The last time around I was not in India and had to only suffer internet chatter. Reading up online, I made some random predictions and accidentally got the broad thrust of the story correct. Like many, I wanted Manmohan Singh to remain prime minister and was hopeful that good would come of it. Alas, we were all wrong. Suffice it to say that Singh’s second term as prime minister has cast an immense shadow on this entire election — the umbra and penumbra of years of silence. The response, of course, has been tremendous noise — there is a “we are like that only” joke here.
In 2009, I wrote the following: “One thing is for sure: nobody, not the politicians, not the parties, not the media, nor (heck, I’ll say it) the electorate have lived up to the grandness of the occasion.”
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Well now, just writing this is getting me depressed. The empty, vacuous and mind-numbingly silent nature of governance during the last five years — from recession and terrorism to corruption and nepotism — has given space to the shrillest, loudest and most cynical voices in the land to vent and spout fury. There was a flutter of hope that civil society and activism could show the way. But imperfect persons are involved. They evolve into heroes in the eyes of other women and men, those heroes into gods — we are like that only. The men fail and the gods are slain. And so we turn to an (old) new god — the redeemer. Flow like the Ganga and rid this sinful world of its depredation! A man — artful, effective, evocative, possibly dangerous and, according to his detractors, diabolically sly — is being presented as a hero. His supposed attributes make him sound god-like. His is the blowhard air that is forcefully occupying the vacuum of Indian civic conversation.
And that is where the blame lies. No matter how this election turns out, one thing is inescapably true. The heirs to the Congress party claim to stay reluctantly relevant in order to remain a bulwark against the baser tendencies of Indian politics. Yet, the unintended consequence of their blinkered ineptitude has been the ceding of the middle ground to the very forces they say they abhor. Based on the things that actually matter — poverty, health, education, sanitation, infrastructure, jobs, access and opportunity — it would be criminal to support this corrupt cabal.
So, what then? Will we see the coronation of a new god or a new demon? How will the old ones remain relevant? And is chaos really a ladder?
My liberal friends argue that this is a “Weimar moment”. India is like the Germany of the early Thirties. If we choose what they refer to as the fascist option, we could be in for fifteen years of authoritarianism, and who knows where that will lead? My more sanguine friends argue that the Congress is so bad that a modicum of efficiency, just a little bit of competence and focussed work, a government where the ministers are not quarrelling all the time, is all we need to turn the country around. And there is enough diversity, more than adequate institutions, not to worry about illusory Weimar fears. For them, the Congress is the party of demons, incompetent demons at that. The alternative, they argue, does not have to be a god. A moderately competent, even flawed, human will do.
I worry because I no longer see the Congress’s ineptitude as something unusual. Its government has just been a reflection of a confused citizenry. In other words, we are like that only, and our government is like that only. And now, we are looking for a magic beanstalk ladder to lead us out of the chaos of the recent past to a land where the streets will soon be paved with gold. But we do not know what ogres we will meet there. Ay, there’s the rub. Seeking a simplistic one-person panacea for India’s myriad woes and problems is again something that we opt for only. It is the lazy option. Our old gods and demons have been reflections of ourselves in the mirror. They will not go away. Too many laws and too many bad laws on the statute books, a bureaucracy that makes Appleby look like a kind and efficient person, and the search for simple theoretically correct solutions, with no concern for how they might actually work or not work in practice — these attributes too are ours only.
Could it be that it actually does not matter who wins? Neither will we slip into the slough of Weimar despond nor will we climb the magic beanstalk ladder. We may remain stuck like that only.
The writer is Bangalore-based social entrepreneur.