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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A scam too far

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.

Times of India, June 7, 2011


MUKESH said...

In recent days congress played politics so eagerly that forgot to anticipate the fallout of ramdev eviction. For democratic system, rise of so call self claimed civil society is no good sign but in present scenerio it has come naturally in absence of any other competent anti congress force. Digvijay, inspite of everyone derating him, alone can observe the potential of a movement led by ramdev, as ramdev alone can get support from diverse and contrast groups be it RSS and Devband, BJP and agnivesh, kiran bedi & anna hazare. One must note that even CPI ( maoist) also rendered their blessing for his anti corruption movement. Issue raised by him can get acceptance in all hue of society ranging from hindu muslim, dalit, poor, rich, all are concern about black money. Thats why digvijay leaving no stone unturned to derail ramdev and branding him THUG or communal as usual. Being the political mentor of Rahul, its his job to protect first family of congress and ensure 2014 coronation. Diggy can foresee the outcome of RAMDEV rise. He want to avoid all anti congress forces consolidation to spoil YUVRAJ 's coronation. He is not much worried about BJP/RSS alone as chidambram can handle them well through his fight against saffron terror. if other forces too join politically it may erode well preserved vote bank congress has built all this year and protectes so far. so his going down in behaviour has meaning to it or else 10 year experienced CM from MP would not have changed his behaviour noticeabe in recent year. if one see his time as CM, he was never so much concern about muslim in india. BJP should not reject him just as a spoilt leader. his word are not to be taken seriously but he intention need to be understood. I hope BJP THINKTANK, if they had anything like it, would read this comment.

Anonymous said...

It is the bad karma of Hindus that it has BJP as their voice. Sushma Swaraj comes straight out of saas-bahu serials, her mannerisms loudly reflect that. Her so called dance was straight out of some jagraata happening nearby. Of late she has been letting down BJP no end, sometimes seeming like working for the Congress.
Based on the principals of efficency & no short cut to hard work BJP is a common sense party with some truly senseless people.