Search For A National Alternative!
Paralysis in the present government has led to the search for a new government or system that can deliver. There are three current attempts that invite attention. First, there is the government itself. There are moves to revamp it in order to revitalize it. But the induction of Mr Rahul Gandhi in the cabinet and the elevation of the younger crop of leaders devoted to him do not offer much hope of delivering desired results. There are also muted whispers of a grand political realignment to create a new stable alliance to govern the country till the 2014 general election. However, beyond whispers of longing in a few circles of the Congress and BJP nothing more is heard or is likely to be heard about such realignment. The absence of political courage to dare and take risks renders this option too remote for serious consideration.
Next, there is the Ramdev movement. That has made some headway. Focused on the single issue of recovering illegal money deposited in foreign banks it has been seized upon by an array of opposition parties that support it. This movement might succeed as a catalyst to unite the opposition before the next poll. If it succeeds once more a national coalition will arise to seize power at the next election. It will be repetition of an experiment that has been witnessed by the nation in the past. It might change the government but will not change the system or the quality of governance. The criticism against political corruption is being voiced by opposition parties that have a track record of corruption no different from that of the Congress. On present reckoning therefore this endeavor offers no real hope of substantive change that the nation seeks.
Finally, there is the announcement of Team Anna to form a new national political party scheduled to be launched in early October this year. This is the most ambitious of all three attempts. It is also the most daunting. Even before eminent citizens urged the Anna Hazare movement to enter electoral politics I had been from the very start advocating this as the only honest and practical approach. I considered it absurd for anti-corruption crusaders to petition those responsible for creating corruption to remove it. In the effort to create a new party the attitude of Mr Anna Hazare himself remains ambiguous. But in practical terms that is of little significance. Mr Hazare became a brand without any real product to sell. It will be up to members of Team Anna to forge a new party. What are their prospects? Are they not jumping the gun by deciding to launch it in October to test waters in the Delhi assembly polls thereafter? If their aim is to create just another party among the 50 to 100 that already exist, it is okay. But if they seek a genuine national alternative, they need to think more carefully.
Never since Independence has a new national party been created from the grassroots that has survived. All the existing parties are splinter groups of earlier established parties. Some parties are based upon caste or community constituencies and are therefore too limited to aspire for national relevance. The Congress party evolved from the freedom struggle. The BJP had a readymade constituency created by a pre-Independence RSS movement. The Communist parties were created before Independence . The Janata Party came closest to becoming a genuine national alternative. But it arose more from the follies of Indira Gandhi than from the exertions of its leaders. And circumstances compelled its creation before the requisite clarity about an alternative agenda or a stable grass root organizational structure could be achieved. Worst of all, its top leaders were former Congressmen who lacked empathy with the grass root workers who had struggled in opposition all their careers. It failed to become a real alternative and it deservedly lost power.
I can think of only two efforts to create a new national party from the grass root. One was the Swatantra party founded by C. Rajagopalachari and Minoo Masani which ended in disappointment. The other attempt was the Ekta Party founded by this writer which started and ended as a huge joke. The Swatantra party had an alternative vision and deserved to succeed. It failed because its leaders did not articulate its ideology successfully to the masses and instead sought a quick-fix solution by co-opting princes and big landlords who had existing followings. The party did anticipate economic reforms that would have been more effective at that time. Some negative attendant byproducts of globalization that alienate public opinion today were absent then. But its leaders never tried or succeeded in convincing the masses of the benefits that would accrue to them. It was a political failure. It acted like a rich man’s party.
The Ekta Party was an insane quixotic effort. It was funded from the earnings of a single journalist and relied on doles from sympathetic business friends whenever a demonstration required Rs. 10, 000 or so for hiring buses to transport workers. The enterprise was understandably ridiculed by friends and ignored by the media. However the experience taught some truths that may not have been experienced by most stalwarts of existing big parties. In existing big parties leaders have simply to climb the ladder for progress. They interact with workers who are familiar with what the party stands for and who leads it. I doubt if any leaders of big existing parties or splinter group parties have ever had occasion to approach local residents of a village or an urban colony and establish a primary unit of an unknown new party without identity or media recognition. But the success in creating primary units across the nation for new entrants must be accomplished for creating the organizational structure of a genuine national alternative. There are a few truths from the experience of the Ekta Party that one would like to share for whatever these are worth.
First, without media support there is little hope. Apart from creating happenings that cannot be ignored by media there is also need for effective media management. When I was General Secretary of the Janata Party in charge of campaign publicity in the general election of 1977 there was a wave. I had virtually to do little. In the Ekta Party my biggest mass mobilization occurred when according to the police report 10, 000 demonstrators marched from Delhi Gate to India Gate and courted arrest. We deliberately chose the route that passed all the offices of national newspapers. I was claiming that there were 6000 marchers. In fact there were only 4, 500. Crowds always appear larger than they actually are. The day after the demonstration all the papers ignored the event except one daily which published a very small paragraph tucked away in an inside page that reported the police version. The cause promoted by the demonstration related to the urban poor. Even after conceding that thousands had courted arrest the event did not merit the paper’s attention. Earlier when Sanjay Gandhi courted arrest with 150 workers in Connaught Place it was the first lead in papers with his photo altercating with the police splashed across page one. That is the reality of celebrity status, of media perception and about truth. Secondly, without middle class support there can be no success in democratic systems. I managed a loyal following among Jhuggi dwellers in Delhi . It proved to be of no avail. Several successful demonstrations were ignored by media. It is a myth that mass followings among villagers and urban poor exist without middle class support. In public opinion there is a trickle down effect, more so today than ever before thanks to TV. Thirdly, even dedicated workers from among the poor require financial support not because they are mercenaries but because they must compensate loss of earning in order to survive. The loyalty of key workers in the Ekta Party for the meager pittance paid to them testified to their commitment.
Team Anna of course has a huge advantage. It has a national identity, media attention and an easily understood goal of ending corruption that people support. However, it also has shortcomings that it must address for success. It has no agenda to end corruption or change the system of governance. The proposed Lokpal is a non-starter. There is nothing to differentiate members of Team Anna either by conduct or activity from leaders of other political parties. In other words the endeavor lacks up till now a concrete alternative agenda that promises change and is easily understood by common people. It may be presumptuous for a failure to offer advice to distinguished and successful people. But one does believe that before plunging into electoral politics or even registering a new party, Team Anna members should think deeply about an appropriate agenda. They should then launch a nationwide movement to propagate their agenda to create a new party. They should in the process create a nationwide organizational structure capable of contesting elections. And only after that should they enter the electoral arena. Today with mass communication and the Internet the entire exercise could be completed within one year. If the intention of Team Anna is to reform politics through a new party it may be rash and self defeating for it to jump into assembly elections and perform only as a spoiler of votes.
By Rajinder Puri