Back to bedlam
The decision on FDI in retail has been so clumsy that there is a counterintuitive theory to suggest that it must be secretly brilliant. There is always a good case to be made for chaos as an alternative to coma.
The Delhi variation of the chaos theory is persuasive, if you happen to belong to the innermost ring of the many concentric circles of power that constitute the capital of India. Thus travels the logic: the decision was taken during a Parliament session to deliberately provoke Opposition parties into hostility. A shut Parliament is good for a government without answers on contentious problems from the statehood of Telangana to the state of Anna Hazare. Add low economic growth (the rate has slipped to 6.9 per cent) and high inflation, and you have enough to keep Opposition hungry in Parliament. FDI successfully deflected the primary focus of a session during which BJP, with able help from Subramanian Swamy on the outside and former telecom minister A Raja on the inside, hoped to whittle down Home Minister P Chidambaram. The Almighty has turned an attentive ear to Chidambaram’s prayers.
The corruption debate had only one side; a hapless Government under relentless attack. Foreign investment has at least two sides. Government can always claim that it will create jobs, help farmers and bring down prices – who’s to check? These are projections drawn in smoke against a 10-year horizon, by which time most of today’s leaders will be irrelevant. The helpful bit for the establishment is the existence of a mall class which hopes to turn India into America before the next general election, or at least within its lifetime. So, even if Rahul Gandhi takes a hammering in Uttar Pradesh next year, as his resident intellectual Jairam Ramesh seems to have whispered at the Cabinet meeting where the FDI decision was taken, the Youth Congress can always be sure of a warm welcome at any mall pub.
Pity, you can never be equally certain about what will come into the House with the storm you induce. There was never any danger to survival, since this Cabinet decision did not need confirmation by a vote in Parliament. This was a ruckus problem, not a mortality matter. The Congress was confident of being able to manage an aggregated Opposition. It was taken aback by a disaggregated Government. The leader of the House, Pranab Mukherjee, expected turbulence from Bengal, for he is familiar with Mamata Banerjee’s style.
But Dr Manmohan Singh and his finance minister were thrown aback by the DMK’s sudden discovery of spine. Sometimes injury can be good for your political health, and DMK has decided that it is not going to take its wounds lying down. Its strategy for Sonia Gandhi is borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi: it has begun a non-cooperation movement. It does not, as yet, demand independence from UPA, but it wants a sort of Dominion status. It will make life as difficult as it can without seeking separation. The hurt at Kanimozhi’s long imprisonment is apparent; in DMK eyes this was betrayal. Some insiders are livid; they are hinting that 2G money was shared in equitable proportions but DMK was left alone to twist in the wind.
If the Prime Minister was surprised by his allies, he must have been startled by the revolt over FDI within the Congress triggered by the leftish Defence Minister A K Antony. This was more than local political manoeuvring for while Antony fell silent, Ramesh Chennithala from Kerala and Sanjay Singh from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh decided that this would be a useful banner to unfold.
Denied the foreground, Anna Hazare flickered in and out of the screen from the background. Perhaps it is time to check out a seeming paradox.
The Anna Hazare movement is over, but it is not dead. It is over because it has completed its historic work. It is alive because it has successfully convinced Indians that corruption is the enemy they must destroy in order that the nation might survive. Some smug ministers imagine that Hazare’s demand for radical change was maverick theatre, that the last scene has been played out and its impact can be erased by procrastination given the proverbial limitations of public memory. Memory might be fickle, but anger is not. Corruption has touched the national gut because it has corroded the body. Corruption is pervasive and persistent. Corruption is not sectarian. Retail FDI may enrage 10 per cent and enthuse a different 10 per cent, but bribery is the loathsome price 80 per cent pay to the 20 per cent with power.
In the immediate future, Anna Hazare might overplay his hand. He might even invite a few jeers. But the next general election will be a burial ground for anyone who thinks Anna Hazare’s movement has lost its life.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.