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In the year and now

In 2012, Indian democracy could pull itself together more than it had done so far. What we need is a government that is on top of things and a strong Opposition. Ramachandra Guha writes.

india Updated: Dec 23, 2011 23:51 IST
Ramachandra Guha

The Republic of India has a billion (and more) citizens who, at any given time, are involved in a thousand (and more) controversies. Knowing which controversy is the most significant is always hard, and often impossible, to judge. Even so, we can be fairly certain that 2011 will go down in Indian history as the year of the Great Lokpal Debate, just as 1962 was the year of the war with China, 1975 the year of the Emergency, 1991 the year the licence-permit-quota-raj was first undermined, 1992 the year the Babri Masjid was demolished.

Vigorous arguments still rage on the causes and consequences of the China War, the Emergency, economic liberalisation, and the Ramjanmabhoomi movement. How then does one judge the import of events as they are unfolding? The eight months since Anna Hazare’s fast in Jantar Mantar have, even by Indian standards, been very contentious indeed. This coming week, the debate on the Lokpal Bill in Parliament and the threatened ‘jail bharo andolan’ will complicate the picture further.

It may be decades before a proper historical judgement is passed on the principal characters and events in this controversy. Living through the tamasha myself, I have been successively and sometimes simultaneously bewildered, confused, and exasperated. The first two emotions cannot be explained, but I should perhaps say something about the third.

I have been exasperated by, among other things, the repeated invocation by ‘Team Anna’ and their television cheerleaders of the name and legacy of Mohandas K Gandhi. The distance between Hazare and the Mahatma in terms of moral courage and political understanding is roughly equivalent to the distance, in terms of cricketing ability and understanding, between this writer and Sachin Tendulkar. In fact, Hazare is not even a ‘Gandhian’. He has both preached and practised violence, and has never seriously pursued such quintessentially Gandhian projects as the abolition of caste distinctions, women’s emancipation, and Hindu-Muslim harmony.

The distance between Hazare and Mahatma Gandhi can be judged if one juxtaposes Mukul Sharma’s book Green and Saffron (the first serious study of the Ralegan Siddhi experiment) to Louis Fischer’s classic The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. The distance between Hazare and Gandhianism can be judged if one visits the cooperatives and banks run in Gujarat by the Self-Employed Women’s Association, whose founder, Ela Bhatt, has successfully nurtured ideals of caste and gender equality, and religious pluralism, among lakhs and lakhs of previously sectarian Indians.

I have also been exasperated by the attitude of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Through 2011, the BJP undermined the dignity of Parliament by regularly disrupting its proceedings. Comments by senior BJP leaders endorsing Hazare left it unclear whether the principal Opposition party believed that it was the Ramlila Maidan, rather than Parliament, which should decide how laws are to be framed and when they are to be passed. Meanwhile, the sister organisation of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), aggressively supported Hazare’s movement. (One hopes it is only by oversight that, in his recent speech in Bangalore, Hazare did not speak of the by no means insubstantial corruption promoted by the BJP-run state government.)

Finally, I have been exasperated by the behaviour of the ruling dispensation in New Delhi. A young journalist told me that ‘while Gandhi became a Mahatma through his own efforts, we in the media have made a village patriarch a Gandhi.’ In fact, the government has done its bit in inflating Hazare’s significance. For in the winter of 2010-11, the prime minister had stayed silent while the Commonwealth Games and 2G scams broke. This is a key reason behind Hazare’s appeal. Cabinet ministers met with five men nominated by Hazare in a ‘Joint Drafting Committee’. In sanctioning this move, the prime minister placed this unelected activist above the leader of the Opposition.

On the eve of Anna Hazare’s second fast in New Delhi, the government made the colossal error of sending him to Tihar Jail, and then, after a public outcry, releasing him. This elevated his status even further. When the fast eventually commenced, the media took over the job of reputation inflation, by repeatedly showing a split screen of Hazare on one side and the prime minister on the other.

This was a face-off with only one winner. For in the winter of 2010-11, the prime minister had stayed silent while the Commonwealth Games and 2G scams broke. This is a key reason behind Hazare’s appeal.

When I expressed these serial disenchantments to the sociologist André Béteille, he remarked that while Hazare had a right to be stupid, MPs and ministers did not. As an ordinary citizen, Hazare could say what he wanted. However, the Opposition parties had betrayed their mandate by their contempt for Parliament. The Congress had undermined Parliament too (by dealing directly with Team Anna). Cabinet ministers have behaved like boors at times. And through this action or, more often, inaction, of its current incumbent, the office of the prime minister had been most diminished of all.

Here, then, is my interim judgement on 2011 — that in the year now ending, Indian democracy has been debased by an opportunistic Opposition on the one side and a corrupt and incompetent government on the other. I wish readers of this column a less bewildering and less exasperating 2012.


Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History Of The World’s Largest Democracy
The views expressed by the author are personal