In his book The Death of Common Sense, Philip Howard narrates an incident when nuns from Mother Teresa’s charity were seeking abandoned buildings owned by New York City. Under the arrangement between Mother Teresa and mayor Ed Koch, the city would hand over the building for a dollar and the charity would refurbish it for the homeless. Providence seemed to smile on the nuns when they found a fire-gutted building that suited their purpose perfectly—until, of course, bureaucracy and law kicked in. After two years of presenting their case to various committees for the transfer of property, the nuns were finally told that as per the rules, they could not commission the building without a lift—notwithstanding the fact that homeless people didn’t really care about a lift. Mother Teresa gave up. Though Howard focuses on how the letter of the rule is stifling its intent, the story is familiar in the current Indian context where every system seems to be breaking down under overload, scrutiny and hindsight ascribing sinister motive to almost every decision.
Whether or not we are indeed going through traumatic times and if we are, then the extent of that trauma, is not really the issue. The point is, it is we—the citizens—who make up the establishments and institutions of the country, and, therefore, it is we who have to fix the situation. And that can’t happen in an environment of vitriolic rhetoric, accusations and distrust. Bad situations cannot be improved by introducing more rules. Instead, existing rules need to be implemented with visionary responsibility. But these days teachers don’t comfort children fearing accusations of inappropriate physical contact. Doctors don’t treat accident victims fearing embroilment in legalities. Bureaucrats hesitate to take decisive steps fearing accusations of vested interests. Citizens don’t trust the police, the media or public institutions and bystanders choose to stand by, instead of pitching in.
One of the most effective weapons of war is the use of psychological operations where the attack is on the will of the nation. Terrorism is a psychological operation that aims to demolish the resolve of a society. But it looks like terrorists needn’t bother as we are doing a pretty good job of it ourselves.
India faces multifaceted problems and there is no simple, short-term answer that will satisfy all stakeholders. As a matter of fact, every long-term, sustainable solution comes with short- to medium-term trauma. The answer, however, lies in recognizing some terms of reference within which such solutions will have to be developed.
First of these is a recognition that we must choose our battles carefully. India faces daunting challenges ranging from poverty, unemployment, shortages of water, living space, environmental degradation, illiteracy, corruption and administrative inefficiencies to external and internal security. Crusaders against each problem believe that theirs must get priority, but there has to be some start point and sufficient focus and elbow room given on that to deliver meaningful results.
Most cocktail discussions or policy debates follow a familiar train of conversation. Say corruption is the start point, but that is invariably linked to a multitude of other issues such as election reforms, decision paralysis, illiteracy, vote bank politics, etc. So the net takeaway seems to be that nothing can be resolved until somehow—magically—everything is. But that is neither going to happen and nor is it necessary.
Sometimes to solve problems of the present, we need to look at our past. In his recent book Accidental India, Shankkar Aiyar chronicles several catastrophes from whose brink India managed to reassert itself. From a nation that had to physically pledge its gold to one that has several billion dollars in foreign reserves. From a nation that had to live “ship to mouth” to one that is largely self-sufficient for food, from a nation that had to wait in line for years for a phone connection to one that has a mobile in every pocket. We have been there, and we can do it again.
However to achieve this, we must acknowledge the gravity of situation we are in now and the need to do something about it. But intellectual India seems to be adrift between a sense of hubris and abject despondency. Cynicism and scepticism are self-propagating and self-fulfilling and have the potential to slide an entire populace into depression. The favourite national pastime these days seems to be bemoaning our establishments across the board and herein lies the irony.
Political commentators, leaders, parents and other role models who take great care to shelter their children from bad influences like drugs, alcohol, violence or even abusive language are mindlessly demolishing the edifice of their future. Instead of working towards giving them “hope of success”, they are drumming “fear of failure” into them. How then do we expect the “NextGen” to take up the reins of our current problems if our only contribution is to stand by in despairing judgement of the overall situation? Every generation has the onus of improving the environment for their inheritors and it is high time that ours stopped the lamenting and started the fixing.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.