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Not a Happy Birthday

So India that is Bharat,in its current incarnation as a modern nation state,turns 64 tomorrow.

Written by Tavleen Singh |
August 14, 2011 12:21:33 am

So India that is Bharat,in its current incarnation as a modern nation state,turns 64 tomorrow. An unhappy age for most human beings on account of declining faculties and an unhappy time for our secular,democratic republic. The gloomiest Independence Day I can remember is August 15,1975. The Emergency had just been declared,political tensions and press censorship were at their height and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family had just been massacred in Dhaka. The crowd that gathered to hear Mrs Gandhi speak at the Red Fort was small and sullen and barely responded when she asked them to yell Jai Hind after her. She looked frightened and nervous. It was a historical moment so gloomy that it left a lasting imprint on my mind.

India’s 64th birthday is not infused with quite so much melodrama but there is no point in pretending that it is a happy event. Sonia Gandhi is in a foreign hospital being treated for a mysterious illness. So,if we were suffering from leadership by stealth before she left,the situation has now got worse. The Prime Minister’s position has been diminished further because all sorts of meanings are being read into her decision to hand over charge of the Congress Party to her son and a committee of three. If things are bad in government,they are worse in the ranks of the Opposition. All that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s senior leaders seem able to do these days is stall Parliament on a daily basis thereby proving that Anna Hazare and his team are right when they usurp the right to make laws.

The truth is we do not need a Lokpal. He will be able to do no more than add another layer of bureaucracy to the huge infrastructure of underemployed officials we already have. No Lokpal can end corruption as long as we do not make the reforms that would reduce the powers of politicians and bureaucrats. But,government is happy to go along with the Lokpal plan because it diverts attention from its failures of governance. These are so grave that normally reticent businessmen are discussing them openly on television. They point out that nothing is happening on the economic reforms front and that by stopping major projects in which huge investments have been made,the wrong signals have gone out to prospective investors. The same criticism has been levied by the Prime Minister’s economic advisory committee.

From a personal viewpoint,I would like to add that the neglect of reforms in the social sector are now beyond shameful. It is not just the ‘aam aadmi’ who needs better schools and hospitals,it is our vast,urban middle class that needs them as desperately. In a city like Mumbai,which boasts of better healthcare than most,those who cannot afford private hospitals wait months for urgent surgery. As for getting children into good schools and colleges,it is such a difficult task that it leads to despair and nervous breakdowns. Instead of helping create better facilities,the government continues to operate a licence raj.

So on India’s 64th birthday,we have the largest population of young people in the world but since we are unable to give them basic healthcare,education or skills training,they could become a burden instead of being our greatest asset. I could go on and on but I am sure that by now,I have infected your morning with sufficient gloom,so let me end on a hopeful note.

Please do not think that our problems are insurmountable. Far from it. But,to surmount them,we need political will and a leader in Delhi who has both power and accountability. At the moment,nobody is sure either who is at the helm of the Government of India or who to hold accountable for the absence of decisions.

If it is the Prime Minister who is still in charge,then we need to see and hear him more often and not just on Independence Day. He is the man credited with giving us the economic reforms that so transformed India but please remember that these reforms were brought in by stealth. What he now appears to be doing is giving us leadership by stealth and this is quite simply not possible. The reason why political leaders are called leaders is because they are elected to lead countries. They do not have the right once they accept public office to hide in back rooms and shy away from the responsibilities of public discourse. When this happens,you get Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev,both of whom have given more television interviews than the Prime Minister,Sonia Gandhi or Rahul. They have stepped into a leadership vacuum that could be our most serious problem as India reaches an unhappy 64.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh

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