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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Modi, moksha and India

Admirable though Narendra Modi’s commitments are, he may have bitten off more than one man can chew. Take, for instance, his statement at the American Council on Foreign Relations,: “In Hindu mythology, they say you can attain moksha if you visit the char dhams… but a government file travels across 32 tables and still nothing gets done!” Americans in the audience burst out laughing; the courtiers disguised as media reporters accompanying Modi applauded as he added, “We have tried to speed up that process.” But has he succeeded? Can he hope to succeed?

New brooms sweep clean, and a defence ministry official is quoted as saying they “are all buying brooms to clean up the bathrooms”. But why were the bathrooms so filthy in the first place? They are used by senior officers, and armies of jamadars are paid to keep them clean. The answer to that question leads us to the traditions, thinking, character and lifestyle of 1.25 billion Indians. As a child in the 1940s, I remember Bengali film stars guiding pedestrians to cross roads only at the newly painted zebra crossings. The zebra crossings are still there but everyone ignores them.

Modi is conscious of failings. He wants to correct them. Leaders aren’t usually aware of problems that don’t affect them directly. Jyoti Basu was surprised when someone complained of Kolkata’s potholed roads. He hadn’t noticed any during his daily drives to and from Writers’ Buildings. No one dared tell him that great care and expense ensured that that stretch was kept smooth. I also remember an Indian diplomat’s outrage when a Singaporean mentioned the hassles of doing business in India. “But it’s a one-window system now!” he exclaimed. An American murmured that all the questionnaires from all the other windows had been brought to that one open window so that getting clearances remained as complicated as at the height of the licence-permit-raj.

It’s a good thing that 1,000 archaic laws will be repealed. But if laws are stupid, their interpretation is worse. As our “termination” hassle at Kolkata Customs (which I’ve described before) showed, this is usually because semi-educated clerks don’t understand English. Customs didn’t object to our luggage or valuation when we returned to India after a two-year stint in Singapore. But their Bible – the Baggage Rules booklet – stipulated the exemptions we sought applied only to Indians working abroad who had returned home on the termination of employment there. We were indisputably Indian. I had obviously been working abroad. But had I been “terminated”? The expiry date in my university teaching contract wasn’t a “termination certificate” in their eyes.

The machi mara kerani (literally, the clerk who kills flies, in Bengali) who faithfully copied the outline of a swatted fly stuck on a page of an old ledger whose entries he had to transfer to a new book, is flourishing. I met him the other day in my bank. When I returned from England in 1960 and opened that account, it was naturally in my full name. But my newspaper byline had already substituted the initial K for my second name, Kisor. That’s how I have received cheques from all over the world for 54 years. My machi mara kerani now says that under Reserve Bank of India regulations, cheques must be in my full name. He either rejects any in favour of Sunanda K Datta-Ray or demands a completed indemnity form.

The problem isn’t only with sticklers. Obstructiveness is worse. Also laziness and cutting corners. Attendance at work was timely only during the Emergency. In theory, people can be punished for spitting or urinating in public, jaywalking, not keeping their offices spick and span, dirtying the Ganga, insulting women, and breaching the thousand and one disciplines that are essential for civilised living. But that would mean rolling China’s Great Leap Forward and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution into one in a five-year frame.

Is it possible? People can argue that just as coercion contradicts democracy, a revolutionary paradise doesn’t go with Navratri fasting. The wellspring of Modi’s zeal lies in orthodoxy rather than rationalism, but perhaps an appeal to faith is the only way of getting anything done in India. Meanwhile, the cumbrously named newly created skill development, entrepreneurship, youth affairs and sports ministry belies earlier reports of confusion. The minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, a bachelor like Modi but favouring bright sports shirts, says he sits at his Shastri Bhawan office till nine most nights clearing files. But seven Asiad golds suggest the moksha Modi mentioned hasn’t altogether eluded him.

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