By now most of you must have heard about the 2010 Commonwealth Games being held in Delhi. It has descended into an orgy of incompetence, inefficiency and corruption so much so that it has been nicknamed as the "Commonwealth Shames". The rose tinted glasses with which the West has viewed India have now been taken off. It has not been a pretty sight. As always, what we see is the quintessential paradox - a country poised on the precipice, hanging in balance between Greatness and Mediocrity.
What is it that ails the nation? The troubles are many - terrorism, religious intolerance, discrimination, inequity. But the primary villain seems to be the all pervading corruption. Anyone who needs anything from the government needs to grease the palms of several middlemen. It acts as a retrogressive tax with the poor bearing the brunt rather than the rich. But the worst effect of them all is the desensitization of the people to the malaise affecting them. The victims soon develop "landscape amnesia" and accept their plight as the new normal. They too start stealing from the till thereby perpetuating the cycle of corruption. The outgoing Central Vigilance Commissioner of India - the anti-corruption watchdog has said that 80% of the populace is corrupt. Note that we are talking about you and me here and not just the bureaucrats or the high and mighty. A thieving population adds additional burdens to doing business and setting up public institutions. Security guards will be needed to guard the warehouses at night and electricity utilities need to keep a watchful eye on the pilferers who steal bulbs, cables and even electricity.
This was not always the case. Megasthenes talks about a country where no one cared to lock their homes while stepping out. My own state of Kerala worships the emperor Mahabali and hails his reign as a time marked with the absence of treachery and thievery. So how did we end up in this sorry state of affairs? My theory is that this is the result of a malfunctioning framework - the justice system. The raison d'etre of a government is maintaining law and order. All of its arms are geared towards this purpose. It has a monopoly on organized violence in the form of police and army. It has a judicial system that ensures that grievances are heard and addressed. The legislature lays down the laws of the land that benefit all and can be reasonably enforced by the police and the justice system. Like a good farmer, it creates a patch of earth where ideas can grow and flourish, unimpeded by the corrupt and the criminal.
Apparently the land of India seems to be increasingly overgrown by weeds. The hinterlands have been taken over by a Maoist insurgency purportedly fighting for the rights of forest dwelling tribals. Nature abhors vacuum - whenever government power wanes, another rises up to take its place. The government has fought back by alternately terrorizing and bribing the population but to no avail. To solve this problem, one needs to think less like a civil engineer and more like a software engineer. Because this is not a conflict of material resources. It is instead a war of ideas and frameworks. We are all familiar with the Unix versus Windows flame wars. So how did Windows end up victorious? .. not by destroying all the Unix boxes in the world or by bribing Unix programmers to switch to Visual Studio. Microsoft studied its adversary closely and rapidly upgraded its OS to close chinks in its armour. It freely gave away Visual Studio to schools and pretty soon a new generation of programmers rose up to preach the virtues of Windows. In short, Windows upgraded its framework to be a viable competitor to Unix.
Contrast this with the Indian justice system. Cases take upto 15 years for completion. Witness protection is non-existent. As a result, a record number of witnesses turn hostile. The police are loath to arrest the big-fish as the cases will drag on for years. Instead they try to cover up their impotence by imprisoning the small frys. The biggest tragedy in India is the plight of the undertrials - these are the accused who do not have enough money to defend themselves. They do not have enough money or power to get bail and so languish in the jails while waiting for their cases to be heard by the mighty judges. Most of them thus end up being imprisoned for years even though they have not been convicted of any crime. Thus the perverse system ensures that communal rioters backed by deep-pocked political parties go scot free while the low level henchmen (most of them poor Muslims) are behind bars. Pretty soon you have talks of the government treating the Muslims as second class citizens. Add in dollops of Pakistani cannon fodder and a tinge of Saudi oil money and presto the genie of terrorism is out of the bottle.
So how does one fix a moribund justice system? Is it even possible? For starters, increase the number of courts and judges. Bring in witness protection. Computerize case records. Periodically review the laws and throw out ones that are outdated and absurd. In short, do whatever it takes to unclog the judicial arteries so that the common man may once again have faith. History looks kindly upon rulers who have been abe to pull off this feat. The Ottoman Kanuni Sultan Suleyman became "The Magnificent" as a result of being "The Lawmaker" - he rewrote the Ottoman laws ensuring that the empire outlived him for another four centuries.
Is there any hope that this will ever happen? I find solace in the history of Crusades where an overpopulated, backward Europe waged war on the Muslim world. While the crusaders were eventually crushed, they brought back with them tales of glittering cities in the East and their technical prowess. A yearning to catch up with the East led to the influx of new ideas. Soon enough, Europe was dragged kicking and screaming from the Dark Ages and into the light of the Renaissance. The last decade has seen an ever increasing Indian diaspora plying their trade in the West and the rest of Asia. As the recession in the West runs its course, a number of them will return home bringing with them new ideas and expectations. As they get increasingly dismayed by the sorry plight of their nation, they will cry out for new ideas and fresh thinking.
"Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come." - Victor Hugo