Ek dhakka aur…

Truckers,oilmen & some netas showed that in these difficult times some of our worst problems are inside

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Published:January 10, 2009 4:24 am

One of the more striking observations recorded by Megasthenes,the brilliant chronicler and fellow traveller of Alexander the Great,was about this remarkable Indian ability to carry on with their lives unmindful of whatever was going on around them,even if it was a war on their country. He talks of large populations of Indians “exempted from military service,who cultivate their lands,undisturbed by fear… it therefore not infrequently happens that at the same time,and in the same part of the country,men may be seen drawn up in array of battle and fighting at the risk of their lives,while other men close at hand are ploughing and digging in perfect security…”

But why should one be thinking about this prescient observation by Megasthenes nearly 2,300 years ago?

There is,in fact,a good,yet unfortunate reason. Over the past six weeks,since the Mumbai attack,our security situation has worsened greatly,with incessant war-mongering from the Pakistani side. There is no war on,but there sure is a sense of national crisis,exacerbated by the state of the economy and financial markets. There is no generalised mobilisation of the armed forces,but a few precautionary moves have been made,and the entire machinery has been alerted for a quick move,if things worsen. A sizeable encounter has been on in Kashmir for nine full days,and the diplomatic war of words shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile,how have some fellow Indians been behaving?

Two large sections of our business and economy,the truckers (who play such a vital role in moving troops and supplies in case a mobilisation is required at short notice),and the officers of so many of our oil companies decided to go on strike,in this week alone. Of course,strikes,particularly in PSUs,are business as usual,and the crisis appears to have passed now. Except it was a little different from Megasthenes’ “husbandmen” who would carry on with their ploughing even as a battle raged on next to their fields. At least they were contributing by keeping the wheels of the economy moving. But these truck and oil strikers?

There is justification for some of their demands. This newspaper,and its sister paper,The Financial Express,have argued that many of the causes underlying both the strikes lie in our un-reformed energy economics. But can that justify just a handful of well-to-do people,in a very poor society,paralysing the economy and normal life of all citizens? This is cynical,criminal rent-seeking and must draw the contempt of all of India. At a time when so much cleaning up remains to be done in the areas of foreign relations,national security,counter-terrorism and diplomacy,the key members of our cabinet were fully distracted by having to deal with this entirely self-inflicted crisis. The Union home minister had to cancel his very vital visit to Washington to meet his American counterpart and exchange notes on terror attacks because he heads the ministerial committee looking at the oil company officers’ salaries! The world must think India takes its security seriously! The prime minister had to put everything else aside and focus on dealing with the strikes. The world,particularly the Pakistanis,must be laughing at us,and LeT and various other Lashkars must be smiling smugly: Didn’t we tell you these Indians,they are a weak state,with weak people,remember the slogan we have loved and believed in for years,“hilti huyee diwar hai,ek dhakka aur do.” (It [India is a shaky wall,just one more push…)

Strong words,but well-deserved considering that this crisis was brought upon us by some of the most handsomely rewarded of Indians. Indian truckers are by no means below-poverty-line basket cases. In fact,they have built a terrific reputation as tough entrepreneurs always willing to join the national effort during wars,emergencies and calamities. Their current leadership would have had to be out of their minds to choose this time for a strike. And oil company officers? First of all,they are among the most,most privileged minority in the whole world,people who have corporate sector employment with total job security. This at a time when corporate jobs are being lost in millions around the world (including in India),when downsizing is the buzz word and when employers are walking around with shot-guns. A story on the front page of this paper shows just how well-paid these officers are. Yet,trust these rent-seeking sons-in-law of Mother India to resort to blackmail and ransom just when their country is down for the count anyway,reeling under so many punches it did not deserve to take. They are walking back to work now,bloody-nosed and defeated,but meanwhile they have earned the contempt of the entire country. Just when nearly two million other Indians,in our armed,paramilitary and police forces are so readily willing to forget their own,and mostly justified,grievances over the pay commission and move to action stations,here are a few,financially so much better endowed than them,trying — as it fortunately turns out,unsuccessfully — to bring the country to a standstill. What if the wage-earners of the armed forces also began drawing a lesson from this?

We knew that if a war did look like breaking out,everything would quickly fall into place. The truckers would have been back on the highways,voluntarily offering their services to the armed forces and the oil companies would have worked at even greater efficiency. But that,getting it all together when war is about to break out,is not the issue. The issue is,when the country faces a crisis that is almost war-like,what makes it possible for so many fellow Indians to feel like business as usual? Maybe Megasthenes was a real genius in decoding this very peculiar trait in the DNA of us Indians,this remarkable ability to distance ourselves from the travails of our fellow countrymen and carry on with our own business,even if it is disruption and blackmail.

And what kind of role models do we have to look up to? Just when India needed to display a unified resolve to deal with what is the aftermath of its own 9/11 — at least in psychological terms — we have had images of so many politicians bitching,politicking and squabbling after the meeting of chief ministers to fight terror. So many chief ministers made discordant noises,complaining about this new law,that new arrangement,all when MPs of their own parties had voted for them in both houses of Parliament. Could it be,then,that that vote in Parliament had come too close to the events in Mumbai and the political class was smart enough not to look disruptive and thereby further annoy an already enraged public opinion? Could it be that now they,and therefore the leaders of truckers and oil companies’ unions,thought that the week of the crisis had passed so they could get back to their own businesses? If so,Megasthenes must be smiling “I told you so” in his grave.

sg@expressindia.com

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