India’s former Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde (Picture courtesy: TV grab from www.ndtv.com)
Those who harbor delusions of grandeur of India as the emerging superpower are feeling depressed for the last couple of days ever since the country was plunged into a historic two-day electrical blackout affecting 670 million people in 19 states.
The story of the world’s largest blackout made global headlines and painted a picture of a country in dire need of a massive infrastructural upgrade and sobriety check.
Although in terms of its dramatic news value the Indian blackout is not that different from the August 14, 2003, Northeast blackout that hit 55 million people in Northeastern and Midwestern America as well as Canada, its scale was way bigger. The Northeast blackout pushed almost all news out on all broadcast news across America. It also caused some measure of schadenfreude in the world about America’s embarrassing failure quite like what India is experiencing right now. In either case I think the world is too harsh on itself.
We do not seem to realize that every time we flip a switch on it triggers a most complex set of electricity generation and distribution processes. It remains as much a marvel today as it was when the Serbian-American physicist and inventor Nikola Tesla pioneered the alternating current (AC) supply system on a commercial scale towards the end of the 19th century. It is not my case that as a modern civilization we set our sights low but it is indeed my case that we recognize the complexities that every step towards modernity entails. Things will always go wrong no matter how advanced we have become because the more advanced we become, the more diversity of failure we create.
With that wholly unnecessary pep talk out of the way, let me tell you what I found most amusing about the Indian blackout. It was a frequent and urgent reference by India’s broadcast news anchors to how traffic signals stopped working because of the blackout. It was as if on normal days when the traffic lights work just fine, drivers cannot get enough of them and follow them with utmost respect. In the nation’s capital New Delhi, for instance, many drivers might have said, “Wait, there are traffic lights in Delhi? We did not know that.”
Another unintentionally amusing story was the cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the midst of the world’s worst power failure. As part of the reshuffle Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde was “promoted” to the country’s home minister, in charge of internal security. P. Chidambaram, who was the home minister, was “promoted” to the country’s finance minister because the original finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee went on to become the country’s president. As a result the power ministry fell vacant and was quickly filled by Veerappa Moily as an additional charge other than the ministry of corporate affairs that he already heads. The scenario where Shinde on whose watch the failure occurred would be apparently rewarded caused considerable displeasure.
It was quickly pointed out by the ruling Congress Party’s spokespersons that Shinde had been a competent power minister and one breakdown should not be used to dilute his accomplishments, such as they are. Shinde told NDTV’s Barkha Dutt that he was “an excellent power minister.” It takes a bold man to make that claim hours after the country’s worst power crisis. Shinde also made it a point to contrast the fact that power was largely restored in India in about two hours after each failure where as, he said, it took nearly four days in America.
Covering Maharashtra state politics in the Bombay of the mid and late 1980s I used to know Shinde reasonably well. His is quite a striking story of a man who began his career as a police sub-inspector who has now gone on to head the country’s homeland security. He once joked when a police constable languidly saluted him on entering the state assembly hall, “Mi tuamchya peksha far chhan salami deu shakato. (I can salute much better than you).” He was obviously recalling his days as a police officer.
Given his background it is unlikely that Shinde will feel particularly perturbed by the fierce criticism of his tenure as the power minister. If he did, he would not have risen from a junior police officer to now become the boss of the country’s internal security. It would take much more than a historic blackout to get the man down.
P.S.: India: The Next Supernopower is my churlish response to the crisis.