Thursday, April 14, 2011

Time for a reality check

Was the Jantar Mantar drama a wake-up call or an air-raid alert?

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is a commentary on the fragility of the dispensation in Delhi that it took barely 72 hours of sustained media indignation, a patchy show of flag-waving solidarity by the middle classes and the obstinacy of a 71-year-old Gandhian busybody to expose the moral nakedness of the Manmohan Singh Government. Last week's drama at Delhi's Jantar Mantar centred on Anna Hazare's fast and the appointment of a committee to draft a Lokpal Bill to check governmental corruption was a much-needed reality check for all those who had somehow assumed that India was on the cusp of greatness. The resilience necessary to cope with periodic political turbulence appear to have deserted the system.

In the coming weeks, particularly if the present round of Assembly elections fail to give solace to the Congress, the phenomenon of 'weakness' is certain to be clinically dissected. Is the vulnerability of what Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi loves to call the "Delhi Sultanate" a problem peculiar to a Congress party that is never fully comfortable with a Prime Minister from outside the 'dynasty'? Or, as India's 57 varieties of Right and Left radicals would no doubt argue, do the tremors created by Hazare point to the larger systemic rot in a tottering First Republic? Was the Jantar Mantar drama yet another wake-up call or an ominous air-raid alert?

From the perspective of those alarmed at the ease with which the Government wilted, it may be heartening reassuring to know that a jolted Sultanate will try to contain the damage. The reassurance becomes less robust on the realisation that the fightback will centre on the only available weapon: subterfuge.

First, Cabinet members such as Kapil Sibal have begun decrying the belief that the Lok Pal legislation is a wonder drug for all of India's ailments. The idea is to paint Hazare as a Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Secondly, Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh has demanded the extension of the Lok Pal's jurisdiction to include both the private sector and Non-Government Organisations, the repository of 'civil society' virtuousness. Although the suggestion is ridiculous, it is calculated to create concern within corporates and NGOs at the dangerous consequences of unbridled populism.

Thirdly, the perceived shortcomings of the five-member panel chosen by Hazare to provide the 'civil society' perspective on the Lok Pal legislation have been sought to be highlighted. Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan has lamented the absence of a Dalit face in the committee; activist Mallika Sarabhai has criticised the absence of a woman among the 'civil society' representatives; and umpteen people, not least Baba Ramdev, has referred to the preferential treatment accorded to the father-son duo of Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan. In the coming days, more such fissures will emerge.

Finally, the 'secular' bush telegraph has been used to spread the theory that the Jantar Mantar show was masterminded by shadowy figures in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The overuse of slogans such as Bharat Mata ki jai and Vande Mataram and Hazare's praise for the integrity and administrative acumen of Modi have been cited as proof of deep saffron involvement in the movement. It is being whispered that Hazare is actually a convenient front and that the real muscle for the anti-corruption stir comes from the poster boys of evangelical Hindutva, notably Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

The Congress' attempt at some form of counter-mobilisation is understandable. The Hazare bomb, which the Government never anticipated, has damaged the party in two crucial ways.

For a start, Hazare has crystallised the middle class disquiet over growing corruption into an angry, anti-politician mood. Although the mood is momentarily against all politicians, it is certain to have the greatest effect on the credibility of the Congress. Unless a new force abruptly emerges to harvest the popular fury electorally, past precedent would suggest that it is the principal opposition party that invariably stands to gain from a wave of anti-incumbency. In other words, the Congress is wary that the middle class disappointment with Prime Minister Singh could facilitate the electoral rehabilitation of the BJP and even the emergence of Modi as a possible national saviour.

Secondly, the speed with which the Hazare movement was able to ride roughshod over all obstacles and dominate the national imagination for a week suggested a breakdown of the Congress system of political control. Since 2002, more or less coinciding with the Gujarat riots, the Congress has institutionalised its relationship with the NGO movement and used it successfully as a battering ram against the BJP. The establishment of the National Advisory Council, with disproportionate representation from the community of so-called 'activists', enabled the UPA Government to involve the voluntary sector in legislation such as the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Food Security Bill and the proposed anti-communal law. The Lok Pal Bill which has now been referred to a 10-member committee was initially supposed to have been vetted and approved by a supra-Cabinet comprising select members of the NAC. A reason why the Government could not press the constitutionalist argument centred on the supremacy of the elected representatives in decision-making was that it had already ceded a lot of this space to an unelected NAC chaired by the Congress President.

The Hazare-led upsurge has upset all these calculations. By favouring one set of NGOs and extending official patronage to one set of 'activists', the Government unwittingly set in motion a countervailing response by those who felt left out of the process. Last week's spectacle in Delhi was their revenge on the co-opted NGOs. The Congress may, arguably, retrieve lost ground and even create a deep schism within the NGO movement as a result of its rearguard actions. However, there is no doubt that in the process the UPA's image as the only political force that is receptive to the urges of 'civil society' has suffered immeasurably. It will now have to cope with a parallel army of the virtuous, including a formidable brigade linked to quasi-religious gurus.

