‘It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare,” wrote political theorist and philosopher Edmund Burke. As a key opinion-maker of the 18th century Burke supported the American revolution, but courted controversy with his fierce criticism of the French Revolution which he claimed was taking down the good with the bad in an indiscriminate wave of negativity.
Irrespective of where you stand on Burke’s conservative politics, his words have a unique resonance for us in India, as the phrase ‘people power’ is so breezily used to punctuate our sentences these days.
First, the good news. The political class has been shaken out of its complacency by the fear of public discontent. The issue of corruption has moved from the periphery to the epicentre of politics and the tremors are still being felt. A Bill that languished for four decades is finally getting prioritised attention and time.
Pushed on the defensive by a wave of scandals, the UPA has been forced to concede that it’s battling a serious perception crisis and it needs to communicate better with the people. And a normally de-politicised middle class seems more willing to engage with the institutions that power democracy. For this, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Anna Hazare campaign.
And yet, why doesn’t any of this feel even vaguely close to a sense of hope?
Why does the public discourse feel vitiated by a kind of malicious negativity that carries no hint of optimism or real change? Why is there a clear and present danger of mobocracy overshadowing democracy, as the space for intelligent, nuanced debate seems to diminish more and more everyday.
It may have something to do with our new appetite for Maggi noodles-style instant justice. We take less than two minutes to bring things to a boil, throw in the masala and then get set to devour reputations and institutions with a vindictive, finger-licking pleasure.
Due process has been abandoned by a quick-to-judge populace that rarely turns the gaze inwards. The over-generalised anti-politician rantings and the utterly banal comparisons between New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar and Egypt’s Tahrir square are an insult to the millions of Indians for whom the vote still matters, and indeed to all the freedoms we take for granted.
Many of us in the media are as guilty for being fearful of breaking free from what we believe is the popular narrative and for telling stories in lazy broadstrokes instead of employing the details of truthful complexity.
Why should we, for example, celebrate the fact that all politicians were booed and jeered out of Jantar Mantar? Hazare was right in announcing that politicians should not use his platform to score cheap brownie points. But he was also correct to apologise to netas like Uma Bharti who were ousted by an angry mob. The decorum of democracy allows for the right to protest peacefully and reject the presence of politicians. It does not permit the terms to be dictated by those who shout the loudest.
The slogan ‘Mera Neta Chor Hai’ that resonated at these protests is another example of the sort of sordid negativity that seems to define us these days. Not because there aren’t politicians who are thieves — there are several — but because once again it’s a grand and lazy generalisation, where we take no responsibility for the state of our democracy.
The last time this sort of anti-political juggernaut threatened to crush the good with the bad was after 26/11. Candle-waving, placard-carrying protestors converged at the Gateway of India and declared that enough was enough. Once again politicians were indiscriminately booed and roundly abused.
In that moment of vulnerability and anger, and given the-then ineffectual home ministry, the cynicism and rage was human and understandable. The disappointment came later when the elections saw a desultory voter turn out in the swish, urban pockets. Yet again, those who had condemned the system the most vocally had refused to participate in changing it.
This time too, in the process of condemning our entire polity, we are in danger of abandoning all that is good about our flawed democracy, while ironically seeking to cleanse it.
Then, there is the small matter of how many people who clicked ‘like’ on Facebook have read the draft of either the government’s Lokpal bill or the one drafted by civil society activists. In this context, Hazare’s demand that the meetings of the draft committee should be videographed so as to make them accessible to the public is welcome. Not only would it make the process more transparent, it may also give the debate an opportunity to be more informed on the Bill than it has been so far.
Yes, in the end the government must take the blame for misreading the width of disconnect between the middle class voter and the political class, and responding in dry technicalities to begin with. It must also learn that the relative aloofness of its top leadership and its reluctance to communicate directly and communicate often has cost it dearly.
The argument against unelected representatives being part of policy-making also doesn’t hold because of the precedent set by the National Advisory Council. Nor is there anything undesirable per se about civil society pressure groups working together with politicians to frame legislations.
But what we do owe to ourselves and to our democracy is more engagement, more participation and certainly less elitist scorn for the vote. To borrow again from Burke, we should remember “whenever a separation is made between Liberty and Justice, neither is safe.”
And justice is not two-minute noodles.
(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal)