What's wrong with Delhi?
MAOISTS kill 40 more people, including security officials, at the same place, Dantewada, in Chattisgarh where some Gandhians had marched for peace earlier in the week. Essential supplies to the northeastern state of Manipur continue to be blocked by the Nagas. Food prices show a 20 percent increase in six months. Teachers assault a vice-chancellor. Two passengers are killed in a melee that the railway officials caused when changing platforms of two trains at the nick of their departure. Police detain a bearded cleric for one day on the complaint of a lady passenger who suspected him to be a terrorist.
All these things happening one after another in a couple of days give an impression that the Manmohan Singh government, completing its sixth year of rule this month, is unable to fix the country's problems. No doubt, some of them are trivial but they underline the fact that there is no accountability. More than that they emphasise the listlessness that has crept into governance. It is not so much the systematic failure as is the government's ineptness to deal with even minor hiccups.
The obvious reason is that the prime minister who is called a 'guru' by President Barack Obama on economic matters is out of depth when he faces mundane affairs. His focus on the nine percent growth has pushed everything else to the background.
Yet his main failure seems to be his inability to meet the biggest challenge: corruption. It has corroded society, pervading into every field. Understandably, the prime minister has to take into account political compulsions. He has to overlook the malpractices or sheer dishonesty of coalition partners to stay in power. Congress has 206 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha. And this was clear from the compromises made during the cut motion against the government in the last session of parliament. But did the Congress party have to forego prosecution in foolproof cases? UP Chief Minister Mayawati, who has 21 members in the Lok Sabha, has been let off the hook in the disproportionate assets case. Telecommunications Minister A. Raja of the DMK, which commands 18 seats in the Lok Sabha, has cost the exchequer Rs. 4,000 crores in mobile bands scandal.
I am not arguing the moral side of what the ruling Congress has been doing. I am drawing the attention of the prime minister to the effect it is having in all fields, whether public or private. In fact, corruption is beginning to be accepted as a normal way of life in India. I do not recall him making any statement in the recent past against corruption. Nor has he made any visible effort to clean up the government which has only a few honest officials left.
Had Dr. Manmohan Singh pursued the proposal to appoint a Lok Pal (Ombudsman) to look into corruption at high places, he would have been seen as at least creating an institution, independent of the pressure that the ruling party in a minority has to reckon with. The Lok Pal, the appointment of whom was the election plank of the Congress, would have taken notice of proven evidence collected by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). It is a pity that the government still has the CBI as one of its departments. This does not evoke confidence in what the CBI does. Making it directly responsible to parliament may give it the credibility it needs.
How come the government is all there in taking action against the Maoists (also called Naxalites)? The prime minister has rightly pinpointed that they are the greatest danger to the country. Their violent defiance and the spree of killings in which they indulge are adequate proof of their challenge to the state. But this fight should not restrict the democratic space which the Indian constitution ensures.
The Union Home Ministry has said in a statement: "It has come to the notice of the government that some Maoist leaders have been directly contacting certain NGOs and intellectuals to propagate their ideology and persuade them to take steps which would provide support to the CPI (Maoist) ideology." Government officials have warned civil society members that the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1967, which calls for imprisonment of up to 10 years, could be used to punish individuals in contact with the Maoists.
The Home Ministry's statement threatens to make political discussion difficult. People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has characterised the statement as "a crude and unsuccessful attempt to curb the fundamental right of speech." The government should not equate criticism with the Maoists' criminal acts. In fact, Congress president Sonia Gandhi herself has in a way criticised the government for lack of development in Maoist-infected areas. Yet mixing the Maoists' violence with economic progress is oversimplifying the problem. That they do not believe in the ballot box is the real reason which crosses them out. They have to abjure violence which is the main ingredient of their ideology.
In matters which challenge the country's integrity, the government should build up consensus. All political parties can come together to influence public opinion, including the civil society, against the Maoists propaganda. They claim to speak for the rights of the marginalised, including landless peasants, tribal groups, and dalits. But the Maoists have been responsible for serious abuses, including the destruction of schools and hospitals, extortion, torture, and killings.
In the fight against the Maoists, it is important to have the states' active cooperation. A country of India's size is best governed locally, not nationally. The states have to be at the centre of the stage although they are dependent on the centre for weapons and training their ill-equipped forces. But Home Minister P. Chidambaram gives the impression as if he is the only person standing between chaos and order in the country. Some states may have a different way in dealing with the Maoists and they should be appreciated.
As regards the blockade, Manipur needs New Delhi's support because it has suffered from the excesses which the security forces have committed there. The government has promised to lift the Armed Forces Act from Manipur but has not done it so far. The Nagas' strength is their well-equipped underground force, an equal irritant to the centre.
Democracy survived in India even when the Congress government suspended fundamental rights some 32 years ago. The Maoists or their ilk cannot extinguish the nation's faith in the ballot box. What is needed is the right approach and the political will.
Kuldip Nayar is an eminent Indian columnist.