Originally published in The Pioneer. As we bid good bye to 2011 and embrace 2012 a look ahead to why restoration of “Trust” within our public discourse will have to be the dominant political theme, the defining trait in the quest to discover the next Vajpayee.
The most bizarre of controversies to plague India in recent times is playing out down south between the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. No it is not over the new rage on YouTube – “Why this Kolaveri di”. But you could as well say that of the mood down south over the Mullaperiyar Dam and of the political atmosphere across the country in general.
While facts have been a casualty in the political debate over the Mullaperiyar Dam, much anxiety and paranoia has been fuelled by rumors and speculation. The lack of trust between the people of the two states is so wide today that it has affected vehicular trade across their state borders while also leading to stray incidents of political violence. Many open letters and public statements by leaders on both sides and from Delhi notwithstanding, the trust deficit remains undiminished with perhaps fatigue over the issue being the only near term hope for it to fade away into the background.
The Mullaperiyar episode in many ways is symptomatic of the larger malaise that has afflicted both politics and much of governance in India over the past few years. The abject lack of Trust in the public space is the single most challenge to Political Parties both in Government and outside it if they nurture any hope of advancing their agenda.
It is this same lack of Trust that manifests itself routinely today in the name of “Civil Society” activism that has lead to a second guessing of the agencies of the State be it in the area of investigative law enforcement or in the process of Justice Delivery. Every incident is an encounter, every encounter is suspect, every agency is compromised and just about every aggrieved soul needs an “Independent” investigation.
The lack of trust is so pervasive within our public discourse that we have a glut of conspiracy theorists on just about any issue. The recent FDI in Retail debate was illuminating for the number of conspiracy theories it spawned from allegations of massive lobbying by Walmart to the Congres’ dire need for funds for the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections. The decision was simultaneously a conspiracy of foreign forces against Indian middlemen, a conspiracy of Indian farmers against the Indian consumer and lastly a conspiracy of Indian Retailers against Indian Retailers. It is no surprise that in this environment of trust deficiency, common sense has become the casualty. In its extreme avatar the death of common sense has manifested itself in Swadeshi theories that celebrate the sanctity of informal barter while exorcising the evil of Legal Contracts.
The long list of stalled legislation, rolled-back or suspended Executive Decisions and Projects stuck in a limbo is often blamed on a lack of consensus when in fact the real reason is the atmosphere distrust within which such consensus building is apparently attempted. Every contentious issue today has become a matter of perceived Rights and imagined Wrongs. The deep sense of entitlement with which every impacted group of a given decision have been encouraged to politick has created a culture where nothing on offer is ever enough, there is always something more to be asked and last but not the least someone is always out to get you.
It must be asked of the Sonia Gandhi lead Congress and its assorted eco-system of Left Lib NGO Activists on the degree to which their “Rights based Entitlements” agenda has actually contributed to this deep Trust deficit as they fostered a sense of victimhood in almost every electorally significant demographic segment. The deeply flawed Forest Rights Acts and its highly contentious process by which community claims are made on land has had the net effect of sowing deep distrust over major Industrial projects like POSCO and Vedanta in Orissa. The inflationary MGNREGS scheme now has the dubious distinction of sowing deep distrust between Local governments and state governments on the one hand and state governments and the central government on the other paving the way for anti-federal interventions by agencies of the State and Civil Society busybodies. The RTI activism cottage industry has not resulted in any significant change in the processes of Government but has instead ensured an air of permanent distrust prevails where all decisions are suspect and there is always a scam lurking in the background.
For every report there is a counter-report, for every claim there is a counter claim while leaks have become the routine norm. There is no longer a single version of the Truth. Nothing exemplifies this better than the manner in which the credibility of the CAG as an Institution has been diluted with the competing claims on the size of loss to the exchequer in the 2G scam. Truth has become the casualty in this climate of competitive politics and it has come to affect the judicial process. The many false claims that have come to light in the Amit Shah episode in the Supreme Court are a sad commentary on how aspersions have been cast on the Judiciary of a state to settle political scores.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta in comments to the Indian Express recently lamented, how the Law and Order process had been vitiated in almost every episode with a communal angle. The lack of trust between extreme activists on either end of the Communal spectrum is not new. But the manner in which the Delhi based media and Left leaning intellectuals have politicized the investigation process in so many cases has now lead us to a situation where no verdict at any level will be taken as the last word. This malaise has now extended to the judicial process straddling other parochial fault-lines as well from Kashmir to Punjab as we recently witnessed the ridiculous political grandstanding over commuting of death sentences awarded to convicted terrorists.
Trust is dangerously close to becoming extinct from our public space. We may regale ourselves over clever by half political games being played by our favored side little realizing that we are now collectively in a quicksand. It no longer matters who steps on whom, we are all set to sink.
Consensus needed for radical change cannot be negotiated in this environment of distrust. The tune “Why this Kolaveri di” may have united a nation by capturing the sentiment of the moment. We are yet to see leadership emerge that can overcome this murderous rage of distrust.
Come 2014, far more than the arithmetic of feel-good acceptability in coalition politics, the dire need will be for Leadership that can inspire Trust across the many political fault-lines that have fragmented this nation.