• APRIL 25, 1998

The role of government

There is an ideal world. I know it exists because I can imagine it. And if it can be imagined, it can be done. Governments are elected because they are supposed to translate our imagination into actual fact. Political parties wish to be elected as governments on platforms spelt out in their charters or manifestos that appeal to different kinds of people. Your imagination may be different from mine, your goals may be different, and accordingly you will elect a political party to take you to the destination you imagined. Ultimately it is the collective thoughts of the people that give a country its government. That is why they say, people get the government they deserve.

And that is why, for the past thirty years (since the first split of the Congress party) India has been meandering is way to chaos and nowhereness. The fragmented nature of the people - each with its own pet theories and preferences - nurtured by overzealous politicians have resulted in factional politics and disjointed policies. When Madam Gandhi nationalised banks and insurance companies and coined the slogan of garibi hatao, she represented that part of the political spectrum that used the lowest common denominator in Indian politics to get votes. Madam's PR branded the rich as crooks, and won the sympathy and votes of the poor who happened to be the largest voting block in the country. Madam Gandhi played upon the imaginations of the poor whose ideal world was a fair world where every person got roti, kapda, aur makaan. Of course, history has shown that all she wanted was the khandani right to rule India and left the crumbs for the masses (and some bigger chunks for Rae Bareilly).

The Janata Party experiment of 1977 played upon the imagination of people deprived of the basic freedom of speech. The voters yearned for the ideal state of free expression and equality before the law. Unfortunately, the Janata experiment too proved to be nothing more than a means to an end. Once all the politicians got us to vote for them, they fought for power and governance took a back seat. The popular slogan was: kick the multinationals out and let's make our own cola drink. Well, within two years the voters kicked the Janata Party out and brought in Madam Gandhi again: the bahu of India who was wronged by the people. Here again, the imagination of the people was played upon. A case was made for an ideal world where the bad and the ugly, after their years in exile, become the good and deliver us from evil. Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash soon after that and, later, Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister. The Young Turk's PR machine harped on change. The voters were asked to think about the ideal world and we all thought of a country and a Congress rid of corruption and cronyism. Rajiv Gandhi began well but then he, too, seemingly succumbed to a caucus of yes-men and crooks. The real world drifted away from our ideal world. And since his assassination in 1991, the people of India are confused and have broken up into fragments of vote banks. The ideal world is no longer something which is a national wish list but, rather, a list of "I wants" that further narrow, selfish interests. That is why you have regional parties that are flourishing and national organisations that are floundering.

The role of government is not to build national aspirations or character. No, it is to build upon the aspirations and ideal worlds that we the people have and accordingly acted upon in our voting patterns. And what character have we, the people, shown in our voting pattern? Please do not expect this government or the May budget (if they last long enough to present it) to do anything miraculous for the country. (Economic miracles happen once every 6 years in India: the budgets of 1985, 1991, and 1997.) This government will do something for each of its funding pockets. Something for the industrialists who want protection from foreign competition, something for the foreigners who want signs of reform bashing on regardless, and something for the poor to show that this government cares. The fault of this irreconcilable confusion lies not with the government: the blame is ours for we have voted small minds to handle big tasks. True, we were cheated by the Gandhis and the Janata Party in the past and maybe we had the right to give up dreaming our ideal worlds. Anger, confusion, and disgust clouds the mind. Well, if you want to get a government that has a chance to do something start dreaming your ideal world again: your chance to vote may come sooner than you think.

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