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American government shuts down, but does it?

Driving through the American capital one can hardly tell that the government has shut down for nearly two weeks. There are no pickets in front of Capitol Hill and no slogan-shouting government workers. No candle light vigil at the National Mall which is a green stretch, the nearest equivalent of our Rajpath in New Delhi. Nobody is burning buses or vandalising public property. Water and electricity supply continue, airports and railways work as usual, public transport has not been affected. Federal agencies continue to work in areas, which are deemed critical to maintaining public safety and employees performing those critical functions are at work and being paid salaries.


No entry: A sign indicating that the Lincoln Memorial and all national parks are closed owing to the shutdown. Pic/AFP

So when the government shuts down in the biggest economy of the world, how does it really affect the people? About 3,50,000 civilian employees of the defence department who were furloughed were recalled. Meanwhile, 1.4 million active military personnel are still on duty. They even nabbed
al-Qaeda leader Al Libi in Libya and whisked him away to a military ship. And this is a government that has shut down!

Restaurants have started putting up cute notices which say free sandwiches for government employees during happy hours or a coffee on the house if you show your government ID. It is all very nice and civilised. But under this empathy lies genuine concern. There are mounting bills and mortgages to be paid.

There is anger building against politicians who seem annoyingly smug in not arriving at a deal and holding the people to ransom. Salary cheques did not arrive in thousands of homes last weekend. And when that happens, people are not interested in airy-fairy debates.

Washington is divided, like all other national capitals. One side says that US President Obama is too unbending, refusing to negotiate even a bit on the Health Bill or the Affordable Care Act dubbed Obamacare. The US president will not agree to the de-funding or derailing of Obamacare. The House Republicans are opposing the bill and have held up the budget forcing a government shut down. This is plain politics at play. Somewhat like what happened in India during the passing of the Food Security Bill or the India-US nuclear deal. Political sabre rattling begins in right earnest but after some time, it goes downhill and loses public support.

The Associated Press-GfK survey showed that 62 per cent of adults surveyed online mainly blame the Republicans for the current shutdown. The Washington Post/ABC poll showed 70 per cent Americans disapprove of how the Republicans are handling the budget negotiations, compared to 61 per cent for Democrats and 51 per cent for Obama. NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that a majority of Americans blame the Republicans for the shutdown, with the party’s popularity declining to its lowest level. It is an unmitigated disaster for the Republicans. Teflon Obama is sailing through with not much smear in his popularity, despite the glitches in the Healthcare website — or that the government has shut down.

While the Republicans are putting up a brave front and saying that they don’t watch the polls, the fact is that secretly all politicians are scared of polls.

Despite the sharp ideological divide, the Republicans realise they have to find an exit policy rather quickly without seeming to press the panic button. It is refreshing to see that despite the impasse, Republican House Majority Leader Cantor and US President Obama spoke to the press on several occasions, as did other politicians. Their media managers did not shield them from sharp questions thrown by the press. American politicians don’t hide behind walls of silence when confronted with probing questions.

Our politicians, on the other hand, seem to acquire some exalted status once they assume power. From those divine positions, they look with contempt at anyone who dares to question them. And the babus they gather around them add some more vinyl to their coating, protecting them from reporters who ask ‘uncomfortable’ (pertinent) questions. Whether the UP riots, Telangana imbroglio, convicted MPs ordinance, Keran incursion, there are walls of silence and darting behind curtains of obfuscation.

Indifference, incompetence and arrogance are a deadly combination for working governments.

Imagine if like in the US, our government was to shut down. In urban centres, there would be complete chaos. In rural India, things would pretty much function just as always. It is probably because in urban India we have grand expectations from the government. And the government is into too many aspects of our lives. It makes more sense to have more liberty and less government but as even the current US government shut down has shown, nobody quite knows how less is right.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on Twitter @smitaprakash

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