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Governance as Theatre

The north-east, especially Assam, has always remained at the periphery of national attention. Little wonder then that actions taken by its ruling class appear as an "act" more to convince its political masters in faraway Delhi than to benefit the region's people. It is then that governance is reduced to a fine spectacle.

Governance as Theatre

The north-east, especially Assam, has always remained at the periphery of national attention. Little wonder then that actions taken by its ruling class appear as an “act” more to convince its political masters in faraway Delhi than to benefit the region’s people. It is then that governance is reduced to a fine spectacle.


he prime minister, Manmohan Singh, recently affirmed in the current non-aligned movement summit that terrorism must be defeated first if “poverty, illiteracy and ignorance” seen in developing countries is to be eradicated. Nice words, perfectly agreeable. But if these evils are really eradicated, will there be scope for the contemporary political practices? These include: those huge rallies organised by bringing truckloads of people with the lure of a free meal and some sightseeing, plus some monetary benefits; discussions in Parliament that lead to progressive transfer of the country’s natural resources and human heritage from the people to the plutocrats; executive fiats that even bypass the Parliament; crooked amendments that enfeeble and render impotent the best-intentioned legislation;and the deliberate oblivion in which all but the touts and political crooks are kept with regard to their rights in central and state welfare schemes. Will such practices still continue in a society where the three big problems have been (bless my ears!) eradicated? And is terrorism not the result of precisely the immense extent of all these three evils in developing countries? If terrorism is mindless violence, in complete disregard of the sanctity of ordinary lives, then George Bush’s attack on Iraq on the baseless pretext that Saddam Hussein gave shelter to al Qaida, even as the CIA had ruled it out, causing enormous casualties, and destroying both the integrity and the infrastructure of civilised life in that hapless country, should be called the greatest act of terrorism in the 21st century. Manmohan Singh has nothing pertinent to say on this question. American policies, backed by the WTO, are causing grievous daily harm to the world’s poor and literacy can never be spread all over a country like India by NGOs and World Bank loans, unless and until the right political forces manage this enormous enterprise.

The north-east, including Assam, is terra incognita to the rest of the country, not because it is not accessible to people from the rest of India, who in fact are indulging in a spree of loot and plunder, both of natural resources and the development funds meant for this region, but simply because it is not visible in the metropolitan media. The life and times of assorted movie stars get much wider coverage than the major events in the north-east, which only receive a brief mention or glimpse on account of either a terrorist carnage, exotic rites and dances and the alleged successes of successive chief ministers who are lionised in Delhi until toppled in the next polls. The chief concern of any chief minister is to facilitate this plunder in league with an army of political touts and bureaucratic lackeys and contractors who form today the backbone of the middle class in the north-east. Mammoth fairs are organised several times a year under the false banner of trade fairs, but these are actually dumping grounds for unsold stock from business houses from outside, and they take away part of the plunder pocketed by the local elite. Around 64 per cent of the irrigation schemes remain unfinished, and less than 20 per cent of the agricultural land is irrigated. A recent drought left bare six lakh hectares of a total of 12 lakh acres of cultivated land, and the subsistence farmers are in danger of losing their land. The government went on organising cultural functions, rallies, inaugural programmes forever newer schemes, totally oblivious of the disaster, and reluctantly and most belatedly declared “a drought-like situation” as though death can be camouflaged by using the phrase “death-like situation”. Meanwhile the government distributed, at a reported cost of Rs 35 crore, among students who cleared the school finals, computers with a view to solving all the problems of Assam through the magic of information technology. No one knows what amount had been siphoned off as commission as it does not come under the RTI Act. A paltry amount of one and a half crore has been sanctioned for drought relief, and each farmer has been given three litres of diesel (even in unirrigated areas!) to pump water for his field. Frustrated farmers have raged that they have not been able to extract even three litres of water with that amount of diesel. Every vernacular newspaper (there are eight dailies coming out from Guwahati) carries daily reports of misuse of money and rampant corruption, while the government blissfully ignores them. Indeed matters get a bit awkward only if the English newspapers report them and there is reasonable ground for suspicion that those stories been “managed”. While the state is bombarded everyday with startling stories of organised sale of teachers’ posts and seats in medical colleges, massive pilferage of oil from pipelines under political patronage, a local edition of a metropolitan daily gaily publishes pathetic stories of self-sacrificing gay love and squabbles among celebrities of the small screen.

A Few Rich Then

Meanwhile the juggernaut of globalisation rolls on, outraging even the smug elite. Urban property tax has been increased more than tenfold in some cases for benefits that are hardly tangible. Half the population of Guwahati pays water-tax but receives no piped water, and covered drains have been built without concrete beds. At the behest of the Asian Development Bank the state electricity board has been restructured as several gencoms, discoms and so on, with the result that tariff has been restructured three times in one year, to the howls of rage from domestic consumers. In some areas in the countryside lights come on when everybody but night-prowlers are asleep and go off exactly when evening falls. The repair of embankments every year appears as a bonanza for some, showing how far Assam has integrated into the global village of racketeers, who consider it useful to botch such repairs with substandard and inadequate material. Recently I visited a region where at a cost of lakhs of rupees an immense rampart-like road had been built entirely with sand from the river-bank, without a single pebble, not to speak of boulders. To the cahoots of delight from seekers of excellence an oil company is trying to sign an MoU with a firm based in Kazakhistan for exploring the river-bed of the Brahmaputra for oil. On the same day the state government announced the formation of a state-owned energy company with openings for foreign investors. But can oil be explored in the river-bed without polluting the waters of the river that is the very lifeline of Assam?

Economic and Political Weekly September 30, 2006

What kind of governance can one expect against such a setting? Law and order becomes an over-riding concern, with public protests either crushed with brute force or watered down by re-routing them to public hearings before long-winded commissions. Increasingly major government activities are being delegated to NGOs, most of which are mercenary or data-collecting agencies for foreign donors. As for the rest the chief minister visits the country’s capital practically every month, sometimes as many as three times a month to get the hang of the latest tricks to bamboozle the masses, especially since elections to various bodies take place round the year. Of course there is the handy communal card, and journalists who help spread the communal scares (“Bangladeshi invasion”, etc) are rewarded in solemn ceremonies in Delhi for their “integrity”, no less.

Anything to draw the people’s attention away from the frauds and scams and the glaring plunder. For the last three or four months the chief minister and his trusted lieutenants have appeared in full-page advertisements in several newspapers once or twice a week, smiling from ear to ear, in direct contravention of the recent Supreme Court ruling, and announcing the launch of umpteen schemes to deliver the masses from misery, with names like ‘Swasthya Jyoti’, ‘Shiksha Jyoti’, ‘Karma Jyoti’, ‘Krishi Jyoti’, ‘Gram Jyoti’, ‘Van Jyoti’ and they all actually boil down to ‘Dhan Jyoti’ for the wily. The public has recently been enthralled by the spectacle of seeing a host of their petty tormentors like treasury clerks, elementary education officers, police ASIs, etc, all confessing to various frauds, scams and monetary misconduct. Virtuous ministers cry, “No one is above the law”. Perhaps, but one wonders about ministers and their cronies. The public’s thirst for revenge has been quenched for some time at least. Since the largest opposition party in the country swears by the same creed, the ruling party faces little opposition from orgainsed groups as long as it can pull the wool over the eyes of the Left.

According to postmodern wisdom, boundaries are dissolving and politics has become theatre. True enough, with the traditional role of the state as custodian of public good no longer valid, apart from law and order the main function of the government becomes keeping the masses bemused. Governance has indeed become theatre.



Economic and Political Weekly September 30, 2006

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