By Raghunath Nageswaran
Babasaheb Ambedkar once remarked that democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an essentially undemocratic Indian soil. Almost seventy years after he made this remark, we remain a fascinating yet flawed democracy. Unlike most judgments on the evolution of democracy in India, which come with carefully considered caveats, Josy Joseph’s ‘A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India’ makes no excuses about the floundering institutions on which our democracy is built.
The book is not just about the hidden business of democracy in India, it also brings to light the deceit involved in doing business in a democracy like India. You may presume that the book will be just another tirade about the banalities of civilian life in India. But, the audacious statement about a leader who launched high-decibel campaigns against black money using resources provided by a man accused of money laundering will convince you that the author intends to open up the entire can of worms.
The many levels of corruption
The prologue is a tad lengthy but extremely sobering and instructive. Presenting Hridaychak village in Bihar as an illustrative example, it deals with the whole gamut of problems any typical Indian village grapples with. As everything boils down to the ability to deal with India’s government departments and the knack of identifying the right intermediaries everywhere, this segment appears to be a persuasive commentary on the corruption and inefficiency of the government across all levels and the underfunded social welfare programs in the country. The trend of local bodies betraying hopes of a decentralised democracy and instead, decentralising corruption is all the more depressing.
Though the economy has undergone dramatic changes, the middleman is a constant in our lives and his troubling presence remains throughout the book. Section One deals exclusively with middlemen of various hues – from the ones who can get us our rightful state-funded entitlements to those who can swing a multibillion-dollar defence deal in favour of a client for a certain fee. The emergence of “naya netas” points to the development of political entrepreneurship that has come to fill the organisational vacuum of party politics at the lowest levels. There is an interesting chapter devoted to the power of the personal assistants, the trusted aides of key political figures, who happen to be the unseen guardians of democracy.
Development plans – the new business deal
With the expansion in India’s military ambitions, the all-pervasive nature of corruption comes to light as the author digs deeper into some of the most high-profile and controversial defence deals. The role of ‘professional middlemen’ becomes starkly evident as the author profiles their rise in the third chapter. The author also records episodes of Bharatiya Janata Party’s studied silence in matters of national security, despite its loud rhetoric on the same.
The most gripping and equally chilling section is ‘The Very Private Private Sector’ which meticulously chronicles the improbable rise and tragic fall of the East West Airlines, India’s first private airlines. The author exposes the sinister side of India’s economic liberalisation, which was built on a shaky foundation of immoral politics, criminal gangs, and dubious finances, by studying the rivalry between Thakiyuddin’s East West and Naresh Goyal’s Jet Air. In the course of his expedition into cut-throat business rivalries in a post-liberalisation India, the author exposes the incapacitated and inept nature of India’s investigative agencies.
Section Three has a well-documented chapter on the new generation of entrepreneurs who invested in mining, power, steel and aluminium projects set deep inside India’s forested regions and remote corners. The environmental damage and public health problems inflicted by reckless open-cast mining, which dispossessed Adivasis of their land and livelihoods, shows the predatory nature of Indian capitalism. The author asks us to watch out for the dialectic that will be played out between rapid digitisation to bring about greater transparency and the elements that are in constant search of more devious ways to fill their pockets.
Criminalising the Government
Although the author focuses on high-level corruption in the government, it is important to understand that it is the politician-bureaucrat-businessman nexus that is at the heart of the rot in the system. Also, at a time when 82% of the MPs of the lower house are multi-millionaires and 34% of the newly elected members have criminal cases against them (as of 2014), the roots of the malaise are buried in the composition of the legislature.
Does the book forebode a looming disaster that will befall our democracy? Well, the author makes mixed predictions. He hopes that in the long term, we will be working towards building a nation that works for its people. With many public-spirited souls having picked up the tools of change, such as the Right to Information to strengthen the foundations of democracy and make it work for the last man in the queue, not all hope is lost.
Raghunath Nageswaran has a Masters in Economics from Madras Christian College. His principal area of research is the political economy of welfare.
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