Saturday, January 1, 2011
2010: The Year of Complicit Corruption
(this piece appeared as the edit in The Sunday Guardian on 2 January)
2010 provided India with a multitude of options in which to define the decade to come. The decade just past was about creation of opportunity and extension of influence. We learnt, much to many of our surprise, that as India’s economic importance grew, the care with which the world addressed our concerns would also grow. No other country expanded its soft power as successfully as India did these ten years. The attention the world paid to both our folly and our triumph was notable because, finally, we were globally newsworthy. If that meant Suresh Kalmadi’s name found headlines in newspapers in every corner of the world, it also meant that Slate, perhaps the most popular magazine on the Web, could now happily devote a long editorial towards examining the enigmatic, Apocalyptic charisma of Rajnikanth.
Yet 2010 came to mean something quite different to the Indian public. This was the year of Complicit Corruption. We learnt, this time not to anyone’s surprise, that almost every avenue of influence in India was open to a most endemic form of subversion. If public outrage became the leitmotif of the year, it was not unjustified. Everywhere there was power there was skullduggery, and everywhere there was influence there was silent shenanigan. The Indian public was betrayed time and again by the people they had reposed their faith in.
The Radia tapes illuminated this most clearly. It came at the end of a year beset by scandal, yet what hurt the prevailing sentiment most was the callous, casual disregard that two of Indian media’s most trusted sentinels had for the Constitution and the role of the Fourth Estate. That the powers-to-be were for sale many people have long suspected. That those who had been tasked with bringing light to political misdeeds were equally complicit was a betrayal that became too much to bear. Traditional media, already a creaking behemoth in an age demanding nimble, reactive feet, was dealt a body blow by its own collusive tendencies. But Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi were only the manifest representations of a culture that has seeped into news media for years. Front page space and analysis is being purchased by telecom and oil companies and their proxies at the same time the features pages are being bought by art galleries, restaurants and nightclubs. The World Wide Web democratised the dissemination of information; 2010 was the year that much of India’s Web-savvy population decided they no longer needed to be preached to by charlatans.
Yet the media is only one theatre for our uniquely Indian way of conducting the affairs of state. Cricket, housing for war widows, the Commonwealth Games, black money in Swiss banks, Mining, telecom, even the sale of food in a desperately poor state like Uttar Pradesh: everything was available to be bought and sold in India by a gathering of fifteen percenters in khadi. Many people cite the personal probity of our Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, which even in this besmirched age has thankfully never been in doubt. Dr Singh has helped bring to pass some of the best policies India has, such as the RTI and the NREGA. Yet he sits at the helm of a system that cultivates corruption and underhandedness. Perhaps he feels it is too much for one person to revolutionise the way government works in India. But if he is honest with himself, he will know that such rampaging thievery is the most insidious virus in the country. And now, the people are watching.