[ Daily News and Analysis, 7 Jan 2014 ; Millenium Post, 7 Jan 2014 ; Echo of India, 14 Jan 2014 ]
The Gregorian calendar says it is January now, so for a very many people, it is a new year. One near-constant thing about New Year days, birthdays, 100th anniversaries and the like, is that nothing is very different before and after that day. That does not stop us from making New Year resolutions or seminars about the special relevance of some dead man’s centennial. While each one of us may harbor private dreams about the year 2014 of Common Era, it is events and processes happening around us that would actually shape the year. I am tempted to string together some apparently unrelated developments in the last 30 days, to bring out what my private fantasy for 2014 might look like. It also happens to be an important public concern of the present day. I am talking about the battle between centralization and decentralization, between the hollowing and deepening of democracy. This is something that never surfaces as it is, always burrowing under some other agenda. But there it is, always, and always tense.
And it starts at daybreak. 6 am happens at the same moment all over the territory of the Union of India, because the central government had long decided so for the rest of us. However, the sun rises at vastly different moments in different parts of the world and Assam and Gujarat are indeed situated in different parts of the world. Bharat Mata’s children, held tightly together by the constitution, stand widely apart on the bosom of Mata Basundhara. Sadly, things like the sunrise and sunset, human physiological functions like sleeping and waking up and other things that predate man-made rules and nations and will outlive them too, are still not totally subject to the power of the central government. Such a state of affairs, even after 66 years after partition, is not the sign of a strong enough state. The Assam state has decided to delink its time from that of the ‘heart’ of Hindustan, Allahabad of Uttar Pradesh. If Assam has its way, it will no longer wake up according to the time governed by Mother Nature and the Sun god but go to work at a time that best suits Allahabad, the city where Ganga and Yamuna but not the Brahmaputra meet. I do not know what is more ironic – that it took 66 years for Assam to decide to abide by a time that is more in like with its geographical location or the fact that its decision is not enough and that it needs the approval of folks hailing from far-away longitudes. That many parts of the subcontinent had times more in line with their natural location before partition only adds a further layer of irony. If the Assam move succeeds, more areas might want pay more heed to chirpings in their surroundings than the ajaan from Delhi. A new force that has risen from Delhi seemingly wants to sing a different tune – this is the Aam Aadmi Party’s call for decentralization of decision-making power. If the party means what it says, the potentialities are immense. This being an election year with most parties being quite non-committal about joining one of the 2 ‘national’ parties, there is a faint possibility that some new life might be unleashed at the centre. Whether we want people’s opinion to matter in their own lives is a question that any purported democracy has to deal with. A true federal system should be capacious enough to accommodate diversity of needs and aspirations. This is the primary challenge that the subcontinent faces – beyond all the talk of development, growth, discontent and what not.
May be I am making a mountain out of a molehill. These couple of green shoots for the decentralizing ideal can easily be lost among the smoke emitted by the relentless centralizing state. The central cabinet is seriously thinking of starting the River Linking Project that aims to join most major rovers of the Indian Union. This project that will surely drown the land and culture of many a people will be don’t for ‘greater common good’. We know that not an inch of the National Capital Region (NCR) will ever be drowned for any good, however great, however common. Such is the absurdity of central decision-making in this purported powerhouse of information technology and wireless communication that the headquarters of the Coast guard and the Inland Waterway Authority are situated in a place that has absolutely nothing to do with the on-the-ground daily workings of these agencies. That is the heart of the giant that joins the NCR, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) and the Amritsar-Kolkata-Delhi Industrial Corridor (AKDIC). The naked power of centralized authority flavours these alphabet soups designed to drown the million discordant sounds from the ground. There can only be so many jobs and boom-towns, only so many rootless techies, academicians, corporates, pimps and their families that can grow up shielded from the discontent from evisceration of identities and selfhoods. But there is only so much alms that can the alphabet soup wallahs and their hip-urban collaborators can part with – so that centralizing can go on seamlessly. But there is a wide world out there that the centre cannot hold. Something must give.