Tuesday, June 22, 2010

SECULARISM: FROM 16 ANNAS TO 16 PERCENT

Secularism, the ideal, was adopted as the "official religion" of free India. The idea behind it was as simple as it was profound: every Indian, irrespective of personal faith, was an equal stakeholder of the new state. Unlike the breakaway Pakistan that chose to count only Muslims annas -- a rupee had 16 annas those days, not 100 paise -- as primary citizens with full rights in all walks of life, India chose the 16-anna model.

63 years down the road, in Pakistan not only have the 'khota' annas (non-Muslims and heretic Muslims) all but disappeared, the prized annas too are in danger. The new coins being minted do not have Jinnah's face on them. Laden, Hafiz Sayeed, Jihad and the like are already the new and only legal tender across vast swathes of that country, poised to either take it over or perish in spectacular flames.

In India, the anna has yielded to the paisa, both literally and metaphorically. Particularly in politics. No political party thinks or talks of 16 annas any longer except in vague generalities which mean absolutely nothing. When it comes to doing or getting something tangible -- and that to a politician means power and money -- the paisa takes over. Now 100 is a lot more than 16 and, therefore, much easier to "cut". And that is precisely what has happened. So, whether it is a business deal, a contract, a licence, or some such instrument created to enrich the politician (and the babu), percentages determine decisions and outcomes, rare exceptions apart.

Pecuniary corruption exists in every nation, though it is not quite so pervasive as in India and some other countries growing large banana plantations. While that is a disease that needs to be urgently attended to in India, the real, the one that should be ringing alarm bells, but is chiming instead, is political corruption that strikes at the very foundations of secularism.

Admittedly, our founding fathers were somewhat guilty of taking the SC/ST chavanni out of the 16 Annas. It is they who started what has become the mess of reservations, the abdication of responsibility of the rulers for their failures to deliver what they had promised when India became free. Of course, no one can accuse them of dividing society for petty political gains, and that too when they did it temporarily to right a historical injustice. They also can't be fully blamed if their less than worthy successors converted the chavanni into 25% on a permanent basis and then set in motion a dynamic that has already cut the original 16 Annas into percentages ranging from one to 27, the latter being the OBC cut that a certain VP Singh inflicted on an unsuspecting India purely for petty political gain. That did not materialise for him but it gave his fellow politicians many more percentages to divide the Indian rupee into and reduce India's secularism and democracy into the farce that it has become now except, ironically, for those who have seceded from it and organised their lives in comfortable cocoons.

These days, the hottest prize that politicians are salivating over is Bihar. To be more precise, the prize their gaze is fixed on is the 16% Muslim vote, a "bank" that they see as the difference between victory and defeat, between political wilderness and the untold riches that power promises and delivers. We are not talking only of regional parties with extremely limited interests and vision but extremely large expectations and ambitions. We are talking of national parties, including those whose historical appeal was the 16-anna one of the rupee before 1947 and what remained of it thereafter.

Much of the remaining 84% politicians have already cut up divided into small parts among themselves, giving the likes of Laloo Yadav, for example, disproportionate power and leverage, and the heady arrogance that they are above and beyond the law and the land. The 16% in focus now is not just defined by religion: it is most amenable to bulk voting based on religious dictat. Now this makes the division starkly communal by whichever definition you look at it. But, that does not daunt our politicians. They have managed to secularise even this exclusive piece by calling it "inclusive". No lessons have been learnt from the manner in which secularism has been hijacked by political parties and leaders who have gained power solely on the basis of votes of certain castes and communities, and who have blatantly corrupted all instruments that they can to unfairly 'reward' those of their castes/communities in return.

Now the game is to create even more, even smaller, pieces from the remaining general pie. That is the real reason for the demand for a caste census, reservation for Muslims and, at one level, women in Parliament. Let us face one simple truth: no piece can be termed to be "inclusive". The moment you lavish attention on one and give it an entitlement for anything, it has to be at the expense of another. Worse, the moment you appease one, you set in motion social dynamics that can have disastrous consequences even after and for decades. But who cares? The ones who should have protected themselves from its effects; they are not going to be personally impacted by any social or communal churning and violence except if and when it reaches the 'Bastille'. Since there is still no evidence of that happening -- the Indian cake being so hopelessly divided and weakened -- nothing is going to stop them from doing what they are.

The business of politics is now about grabbing and retaining power. All means fair. That is why secularism has slid from the 16-anna avatar it was conceived as to the 16% one we are seeing today and the 1.6% plutocracy that our politicians are in the process of turning it into, to ensure that India passes again into the hands of less than a thousand families and dynasties. Secularism is now little more than a political condom.