Like the auguries of ancient times that foretold the shape of things to come, the massive power outages in recent days could be an omen of looming darkness ahead. The government can’t be blamed for scanty rainfall but, like Hamlet’s terrible indecision and quandary, it seems in no position to “defy augury”. It sees no special providence in the fall of a sparrow; it is unable to demonstrate that “the readiness is all”.
Respected pillars of the Congress Party establishment are as baffled by the government's failure to act. Some have taken to harking back to Indira Gandhi’s comforting golden age. A senior party MP explaining the difference in the age past and present said the other day, “Mrs Gandhi used to believe that governments should not be reactive. They should anticipate and take swift pre-emptive measures.” By this he meant that the Centre has lost its power to override opposition and bring obstinate allies to heel. Mrs Gandhi’s tactics of quelling dissent — dismissing state governments and silencing obdurate party members and bureaucrats — are worthwhile objectives for a government in trouble, he suggested.
It is forgotten that shortages of power and other essential supplies were, if anything, far worse in that golden age. Many people no longer remember what it was like in the 1970s to start queuing up for a bottle of milk at 5 am and that it could take months, even years, to get a telephone connection. And when in the midst of that turbulent decade even the PMO’s telephones temporarily stopped working (like the power cut at the PM’s residence recently) Mrs Gandhi made a feeble joke about her “cross connection”. How the nation chuckled.
No one is chortling now. Demand for supplies and services is high, expectations higher. Electricity rates for domestic consumers in the capital went up by 26 per cent in July — the fourth hike in ten months — only to be followed by major breakdowns across the northern grids. If neighbouring states are overdrawing their share of power why aren’t they made to pay or be penalised? The cross connections here are a case of the tail wagging the dog. Regional governments and querulous allies like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar equate power-sharing with profligacy, and expect to bring a shaky coalition to heel. With steadily decreasing comfort levels, an expedient UPA government’s fate is susceptible to every puff of wind blowing in from the states.
The outlook in the hinterland, in the sphere of rural development isn’t particularly bright either, as Amartya Sen pointed out while giving the J R D Tata memorial oration in the capital this week. The lecture was sponsored by a leading think-tank which awarded cash prizes to the best-performing states and districts, by applying related indicators such as improved sex ratio and child care, potable water supply, female literacy and so on. Prof Sen was at pains to point out (from preliminary studies that he is embarked on exploring with his collaborator Jean Dreze) that Bangladesh, once the “basket case” of south Asia, is now far ahead of India in both planning and implementing many social welfare schemes. Were it not for Pakistan, which is rock bottom, India presents a poorer picture in the subcontinent on several fronts.
I asked a district collector from western India, there to collect his prize, the nature of the problems he faced in ensuring that on-ground development reached the remotest villages. Was there shortage of funds? No. How widespread was leakage and corruption? Yes and no, he said, but it was up to the administration to monitor timely and efficient use of funds. What about interference by local politicians? At this he smiled wryly and admitted that a big obstacle was their demands for transferring officials. In other words, political expediency rode roughshod over effective delivery of services.
In New Delhi or rural Maharashtra the auguries of August can add up the same thing.