Squaring all sides

The game of democracy

Governments never seem to understand a basic fact of the democratic dialectic: no opposition wants its demands met. It prefers a government to be stubborn, so that it can string out the accusation long enough for it to sink so deep into the public consciousness that it cannot be extricated by delayed redressal. There is not much political value to an accusation unless it becomes an intrinsic part of campaign rhetoric. In theory, the opposition turns a day in parliament into a verbal festival over the Commonwealth Games because it wants accountability for corruption. In practice, opposition parties need to maximise the advantage by being able to go to town — and village — with the message that the government has not only stolen the people’s money, but is so thick-skinned that it will do nothing about the thieves. The obduracy of authority is the ultimate gift to opposition.

In real terms, it hardly matters whether Suresh Kalmadi goes now or after the Games. His role as the sports czar of India is effectively over. It is only a question of whether he gets a nice gift at the farewell party — which, of course would be the closing ceremony of the Games — or he is sent towards the sunset in lonely isolation. As far as the people are concerned the difference between grace and disgrace has evaporated. It could hardly be otherwise given the scale and sheer audacity of the corruption. It is possible that the bunch in charge of this lucrative extravaganza thought they had squared all sides. There were junkets aplenty, across the political divide. The BJP’s Vijay Goel went to Beijing for ‘technical studies’ as did the Congress’ Jagdish Tytler: neither had anything to with CWG but must be worthy of technical doctorates by now. Perhaps they were being given early training for the Asian Games. Delhi’s Congress legislators Haroon Yusuf  and A S Lovely went to Melbourne to find how they run city transport, which of course is why Delhi’s traffic has already become better than Australia’s. Naturally they travelled first class. This is nothing but big-budget back-scratching between pals, an insurance policy against exposure: if everyone is guilty then no one is guilty. The officials have piled up enough flying miles to look after family holidays for a couple of years. They might all have got away if they had not all been so confident about the spread of the swill. But there are always a few who refuse to be co-opted. They keep our democracy democratic.

Mobile target for Jaya

Time turns corruption into a milch cow. If A Raja had been dropped from the Cabinet after the telecom storm burst, the collateral electoral damage would be limited. Now that he is being retained, he will become the perfect mobile target for Jayalalitha during next year’s Assembly election: ‘mobile’ is the perfect metaphor, of course, since Raja will be wandering around the state. A good cartoonist could do wonders with Raja posters, if Jayalalitha has one — and has the will to leaven her anger with a bit of wit.

Governments do understand a second fact of our political debate: the issues that agitate parliament and media are seasonal. Their expectation is that they will seem less important to the voter once the initial froth has subsided. If the big tent does finally manage to produce a circus, the memory of the gravy train that brought it will dissipate in the merriment. Who will bother to hold anyone accountable after the Games are over? It is not in the government’s vested interest to do so. It is not within the opposition’s capability to do so.

The tendency to elide through crises with token gestures can become a self-defeating habit. This was the initial approach to the building anger in Kashmir, and now the people do not take even a well-meaning gesture seriously. Omar Abdullah was literally driven away, and had to be bundled out to his waiting helicopter by a frantic security posse when he visited a hospital. He cannot travel a few kilometres through his capital in a car; he needs a helicopter. He reached the flood-distressed region of Leh with far more alacrity than he had shown in the city from which he rules, because, for the moment at least, he has become chief minister of Jammu and Leh rather than the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Perhaps he, and Delhi, believe that Ramzan, the month of fasting that begins this week, will bring calm. It could. Surface calm however is not peace. There are no short cuts in governance.

Does government need to worry about Opposition fulminations if there is no election visible? That is the only accountable moment that the ruling system takes seriously. Since we do not have the law of recall, governments tend to dismiss street anger as an emotion that can be assuaged nearer an election. Lack of popular support, however, saps the energy of authority.

A weak government weakens the nation.

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