Big bang theories
Following the horrific stampede on the over-bridge linking the Elphinstone Road and the Parel suburban railway station, at Mumbai, the public uproar contextualising the misalignment of priorities by positing the Bullet Train versus the more pressing need to upgrade the Railway infrastructure argument, was expected. The irate crowd at the site of the tragedy, without the political trappings and compulsions of the newsroom spokespersons, tore into the obvious opportunity to question such 'symbols of development' when the basic edifice was crumbling and resulting in frequent railway mishaps and tragedies. Hard statistics like the prohibitive ticket-size of Rs 1.1 Trillion for the Bullet-Train (almost the exact amount as was committed in the 2014 Railway Budget for the five-year expenditure on network expansion and safety improvements in the entire country!), came tumbling out. Shades akin to earlier, though less audible murmurs of the misplaced priorities of Bullet-Train vis-à-vis the 'bullets' and 'bullet-proof jackets' (security infrastructure), as made by Veterans, made a comeback.
That the feasibility study for six high-speed corridors was introduced in the 2009-10 Railway Budget, was generally ignored, as the ruling party had successfully appropriated the grandeur, imagination and boldness of the Bullet Train as its signature initiative. The fickleness of the wary and opinionated Indian voter is getting increasingly instigated as the dust settles on the initial-magnificence of the 'Big-Bang' initiatives that sought to transform the Indian narrative like the fiscal game-changer GST, the much-publicised military tactic of 'Surgical Strikes', the multiple goal-post changing 'Demonetisation', to the symbolic move of 21st century modernisation via the Bullet-Train.
The immediate contrast with the previous UPA-2 regime was odious, as it made the boldness of these 'Big-Bang' initiatives, even more seductive to the senses. The occasional doubting-Thomases were relegated to the ignominy of 'anti-nationals' or 'pseudos' of various hues. Comfortable electoral wins in the crucial heartland of Uttar Pradesh, further laid to rest any potential backlash from the masses, owing to any perceived negativity on 'Demonetisation' and the juggernaut of the Big-Bang initiatives rolled-on, imperiously. The contrast of decisiveness with the previous regime was carefully reiterated to demonstrate the resolve and the ability to 'push-through' the agenda. However, the psyche of the average Indian voter is both susceptible to its latent instincts, as it is, to the civilisational restraint and moderation that soon tires of the 'fantastic', as the socio-economic wherewithal to sustain big-changes does not come naturally to a 5000-year-old civilisation, especially if the outcome falls short of the promised reformatory manna. In participative democracies, patience is perennially in short supply.
By themselves, the 'Big-Bang' initiatives are neither right nor wrong, as they could be borne out of necessity (e.g. the economic crisis of 1991), or out of smart strategic choices that have the requisite domain logic as opposed to political utility, brilliance and timing. While there is a certain unanimity in the idea of tax reforms and simplicity amongst the populace and the political classes (notwithstanding the grandstanding opposition to the implementation by all political parties, when in opposition), the end-verdict on the actual implementation is still out there with the expected teething issues and murmurs of complexity by the business community. Although, the same cannot be said about the 'Big-Bang' of Demonetisation, wherein, the larger set of economic pundits forewarned about the futility and damage to the economy. The judicious prudence was given a rough-shod and the flexibility demonstrated in frequently changing the goal-post to defend the initiative started raising eyebrows.
Across the LOC, the neighbouring country ushered its own Big-Bang initiative of the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) – however, seen from a Pakistani perspective of sheer economic, geopolitical and diplomatic desperation, the almost $50 billion initiative cannot be faulted for its overt and covert logic.
Fundamentally, the politics of India and the other democracies have changed and they seek definitive, fundamental and scale course-corrections that showcase certain game-changing speed and impact, even at the cost of constitutional propriety, sobriety and inclusivity. The needle of the principle of Indian politics has swerved from the controlled 'left-of-centre' in its initial decades, to a deliberately corrected 'centrist' mooring after the economic revolution of the 90's, to the now more decidedly 'right-of-centre' instincts – a logical outcome from 'the party with a difference'. Like certain undeniable governance and paralysis issues preceding the 2014 Indian General Elections, the 'centrist' parties across the globe were suffering in their emotive appeal to be seen as progressive or emboldening philosophies. Whereas, the 'rightist' parties appealed to the latent basic-instincts of the masses from Delhi, Washington DC, to nearly-so in Paris, and more recently, Berlin.
The 'rightist' parties successively appropriated the 'nationalistic' credentials with embedded strains of majoritarianism to storm the various national assemblies and catch the imagination of the mainstream with bold, exclusivist and revisionist refrains like 'Make America Great Again' (with promises of the 'wall') or like AfD's (Alternative for Germany) Alexander Gauland's warning of the "invasion of foreigners". The natural propensity to propound the Big-Bang theories of change, usually reside with these 'rightist' dispensations, as the 'centrist' approach is to take the entire gamut along in an incrementalist approach that can be construed as passive and lacking resolve. In recent times, the ostensibly pusillanimous 'centrist' options have been readily debunked, for supposedly, resolute 'rightist' dispensations. But now, a few years into these regimes, hard questions about the fundamental changes on the ground, abound.
Having banked the electoral goodies of the Big-Bang initiatives, the government should be equally prepared to face certain logical and illogical questions, every time terror strikes, a train derails or the economic data reflects uncomfortable statistics. Ironically, more than the opposition parties, it is the cold facts and figures at the fingertips of the common man that will keep the democratic traditions and impulses throbbing. Big-Bang theories remain in the realm of theories, unless they deliver. The soul of India need not be reinvented or rewritten – there is enough and more to blame on the past, but the blame-game also comes with a shelf-life that soon wanes in case the promised change does not take place. That the change comes through the muscularity and grandness of Big-Bang theories or through the more sober and calibrated means is not germane, what really matters, is the end-result.
(Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. The views are strictly personal.