By Swapan Dasgupta
The emergence of Baba Ramdev as the newest anti-corruption crusader, after Anna Hazare, has unsettled the mid-summer complacency of the Congress-inclined Establishment. If the man BJP president Nitin Gadkari cheekily dubbed the "rock star of yoga" can extend his energies beyond wellness and simple patriotism—the two recurrent themes of his discourses—where, it is being asked, will the process stop? It was bad enough, they say, that a slightly naïve Gandhian like Hazare allowed himself to become the instrument of a small coterie of activists who presume to talk for the whole of 'civil society', will Ramdev now add to the distortion?
From a liberal constitutionalist perspective, the fears aren't completely misplaced. Without prejudging the approach likely to be adopted by the charismatic yoga guru whose organised following is considerable, some concerns need to be spelt out.
First, while there is always a place in a democracy for extra-parliamentary movements, the responsibilities of governance rest exclusively with an elected leadership. The Government can and should interact with different interest groups, but the interest groups (whether they call themselves NGOs or civil society representatives) cannot assume the reins of government.
Secondly, to prevent the misuse or concentration of authority, the Constitution has created a system of checks and balances. In particular, the judiciary exits to ensure the rule of law. The judges can ensure that laws correspond to the 'basic structure' of the Constitution but they cannot either become law makers or administrators.
Finally, since sovereignty vests with the people of India, there has to be a periodic renewal of the mandate. People must offer themselves for election as popular representatives to acquire the legitimacy to govern, tax and pass laws. Without this electoral legitimacy, renewed every five years, the assumption of political power is both illegal and immoral. The Maoists believe in their version of 'people's power' but this has no basis in India's Constitution. As such, they are rightly regarded as usurpers and bandits.
The crisis gripping today's India is that many of these assumptions on which society is regulated have broken down. Nominally there is a government headed by a Prime Minister who enjoys majority support in the Lok Sabha and can, if really pressed, also cobble together a majority in the Rajya Sabha. At the same time, the moral and ethical foundations on which the government rests has developed deep and seemingly irreparable cracks.
In normal circumstances many governments often face a phenomenon that Marxist intellectuals of an earlier age used to call a "conjunctural" crisis. In plain language, these would be political turmoil created by bad leadership, unpopular policies or even externally-induced turbulence (such as war or terrorism). Some elements of the conjunctural crisis exist today in the form of the government's mismanagement of the economy.
Today's problem are, however, a little more than a simple conjunctural crisis. A series of devastating scams involving the loot of public money has called into question the integrity of the government. In other words, the belief that the government (however misplaced its policies may be) is acting for the common good has been replaced by the growing conviction that venality has become the defining philosophy of UPA governance. Such a perception may not as yet be universal but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the middle classes—the de-facto custodians of the sytem—are on the verge of an emotional secession from the system.
Even this would not have mattered had it become clear that the Manmohan Singh regime was serving out time and that come 2014 it would be replaced by something more wholesome. The tragedy is that is that crisis of immorality has affected the entire political class in some measure. This is something that neither the smug body of Union Cabinet ministers nor the smug Opposition appear to have fully grasped. In normal circumstances, it should have been an Opposition front that should have been calling for sustained protests against the 2-G scam and the Congress' attempts to gloss over the Commonwealth Games robbery. But the Opposition too is suffering from the same erosion of its moral authority as the Government. It too needs to combine internal cleansing with popular legitimacy.
It is this crisis of a political class that has given the space to Hazare, Baba Ramdev and a clutch of insufferably pious busybodies to hijack the public mood. But this is more than a simple hijack. The conflicts in the drafting of a Lokpal Bill suggest that 'civil society' now wants substantial powers of governance transferred to unelected monitoring authorities. The anti-corruption crusaders appear hell-bent on creating a parallel system of enlightened despotism to monitor the moral licentiousness of democracy. Those familiar with history will see a parallel with the post-Reformation Puritans who wanted to purge an established Church of corruption, superstition and theological deviations, and impose their grim, austere vision of the faith.
It is the inherent anti-democratic tendencies behind the attempts at moral cleansing that are disturbing. It is even more worrying that this philosophy has begun to influence the judicial philosophy. If the moral depravity of politics is substituted by the pious tyranny of the self-appointed, it would be an equal disaster.
The only way out is hard for the Government to contemplate. Yet, I can see no alternative to returning to the people for conferring renewed legitimacy to both a government and the whole political system.