It was an unwritten rule in journalism: you rarely went after other journalists or media companies. Criticize them if you must, went this rule, but do not cross the line and treat them like any other subject. After all, dogs do not eat dogs. After the exposes by Outlook and Open, we know that this rule has been consigned to history.
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My guess is that there were similar unstated rules in politics and the judiciary; a cursory glance at the headlines over the last few weeks tells us that these rules, too, have met the same fate. It is virtually open season. Not a day goes by without a fresh expose, leaving us enthralled, but bewildered as well.
Last week, an erudite acquaintance, who wants to share wisdom incognito, connected these dots and offered a fascinating perspective: “They have turned on each other. Journalists are attacking each other… It has never happened before. This is all good for the country.”
The logic is straightforward enough: If the current holds up, self-serving chummy clubs, at least of the kind that we have known, will be history. It is these cabals that provided sustenance for crony capitalism, where state power is misused to favour people close to those at the helm. For now, this seems to have run its course.
The good news is that this has happened within the confines of the democratic system and is not a glasnost forced upon us by some dictatorship and designed ostensibly to cleanse the system. Not only does this make it enduring, it ensures that the process of change is also the right one.
But the bad news is that this is but the beginning and similar promising starts in the past have come to nought. Do the three pillars of democracy—journalism, politics and judiciary—have it in them to go the full distance? Alternatively, all that has happened will just be a bad case of name calling, a momentary setback before the system goes back into equilibrium after a minor shake out. That would be disastrous.
The same acquaintance, an optimist, no doubt, also believes there is a very good reason as to why a section of India, the urban classes we do know definitely, looks with disgust at the exposes of crony capitalism. “We are viewing the actions of a (crony capitalism era from the) previous decade through the prism of new India (a trillion-dollar economy that has stoked the aspirations of everyone, not just the rich).”
Values have undergone a change as the country has progressively realized the benefits of economic reforms. The process, though slow after having been first initiated in the early 1980s, has incrementally demonstrated some of the benefits of market-based reforms. Think of the queues/wait lists for obtaining basic consumer utilities such as cooking gas, telephones and so on that we had to endure then; living is so much easier now. In some instances, the price of entry is so low—as in the case of cellphones—that they are affordable for most.
A sense of optimism has replaced the cynicism of the past. Since crony capitalism, by definition, benefits only a few, the majority are naturally resentful of it—seeing it as an impediment to their aspirations. The people have moved on, but institutions haven’t. This dissonance is what the acquaintance was alluding to. Going forward, the three pillars of democracy will have to be more accountable than ever before. If all works well, this may be the end of the chalta hai attitude or at least the brazenness of crony capitalism.
Take the two observations together and we have the ingredients of a perfect storm. Capital Calculus had on 22 November argued that we were at the tipping point on the vexing issue of graft. It is for the leadership of the three institutions to take up the challenge and turn adversity into an opportunity by purging the system.
Writing in The Indian Express on 16 December, Pratap Bhanu Mehta forcefully put the onus on the country’s political leadership. “The responses of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi to the extraordinary crisis generated by the 2G scam are exhibiting a brazen indifference to our predicament. Attacking the opposition’s double standards and lack of credibility is a fair tactic in an adversarial democracy. But it does not provide any reassurance in the face of the moral anarchy, institutional perfidy, economic complacency and political mismanagement of the current government. In their responses, they have not missed a trick. But they have missed the point.”
Significantly, even Singh’s Teflon-like image, built on a squeaky clean record as an administrator and later a politician, has not served as a good enough defence. The big question being asked of Singh is how someone of his stature, no matter what the circumstances, permitted such a drift for the past two years and only acted after being almost forced to do so. In other words, the public has become so exacting that, while in the past only an error of commission attracted an immediate admonishment, now an error of omission draws similar censure.
Clearly, the time for change is here.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
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