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Catharsis at turn of the decade

Somasekhar Sundaresan 

The year 2010 is drawing to a close, and this would be the last edition of this column for this year. It is always tempting to write about the year that was, or about the year that could have been. Even more so, when the turn of the year, is the turn of a calendar decade. This piece will not fall into a lament about what went wrong, or a eulogy of what went right during 2010.

However, as the nation turns 60, it is a bit difficult not to write a bit about the "mood of the nation". Friends and clients in industry often brand this column "socialist" - for many, anything remotely supportive of the need for strong regulatory institutions is "communist" in character.  On the other hand, some friends with strong views suggest that that the tone of this column is very critical of government, and therefore voices "capitalist" sympathies.

Such critique is only reflective of how subjectively most Indians view anything before them. In the life of a Republic, the age of 60 is not the age of superannuation, but an age that would mark a gradual movement towards shedding adolescence. Take the Radia tapes, which have hogged headlines, and will dominate front pages of newspapers and websites at the turn of the decade. That the phone lines of a lobbyist representing two of the most powerful corporate groups was tapped, and more so, that the contents of the tapped conversations were leaked, have left commentators in a state ranging from outrage to sanctimonious shock.   

Whether one’s outrage or shock is about the fact that the wiretap even took place, or about the conversations being leaked, leads to the chatterati judging which camp you belong to. As always, the truth lies somewhere in between.  While the debate over the leaked Radia tapes is about the balance between the right to privacy and the right to information, the reality is that there is no new insight that the tapes provide. Much like Wikileaks confirming what one always knew about nations and their two-facedness, essential requirements in matters of international relations, the leaked Radia tapes reflect the same reality.

They only confirm what one always knew - that policy-making, legislation, the functioning of government, and of self-righteous sections of the media, are all part of one large cynical ecosystem that collectively represents all the trappings of a banana republic. 

Access and connections to government have never mattered more than now, particularly after "liberalisation" was ushered in, in the early 1990s.  Industries like information technology, which thrived because of absence of governmental involvement, now have ministries governing them. Exchange controls, which were de-criminalised can now lead to criminal prosecution, all over again - a throwback to the days of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, where the law presumed a "culpable mental state".  Securities law violations, which are being effectively policed by the securities regulator, can now be an excuse for criminal intelligence agencies to get involved, and effect arrests. 

Naturally, it is only connections and access to the corridors of power that would ensure "fair treatment" when state agencies have an extensive right to interfere in citizens' lives.  Therefore, lobbyists have been as old as the hills in the Republic, as have been in India before the Republic was born, and as they have been worldwide across all major economies. Pretending to have exposed that they exist, or how powerful a hold they have is pretentious. 

An uninformed media that has indulged in mountainous self-praise, has always relied on irresponsibly disseminating "raw data" about society at large (remember the 26/11 coverage?). When sections of the media have now disseminated raw data about other sections of the media, their attitude is being decried as a dog-eat-dog approach that would hurt the Republic. Truly, as the nation turns 60, it is the media that has to indulge in serious introspection to reclaim its moral right to police the morality and propriety of matters of State.

Not too long ago, in May 2009, one Dr Razeen Sally, Director of the European Centre for International Political Economy wrote a piece titled "Don't believe the India Hype" — the piece is now available on: Patriots were up in arms. At a seminar in the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, at the time, some leading lawyers and policy-junkies protested the piece was unfair to India. That India did not collapse when the financial sectors in the United States and Europe were doddering, to them, evidenced how sound a footing India was in. I respectfully disagreed then. 

A reading of the piece today, would underline how terribly accurate his reading was.  What we are going through at the turn of 60 is a self-cleansing cathartic exercise. Long live the Republic.

(The author is a partner of JSA, Advocates & Solicitors.  The views expressed herein are his own.)


First Published: Mon, December 20 2010. 00:39 IST