A second pillar of the Congress' political management was TV. The remarkable ease with which the feel-good effect of India's World Cup victory evaporated didn't owe merely to the emergence of yet another army of the indignant equally determined to impose its whimsical agenda on a functioning democracy. The near-spontaneous revolt of a middle class driven by consumerism against corruption put many otherwise 'liberal', loosely pro-UPA national news channels in a dharma sankat. They could have opted to exercise restraint in their coverage, perhaps seeing it as just another tamasha rather than as an Indian version of Cairo's Tahrir Square. But their decision to join in the hyperbolic outpouring was dictated by commerce. Swimming against the tide and upholding lofty constitutionalism meant going against the prevailing sentiment in their middle class target audience—a decision that would ultimately be reflected in diminishing viewership figures. Additionally, they had to also cope with the parallel attraction of social networking—a force that has been deified despite its potential as an unguided missile.

The week-long Hazare show that stirred urban India has wounded the Congress grievously. The party will no doubt try to extricate itself from the mess through an elaborate process of manipulation. But it will have to undertake the exercise amid the larger realisation that its capacity to stage a moral recovery has been eroded. Hazare has also crippled its shock absorbers.

The Telegraph, April 15, 2011


Objectivist Mantra said...

I agree with everything that Swapan has said in the article. The Congress party is rattled and they are using their age-old ploy of pseudo-secularism to discredit Shri Anna Hazare. Whether the Lok Pal bill is good or bad for the nation’s democracy is a completely different issue (Swapan has not expressed his support for the Lok Pal Bill anywhere in the article.).

However, the way certain UPA leaders are using the bogey of secularism to discredit the movement is something that is on completely expected lines.

What is the harm if Shri Anna Hazare praises Shri Narendra Modi or the Bihar chief minister! They are elected representatives of the people. The thing is that corruption is not the only issue that is causing so many problems for the country. We are also plagued by the issue of pseudo-secularism, which has since independence been a tool for deluding the minority sections of the population.

Corrupt leaders are often able to survive in the government, because they have somehow acquired the halo of secularism. How does one acquire secular credentials in this country? Since independence, for more than 60 years, our leaders have been proclaiming secular slogans from rooftops, and yet the country remains deeply divided on lines of caste, religion, etc.

We need a new political dictionary, where we have modern definitions of secularism, corruption-ism, and every other ism in the country. The old dictionary of “isms” has failed miserably.

Dr. Ajit R. Jadhav said...

Dear Swapan,

"Finally, the 'secular' bush telegraph has been used to spread the theory that the Jantar Mantar show was masterminded by shadowy figures in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh."

If you were not to use that metaphor of Australian origin, I wouldn't have bothered writing in. And I trust you know why I now would want to make an exception.

"It is being whispered that Hazare is actually a convenient front and that the real muscle for the anti-corruption stir comes from the poster boys of evangelical Hindutva, notably Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar."

IMO, the first part is true---whethered it is better characterized as whispers or as open and direct statements made even before Hazare broke his fast.

However, the second part seems to be only partly true. The mobilization for this particular Hazare-episode obviously benefitted a great deal from the traction imparted it by Ramdev Baba's organization (their gathering some time ago). Indeed, some grudging has already begun coming forth from the Hindutva circles.

Any candid person from Maharashtra knowledgeable of the local happenings could easily tell that Hazare has always been primarily supported by the Hindutva organizations---even though secretaries and politicians in the Congress+ governments themselves might have also unwittingly heaped praises on him and recommended his Padmas. Indeed, while on this point, I now recall his being glorified by the Pune-based Hindutva-oriented people right in the year 1984. The argument that Hazare has agitated against the BJP, too, does not hold water. Certain Hinduta people were vocally and strongly critical of Vajpayee during his stint as the PM. Are the bases of those criticisms enough for us to consider him as falling outside of the broad Hindutva fold? There is no point evading facts on this count. I am sure you can make reference to easily available and fairly perceptive material on the 'net and convince yourself of this fact.

So, yes, there are certain clearly visible gaps and weaknesses in your arguments and position here. But, yes, I did very much like the writeup, nevertheless. Especially, the opening line. Except for the doubt that I cannot be sure if the idea of freely gifting away the domain of morality to their religious opposition is a trait they developed in recent times, specifically during the Singh government, or whether the weakness has been there for a long time. I am inclined to believe that it has been there right since Indira Gandhi's socialistic times.

One final point: When, if at all, are you going to begin mentioning concepts like Individual Rights, Objective Law, Limited Government, in contexts such as the present one? And if you would, in near future, then a next question: For how long do men like me have to wait before you begin measuring also the political right (i.e. the BJP) on the same standards?