Maoists recently killed 40 more people, including security officials, at the same place in Chhattisgarh where some Gandhians had marched for peace earlier.
Essential supplies to Manipur continue to be blocked by the Nagas. Food prices have risen by 20 per cent. Teachers have assaulted a vice chancellor. A cleric with a beard was detained by the police for a day on the complaint of a passenger who suspected him of being a terrorist.
All this gives the impression that the Manmohan Singh government, completing its sixth year, is not able to fix the country’s problems. No doubt, some appear trivial but they underline the fact that there is no accountability. What they also emphasise is the listlessness that has crept into governance. It is not so much a systemic failure as it is the government’s ineptness to deal with even minor hiccups.
The obvious reason is that the prime minister who is called a ‘guru’ by US President Barack Obama on economic matters is out of his depth in mundane matters. His focus on a nine per cent growth rate has pushed everything else to the background.
Yet his main failure seems to be his inability to tackle the all-pervasive corruption. Understandably, the prime minister has to take into account political compulsions. He has to overlook the dishonesty of coalition partners to stay in power. Did the Congress have to go to the extent of foregoing prosecution in cases with evidence?
UP Chief Minister Mayawati, who has 21 members in the Lok Sabha, has been let off the hook in the disproportionate assets case. Telecommunications minister A. Raja of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which commands 18 seats in the Lok Sabha, has cost the exchequer Rs4,000 crore in the mobile bands scandal.
I am not arguing about the moral implications of what the ruling Congress has been doing. I am drawing the attention of Mr Singh to the effect this is having on all spheres, public or private. Corruption is beginning to be accepted as a normal way of life in India. I do not recall him making any statement against corruption recently. Nor has he made any visible effort to cleanse the government.
Had Dr Manmohan Singh pursued the proposal to appoint a lok pal (ombudsman) with the power to look into corruption at high places, he would have at least been seen to create an institution independent of the pressure that the ruling party in a minority has to deal with.
The lok pal, the appointment of whom was an election plank of the Congress, would have taken notice of proven evidence collected by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). It is a pity that the government still has the CBI as one of its departments. This does not inspire confidence in what the CBI does. Making it directly responsible to parliament may give it the credibility it needs.
How come the government is all there in taking action against the Maoists? The prime minister has rightly pointed them out as the greatest danger to the country. Their violent defiance and the spree of killings in which they indulge are adequate proof of their challenge to the state. But this fight should not restrict the democratic space which the Indian constitution ensures.The home ministry has said: “It has come to the notice of the government that some Maoist leaders have been directly contacting certain NGOs and intellectuals to propagate their ideology and persuade them to take steps which would provide support to the CPI (Maoist) ideology.” Government officials have warned members of civil society that the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, which calls for imprisonment of up to 10 years, could be used to punish individuals in contact with the Maoists.
The home ministry’s statement threatens to make political discussion difficult. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has characterised the statement as “a crude and unsuccessful attempt to curb the fundamental right of speech”. The government should not equate criticism with the criminal acts of the Maoists.
In fact, Congress president Sonia Gandhi herself has in a way criticised the government for the lack of development in the Maoist-infected areas. Yet merging Maoist violence with economic progress is oversimplifying the problem. That they do not believe in the ballot box is the real reason which crosses them out. They have to abjure violence. In matters which challenge the country’s integrity, the government should build up consensus. All political parties can come together to influence public opinion against Maoist propaganda. The Maoists claim to speak for the rights of the marginalised, including landless peasants, tribal groups and Dalits. But the Maoists have been responsible for serious abuses, including the destruction of schools and hospitals, extortion, torture and killing.
In the fight against the Maoists, it is important to have the active cooperation of the states. A country of the size of India is best governed locally, not nationally. The states have to take prominence although they are dependent on the centre for weapons and training of their ill-equipped forces. But the home minister, P. Chidambaram, gives the impression that he is the only person standing between chaos and order. Some states may have a different way in dealing with the Maoists and they should be appreciated.
As regards the blockade, Manipur needs New Delhi’s support because the state has suffered from the excesses which the security forces have committed there. The Nagas’ strength is their well-equipped underground force, an equal irritant to the centre.
Democracy survived in India even when the Congress government suspended fundamental rights some 32 years ago. The Maoists or their ilk cannot extinguish the nation’s faith in the ballot box. What is needed is the right approach and political will.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi.