India’s Defining Moment What Do The Latest Developments Portend?

Beginning with Anna Hazare’s fast against corruption and culminating (for the time being) with twin fasts in Gujarat—of Chief Minister Narendra Modi (described by the media as BJP’s poster boy) and of former Chief Minister and state Congress chief Shankarsinh Vaghela—Indian politics appears to be in the fast lane of 2014 general election. The proposed rath yatra of the perpetual political yatri of Indian politics, octogenarian Lal Krishna Advani (he will be 86 in 2014) is too in the same genre of politics trying to aim at the bull’s eye in the 2014 general election, the RSS spanner in his rath wheels notwithstanding.

With the Congress having mishandled Hazare’s threat of a protest fast on August 16 for coercing the government into accepting the ‘Jan Lokpal Bill’, giving an opportunity to the ‘Team Anna’ to launch a ‘Ram Lila’ of a ‘fast’ movement that ended in a ‘no-where-politics’; a new surge of hope erupted amongst the main rivals (BJP/NDA in particular). Significantly, while Anna Hazare’s two-week political campaign rekindled middle class hopes for a new politics, political parties and leaders occupying the ‘alternative space’ saw a new beginning in it. The perceived loss of political ground for the Congress and UPA (rather than political gains for those populating the opposition and alternative spaces) has revived many leadership ambitions even within the opposition camp—LK Advani, Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar, Mayawati—to name a few. At the same time, a rising middle class dissatisfaction is seen by most observers, which is expected to influence not only the electoral outcome 30 months hence, but also the course of the Indian politics in the second decade of twenty first century, as a possible redefinition of Indian politics.

Neither societies, nor polities are given entities, frozen or fossilised in time. Both are subject to the dynamics and dialectics of change. The contemporary world’s old societies on road to ‘new’ statehood (as sociologist Clifford Geertz described in the early 1960s) and nationhood, which Benedict Anderson describes as ‘imagined communities’, since the middle of the twentieth century have been particularly engaged in igniting and negotiating socio-political changes for their impoverished populace. ‘Modernising’ their societies and ‘communitising’ them as nations, as Geertz and Anderson concpetualised, have been their aim and endeavour, that has brought in many an invention and discovery in constitutional, institutional, policy, governance and political realms. Indeed, democratic polities amongst these societies particularly have a more dynamic process of negotiating changes, for they have to take into account a revolution of rising expectations that is as kaleidoscopic as their diverse population is.

Traversing a democratic path in the framework of the world’s largest constitution for over six decades now, India’s multi-party parliamentary democracy in the second decade of the twenty first century has constructed a more cohesive ‘imagined community’, notwithstanding a few aberrations, but the polity has been undergoing changes with every decade since the fourth general election in 1967. Not only this election gave a decisive blow to the ‘Congress system’ and one party dominant system that was dismantled only a little over two decades later, it decisively altered the alternative space in Indian politics. Coming in the wake of Congress split in 1969, 1971 election was significant in creating an alternative image, culture and politics of the Congress, which continues to date.

However, it was Indira Gandhi who imposed national emergency in 1975 and the sixth general election in 1977 following that, which for the first time made visible the alternative space in Indian politics. A leader, ‘her’ party and the government that had secured a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha following a split in the ‘dominant’ party in 1969 looked vulnerable since 1974 and lost credibility a year later and misused the emergency provision in the constitution to create the ‘darkest’ period in Indian democracy. Significantly, like the Anna Hazare movement, the JP movement, signaling a popular ire against corruption, contributed to eroding the credibility of the government, the party and the leader.

Importantly, Janata Party’s emergence in the wake of emergency excesses, did serve a challenge and warning to the Congress of its waning monopoly on power, which it did not heed. However, even more noteworthy from the people’s perspective was the fact that those who created the alternative space in the wake of an unprecedented popular support, failed to read the message behind the popular mandate. Thus, a redefinition of Indian politics this change indeed was, but it took its own direction. The consequences were the following: i) It made the come-back Indira Gandhi-led Congress even more centralised and family-centric; ii) the Bharatiya Jan Sangh component came out of the centrist fold and with a new name Bharatiya Janata Party positioned itself prominently in the ‘alternative space’ within a decade and came to power in less than two decades; iii) the hope of a centrist alternative completely evaporated and following a couple of bungled chances in 1989 (this campaign by V.P. Singh too raised the issue of corruption in high places, referring to two defence deals—of Bofors gun and HDW submarine) and in 1996-98; iv) some of those who were strong votaries of a centrist and secular alternative to the Congress, joined the BJP-led NDA; v) this ‘preferred’ alternative in popular and academic discourse was reduced to an illusive quest for a ‘Third Alternative’ and vi) umpteen time corruption failed to be a political rallying point for a robust opposition and alternative. Yet, for our eventual analysis and formulation, it is significant to underline that though intended or not, in each case Indian politics did take a new direction.

