, 2012 00:00 IST

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The UPA government is seen as a weak and indecisive one that is clinging to power while lurching from one crisis to another.

"And do not think of the fruit of action Fare forward. O voyagers, O seamen, You who come to port, and you whose bodies Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea, Or whatever event, this is your real destination.' So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna On the field of battle. Not fare well, But fare forward, voyagers."

- T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages - III

NOT fare well but fare forward. Instead of a static placidity, Eliot paraphrases that portion of the Bhagavad Gita to posit an eternal movement forward, not dwelling on the fruit of one's action, not indeed on the finality of death.

That, anyway, is Eliot's interpretation of the great text, and one that may well be pilloried for being wrong or only a superficial comprehension of what Krishna actually said. My object in quoting this is only to underscore the point that rather than contemplate what has been done one must endeavour to move forward to greater achievements and the attainment of even more difficult goals.

This was something that we, as a country, were seen to be doing some years ago: moving forward. True, the pace was slow, but it was noticeable, and even in the terrible economic downturn of 2008 and later the movement forward continued. We were faring forward, even if the pace had slowed even further.

But now a reality check tells us a different story. This is not an economic assessment but a mere looking around to see where we are. There are a formidable set of problems, but these are familiar problems: malnourished children, a vast number of poverty-stricken families in both rural and urban areas, bad roads and what are grandly called national highways, health centres that have neither medicines nor doctors, schools that exist in name only, vast piles of foodgrains rotting out in the open, and a host of other ills.

These are familiar problems. They have been with us even before people began to call India an emerging economic superpower. The differences that one notices as a layman from then and now are two: one is that the zeal with which these problems were being tackled seems to have slackened, judging from the growing anger among the people, and the other is a sense of drift at the highest levels.

Measures that could have effected some changes have been put on hold; others that were taken have transported the country right back to the permit-licence raj of the 1980s, in which the babus revelled but the country remained perennially just short of being an economic basket case. The general impression now being spoken of openly in international forums is that India is a bureaucratic nightmare, with cumbersome and seemingly unending procedures that frighten away international investors.

Not too long ago, I happened to meet a Singaporean friend who holds a key position in an international insurance concern that handles insurance of goods and commodities that the country exports or imports. She had come to India for a meeting with a senior bureaucrat to sort out procedural problems, and she told me wryly that she had 15 or 20 minutes with this personage and he spent most of that time on his mobile phone. In the end, she effectively had just about 10 minutes in which to try to settle the problem, which was, of course, nowhere near enough.

She told me that the contrast was very sharp with what she faced whenever she went to Indonesia on similar missions. The fixing of the meetings would take a long time to finalise, but when they were fixed and she went to meet the official concerned, there were no interruptions or phone calls; she got the undivided attention of the official and usually the problems were settled owing to that one fact.

It's sad, she told me, that a foreign executive who has travelled thousands of miles for a meeting can't get the undivided attention of an official to settle a problem that concerns both sides.

I mention this because it is depressingly familiar. I have seen this myself: officials at meetings spending more than half their time on mobile phones or what used to be known as the RAX in our time. I used to get up and walk out of such meetings often, to the consternation of others present.

These times seem to have returned because the political executive has, more and more, left things to their officials as their attention is, firstly, on how to keep their ministerial seats, and secondly, on how to ensure that the government does not collapse. I know there are honourable exceptions, but they are too few to make a difference. For every conscientious Minister, there are two C.P. Joshis, which is why the Ministry of Road Transport is in a shambles, and two Azhagiris, who spend most of their time in their stamping grounds and are rarely, if ever, seen in their Ministries.

It looks as if this government is a ship floating in a dreadful Sargasso Sea without a breath of air to take it forward, with the flotsam and jetsam of failed policies and decisions floating around it.

Should someone come up with a new project or scheme or a means by which existing problems can be reduced, it ends up in bits and pieces floating in this sea of failed ideas and endeavours. Kaushik Basu, the Prime Minister's Economic Adviser, obviously spoke out of a deep sense of despair and anguish when he said, in Washington, that no new initiative can be expected from this government until 2014. He withdrew the statement soon afterwards, but that ritual is one everyone can see through now: the taken-out-of-context and distorted-version-of-my-statement excuses do not even cause amusement any more.

It is a tragedy that is playing out before our eyes, which may well make for a great play one day. Such fine officers as Pulok Chatterjee, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, one thought, would bring a new dynamism to the Prime Minister's Office and stir the good but ineffectual scholar who happens to be Prime Minister to get down to business. One thought Ministers such as Jairam Ramesh would bring about major changes in rural development, at least the beginnings of change. But alas, things continue to stagnate for reasons one cannot understand.

The Prime Minister has on occasion referred to the difficulties of managing a coalition, but the choices are, surely, clear. Either there is an agreed set of policies to be followed or the government resigns, and calls for fresh elections. Had this government done that I am certain it would have been re-elected, as, until recently, it had the goodwill of the people, by and large. The opposition's obstructionist antics in Parliament, seen by millions on television, would have ensured that.

Now, one is not so sure. The image of this government that is now forming is of a weak, indecisive one that is clinging to power even though it can do nothing, lurching from one crisis to another. But there is still time; it can still stop sitting still, contemplating what it thinks it has achieved (what Eliot calls faring well), and fare forward instead towards its goals. If it fails, or is thwarted, it should have the courage to tell the country that, and go.

That will serve it well.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 15, 2012.)

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