In Birbhum West Bengal, a village decides that the girl must be gang-raped as ‘punishment’ for falling in love with a man outside the community.
In Maharashtra, Raj Thackeray asks his MNS party workers to refuse to pay toll for roads dotted with potholes. Thrash those who dare to ask, he says.
In Delhi, a mohalla decides that the Africans who live amongst them are involved in a sex and drug racket. After police refuse to conduct a midnight raid without a warrant as directed by MLA Somnath Bharti, the crowd surrounds a taxi in which some African women are returning home after a party, keeps them captive for three hours and then hauls them off for a medical exam that includes urine testing and a cavity search. Bharti, who is Delhi’s law minister, later concedes that he was ‘unaware of the procedure’.
Instead of sacking Bharti, his boss Arvind Kejriwal seeks the moral high road by sitting on dharna. When questioned he says: protest is his birth-right and he doesn’t cease to be a citizen because he is now the chief minister. Bharti was acting at the behest of his constituency, the police are corrupt, the people are aggrieved, etc.
India has become an increasingly loud place, so much so that in his Republic Day address, the President cautions that ‘populist anarchy’ cannot substitute for governance.
And yet, what is a republic without protest? Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement led to the Lokpal Act. The December 2012 protests resulted in stricter laws against sexual violence (more on this in a bit). Today, every party wants to at least talk about ‘women’s empowerment’, so much so that in his debut interview Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi kept referring to it as if it was a personal talisman.
Kejriwal has pitched himself as the outsider taking on vested interests. He understands that his core constituency is not the edit writer fulminating about ‘due process’ but the thelawala who sees a corrupt and ruthless police force as his immediate enemy. Yet, Kejriwal is treading a very fine line between genuine, non-violent protest that leads to institutional change and rule-by-mob.
The mob is not always right. The mob can be racist, patriarchal, criminal, casteist. Heeding this mob is not always wise. Nor does it always lead to positive change.
In changing the laws on rape and sexual violence, for instance, the government went by the mob demand (death sentence) not the more nuanced Justice Verma Commission’s recommendation (make marital rape a crime).
Mob justice always undermines our democratic institutions. And, as we’ve seen in 1984, 1992 and 2002, the mob can be murderous, in each case cheered on by parties which have gone on to win elections.
Now, Kejriwal has heaped praises on khap panchayats, declared illegal by the Supreme Court, lauding them for their ‘cultural’ role while conceding they are anti-women. His praise is inexplicable, unless it is seen in the context of the fact that the Aam Aadmi Party’s next electoral target is Haryana where khaps yield enormous influence as vote-catchers.
Now that AAP has moved from an experiment to a government, it is under tremendous scrutiny, more so because it has come to power on the cusp of hope and the promise of change.
A party that claims to be morally superior to others and promises a revolutionary shake-up has to set higher standards for itself. It must have a leadership that is above the mob, not a part of it.
AAP is eyeing a bigger role for itself in the general elections. It is hoping that the disenchantment of voters so evident in Delhi will be as much in evidence at the national-level. Yet, the AAP phenomenon goes beyond the fortunes of just one party. Its failure would be a severe setback to any future would-be reformer and to citizens washed in cynicism. And any success of its increasingly visible vigilante-style politics will send absolutely the wrong signal of a ‘success formula’ to rival parties.
AAP will be judged by a stricter yard-stick because it has assumed stricter yardsticks for itself, and others.
The views expressed by the author are personal