In the Inferno that is India today, public rage will either start an uncontrollable forest fire or take us to Purgatory where the flames may burn us, but will eventually cleanse our body politic. No matter where you stand on the efficacy of the Jan Lokpal Bill or the method and form of Anna Hazare’s campaign, there is no doubt that because of him India stands at the intersection of churn and dramatic change.
Where we go from here depends on whether the government shows any ability for political initiative. So far it has failed entirely to demonstrate any such imagination. Forget leadership, it appears to have even abandoned an instinct for basic political survival. It has countered street anger and public disenchantment with a drab, dry and purely technical counter-narrative. The UPA has misread the fact that the cult of Hazare is less about the bill and more about being a lightning rod for middle-class angst against an inaccessible, emotionally aloof and seemingly arrogant political leadership.
In fact, sheer ineptitude and a series of missteps by the UPA led to this logjam, where the government has been so conclusively out manoeuvred. And it would be accurate to say that the real crisis that grips India today is not even that of entrenched corruption but a crisis of leadership.
In a week where India has decided to invoke the past in its search for a future, I thought it fit to turn to my favourite satirist Lewis Caroll, instead of my favourite national leader, Mahatma Gandhi.
Remember the Red Queen’s Race in Through the Looking Glass?
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
But instead of running or even reacting, the government clung to complacent denial about the extent of the problem and a “slow sort of country” has now become a fast unravelling nightmare for the Congress.
Today it asserts — and rightfully — that the supremacy of Parliament in drafting legislation cannot be undermined. Indeed. But shouldn’t the government have reached out to the political Opposition much earlier both inside and outside Parliament? Instead, it created a panel to draft the Lokpal Bill that shut out the Opposition parties from the process. Why shouldn’t the Opposition leaders have found place on the drafting panel? Why shouldn’t their opinions have been sought by the prime minister from the very start?
Today, the Congress has a point when it questions the derision among many of the protestors for electoral politics. Many of us have expressed our deep disquiet at the dubbing of this protest as a “second freedom struggle,” a slogan that by its very existence ironically misses the fundamental freedoms that are already available to us in a functioning democracy.
And some of us are outraged by the easy alliterations used for Tahrir Square and Tihar jail in the same sentence. The point about not trashing our democracy when so many parts of the world are battling for one is very well taken. Yet, hasn’t the Congress completely alienated one section of this country’s citizenry — its middle class.
The truth is that India’s political establishment has happily hobnobbed with the rich and electorally courted the rural poor. It’s the middle class that has always been treated with contempt and neglect. Today, it is this class that is enjoying its moment of political revenge.
Critics of the Hazare campaign have questioned the media narrative as well, accusing wall-to-wall TV coverage of holding up a permanent oxygen mask to the protests. It’s even been pointed out that Noam Chomsky’s scathing commentary on the mass media -‘Manufacturing Consent’ would be re-written in TV studios today as Manufacturing Dissent.
But again, if the TV coverage of the protests is overdone, it only proves that the UPA’s perennial disdain for the media — and the diffidence of its top leaders — has given its opponents the upper hand in the information battle. There is something so telling about the fact that 74-year-old Anna Hazare made effective use of the social media by releasing a YouTube message from inside jail and the PM of India’s oldest political party is still to give his first interview to an Indian journalist.
And finally, whoever took the decision to send Hazare to jail needs to sign up for a Politics 101 class.
How could the bizarre symbolism of sending an anti-corruption crusader to the same jail that houses A Raja and Suresh Kalmadi be lost on the government?
In that single instant, the UPA de-legitimised the many voices that had tried to bring nuance and proportion into the debate around the Lokpal Bill.
From the beginning, the government has alternated between aggression and submission, eroding its own authority and legitimacy further and further. What should have been commonsense has become absurd political mismanagement. And absurdity recalls Lewis Caroll again.
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.”
In India today, everyone stands to get burnt in the “boiling hot sea.” But the UPA’s wounds are entirely self-inflicted. A failure of politics created this impasse. And instead of Wonderland, India feels more and more like Blunder-Land.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal