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Mitali Saran: Whistling in the dark

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It could be that the prime minister is very clever and we citizens are very stupid. That must be why I, for one, cannot understand what on god’s earth he’s thinking. I’m referring to the mysterious connection between two-thirds of India going dark for the better part of two days, and the power minister immediately getting promoted to home.

Five hundred trains stranded, 600 million people left without electricity and many millions eventually without water, a hundred thousand irresistible puns in the world press... It all had the sort of bad-but-hypnotic disaster movie quality we’ve come to expect of (of Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 fame). Sweltering power outages for hours on end, and the attendant loss of productivity, are not exactly the headline-hitting news in India that they would be in, say, the United States, but even chronically whipped Indians collectively agreed that Monday and Tuesday sucked epically. I’ve only written this at the last minute because I was so worried that turning on my computer would trip the northern grid again.

It’s a sorry fact that the things that get said by the government, and speculated about by the press, bear little or no relation to what actually happens. It’s kind of like a black economy of the truth: you can safely assume that at least half of the real cause and effect in any government-related event will remain off the official record. Truth being off the table, that leaves us with what television anchors like to call “the optics”, or “what it looks like to us simple-minded citizens”.

The optics, in this case, are that the prime minister rewarded the man who presided over the greatest power outage in world history (yay Guinness Book of World Records!), with a critical portfolio that deals, among other things, with internal security. And the only incontrovertible thing that can be said about that is that if Sushil Kumar Shinde the power minister went out with a whimper, at least he started his new job with a bang.

I’m sure Mr Shinde is a nice fella who tries his best, and I’m absolutely sure he didn’t personally turn off the lights or plant the bombs in Pune that inaugurated his new gig. But his incompetence isn’t unusual. It’s not as if anyone is assigned to a ministry on the basis of having any competence in said ministry; clearly they just require a warm body to hold files, else it wouldn’t be possible for a guy to be in charge of, say, textiles one day and space the next.

Besides, Mr Shinde is merely senior management — ultimately the buck stops with the guy at the top. There are various theories floating around to explain the prime minister’s cabinet moves, but the truth is either too boring, or too cravenly shady, or both, for him to let the country in on it. At any rate, regardless of why exactly, really, truly the northern, eastern, and northeastern grids collapsed, or why exactly, really, truly Mr Shinde was promoted to home instead of either being made to fix power or being relieved of it, or why exactly, really, truly power is now an “additional charge” ministry (get it, get it?) the bottom line is that it looks really, really bad, not to say dim.

Worse, it looks bad not only to us Indians, but to the whole world. And while successive governments have repeatedly made clear that the opinion of regular Indians means diddly-squat in the endless power games that pass for governance, the one thing that makes them blow a fuse is to be perceived as, how shall I put this, not-a-superpower. You would think that this week would have shocked them into some kind of action that showed them in a positive light — like maybe getting serious about actually beginning to fix the power sector — but all we’ve gotten is a kind of sulky silence.

A government in gridlock is a government disempowered. If the judges that it has only six trustworthy people, perhaps it's time for them to induct another bright spark or two. Maybe that would help reverse the dark tide of voter disenchantment.

In the immortal words from Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. The UPA seems to have lit upon a brilliant perversion of that logic: No power, no responsibility. Or perhaps they just don’t realise what it looks like. But the staggering scale of this week’s outage, and the staggering failure of the government to look like it gives a rat’s arse, suggests its total immunity to a little something called accountability. In which case it’s the government that’s in the dark.

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