Sunday, December 2, 2007

Are We Slow and Unresponsive ?

The Indian Express in its op-ed column of Dec 01 informs that the Prime Minister in a recent speech delivered on November 29th has lamented that our system doesn’t value time and that it is one weakness that worries him a great deal. The Prime Minister isn’t completely correct. Witness the manner and speed in which the law was passed to fix the age at which the Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences retires at 65. Parliament typically doesn’t have time to transact much business and even the current session has already been adjourned several times over Nandigram and other matters. But this particular bill was cleared by the Lok Sabha on November 23rd, by the Rajya Sabha on November 29th, received in the President’s Office on the following day and signed with in hours in to law. By sun down Dr. Venugopal the doughty fighter had lost his job and there was a replacement in place. Clearly when it comes to vendetta the system responds lightening fast and the Prime Minister couldn’t be more wrong.

In the old days, if you annoyed the monarch, you had your head lopped off. This happened the world over but at a point of history, when at least in England , some folks thought that even the sovereign had crossed a line, the elite got together to draft the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215 to force the king to guarantee certain institutions of State, basic functional freedoms. The Magna Carta is today accepted as the essential building block of democracy around the world with adaptation and modifications as needed.

But as the Ramadoss episode demonstrates we may have the veneer of democracy but the vestiges of feudalism and crude demonstration of power die slow. In the olden days, the King’s frown was enough to bring down the sunset on an unlucky victim, today the King needs to do some paper work and win over a bunch of pliable people. And the job is done. Clearly, the spirit of democracy has not sufficiently seeped in to our marrow. For instance, The Lok Sabha instead of engaging in any debate over the treatment to Malkaysians of Indian origin and coming out with a reasoned diplomatic response, chose to do what it is best at – get adjourned after a group of Tamil MPs created a ruckus. Presumably the members did not have the energy to debate and discuss a tricky issue event though a Malaysian minister had issued a stinging rebuke to Karunanidhi walking a diplomatic tight rope.

So is the Prime Minister right, and are we slow and more so slow because we are a democracy and supposedly we have mechanism that tries to ensure that laws made in the country best reflect all shades of public opinion and that consensus building exercise takes time? Wish that were the case. In his speech, the Prime Minister cites the instance of South Korea in the old days when it was a totalitarian regime and the Finance Minister of the day had to make a decision on devaluation of the currency. He needed to make a short phone call to his president to ascertain his views and that would take about half an hour and that he felt was a bit too long a time. Man Mohan Singh goes on to say that decisions in democracies do take a little longer than thirty minutes but laments that in India the pendulum has swung to the other extreme and decision making takes forever.

Perhaps our good Prime Minister should be more specific and also lament our priorities. The trial in the Mumbai bomb blasts took 13 years and more, with mercy petitions on behalf of those sentenced to death pending since 1992, the women’s’ reservation of seats bill in parliament eluding a consensus since it was first introduced in 1996, there is a lot for our law makers to mull over certainly. But whereas these things can wait, what seemingly can’t wait is the passing of a law whose sole purpose is to ensure that a person and that too a person of eminence whatever his frailties is sacked and sacked fast and quick, so that his minister boss can strut. India is 57 year old democracy alright on paper, but in real life, the shadow of the jahanpanah’s wrath still looms long on the lok shahi that we think we have.

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