India is an increasingly rich country that fails to invest in its sources of wealth
Even as India suffered a huge electricity blackout on Tuesday, with about 700 million people deprived of light, fans (in 30C heat) and trains, it was good to see that Indians had not lost their readiness to crack a joke. Here is one that has been doing the rounds this week: Q. What do you call a power failure in Delhi? A. Manmohan Singh.
As one-liners go, that is rather unfair, yet utterly right. Unjust because the Indian prime minister's main fault in this affair is to be in charge when things went so badly wrong. Sometimes unworldly, often indecisive, Mr Singh remains one of Delhi's good guys: a progressive and an intellectual in a political system that all too often rewards the opposite qualities. Where the joke hits its mark, however, is in pinning the blame for this latest fiasco on India's political classes. This is true in both the narrowest sense and in a much broader one. For proof of the former, look no further than this: rather than apologise for two days during which 20 of India's 28 provincial states suffered blackouts, the country's power minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, blamed the states themselves for "overdraw" of electricity. Instead of sorting out this mess, the unimpressive Mr Shinde was promoted on Tuesday afternoon to home minister. Whatever the unadmirable qualities of contemporary British politics, imagine any cabinet minister failing to apologise for presiding over such a first-class foul-up, then being awarded a promotion. Such, sadly, is the typical high-handedness of India's political classes, who too often lack any sense of obligation to their voters.
That lack of connection can be seen in the broader politics of this week's debacle. There cannot have been an intelligent MP in the Lok Sabha (India's House of Commons) who did not see this power crunch coming. Indeed, the power grid that serves Delhi and the northern part of the country collapsed in 2001. As the country has enjoyed record growth over the past decade, the demands for power have grown – and so too the imperative to plan for energy needs. Little of this has happened. As the novelist Amit Chaudhuri remarked in these pages, India is an increasingly rich country that fails to invest in its sources of wealth: roads, health, schools, power. The result is a nation that has prospered (in parts and very unequally) despite the state, not because of it. Middle-class Indians have sent their children to English-medium private schools, who have gone on to jobs at multinationals who lay on private healthcare, private transport – and private schooling.
This is not some paean to privatisation; it is simply a reflection of how a governing class has let down the people it is meant to serve. Power may return to India this week; political power in Delhi is overdue for radical reform.