Why Delhi can never be DC
At the end of a remarkable and historic week in Washington, DC, it was difficult to not envy the character and traditions of transition in the world’s power capital. Some attributes stood out on January 20, when President Barack Obama took office, and in the build-up to the date.
The sobriety, the dignity, the weight of hundreds of millions of hopes — Washington’s political elite acted as it felt decency demanded of it. The contrast with Delhi was too obvious to be missed.
At the outset, let it be stressed it is not the quality of democracy that is being measured. It is not as if American democracy is in any manner superior to Indian democracy. The complex matrix of individual freedom, group bargaining, transactional motivations and local factors that propels the average American’s vote is no different from that of an average Indian. In the Midwest and in Madhya Bharat, democracy marches to the same drummer.
Neither is this to suggest that Washington, DC, is somehow a shining metropolis far removed from Lutyens’ conspiratorial city. Both capitals have their dirty deals and deal-makers, lobbies and interest groups, entrenched bureaucracies, fixers and fixtures.
Yet, a sense of renewal is almost institutionalised into the transition in Washington’s federal administration. The conclusion of the election process — with the new set taking charge — becomes what it should be: A celebration of democracy and of all that is good and great in a free society. In Delhi, so often, it only gives way to bitterness and recriminatory anger.
True, part of the reason is the nature of the parliamentary system. In the United States, voters elect a clear winner. When they don’t, as in the contentious 2000 election, the ill-will extends for weeks. However, what is the exception there has become the rule here.In India, the messy nature of coalition politics means that negotiations often begin after the votes are counted.
Compromise drafts for a governance agenda are hammered out. Brinkmanship is resorted to in choices of Ministers and Ministries. In 1998, Ms Jayalalithaa kept Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee waiting and waiting before she furnished a letter of support from the AIADMK. Mr N Chandrababu Naidu agreed to a Telugu Desam MP becoming Lok Sabha Speaker under such stringent conditions and with such an impossible deadline that a control room in Delhi had to monitor flight timings and airport clearances. In 2004, even before the UPA could take office, the Left went ballistic on television and announced it was going to destroy the stock markets, economic reforms, Indian capitalism, whatever.
Elections are sacred moments. There is something solemn, spiritual and emotionally moving about a process in which the proverbial last woman in the last village helps shape the destiny of a nation, and humbles smug power practitioners in a distant capital city.
The swearing in of a new President or a new Government is the political class’s occasion for thanksgiving, to tell the electorate its voice has been heard and honoured. It sanctifies the transition and the election that preceded it as a new beginning. That is what Washington, DC, experienced this past week. In Delhi, however, politicians see elections as a rude interruption in the normal course of politics, which carries on in the same manner, regardless of what India thinks and how India votes.
As the Obama presidency began, three elements of Washington’s rite of passage stood out. First, the civility between winner and loser was remarkable
. On January 19, the evening before he entered the Oval Office, Mr Obama spoke at a banquet honouring Mr John McCain. He embraced the man he had defeated and described him as “an American hero”.
Later, and earlier, he praised President George W Bush for impeccable cooperation in the transition period, for ushering the new First Family into the White House. All along, though, Mr Obama determinedly but politely expressed his policy disagreements with his predecessor.
What would it cost Delhi to do business in this manner? Imagine the Congress-UPA loses the election in May 2009. Could the incoming Prime Minister host a dinner for Mr Manmohan Singh and thank him for his service to India? How difficult would it be for new Ministers to call on their immediate predecessors — for the new Railway Minister to visit Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav, for the new Foreign Minister to travel to Mr Pranab Mukherjee’s residence — for words of advice, for conversation, for great atmospherics?
It would be a small gesture but it would make India feel awfully proud of itself. National unity
, remember, is not just about getting together for a strong parliamentary resolution each time there’s a terrorist attack and then going back to strife as usual. It is also about habitually reinforcing a collective commitment to India and its institutions.
The second feature was the quiet manner in which President and Mrs Bush boarded a plane as private citizens and left for Texas on January 20 itself. There was no question of hanging around in Washington, demanding a Government bungalow, hankering for some bauble or the other, consulting astrologers to find out if constitutional coups were possible.
This leads to the third point — the fact that the 50 United States eventually give Washington its legitimacy. In Delhi, the perennial politicos treat the Republic of India as an appendage. Mr Obama is from Illinois, Mr Bush from Texas; every four years a new incumbent, representing a new State, a new sensibility, a new idea — its efficacy or otherwise a matter for the future — arrives to run Washington.
To some degree, he fashions the city in his own image.
In comparison, power shift in Delhi is a revolving door. One lot of tired minds replaces another. The permanent establishment, the familiar faces from the bureaucracy, peddle old ideas in new garbs, garnished with such empty clichés as “change in continuity”. The primal energies and the talents of the rest of India — of the States in this vast and spectacularly diverse society — are never allowed to be put to use.
As the Obama election established, Washington, for all its ivory tower existence, is periodically re-conquered by America. Delhi, however, increasingly becomes an insular entity, sequestered from the rest of the country. At the best of times, that is not a happy thought; in an election year, it is a tragedy.