September 2010
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A Peepli Live Independence Day

India's “fantastic” growth story and the concerns and struggles of the ordinary people increasingly seem like parallel tracks.

Up until India's entry into the high growth era, Independence Day was a calendar event telecast faithfully by Doordarshan. Once the growth story started to break, private television companies robustly joined in the freedom celebrations. As India graduated from poverty and pestilence to “cool and happening,” a procession of celebrities, big and small, turned up on various TV channels on August 15 to applaud the country's arrival on the world stage.

This year the voices were more mixed, less gushy. Ironically, the party pooper was a rebel from the Bollywood stable. Peepli Live, a biting satire on farm suicides and agrarian distress from Aamir Khan productions, not only dared to invade the theatres on the sacred Independence-Day weekend, it proceeded to shine the torch on the gung-ho brigade lining up to sing hosannas to the unstoppable future of this country. The slice of India the film exposed was as close to the ground as the world of celebrity endorsement was far from it. Though Peepli's hard-hitting core was wrapped in disarming humour, its dark, disturbing message cut deep and close: Would those within the charmed growth circle please step out and see life as others lived it?

Perhaps thanks to the Peepli effect, this August 15 saw a subdued Kareena Kapoor go on TV to speak of the unfulfilled dreams of the teeming millions. Amitabh Bachchan agonised that India was still being called a developing, third world country. The sombre mood seemed to have infected the programming too. A television actor interrupted a boisterous song-and dance azadi (independence) extravaganza organised by an entertainment channel to announce pessimistically that he saw no reason to celebrate: “Our women get assaulted, crime, poverty and corruption are growing. Is there anything to celebrate?”

Of course, there was a reality check, lest it should seem that the entire jet-set had been hit by an attack of conscience. This was courtesy the anchor of the show who decided to show footage from interviews he had done with young people from Mumbai. The poll was on the meaning of azadi, but barring one, none could name the country's incumbent Prime Minister and not even one could tell the year of India's independence. One young man thought “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” was a slogan coined by yesteryear actor Manoj Kumar.

As India welcomed its 64th year of freedom, the country seemed to be straddling two diametrically opposite spaces. One, depressingly poor, bereft — and very angry. The other unhealthily prosperous yet frighteningly detached from the country's history, heritage and constitutional vision. But the tragi-comedy of this August 15 was far from over. The tricolour was still being unfurled and the singing of the national anthem was under way at many venues when the poor, shut-out space hit back. Peepli Live truly went live. News came in that farmers in western Uttar Pradesh were on the rampage over a police firing that had killed some of their brethren. The farmers had been protesting pitifully inadequate compensation for land acquired for the construction of the glitzy Yamuna expressway that would connect Delhi and Agra. Reports suggested that land bought for a song from the farmers had been resold at exorbitant prices.

The dark comedy turned darker in Srinagar where a suspended policeman cut Chief Minister Omar Abdullah in the middle of flag hoisting to aim a shoe at him. The harried Mr. Abdullah thanked the policeman saying at least this was a break from the trend of Kashmiris pelting stones. And, finally, in Chhattisgarh naxal power struck again — this time in the form of the beheaded body of a Central Reserve Police Force policeman. Three different incidents, each in its own way symbolising the widening gulf between the state and the vast majority of its people. The so-called stakeholders in India's growth and prosperity could not have chosen a worse day to show their disenchantment with the way project India was shaping up.

So it was with dulled senses that one saw Prime Minister Manmohan Singh take his place behind the bullet-proof enclosure at Red Fort for the seventh time in a row. This was a landmark occasion. Dr. Singh is only the third Prime Minister to have reached the seventh year in office. More significantly, he is the first non-Gandhi-Nehru Congress Prime Minister to have achieved this distinction. Yet it was difficult to share his enthusiasm as he rejoiced in the return of the high growth trajectory after the recession of the past year: “Today India stands among the fastest growing economies of the world. As the world's largest democracy, we have become an example for many other countries to emulate … Our country is viewed with respect all over the world. Our views command attention in international fora …” Further, “We are building a new India in which every citizen would have a stake, an India which would be prosperous and in which all citizens would be able to live a life of honour and dignity ...”

The Prime Minister had sent out a similar message of hope the previous August 15. Somehow that speech had not seemed so formulaic or so ritualistic. Two months earlier, the United Progressive Alliance government had returned with a renewed mandate after a fairly productive stint in office. The Congress's own tally had breached the 200-mark suggesting the broadening of its appeal among voters; or at the minimum the support bases of its rivals had shrunk to give it more seats. Either way, it was a vote for the Congress. In north India, which felt the positive effect of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the waiver of farm loans, Dr. Singh's leadership came in for much praise. UPA-I had its share of problems, but redeemingly, its overall vision was strongly inclusive. The Prime Minister appeared to make sense when he emphasised high growth as necessary to fund his government's social sector programmes.

One year on, the vision seems to have got blurred with the aam aadmi pushed further to the periphery. Rather than build on the successes of the NREGS and the Right to Information Act, the government wants them diluted. Universal food security seems an increasingly difficult goal. The historic Right to Education Act is facing dissent over its too stringent provisions. But what disturbs more than all this is the growing sense of alienation among the common people. India's fantastic growth story and the daily concerns and struggles of its people suddenly seem like two parallel tracks that can never converge.

Queen Elizabeth II famously described the year 1992 as annus horribilis (horrible year) for her family and for the United Kingdom. This year could turn into India's annus horribilis if the government does not act quickly to douse the fires raging in different pockets. Kashmir, which saw two peaceful elections and seemed to have retreated, even if very slowly, from the anger and anarchy of the past, is again precipitously close to the brink. The circle of violence in Chhattisgarh has become worse for the government's inept and insensitive intervention. People have been left numb by the spiralling price graph, and even more so by the insensitivity of a government that suggests that inflation is a price to pay for growth.

The UPA-I's biggest asset was its leadership. Dr. Singh and Sonia Gandhi stood for decency in public life — a fact that did not go unnoticed in the 2009 general election. Their reputations are still intact but a discomfiting odour has come to surround the government and the party they run. And there is a cocky arrogance about both. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way the Congress and the government have brazened out allegations of corruption in the Commonwealth Games.

When initially, Mani Shankar Aiyar lamented the wasted expenditure on the CWG, many thought he was letting the side down. But watching India's Capital turn into a nightmare city of waste and rubble, the same people might today want to applaud him. It does not matter whether the allegations of corruption around the CWG are true or not. It is there for every Delhi citizen to see. It is there in the excavations of sidewalks that were laid out only six months ago. It is there in the manic, last-minute beautification efforts that must include banishing the hawkers from their zones and hiding the poor out of sight. The Prime Minister has intervened at a time when it is common knowledge that thousands of crores have already gone into the bottomless CWG pit.

At a press conference a year ago, Dr. Singh admitted that he would have resigned if the civil nuclear deal with the United States had not gone through. There are areas of India that are crying out for the same zeal and commitment to be shown to them.


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