By Swapan Dasgupta
For many non-Congress politicians, the Emergency has become the default expression of outrage. Throughout last Sunday, as the country digested the drama surrounding Baba Ramdev's protest in Delhi's Ram Lila ground, the allusions to the 21-month Emergency competed with the late night eviction being compared to the massacre in Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh. In this battle over history, Indira Gandhi's coup clearly prevailed Lt-General Reginald Dyer's trigger happiness.
India's political class is naturally prone to hyperbole. If BJP's L.K. Advani detected "naked fascism" in the police action against Baba Ramdev and prophesied that June will be the UPA Government's cruellest month, Congress' Digvijay Singh dubbed the flamboyant yoga guru a "maha thug" that Delhi was well rid of. Predictably, throughout the crisis neither the Prime Minister nor the Congress President were seen or heard.
The live weekend drama did resemble a B-grade Bollywood thriller—a helpful BJP even provided the dance numbers during its Rajghat fast. Yet, underneath the apparent farce there is a grim story that is beginning to unfold and whose impact may yet be far-reaching.
The ever-increasing role of non-political, 'civil society' players in public protests over corruption isn't merely the contribution of a new made-in-media culture. The unearthing of one spectacular scam after another and the utter inability of the Manmohan Singh Government to overcome a resulting paralysis of decision-making has unsettled the moral foundations on which any political system rests. The cracks have given the opening for a variety of plants—both stinging nettles and aromatic flowers—to spout.
Pressure groups, the archaic term for civil society activism, have always existed in India. In 1966, the Jagatguru Shankaracharya of Puri went on an indefinite fast demanding an immediate end to cow slaughter and sadhus went on the rampage before Parliament. Mahendra Singh Tikait's fortnight-long occupation of the India Gate lawns in 1988 was a spectacular irritant to the both the Congress and the Delhi middle class. And, Medha Patkar has long championed every imaginable cause and delayed every conceivable development project.
However, none of these civil society movements succeeded in unnerving the political authority in the same way as the fasts by Anna Hazare and Ramdev have. The idea of inviting the four shankaracharyas to sit with ministers to draft anti-cow slaughter legislation would have been anathema in 1966. And while officials did maintain contact with Tikait and other single-issue protest movements, there was no case of the Number 2 in the Cabinet and the Cabinet Secretary rushing to the airport to placate an angry "rock star of yoga".
Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley has attacked the Government for losing sight of the principles of statecraft. He may be right but the headless chicken behaviour is merely the symptom of the disease. The genesis of the problem can be located in two factors: the image of political venality in an age of prosperity and, equally important, the crisis of political institutions.
The importance of moral outrage against corruption shouldn't be underestimated. For long, the political class smugly believed that the exasperation of voters with sarkari venality and ineptitude can be subsumed by the politics of identity (caste or religion) and patronage (keeping local notables happy). This assumption was valid as long as India was information-deficient and economic aspirations were tempered by a socialism built on shoddiness and shortages. The media explosion has produced an information overload and the growth in prosperity (plus the rise in education) has redefined aspirations dramatically. There is a growing sense of right and wrong which manifests itself more virulently—and without the need for sustained mobilisation and public education—than was the case earlier. India has become less inclined to passive fatalism. Indians believe they have the right to a better India.
The moral uneasiness has been coupled by the dysfunctionality of political institutions. The Opposition's mindless disruption of Parliament as a matter of habit has eroded popular faith, not in democracy, but in a non-functioning system. This in turn has fuelled the quest for quick-fix solutions.
The impatience for results has also contributed to popular detachment from political parties that spout abstruse ideology but where a culture of cronyism and non-accountability prevail. The DMK personified the rot in Tamil Nadu and arrogance doused any lingering revolutionary fire in the belly of the West Bengal CPI(M). In both the states, the principal opposition party was the main beneficiary of the public anger against the incumbent.
The BJP believes it too will be the principal gainer from the Congress' inability to respond to the 2009 mandate. That may be. Yet, it reflect over why civil society movements are acquiring momentum in precisely those regions where BJP is the natural alternative to the Congress. Even if the Facebook crowd is aesthetically inclined towards the 'non-party' activism of the NGOs and the likes of Anna Hazare, why is the non-cosmopolitan middle class acquiescing in the opposition mantle being passed on to a Baba rather than a political party espousing the same values?
For India's politicians, the need to subsume banality and dubious history with reflection was never more pressing. The Ramdev crisis has burnt the Congress but it has also singed the Opposition.