Facebook Badge

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Rise of the Klepto State

Just Desserts for an Apathetic Citizenry

On Independence eve, as it is every day, Delhi was caught in massive traffic jams caused by incessant rain and weird security arrangements that may or may not catch terrorists but certainly hassle citizens. In most of the capital city, roads caved in, traffic signals failed and the police were nowhere to be seen because they were busy protecting VIPs.

Those who battled their way through the gridlock found the going smoother once they made it to Lutyens Delhi, the pleasant precinct of the Capital that the privilegentsia calls home. As you drive through, you can feast your eyes on blooming flowers in the traffic roundabouts and marvel at the smooth ride on perfectly surfaced roads.

This is a hallowed arrondisement meant for those whom we elect to govern us and the bureaucrats they appoint to hold us at bay. They have their own and India's only local municipal body that keeps the streets spic and span, grows flowers and organizes concerts and yoga workshops in the magnificent parks that dot the landscape.

Amazingly, though it is the most prized real estate in the country, most of the people who live there are tenants. Most homes there are two-and-half acre lots with retinues of government-employed serfs, who live on the property and serve whichever grandee occupies it. Cooks, bearers, gardeners, security staff are at the service of the occupant. They live on the estate in slum-like conditions and are attached to the property just like doors, windows, lawns and various mod cons, except in this case they are feudal rather than modern conveniences.

Denizens of Lutyens Delhi live in this sylvan world, claiming to represent the real India. Actually, they are completely out of touch. The story is told of a senior political leader who came to a meeting at an office near Connaught Place in the late 1990s. It was early evening and as he stood in the plaza of the office building, he said, “God, how this place has changed!” He was aghast at the traffic chaos and generally run-down appearance of the place and went on to volunteer that he last visited the area with Sanjay Gandhi, who died in June 1980. And his house was no more than a couple of miles from the place.

The Delhi problem, which is unique, has to do with the governance setup. Neither the municipal corporation (MCD) nor the police nor the land grant agency, the DDA, reports to the local government. As such, none of the agencies are accountable to anyone but bureaucrats. The only agency that is on its toes is the New Delhi Municipal Committee because it has to answer to the powerful residents of the Lutyens enclave.

It doesn’t matter if it is the Congress or the BJP or any one of the subaltern political formations that have sprung up in the past decade. They live in this favored enclave and are whisked here and there in cars with flashing lights and convoys to shoo other motorists off the road. For all the years I have been involved with the political process, I was always made to feel I was not in touch with the real India because I wore suits, spoke English and harbored subversive ideas about political accountability and performance. Quite contrarily, the Lutyens lot prefers ambition and sycophancy.

Strangely, the political leaders and their apparatchiks are there because they claim to represent the less fortunate people. In their scheme of things, they have the pulse of the people; those of us non Lutyens Delhi types, who pay exorbitant amounts on taxes and on rent or purchase of property, are dubbed “middle class” and shunned by the radical chic ideologues of the Lutyens quarter.

Meanwhile, outside the favored enclave in Delhi and in other lesser ones in the various state capitals, we fight to get ahead on the roads to get to schools, colleges, offices. We give way to netas and babus but will cussedly deny right of way to others like us, including ambulances.

Only recently, government grandees have grudgingly focused on improving infrastructure. These are half-hearted efforts upended by corruption. Just consider the shiny new expressway from the Delhi airport: it is poorly designed, confused and deadly. Two- and three-wheelers are forbidden but merrily cruise the highway, slowing down traffic. If you tell the policemen to control their access, they rudely ask you to mind your own business. All they want to ensure is VIPs have a smooth passage. Unpoliced, the expressway is a dangerous nightmare because of the unlettered habits of the capital's citizenry that cause backups, accidents and death.

As such, Delhi and the rest of India are flagrant scofflaws. Most do as they please in public: drive like lunatics, spit, urinate and even defecate in public spaces. The other half of India, they trade for dowry, burn, rape or at the very least molest them in public. Is this a mahaan or mayhem Bharat.

Twenty years ago, there was hope for a breakthrough when Rajiv Gandhi appeared on the scene. Some of us even chucked comfortable lives in the US to join the revolution. We were excited by the possibility of change we glimpsed in the young leader’s vision. Indeed, there were many changes made. He opened up the closed economy to foreign investment, liberated the moribund financial sector with credit cards, mortgages and consumer loans. The Doordarshan monopoly was destroyed; the civil aviation sector was set free; the old socialist rust bucket economy was replaced by a shiny and enticingly new consumer economy.

Even the current opening to the US had its roots in Rajiv’s vision of cultural and individual exchanges as the base for improving ties with the superpower. His believed in “letting our people earn a living;” he swore by the need for voluntary community action and for arousing civic consciousness; he saw through the vested interests of politicians and bureaucrats; he played fair and square in the crooked public life of India.

All that’s happening today goes back to the Rajiv Gandhi era in the 1980s when orthodoxies were challenged and new perspectives came into play.

Seventeen years after his death, we are faced with his legacy: a growing economy that empowers people. On the other hand, we must contend with a political system that he condemned as one that seeks to plunder the wealth of the state. Our infrastructure is a mess; our education policy is criminal; our public health and welfare services are terrible and our politics divisive. The economy, which was the bright spot, is beginning to falter thanks to bureaucratic mismanagement and bleeding-heart, wasteful welfare politics.

Meanwhile the citizenry remains unconcerned and continues to divert itself with the consumerist joys of the new economy, buying baubles and trinkets. No wonder surveys show Indians are among the happiest people in the world.

copyright rajiv desai 2008