India of Gandhi's dreams?
In the long years of India's independence struggle, Mahatma Gandhi would often hold out the utopia of Ram Rajya (governance of Lord Ram) to cheer up a country weighed down by the tyranny of the colonial rule. Of course, the Mahatma did not invoke Ram in the strictest religious sense or subscribed to the saffron-tinted worldview of today's Hindu right.
What he really meant was an India where honesty, simplicity and piety ruled. In the same vein, writing in Harijan in 1937, the Mahatma turned to the Islamic Caliphate as a model state and society. "I cannot help but to present to you the names of Abu Bakar and Umar (the first and second Caliphs). They were leaders of a vast empire, yet they lived a life of austerity."
Austerity. Simplicity. And honesty. Gandhi lived by them and envisioned the India of his dreams to be run by the same values. I wonder what Gandhi would make of the current state of affairs in India of his dreams? The great man must be turning in his grave as the country gets rocked by one staggering corruption scam after another. Every new case of graft appears to be progressively bolder and wickeder, setting ever new records of venality and depravity.
What makes the recent scams remarkable is not just the staggering extent of the corruption. While it is not unusual to catch the politicians with their pants down, for the first time they have been caught in the act with the folks who are supposed to watch and monitor them.
For weeks now the Indians - and others around the world - have endlessly listened in morbid fascination to the tapes that have British Indian corporate lobbyist Niira Radia strategising in her varying accent with the bold and beautiful of Indian media to help her clients that include the mightiest of corporate giants, like the Ambani brothers, to the Tatas to the most corrupt politicians in the land. And up for grabs are not just the whopping telecom deals worth Rs1.76 trillion but plump federal cabinet portfolios that would dole out those very deals for a song.
It's amazing, and incredibly sobering, to see - or hear, rather - fellow journalists play the kingmakers or even God as they promise the mysterious Lady Radia to tell the Congress leadership to pick up a certain A Raja for the telecom minister's job, the magician from Madras who made the exchequer considerably lighter with his sleight of hand. And all these years you thought selecting his ministers was the prerogative of the prime minister! Another eminent journalist, an editor of India's first newsmagazine belonging to a powerful media group, is found offering lessons to the nation's richest man in fixing a court verdict.
Yet our fellow travellers remain charmingly blase. My feisty friend Barkha Dutt of NDTV, who has inspired generations of young Indians to take to journalism with her world-class reporting and news presentation, is enviously indignant when quizzed by senior editors on her acting as a messenger and gobetween to lobby for the already discredited Raja.
"It was an error of judgment," she concedes magnanimously, but insists: "I did nothing wrong and I will not apologise." As though it was a minor matter of interpretation and semantics.
Maybe I am a bit thick, but isn't it unethical for journalists to lobby for ministerial berths or other favours, even if they haven't landed themselves a slice of the pie? Who has given this right to Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi, Prabhu Chawla and many others figuring in the so-called Radia tapes? Certainly not the voters? The media is supposed to be the fourth estate in a democracy.
It is supposed to guard over and protect people's interests. Since when has it become a pimp to politicians? Since when has it started become more than a messenger? And those who have been given the right to run this country by the people, they appear to be increasingly abdicating and surrendering this responsibility to all sorts of power brokers, lobbyists and corporate players.
What was Dr Manmohan Singh, long lionised and celebrated by the media and growing middle classes as the greatest hope of a new, liberalised India, doing - for God's sake! - when Raja had been running the biggest financial scam since Independence?
Everyone in and outside the governing Congress sings hosannas of the good doctor and his fabled honesty and sincerity. But is honesty and sincerity enough to run a clean and honest government? The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It's one of those ironies of fate that over the past seven years India's cleanest premier has presided over the biggest scams in the nation's history.
But all said and done, perhaps it's unfair to single out the politicians and journalists for censure and our collective outrage. In this Turkish hammam (bath), just about everyone is gloriously naked, if we only care to look around. Besides, we get the politicians and journalists we deserve. They represent and are part of the society they live in. We have become a republic of scams, as Brahma Chellaney puts it. Corruption is all pervasive and eating into India's vitals like a cancer.
Even the once sacred judiciary and armed forces haven't remained unaffected. In the new, post-Liberalisation, pro-market India of the new millennium, money rules and Mammon is the new deity. The phenomenal economic growth of the past few years, unaffected even by the global recession, has only fuelled this feeding frenzy.
There's money everywhere, more than India and Indians have ever seen. Yet, we are far from content. Those who are rich are in an endless race to get even richer in the shortest possible time.