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Morbi: Not just a Bridge, it is the Collapse of The State

Morbi: Not just a Bridge, it is the Collapse of The State

A recent viral video provided an accurate snapshot of the wretched state of India’s governance. Images of workmen hastily refurbishing the crumbling civil hospital in Gujarat’s Morbi ahead of  a prime ministerial visit offer a glimpse of a dystopian reality. As a small town recovers from the unimaginable tragedy of a bridge collapse caused by criminal negligence leading to loss of  scores of  lives, the idea that grief can be hidden from public gaze by an extra coat of  paint is just appalling. But then it is election season in Gujarat and the ‘chamak’ or glitter of  a much-hyped ‘Gujarat model’ must mask the grime of  a rundown government hospital and an ineffectual local administration. We are, after all, in the age of flashy optics where the perfect photo-op matters above all else.

Consider also the recent visuals from the religious gathering or ‘satsang’ of Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the self-styled spiritual head of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, being attended by VVIPs, including MLAs and ministers. The  Dera chief, convicted of  rape and murder, is out on parole for forty days, the timing of  his release conveniently tied in with a Haryana by election and Himachal assembly polls, two states where the Dera sect has a considerable following. In one video, a BJP minister from Himachal seeks ‘aashirwaad’ from the convicted godman, almost as if  white-washing the crimes of  a rapist-murderer in full public glare. 

Recall also another recent video that went viral of  eleven persons convicted of  rape and murder in the 2002 Bilkis Bano case being feted and garlanded by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Gujarat after their life sentence was remitted. As the subsequent Gujarat government affidavit in the Supreme Court reveals, the premature release of  the convicts was opposed by the Central Bureau of  Investigation and the special court in Mumbai which had conducted the trial. Here too, the political angle is unmistakable: with Gujarat in election mode, the quest for the ‘Hindu vote’ appears to override all else.

A fourth video is just as revealing. A BJP MP from West Delhi, Parvesh Verma is seen exhorting a crowd to economically boycott a ‘community’ and ‘teach them a lesson’. Without specifically naming Muslims, there are enough references in his rabble-rousing speech to instantly realize who the supposed ‘enemy’ is. It is a hate speech delivered with impunity, brazenly designed to cement a vote bank: Delhi too is about to witness a high stakes municipal election battle. 

Collectively, these videos are a pointer to a deeper moral and political crisis that engulfs our democratic set-up. Firstly, there is a visible lack of  accountability amongst those in authority. How can government officials in Morbi get away with the bald lie that they were not aware that the iconic colonial era bridge had been re-opened for public use after renovation? To blame overcrowding while ignoring the obvious lack of  police security at the bridge is a gross dereliction of  duty. Likewise, how can the Haryana government claim that it is unaware of the gross abuse of parole granted to the Dera boss? Or the home ministry remain silent on the Bilkis case although the release was green flagged by the ministry? In the Verma case, ‘sources’ claim  that the BJP leadership is ‘unhappy’ with the MP’s utterances but there has been no formal reprimand nor any action taken by the Delhi police. 

Secondly, each of  these instances point to an institutional corrosion and lack of good governance at multiple levels. Civic administrations have earned a reputation for sloth and corruption: the Morbi administration’s failure to supervise basic safety norms on the bridge mirrors this grim reality. The convicted Dera chief  being allowed to hold large public gatherings shows up the bogusness of  the criminal justice system that is meant to ensure equality before the law. Short-circuiting the process to remit the life sentence of  convicted murderers and rapists in the Bilkis case shows how the law can be subverted at the highest level by partisan politics. The lack of action in the Delhi hate speech case exposes just how compromised the police force is: a student-activist Umar Khaled’s bail will be stoutly opposed even after he has spent two years in jail but a well-connected ruling party MP wont be touched.

Thirdly, the conspicuous silence of  those in power when confronted with hard questions reveals a moral bankruptcy that is telling. How can the all-powerful ‘double engine’ Gujarat government refuse to accept any responsibility for contracting a private company with no past experience in civil engineering projects to maintain a bridge that obviously needed an expert structural audit? How, for example, does the Bilkis case or indeed the serial hate speech offences by ruling party members square up with the Modi government’s catchy slogan of  ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas’? Or is it that we have reached a stage in our polity where the lofty goals of good governance and social cohesion are at complete odds with the realities of  power politics, where political and constitutional morality must be forsaken at the altar of  electoral benefit?

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It is this deepening coarseness of  a  ‘power at all costs’ mantra that leaves one wondering what it will take to restore a moral quotient to a democracy in recession? Take for example, the goings on in Maharashtra. The opposition’s slogan ‘panas khokhe, ekdum ok’ is an allusion to its claim that Rs 50 crores were paid to each Shiv Sena rebel to switch sides. However, the same opposition when in power was accused of  being a ‘vasooli sarkar’ (a government of  extortionists) with its home minister still in jail for alleged money laundering and extortion. It is almost as if  the citizenry is being asked to choose between two sides that are both mired in allegations of  serious corruption, leaving those seeking genuine transformation with very few options. This week, a collapsing bridge in Gujarat has anguished many but it is the more lingering collapse of  the collective political conscience that should truly torment all of us.

When in despair, take solace in soulful poetry: Ummeed par hai duniya kayam, yeh waqt bura bhee tal jayega; roshni mein phir badal jayega, samay ke saath badal jayega! (the world lives on hope, this bad time too will pass; the light will return and change will come with time).

Post-script: I am sometimes asked how I switch off from the slough of despondency that courses through prime time news. My answer: just listen to retro Hindi film music or watch an archival cricket match. You should try it too!       

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