Terrorism, elections and corruption
‘Tec’ was a word Maoists once used to signify secret actions. Today it can stand for the link between terrorism, corruption and elections in the midst of the sudden demonetization of large currency notes. It is improbable that the government actually believes their surprise measure will rid the country of its known scourges, for politicians are far more astute than economists or media anchors.
Much has been written by military specialists on terrorism and low-intensity conflict. The best known of the books was ‘The War of the Flea,’ by Robert Taber, a classic study of guerilla tactics. The campaigns of Marshall Kutuzov against Napoleon, and Mao Zedong against Chiang Kai-shek exemplify the essence of the tactics of hit and run. Attacks have to be sporadic, happening when least expected, draining the enemy through a thousand cuts. Demonetizing large currency notes is no defence, since smaller notes will do. Terrorists penetrate through the border for a short run at the Indian defences, to strike and retreat, or die.
Corruption in India is intricately enmeshed with its governmental and administrative machinery. When the British left India in 1947 the country was clean of any corruption. The bitter truth is that it was allowed to infect the system starting to rot from the top, first under Nehru, who was too romantic to notice the machinations of his satraps. His daughter made corruption a part of political policy. All political parties and leaders have happily followed suit since buying the votes of poor people is far easier than delivering development. The generalist politicians needed an efficient bureaucracy to run the government.
The Indian Administrative Service, the top-flight echelon of government, which in all key features has come unchanged since the days of the East India Company, quickly seized the day to seize effective control over and above specialist arms of government, like medical, educational, engineering and other services.
The IAS are generalists themselves, without specific domain knowledge in any field, and since they have to govern as the new ‘princelings,’ or as a mafia, they have created a complex system of gatemen at every level, ostensibly as necessary checks and balances. India’s people are tied up even more securely with red tape then they were during the Raj. The gatemen, themselves harried and uncertain of the correct usage of multiple and sometimes self-contradictory rules, demand a douceur to cover the risks they undertake. That is the irreducible source of corruption, happily presided over by politicians, however patently insincere their protestations might be.
The ending of corruption cannot take place through flimsy and superficial interventions like demonetization, however earnestly constipated the Finance Minister may sound. It requires the kind of political will that no party possesses at present. It would require great political courage to devolve power to grassroots agencies as envisaged in the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, so that gradually the people themselves can monitor governmental processes at the grassroots level. It would require radical streamlining of the governmental machinery, the removal of several gateposts, with a renewed belief in the integrity of the Indian people, which has not existed in ruling circles since the days of colonialism.
The first-past-the-post electoral system must be reformed, which creates as much of a travesty of the democratic process, as the American Electoral College has done in Trump’s election. All this would create a massive political tectonic shakeup. Few are capable of contemplating the risks with courage. The last international leader to try something on this scale was Gorbachev, and he lost. So, for the present, the tamasha of combating corruption with gimmicks will continue to beguile media anchors.
The political opposition has claimed that demonetization is causing great public harassment, with electronic media happily filming long queues everywhere. This belief is also not true, for the Indian public is accustomed to harassment, in fact it expects to be harassed, and people feel a sense of relief at the end of a long day when they get home, having partially received assurances of getting within the foreseeable future their pensions, or insurance, or provident funds, or whatever is their lawful entitlement. A life without governmental harassment is unthinkable for our people.
What, then, was the deep state purpose of the demonetization move? What it appears on the surface. The elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, require the greasing of many palms, as all elections do. Sudden demonetization throws the well-oiled system out of kilter, and that is why the opposition parties have protested, as urbanely pointed out by Mr. Amit Shah, President of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. But will the jolt be enough to spoil the prospects of the SP or the BSP in Uttar Pradesh? Unlikely, since the veins of political power in caste dominated parties can assure the flow of money, despite demonetization. The future of corruption in India is secure.
(The writer is a well-known author, economist, and a renowned rights activist. He is on the jury to select Alternate Nobel Prize)