History teaches us that minorities can sustain unjust equilibriums for many years. But it also teaches us that discrete events create fertile mental possibilities that combine with one big event and change history. I’d like to make the case that the prosecution of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa in a disproportionate assets case makes 2014, like 1919, a year that marks the end of a joint venture between a political minorities and their chosen constituencies. In 1919, 62 years after the British empire officially began, Indian life expectancy was 27 years and only 11 per cent of men and 1.1 per cent of women could read. This empire was a joint venture with narcissist maharajas; Rajendra Singh of Patiala told a viceroy’s representative that “he worked hard spending an hour and a half every day on state business and at the end of it he was exhausted”. An extract from Bikaner’s annual budget from that period symbolises royal priorities — prince’s wedding, Rs 8.25 lakh, palace repairs, Rs 4.26 lakh, royal family, Rs 2.24 lakh, public works Rs 0.30 lakh and sanitation Rs 0.05 lakh. The turning point for our freedom struggle was Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. But the run-up was important: Gandhiji returned to India in 1915, the rift between reformists and extremists from the 1906 Surat Congress session healed in 1916, and the Bolsheviks got rid of the tsar in 1917. Historians suggest that Jallianwala Bagh happened because Indian soldiers returning from the First World War, having fought with and killed white people, asked deep questions about racial superiority that made independence mentally possible. Similarly, Jayalalithaa’s prosecution combines with recent events to make a new politics possible.
The prosecution of a sitting chief minister in a disproportionate assets case is a decision with long shadows. Accountability for corruption at high levels has been difficult because there are often no fingerprints on the murder weapon. This is not a uniquely Indian problem; even American gangster Al Capone could finally only be convicted for income tax fraud. Lately, Indian politicians have dropped the narrative of frugality and left footprints in their assets and lifestyle that are difficult to erase. Many families in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Sikkim, Telangana and other states must be worried. Over the last two decades, politics has been the Indian business with the highest EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation) margins and returns on invested capital. It is silly when a former Bangalore ward corporator with no previous job and a low salary declares he has more assets than Nancy Pelosi, who received a substantial salary as former head of the US Democratic Party.
Hopefully, this conviction will also make frugality fashionable in public …continued »