Monday, 15 August 2011

India turns 64

Today marks India's independence day - did you notice the rather nice graphic of the Red Fort on Google? It being a national holiday, I had great plans to go up to the Fort and meander down to the Rajpath to enjoy the spectacle. Unfortunately, plans were derailed by a stonking migraine (which generally seem to hit me on days when I am not due to be in work anyway, curses). By the time I felt human enough to leave the house, the crowds had long since dispersed, leaving only some out-of-towners gaping at India Gate, the occasional toddler forlornly waving the Indian flag, and a few autorickshaw drivers who'd missed the rush to get home. It was all a bit of an anticlimax.

Ah well, there's always next year. In any case I understand the REALLY big parades happen for Republic Day, which is in January, so I will save my ace reporter hat until then.

Independence Day is also the day on which the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, delivers his annual address to the nation. I haven't seen the full transcript, but if the press reports are anything to go by, this was no optimistic, rally-rousing State of the Union type affair. The focus has been almost entirely on his comments about corruption, as the powers that be do battle over the "Lokpal Bill" - the legislation to set up an ombudsman to deal with the problem - and in particular, over how extensive the ombudsman's powers should be. For the last few months the defining story of Indian politics has been the hunger strike carried out by Anna Hazare, who is demanding stronger powers for the body than the government currently seems prepared to grant.

The impression given by the media is of a rather defensive speech, in which Mr Singh protested that the government has no "magic wand" to deal with the issue of corruption. He also argued that hunger strikes will not help solve the problem. I agree with him, but since hunger striking as a political tool was employed extensively by Mahatma Gandhi himself, you can understand why it remains a potent weapon in India.

If the speech was defensive in tone, this was matched by the PM's physical environment: he was behind a bullet-proof enclosure as he went over issues from land rights to terrorism and the economy. India is taking no chances. I don't blame them - they face real threats from domestic and international terrorism - but I can't help thinking that this kind of measure risks reinforcing perceptions of a distant and removed governing elite, which may feed further into popular resentment over corruption.

Overall, though, I don't really understand why the popular mood seems so overwhelmingly negative at the moment. India's economy may have slowed recently, but the concern is that it may not quite manage 8% growth this year. I'm pretty sure that if David Cameron was looking at 8% growth there would be parties in the streets of London rather than riots. Indian democracy may be flawed, but its politics are a hell of a lot healthier than those of other countries in the region. And speaking of the region, relations in general are looking better now than they have in years - particularly with Bangladesh, where Sonia Gandhi was a couple of weeks ago and where Mr Singh is going next month. As I speculated in my last post, India may be gearing up to play a positive leadership role in South Asia through its new development agency. Whatever doubts I have about that, it's not the action of a country in trouble.

On the other hand, after the thrashing India just got at the hands of England in the cricket, maybe it's not surprising the mood is a bit sour this independence day. Still, the flags keep flying, and however bitter the current internal conflicts are, India still has plenty about which it can be proud and optimistic on its 64th birthday.

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