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India: A Potemkin Village?


By Bharat Karnad

India will advance ‘despite’ its government, not because of it. It is BJP today, some Congress coalition tomorrow, or a third front regime the next day. The dispensation in New Delhi of the moment, will talk big but accomplish little where it counts—on the ground.

The Spiral of Speeches

Such a leader, it was hoped, would be relied upon to begin alleviating poverty and ending rural and even urban India’s open defecation habits, using practical means.

It was Narendra Modi’s third address from the Red Fort on this independence day. The first was uplifting and broke new ground. He emerged as a PM who shared his first hand experience of poverty, which almost no predecessor in his office ever did. He surprised everyone with his earthy and candid discussion of the issue of open defecation. Such a leader, it was hoped, would be relied upon to begin alleviating poverty and ending rural and even urban India’s open defecation habits, using practical means. Modi is using his post as a bully pulpit, but, two years later, no visible progress on these fronts is seen. Modi acknowledged as much, saying that the problem of delivery of public services, subsidies, and cash handouts to the deserving poor through the Nandan Nilekani-helmed Aadhar programme, the ‘last man’ delivery problem, remains.

The second Lal Qila speech was in the ‘holding’ course.

The third speech, however, reeked of that old Soviet malady that Indian socialist leaders perfected (which Modi hinted at)—achievement measured in terms of enumeration of government statistics relating to how much of this and how much of that and announcement of new government programmes.

Are the Claims of Success True?

Consider the project taken up to build lakhs of latrines in villages. Assuming these are not only on paper but can be found in brick and mortar form, how do we ensure that villagers in fact use it for the purpose they are intended? The news reports in the background suggest that the country folk insist on enjoying squatting in the fields so they can commune with nature while the gentle morning breeze fans their bottoms.


PM Narendra Modi, lecturing the crowd on independence day | Photo Courtesy: Google Images

The matter of cleaning the Ganga River—where there’s almost no improvement except the cleaning of Varanasi ghats for the TV cameras, every time the PM is in his constituency. While Modi spoke about buying train tickets and securing passports as being hassle-free affairs for the common man, is that really the situation? In lieu of substantive results, he has, it seems, taken refuge behind information forwarded to him by the various secretaries to the government and the army of ‘babus’ who are past masters at obfuscation, siphoning off funds into their pockets and otherwise hiding a ramshackle reality. In the face of negligible change in the attitude and functioning of even the centrally controlled administrative apparatus, the (yet another) new slogan he coined—“Reform, Perform, Transform”, to describe extant mode of governance, at best, occasions jest.

Breaking Silence on Jammu and Kashmir Issue

Finally, a PM has woken up to treating J&K issue as a whole and speaking about the so-called ‘Northern Areas’ in the Pakistan Army parlance—Gilgit and Baltistan, besides Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. I have been pleading for 30 years now that GOI make of Gilgit and Baltistan a ram to batter Pakistan’s Kashmir advocacy with. Here on, hopefully, MEA and its far-flung stations will highlight Gilgit and Baltistan whenever Kashmir comes up.

Except, as some former MEA-types have noted, the raising of the Baluchistan issue by the PM has the obvious downside of providing Islamabad with evidence of the Indian hand in the ongoing strife and turmoil in Baluchistan. However, the television snippets of Brahmdagh Bugti, a grandson of the Baloch Tribal Sardar, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, attacked and killed by the Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (Special Operations) on General Parvez Musharraf’s orders in March 2005, thanking India and Indians for supporting the cause of Baloch freedom, was perfectly fine as a PSYOP to unsettle Islamabad and GHQ, Rawalpindi.

A Curious Speech on Foreign Affairs

The section of his speech on foreign affairs was nevertheless a curious thing. He talked of interdependence just when the great powers and the international system is turning inward, stressing sovereign imperatives, as I predicted and have analyzed in all my books. If this is meant as a policy template to justify the BJP government’s decision to bull ahead imprudently and court some serious strategic dangers for the country and finally sign, what American officials call, the ‘foundational’ accords, then Modi may be best remembered for irreversibly shrinking India’s stature and standing in the world and hurting the national interest. The first such accord is the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, the draft of the standard Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) the Pentagon passed on to the MEA to amend only at the margins, is what Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar is expected to sign when he visits Washington soon.

More predictably, while he waxed eloquent about Pakistan’s support for terrorism, he failed to mention even by indirection, China. If Modi continues to make so fundamental a mistake as misperceiving the primary military threat to the nation and commits to the extraordinary misstep of allying formally with the US—no amount of parsing the truth will get around the fact that only the formal US allies have LSAs/LEMOAs with America, and the lesser one of publicly disclosing Baluchis thanking him. What hope is there that Modi will do anything else right in the national security and external realms (that are directly managed by Modi and his PMO bypassing, in the process, the defence ministry and MEA)?

Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and author of most recent book, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.

This article was originally published on Bharat Karnad’s blog.

Featured Image Credits: Pixabay

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