The NSG waiver does not exempt our leaders from the obligations of moral capital, administrative competence and political honesty.
Three days before the country gave in to the mood of celebration over the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver, the Union Cabinet found itself witnessing a spat between two senior Ministers — A.R. Antulay and Shivraj Patil — over how best to “deal” with the anti-Christian violence in Orissa. It was a pointless squabble between two old and exhausted men, one wanting to relive the glorious days of Indira Gandhi and the other unable to connect to a new and changing India. It was typical of the working style of a political class that squanders its limited energies and meagre imagination on a thousand disputes. The big question that stares us all in the face is: can we forge a political culture befitting our new nuclear status, a culture that would enable us to pursue “global power” ambitions? Or, inversely, can small politicians with even smaller agendas advance notions of national greatness?
The question presents itself because our political leaders continue to suffer from enormous self-doubt — or, at least, suspect others of being weak, vulnerable, and ill-equipped to identify and promote national interests. From the extreme left to the extreme right, every leader of a big or a small party believes that he or she alone has the will, the clarity of vision and an uncontaminated integrity to defend the “national interests.” This has spawned a political culture of suspicion and accusation. In this culture, the initiative lies with the ugly and the morbidly ambitious. This culture also drives out the moderate, constructive and decent from centre stage. This extreme, unverifiable pretense of being “more nationalist, more honourable, more honest than thou” has become the bottom line of the democratic exchange.
Admittedly, the pursuit of power, ideas and ideology is the very core of the democratic process. Yet it is obvious that “politics,” as it is known, accepted and practised in the country today, is incongruent with the requirements and responsibilities of a nuclear nation-state. Institutionalised political contests and disputes ought to produce an arrangement that will enable the harnessing of collective energies and resources towards supreme national interests: security and welfare of the citizens — in the face of challenges and opposition from within and without the country.
The political crowd reorganised itself — or, rather was forced to reconcile itself to its changed circumstances — in the early 1990s when a paradigm shift away from the failed politics became inevitable. The politics and politicians of the 1970s and 1980s were seen as having run the economy aground; things needed to be re-arranged — and were. New economic forces and players set in motion a gradual process of de-legitimisation of the politician and his labours; sections of the media and the judiciary enlisted cheerfully in this anti-politician project. In the event, using the façade of democratic choices and electoral contests, the new managers of the new economy knocked the politician off the pedestal. And, when their turn came to serve the new comprador, even the self-styled nay-sayers and “swadeshis” of yesteryear became enthusiastic drum-beaters of “economic reforms” and globalisation.
And as the “new economy” expanded and prospered, the new maharajas acquired the self-assurance, even a sense of entitlement, to manipulate the political processes and factionalism to their corporate advantage. The paralysis at Singur is a prime example of the new corporate arrogance and manipulation. Smaller States, with rich mineral wealth and resources, are now firmly in the grip of corporate manipulators. The mal-functionality has, unfortunately, become a wider manifestation. “Jharkhand” has become the signature tune of the national political exchange.
For its own long-term interest and national prosperity, corporate India has to look beyond selfishness and immediate greed. Divisive politicians may be malleable instruments in the hands of big business houses in pursuit of mega-profits but it is time for the corporate crowd, the judiciary and the media barons to realise that the political chaos is beginning to prevent India from graduating to national greatness. Need for qualitative shift
Another qualitative shift is inevitable for India to take the next logical step forward. The country cannot remain hostage to the intellectual limitations and personal fancies and ambitions of its political leaders. Its politics must be so reworked and realigned as to liberate the collective will and potential of a growing economy and resurgent society.
The grand challenge before us is to re-forge the national purpose. Collectively, we need to use the noise and friction of a democracy to produce a notion of national purpose and greatness, built around a core of goals and vision. Only then can there be some hope of producing a political culture that would discount partisan choices and agendas of limited leaders.
In particular, our leaders need to disabuse themselves of a charmingly righteous view that the rest of the world owes us a free pass to greatness, while we are at liberty to squander away our institutional capacities in fighting dated and redundant ideological wars. Whether we like it or not, we live in a world that recognises only the hard currency of military power, economic prosperity and political stability. It is in this exacting world that we have to work out our new role as a nuclear-state power. Twofold
The choice is twofold. We can become so strong, cohesive and purposive that when we choose to violate or flout or redefine a “rule,” the rest of the world will not be able to exact a heavy cost from us; or, if the cost is to be paid, it is so minuscule that it can easily be absorbed in a confident and cost-effective way.
The second choice is to remain hostage to our self-created notions of vulnerabilities, nurse our fears about others and exploit politically at home the resentments towards the outside world. This choice is attractive to every small stakeholder because it gives him the illusion of having a veto disproportionate to the equity; it makes no demands on the leaders to change their narrow ways and narrower interests; this matrix of divisiveness also provides the perfect setting for the outsider to manipulate our politics and policy processes to his advantage.
It may, for example, be a matter of temporary satisfaction to a section of our political establishment to use China as a whipping boy but our larger political design should be so robust that neither China nor the United States nor Russia can manipulate the motives and preferences of our petty politicians. The ongoing debate on the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal has revealed our internal vulnerabilities. It is also a warning that the outsider should never be allowed to take advantage of an internal discord.
Just as the world will not automatically start treating India differently only because we have managed to break out of the nuclear apartheid regime, our difficulties of governance and order will not disappear overnight on account of last week’s Vienna vote. Nor does the NSG waiver exempt our leaders from the obligations of moral capital, administrative competence and political honesty.
How realistic is it, then, to hope for a way out of the stalemated, unreformed party system that remains hostage to the unfulfilled ambitions of a handful of “national” leaders? Somehow, we have also managed to inflict on ourselves a timetable of continuous electoral contests — national, Assembly, by-elections, presidential — that puts a premium on timidity and compromise. Even during the last 10 years of two successive “stable” governments, the pre-occupation with the next electoral contest has distracted from the task of hard decisions and of a political culture that will help the country elevate itself to a higher level of nobility of national will.
Perhaps it is up to the younger generation of voters and citizens to force the old and tired political class out of business. The young, self-assured and nationalistic voter presumably is able to think in terms larger than his caste or region, as the young citizen is tired of a dysfunctional governing culture. If the older generation of political leaders is unwilling to summon up the imagination and energy commensurate with India’s new global status, maybe the young will happily help the exhausted and selfish leaders find their way out into exile