Hence, the political brittleness surrounding both the party politics and the electoral politics in India even after fifteen general elections and many more state elections that got delinked from the parliamentary elections in 1971, persists. Obviously, in sounding the bugle for the sixteenth general election without heeding the lessons from six decades of electoral politics, one or the other political configuration may indeed get ‘first-past-the-post’, but both party politics and electoral politics would continue to remain fragile both procedurally and substantively. Also, the direction of change in the process may not necessarily be intended.

This argument is likely to come in for a serious contestation from some analysts of Indian politics. After all, Indian electoral politics has functioned remarkably well, both from the perspective of power ‘alteration’ and power ‘broad basing’. As a result, alternating of political power amongst political parties and elites since the ‘epochal’ party (i.e. the Congress) bowed due to internal contradictions and continuous pressures from the opposition space to let the emerging ‘alternative space’ concretises, which is a reality now—though the players on this space continue to be uncertain. Also, the socio-economic profile of political representatives at every level has rapidly changed since the 1970s, indicating deepening of the democratic process, though not necessarily of substantive democracy. This fact as well the strands in social and political development indicated above deserve to be noted before any jubilation over emerging popular ire over corruption is considered to be the defining moment. For, as the Indian parliament prepares to celebrate its diamond jubilee in 2012, neither the political parties, nor the leadership evoke confidence; and the society and its members are not necessarily contributing to a spotless public life.

Rather than discussing the merits of the Hazare campaign, we are here concerned with, as argued by some experts, the current developments being moments of redefinition of Indian politics and public life. In that respect, both the voice against colossal corruption witnessed in recent years and a movement to institute a new office of Ombudsman—Lokpal or Jan Lokpal (since both ‘Jan’ and ‘Lok’ mean the people, the formulation appears anachronistic)—could open a few new direction for the Indian polity without bringing a fundamental change.

Notable points raised in the wake of the Hazare movement, both for and against, are: a) it is not a popular movement; b) Anna Hazare, despite his attire, is far from a Gandhian, his views reflect a rustic aggression, if not violence, against those who do not conform to his views; c) in pushing aggressively for a Bill that not many agree with, the Team Anna is not being democratic; d) they have challenged parliamentary supremacy by asserting that they have ‘the Bill’ and a Parliament full of ‘corrupt’ members must pass it; e) this is a movement outside parliamentary politics and between elections, which most movements are, so its content should be considered seriously, its form should be overlooked; f) the movement is pretending to be independent despite a tacit behind-the-curtain-support from the ‘Sangh Parivar’; after all where did the tents, carpets and a running mess with a choice of food come? g) that Advani’s umpteen yatra and Narendra Modi’s ‘fast’ politics with fancy ‘headgears’ quickly followed it; h) urban middle classes as well as sections of the rural population too came out in large numbers on streets following Hazare’s arrest on August 16, indicating the extent and depth of popular support.

In answering to the question this essay addresses, let me begin by underlining that the Indian polity, society and public life do need a ‘defining moment’ at this stage of development. Aside from brazen and colossal cases of corruption, institutions have never been so brittle as today and in every walk of public life there is ‘violation of principles’, the first and basic condition Montesquieu puts for the beginning of corrupt practices, particularly in the government. And, in a democracy, people and the government are linked to each other in several ways. The ‘why’ of the need mentioned above has been discussed in the panoramic view attempted in the foregoing paragraphs.

Following withdrawal of Anna’s fast at the Ramlila maidan thirteen days after it began on a resolution of the Parliament, the mobilisation appears to have petered out. Indeed, Hazare’s village Ralegan Siddhi has witnessed meetings, statements (threatening, loose and trite), resolutions and some mobilisation too. Obviously, to a significant section of the citizens, corruption in the government, particularly its transformation into scam is disconcerting. Perhaps the mobilisation is possible once again. But would that change things in day-to-day public life—people violating every principle and norms on the road, in forming queues, in their neighbourhoods (even in Delhi violation of building norms by citizens is colossal, naturally they offer and willingly pay bribe to visiting municipal inspectors), in their respective responsible positions. Ours is a privilege hungry society; those in ‘positions’ display, those yearning for ‘positions’ display it, those close to them take advantage where they can, and so on. We cannot ignore these and fight corruption, for mere transaction of money is not corruption.

The JP movement was outside politics, on which politicians and parties piggy-backed; and as beneficiaries they were bound to violate each of the principles and aims the JP stood for and fought for. The VP Singh campaign was within the politics, it had to be distorted sooner rather than later. This one still does not offer clarity. The reports of behind-the-scene political support are there, the ‘anti’ politics rhetoric notwithstanding. Perpetual piggy-back party BJP is first to attempt a hitch hike. Others appear in a quandary, though each got a stick to beat the Congress, the UPA and the government. The parties within the UPA too are reported to have been involved in weakening the Congress. It is not clear if the Congress persons too are involved in weakening the ‘family’.

It appears a redefining indeed, but not in the qualitative terms as many of us would like it to be.

By Ajay K Mehra

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