A week, said Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister of the Beatles era, “is a long time in politics”. For India in 2010, the year’s last week has the potential to become the long week of events, if a series of quick-paced actions are taken by an assortment of players.
An air of despondency, of shoulder-shrugging conversations has marked social interactions over year-end parties in the nation’s Capital. Travelling to Hyderabad for an interaction with a mixed group of students, executives, social activists and academics, I was struck by the shared angst of a resentful middle class that is becoming impatient with the slowness of governmental response to palpable misdemeanours.
Middle class India is gripped by a desire for renewal. The news of the likelihood of 9 per cent growth no longer excites a class that worries more about fairness and fair play. The reportage on the unprecedented visit to India of all the heads of government of the world’s major powers — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — injects little pride into a class feeling betrayed by the claims that ours is a banana republic.
Every governmental step in the right direction towards action against wrongdoers is summarily dismissed as “too little, too late”. Call it the lynch-mob mentality, call it just impatience, call it cynicism or despondence. Whatever you may wish to call it, make no mistake the silent majority is sullen.
Politicians in democracies have to learn one important lesson. Minorities tend to be vocal, majorities tend to be silent. At election time, the majority’s view finds expression, while in the interregnum between elections, it is vocal minorities who tend to dominate debate. To imagine, however, that the views of the silent majority are not being shaped by the actions of a minority would be wrong. A point would come when minorities grow into majorities but the full expression of that change comes only at the next election.
Between 2004 and 2009, the “right” and “left” Opposition was very vocal. But neither realised that they represented a minority view. The silent majority remained loyal to the government and the political leadership of the day. That is why the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was returned to power in 2009. The loyalty of the “silent majority” was neither shaken by the disinformation campaigns against the prime minister’s alleged pro-Americanism or political weakness. The vocal minorities of the left and right fooled themselves into imagining that public opinion was being won over by them. India’s silent majority rebuked them for their arrogance.
A year and a half after that historic verdict that reversed close to four decades of anti-incumbency, making Manmohan Singh the second prime minister to return to office for a full term after a full term, the silent majority is beginning to be influenced by the voice of the vocal minorities. This reversal comes far too early in the tenure of a government. Neither will the ruling coalition be hurt by it, for it still has the numbers, nor will the Opposition benefit from this since the next elections are a full three-and-a-half years away.
The 18th month of a government’s 60-month tenure is no time for paralysis. Clearly, the time is now for a renewal of governance. Crises have a way of concentrating minds. Deadlines have the advantage of forcing action. The only way out of the current impasse for a beleaguered government is to seek renewal. The only way to do that is to start on a clean slate.
In May 2009, both Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Singh assumed their mandate was for a business-as-usual government. Using the old American management adage “don’t fix it, if it ain’t broke”, they opted for the status quo. Even the changes made were based on risk-aversion. The government on June 1, 2009 bore an uncanny resemblance to the government of May 1, 2009. It was wrongly assumed the electorate’s mandate was for more of the same.
The events of the past few months have demonstrated, if such evidence was needed, that the electorate has moved on, while the government has refused to. The time has come for the government to catch up. The Indian middle class wants change. Not of government, but of governance.
The year-end is normally a time for introspection, for looking back and looking ahead. Every individual hopes that the problems of the past will not return, and the New Year would bring good tidings. Like it or not, there is something of a social catharsis that grips society on New Year’s eve and everyone prays for a new dawn on New Year’s day.
This is indeed the mood of India today. On Saturday, January 1, 2011, India does not want to wake up to this morning’s dawn. The time for change is now.
An announcement of a spate of new reforms in governance, an assertion of authority that sees corrupt and incompetent people step back and down, a new team of bright-eyed young people, with new ideas and untainted reputations, running key economic ministries, the retirement of cynical politicians of a bygone era of entitlements and privileges, a promise of new legislation in the next session of Parliament on electoral funding, reduced discretion in appointment of heads of key institutions and the ideas mentioned in Ms Gandhi’s speech at the AICC session last week.
How long this last week of the year plays out could well shape the year to come!