What distinguishes the present government from its predecessors, according to external affairs minister S Jaishankar, is its problem-solving attitude.
He drew a comparison in this respect between India and China, two “civilizational” societies making a transition to a “modern state”. However, the difference between them, according to the minister, is that the Chinese “look at a problem and start thinking about how to solve” it.
India, on the other hand, tends to “kick it down the road” and has, therefore, “accumulated a legacy of problems”. Among them were the citizenship issue, Article 370 and Ayodhya and they are now being “solved”.
But are they? It is obvious that both on the citizenship issue and Article 370, the government has tied itself up in knots. The protests by students and others on the new citizenship rules suggest that the government will not be able to rest on the laurels of having had parliament approve of the legislation.
In a democracy, there is life outside the legislatures which cannot be ignored. As a result, despite all the government’s efforts to claim that its anti-national/pro-Pakistani opponents are misleading the nation, there is no sign of the protests dying down.
Where Article 370 is concerned, the fact that the government is unwilling to release the three former Jammu and Kashmir chief ministers even five months after the crackdown is evidence that it is unable to get a grip on the situation.
Evidently, it doesn’t know what will happen if they are let out and are allowed to address the media and public rallies, especially in view of their oratorical prowess.
Nor is the government willing to let non-BJP politicians visit the state, a refusal which was deemed strange even by a member of the East European team which went on a guided tour of the Union territory.
The charge that the East Europeans were mostly from the far-right parties appears to have persuaded the government to let more liberal-minded delegates from the US, Europe, Asia and Africa to visit Jammu and Kashmir. But, even then, some of the west European diplomats refused to go on a controlled junket.
Whatever the external affairs minister may say, therefore, neither the “problem” of the citizenship law nor Article 370 can be said to have been solved. And, as for the Chinese, have they really been able to deal effectively with the problems of the Tibetans and Uighur Muslims, not to mention the young people of Hong Kong?
Or, have they only been able to put a lid on simmering cauldrons, thereby kicking the possibility of explosions further down the road into the future? Clearly, what the Chinese are unable to do in a regimented society, can democratic India do without undermining the Constitution?
What the facile comparison drawn between the “successful” Chinese model and the “failed” Indian endeavours of the past emphasize is how the government’s hubris has affected the bureaucracy as well even if the latter is supposed to be above politics and look at problems in a dispassionate, professional manner.
As it is, the government is hostage to the vicious partisanship of the trolls and a section of the television anchors, who mindlessly echo its diatribes about its critics being seditious.
If the bureaucracy, which emerges from competitive examinations and interviews and training programmes, also falls prey to the malady of sycophancy, it will be a sad day for both the administration and the nation.
Up until now, only a few young IAS officers have resigned in protest against what they consider a shrinking space for dissent while fairly large groups of former bureaucrats have made the same point. But, by and large, the mandarins have chosen to follow the beaten, “yes, minister”, track.
Understandably, therefore, professionalism is perceived to be at a discount in nearly all spheres of public and academic life either because an independent mind is not the safest route to a peaceful retirement, and also because ideological loyalty has become a passport to success, especially in institutions of higher learning. In Indira Gandhi’s time, the commitment was to her brand of Leftism. Now, it is to Hindutva.
True, India has weathered such storms before, whether it is an assault on democracy or attempts to turn autonomous institutions into “caged parrots”. But it is not a pleasant experience for ordinary people and even the intelligentsia when such high winds blow.
While the former fear that they will be trampled underfoot by an insensitive, ideologically-driven officialdom, the intelligentsia bemoan the dilution of norms which mark out a civilized nation from a barbaric one.
So far, what has saved India are the elections which are not China’s strong point. Not only that, but the voters are also seen to be well-versed in realpolitik, capable of sifting the grain of political and ethical rectitude from the chaff of opportunism.
As some of the recent state assembly and district-level elections in Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Nagpur show, the beating of the nationalist drum and the branding of opponents as pro-Pakistani have not cut much ice.