4th February 2001

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53 years on

Habits and traditions too have their ritualistic value, and it is in this spirit that we do the customary retrospective on this country's 53 years since independence.

Certainly, some of those ritual questions themselves would garner more bitter answers in this the 53rd year. Economically our living standards are plummeting down in some kind of macabre death spiral. Our democratic institutions have, as is custom now, been assailed. These institutions have not been able to withstand the assault of the rapacious "politikka", or the ubiquitous politician, who has never been able to put country before self or party

. Our country's institutional elite, which could at least have been a bulwark against the political tinkering that goes on in the background, have also it seems failed us. Have our judges prosecutors and policemen for instance, by and large, operated within the rule of law, which has it that all men and women are equal in the temples of justice? Or have they traversed the beaten path of the politician, and put self before duty, sucking up to the powers that be for promotions and pitiful plums of office?

The answer increasingly appears to be in the affirmative.

A burgeoning middle class has almost been a stamp of respectability in a nation that has been for too long economically underdeveloped. This middle class has soldiered on and been resilient, despite bitter power struggles, conflicts and insurrections in the background.

But, is this middle class so charmed that it will continue to thrive under the weight of a population that is too big for a country mismanaged and corrupted at the highest levels of government?

Some of this middle class has sought the escape hatch. They have scooted off, leaving behind a haemorrhaging country to its own devices, seeking security and perhaps a better life in some parts of North America or Europe. Others have sought a short interregnum in the Gulf, some quite humbly as housemaids. All have been in one way or the other disillusioned and at the end of 53 years, and have been left wondering what went wrong after 1948?

A full - blown war is probably not something that the fondest backers of the independence movement envisaged for a young country which held out such promise. At independence, our exchequer was said to be quite well stocked, but this year, the biggest worry of the country's ruling elite has been how to make ends meet as the Brahmins of the Finance Ministry polish their begging bowls to go very soon to the donor countries `- the imperialists who once ruled us - and fall at their feet. The foreign reserves have basically had to be doled out to arms merchants, who have loved the bukshee, and also what it can do to a country's moral fabric. A few commissions here and there, and they know they have learnt the trick to keep the orders coming with a fat cheque at the end of it.

It has been difficult to hold out hope in this backdrop, but a nation cannot like some corner-side tea boutique decide to put up shutters, and close shop. It is difficult to ask that we turn the corner in this 53rd year, and not that there is any such sanguine hope. But, it wouldn't be too much to ask for some de-escalation of crisis. This is not to call for a cease-fire, but to ask that the ruling cabal address the problems of corruption, mismanagement, waste and the problem of the war, and the constant harassment of political opponents, real or otherwise, with at least some reasonable degree of accountability, common sense and grace.

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