The mother of all geopolitical worries is brewing for us in Afghanistan-Pakistan and these are the wages of decades of neglect on our part. The Pakistani military-jihadi complex is making a determined play for survival and power, manipulating a confused US and a resigned North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or Nato, into leaving Kabul to Pakistan’s mercies. A return to the bad days of the 1990s is a real possibility. The effects of another triumph of radical Islamic forces in Afghanistan, over another superpower, are unlikely to be confined to the north-western region of the Indian subcontinent. It will affect us in India—not only in Jammu and Kashmir but also in places such as New Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar market, Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and, as we saw this weekend, even Pune’s Koregaon Park.
As immense and immediate as this threat is, public discourse over the issue was hijacked—to the point of trivialization—into the Shiv Sena’s agitation against Shah Rukh Khan’s new film. Earlier this month, at a massive public rally in Lahore, a top leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba threatened to attack Pune, but no one was paying attention to him. The urban public, the media, the political class and much of Maharashtra’s police force were concerned about the safe screening of a new Hindi film until the terrorist attacks at German Bakery brought them all back to reality.
Chandan Mitra wrote in The Pioneer on 14 February that urban India had outgrown the philosophy espoused by the Sena. It is one thing for urban India to side with a Shah Rukh Khan against the anachronistic Shiv Sena. It is popular, fashionable and politically the correct thing to do. It is another thing to compel the government to do what is necessary but unfashionable, right but politically incorrect, in the national interest but politically risky. Yet, when it comes to compelling the government to govern —whether it is on municipal issues or on geopolitical ones—urban India uniformly falls short.
In a speech in October 2008 in Singapore, Arun Shourie questioned the prospect of change coming from within the system by pointing out that dogs with bones in their mouths would not bark.
John Kampfner, chief executive of the London-based Index on Censorship, wrote in The Times of India on 24 January: “Politics and business have worked together to use power as a means of enrichment. The comfortable classes could have been active in the public realm. Unlike in authoritarian states, they would not have been punished for causing trouble. They chose not to. The level of complicity is, therefore, surely higher.”
That leaves the middle class as the key catalyst for change. But it is focused on inflation in goods and services, in property prices and in the stock market. It needs to display sufficient grasp of the common thread between price rise, budget deficit and security threat. All three are marked by a failure of governance. Failure of governance is as much a failure of the government as it is a failure of the governed to be engaged.
Sadanand Dhume wrote in a Wall Street Journal article carried by this newspaper on 29 January that, over time, Indians would start demanding the same intellectual sophistication from their intellectuals that they do from their mobile phone service providers. Whether or not they demand that of the intellectuals, Indians need to demand integrity in governance and sophistication in public policy. After 26/11, there was a flurry of initiatives for active citizen engagement in governance. They died down as the stock market and property prices recovered in 2009.
Although United Progressive Alliance II is yet to get into a governance overdrive, it has opened up some avenues for us to demand better governance. They remain under-appreciated and under-utilized. One is the Right to Information legislation. Even the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India has been brought within its ambit. We need to keep working on chipping away the remaining areas restricted from or barred from public scrutiny. The Official Secrets Act remains to be modified/diluted.
The second relates to the funding of political parties. In his last budget speech, the finance minister announced 100% tax deduction for donation to political parties if they set up approved (by the Central Board of Direct Taxes) electoral trusts for the purpose. We do not know how many political parties have set up such pass-through trusts for funding. If not, we should be pressing them to do so. Without offering what the other side wants, no party to a contract can hope to gain anything. It applies as much to geopolitics as to national politics.
As this newspaper observed on the 60th birthday of the Republic, the challenge for us is to ensure that the nation did not go the way of some other middle-income nations with waning economic momentum and a political system captive to special interests. The clock started ticking quite some time ago.
V. Anantha Nageswaran is chief investment officer for an international wealth manager. These are his personal views. This column is co-authored by Nitin Pai, editor of Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org