What we have been going through, and are most likely to suffer without relief for some time to come, is the scary and total breakdown of governance. Governments at the Centre and in the states have been exposed as incompetent and helpless coping with the Covid crisis. They appear paralysed and tongue-tied. Even the blame game has been paused for the moment. It’s no point sighing that the system has failed not the larger-than-life Individuals who have been projected as saviours. They are the system.
Institutions aren’t abstractions, they are inseparable from the individuals that head them and are expected to make them work. From the Parliament and the Courts to the Election Commission comprise the system. It’s time that we came out of denial and started holding erring individuals representing institutions accountable for their failure acts of commission and commission.
We know what the response of the system is going to be. ‘This is no time to quibble’. ‘The country must stand together and battle the common enemy’. ‘Our survival as a sovereign nation is at stake etc’. But how can footsoldiers conscripts or volunteers rally to the hollow battle cries of a repeatedly faltering commander who is bewildering followers lapsing into sudden silence?
More and more people are beginning to ask uncomfortable questions. How did we end up in this sorry mess? Was it the delusions of grandeur, a desire to revive some golden era in a mythical past that trapped our leaders in a mindset of constant denial of unpleasant, harsh reality of the present? Such has been the obsession of our rulers with reclaiming the ‘glorious’ relics and trying to shape the future in the same cast that challenges of present were overlooked.
While magnificent projects were unveiled to create edifices ‘divya’ and ‘bhavya’, to house divinities or to transform the Central Vista, who had the time or inclination to spare any thoughts about healthcare, education and employment? Anyone who dared to raise the slightest doubt was branded a traitor, and serious charges of sedition and worse were levelled. Freedom of Speech became a dangerous life-threatening luxury. Many institutions wilted under pressure. Lines defining Separation of Powers between the executive, judiciary and legislature were systematically erased by the system. The citizens were left defenceless against the whims of increasingly authoritarian rulers and their henchmen.
What has contributed to the breakdown of rule of law is the entry into the public sphere of vigilantes protégés enjoying protection of powerful politicians. They have more than once taken it upon themselves to punish whoever they feel has broken the code laid down by them. Gruesome atrocities have been committed in the name of God. It can’t be overlooked that it is the responsibility of the party in power enjoying an unassailable majority to rein the ruffians in.
It has failed to do so perhaps keeping in mind the utility of such muscular militants at the time of electoral battles. Elections, even in time of plague and pestilence, are the topmost priority. They can’t be deferred or abridged. This is the time when people exercise the power to elect their representatives. Sessions of the Parliament and Assemblies can be drastically curtailed, conventions and practices like standing/select committees can be suspended, bills can be passed by voice vote even when a division is pressed. The list is depressingly long. The judiciary has chosen more often than not to err much too leniently on the side of the executive leaving the helpless citizen stunned. Media has cowered and crawled shamelessly with rarest of rare exceptions.
The cumulative result of all this has been that those in positions of power are absolutely unrestrained. There are no checks and balances in operations. The incredible ignorance and arrogance of our rulers is spreading the virus of intolerance faster than Covid. How can under these crippling conditions the country unite and fight the pandemic? For the external affairs minister, it’s the one-sided anti-India narrative in international media that must be controlled urgently. He has issued instructions to diplomats posted abroad to gird up for this task. Can the waves of the tide be controlled by strong diplomatic protests? Another case of delusions and denial.
Not very long ago it was the same worthy brusquely dismissing other countries’ views of India. ‘We don’t care what others think’ was the tone. Mirror on the wall can’t always be the only reliable guide to the fast-fading beauty of those dwelling in echo chambers. It’s not just a matter of beauty. Brains too are useful in times of need. A remarkably anti-science mindset deeply burdened with superstitions and ritual has burdened the government more. Pompously proclaiming our world-class capabilities prematurely hasn’t helped either. The coronavirus death toll continues to mount. Who said that the Dead Tell No Tales? We must heed the Wails and NOW.
Former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University