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Friday, April 15, 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

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