Monday, October 15, 2012

Needed: Better Govt, cleaner Opposition

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, when the TV channels were buzzing with indignation and outrage over the financial peccadilloes of the nation’s most important son-in-law, my good friend Professor Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University (USA) sent out an interesting tweet. Arvind Kejriwal, he wrote, “will soon learn a political lesson: that creating and sustaining a political party is tougher than a TV show.”

The observation may be gratuitous but is well taken. It is known that a big bang launch of a product doesn’t necessarily guarantee its success, not unless it meets a demand and is authentic. I don’t think Kejriwal and his associates who have chosen to blend crusading zeal with electoral intervention are unaware of their long journey ahead. They probably know that being the enfant terrible merely ensures recognition; it doesn’t automatically inspire trust.

The long-term future of Kejriwal’s yet unnamed political party is debatable. There is common ground among the activists on the question of a Jan Lokpal Bill. But apart from this there appears to be a cacophony of voices over larger questions of public policy. Indeed, some of those who have climbed on to the Anna Hazare bandwagon have done so in the conviction that it is possible to steer an impressionable, single-issue movement in particular ‘alternative’ directions.

The contradictions that are likely to emerge in Kejriwal’s movement are, however, matters for future deliberations. What is more relevant today is the reality that this wild card entry into the public sphere has created convulsions in the political class.

That the Congress stalwarts would be fluttering about like headless chickens was perhaps to be expected—witness Salman Khurshid’s touching offer to lay down his life for the leader and Renuka Choudhury’s extraordinary performances on TV. Robert Vadra, after all, was no ordinary businessman prone to sharp practices: he is a Gandhi by marriage and accorded a special status as a SPG protectee. Confronting him with very strong evidence of dubious business practices that stemmed from his special status is, by implication, a direct attack on the carefully cultivated Mother India image that Sonia Gandhi has crafted for herself. In any evolved democracy such revelations would have resulted in a spate of resignations and announcements of sannyas from political life. In the Banana Republic called India it has instead led to Vadra mocking his accusers, top Cabinet ministers issuing him certificates of good conduct and the Prime Minister decrying the onrush of “negativity” in public life.

That the Congress has reacted with characteristic brazenness to the emerging evidence hasn’t come as a surprise. What may occasion surprise is the fact that the revelations have also left the principal opposition party red-faced. A part of this may be explained by the resentment against an interloper into the opposition space—witness Vijay Goel’s puerile fulminations at being upstaged at a local protest against exorbitant electricity charges in Delhi.

Yet, Kejriwal’s gate-crashing into the cosy world of politics had a context. Ideally, the debate on Vadra should have begun in March 2011 after Economic Times wrote a cautious but suggestive report on his remarkable business success and his proximity to DLF. At that time, there were senior leaders in the BJP such as Arun Jaitley and Yashwant Sinha who were willing to raise the matter in Parliament and outside. They had all the details Kejriwal divulged to the media in his first press conference some 18 months later. The question the BJP needs to address is: why did the leadership decide that the “children” of political leaders must be provided immunity from attacks?

This is not a lament about the BJP’s missed opportunity. There is a widespread impression that the principal opposition party has failed to take advantage of the UPA’s unending bungling on account of the questionable integrity of some of own leaders. The BJP has not fully succeeded in putting the government on the mat over corruption because many of its own people are equally culpable. They have developed a cosy arrangement with the Congress to share the dividends from ‘political equity’. In addition, others have gained from being persuaded to look the other way and abdicate their responsibilities as the main opposition.

Taking on Vadra involved taking on the Gandhi family. It also implied possessing the uprightness to resist the inevitable harassment from politicised investigative agencies. It would seem that many BJP leaders, tired of waiting for the good times to return, have acquired too many skeletons in their personal cupboards. They have been compromised to such an extent that their opposition to the misdemeanours of the Government have become perfunctory. Their stake in a rotten system has meant they lack the moral authority to challenge the rot. They have become a part of the problem itself.

Kejriwal may be wild and publicity hungry but he has emerged as a fearless individual, willing to challenge the awesome might of the first family. If he persists with his recklessness, his party may grab a sizable political space and even emerge as an effective spoiler in urban India. He will eat into a constituency that should be leaning naturally towards the BJP. If that happens, the BJP can only blame itself for being morally upstaged. It has allowed base considerations to dilute its commitment to the larger good. To recover a sense of purpose, it needs to dispose of its dirty linen.

India deserves a better government. It also demands a cleaner opposition. 

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