I have been desperately seeking your address to send these musings for your kind consideration and necessary perusal but nobody could say with certainty where you live. So, I chose the only alternative I could think of and that is to make an appeal to you so that you unmask yourself.
Of late, we have been hearing this refrain from various quarters that “the system has failed”, “the system has collapsed”, and that “the system” is to be blamed for the unprecedented pain and misery and loss of thousands of Indian lives. We have seen how the data about cases of infection are managed across states. We have also witnessed — helplessly — the wide gap between the numbers of deaths declared through the “system” and the bodies burning at the crematoriums. And then, we also have seen hundreds of bodies floating through different river streams — brazenly denied by the “system”. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which underlines the right to life, is gathering dust. So are scores of other issues relating to constitutional morality. The blatant arrogance of the most important people behind the fiction of the “system” during the Covid pandemic, particularly the second wave, shows that institutions of accountable and representative government have been turned into objects in a museum.
It is quite apparent that this narrative has emerged from the so-called “system” itself to absolve the top echelons of power of any guilt. To expect remorse from them would be to expect the moon.
Family members running from pillar to post for a bed in hospital; or running helter-skelter for an oxygen cylinder or life-saving drugs fail to get it. They helplessly watch their near and dear ones pass away. This has been going on for weeks now. They know who the real faces are behind this system but they are simply too ordinary and powerless to name and shame them. As Harold Laski said, “Civilisation means, above all, an unwillingness to inflict unnecessary pain… those of us who heedlessly accept the commands of authority cannot yet claim to be civilised”. Yet, the faces behind the system have diminished the civilisational ethos in India.
Our Constitution provides a great blueprint of how the system should work for the advantage of even the last person in the line. It has provided an egalitarian vision and pathways to achieve it. It also provides for remedies for the times that the system goes out of control, with reasonable checks and balances. My generation had grown up with the belief that this system is robust and can weather any crisis. In reality, a well-functioning system is one that can deliver public goods and promote a sense of safety, well-being and dignity among the people it is responsible for. A system turning on the very people it is supposed to work for can only be termed dysfunctional.
If we are being told that the “system” has failed, then it can only mean that this is an admission of a public secret. One that has been known for the last six-seven years — that the very soul/substance of the Constitution is being undermined or made a mockery of. We have seen extreme centralisation of power not only at the federal level but also within the executive. We have seen the blatant undermining of democratic processes. We have seen how independent institutions have either abdicated their duties or been silenced using the agencies of this same system. Individual liberty and freedom of speech are no longer guaranteed. The saddest commentary on the state of affairs in these difficult times is the criminalisation of relief work. In the middle of the ravaging second wave of the pandemic, when voices from the opposition or the civil society demand course correction, the faces behind the system issued a reprimand — don’t do politics!
The people who are the system have been careful to “forget” that politics is not just about contesting and winning elections but also about asking critical questions like who gets what, where, when and how. Selective amnesia is thus used to create a buffer of fiction and lies between the actual faces of the powers-that-be and the façade of the system.
Rhetorical discourse cannot hide reality, at least not for long. A grieving nation is being scolded and told to stay positive. If the system was broken and so beyond redemption, why was the promise of achhe din made? The floating bodies in the Ganges are carrying their own stories and that shall not sink out of sight despite the current in the stream.
The mainstream media houses shamefully defending the indefensible must remember that the annals of history shall be much more objective and ruthless in judging their role than the system to which they are plugged into for reasons known to everyone. They amplified the discourse of the failure of “the system”, giving much-needed leeway to those who have knowingly imperilled the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. Instead of identifying, highlighting specific governance failures, and seeking accountability, the mainstream media is following the command of the faces behind the system as they enjoin people to “talk positivity”, “spread positivity”, etc. The fourth estate has asphyxiated democracy at a time when the breathless nation is struggling hard to save its loved ones.
“The system” has definitely failed. But it is not an abstraction. It is not a disembodied voice from the skies. The system must not feel too assured of the blind faith of the people. It is constituted of persons who have been endowed with power and responsibilities. It is these individuals who have failed utterly to run the system, to govern the affairs of the people efficiently and with compassion.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 20, 2021 under the title ‘Dear System ji’. The writer is Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) from RJD
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