The circus must end

By abdicating its own authority, the government has yielded space to non-political voices. Will the UPA take charge now? Barkha Dutt writes.

columns Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:45 IST
Barkha Dutt
Barkha Dutt
Hindustan Times

A shoe-thrower; a swami who wants to raise a private army; a national debate over whether dancing is decorous and a government that went from supplication to abrupt scepticism all in the span of a week. It would actually have been rip-roaringly funny, were it not all woefully true. But sadly, this is the new India Story, one that has swiftly replaced self-confidence with self-loathing.

Oh yes, the circus has come to town. It has plenty of clowns, acrobatics, tight-rope walking, the juggling of balls, fire-eaters and indeed a few lions too. But what it's sorely missing is a Ring Master.

India's democracy has never been in such serious danger of being undermined and trivialised. But an inadequate, inconsistent response from the UPA — one that has swerved from silence to surrender and from paralysis to panic — has created the distinct impression of no one being in charge.

It's stuff made for satire. Remember Alice's conversation with the Cheshire Cat? Lewis Caroll wrote in 19th century England, but in the Blunder-land that is today's India, his words would be just as apt.

"What sort of people live about here?" Alice had asked the Cat.

"In that direction," the Cat said, waving its right paw round, "lives a Hatter: and in that direction," waving the other paw, "lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad."

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.

"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."

As a strange kind of madness takes control of the political discourse, the eventual responsibility for this turmoil must lie squarely at the UPA's doorstep. Nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum. And as the government steadily abdicated its own authority, the space for alternative non-political voices rapidly expanded.

The silence at the very top in an age of hyper-communication has only compounded the crisis. People expect signs of visible leadership from those who govern them. Even the Victorians restricted the proverbial wisdom of only being seen and not heard to children. In these globalised, inter-connected times when the White House in on Twitter and it is not uncommon for world leaders to talk directly to their constituents online, the opaqueness that surrounds our netas is anachronistic and exasperating.

Yes, senior ministers have spoken, as have party leaders. But firstly, their accounts have been cacophonic with the party openly contradicting the government. Second, while one is dismayed to see someone as toxic and communal as Sadhvi Ritambhara (a key figure in the Ayodhya demolition of 1992) be accorded the legitimacy of an anti-corruption crusader, there's no point telling us that after you have first laid out a red carpet reception committee for Baba Ramdev.

As people, we must also confront our contradictory responses to the phrase that has come to define this debate — 'civil society'. It's a term has that has myriad definitions, often traced back to Adam Ferguson and GF Hegel. As a concept, it was born in the effort of citizens to assert their individual rights in 18th century Europe, in the face of an aristocratic State.

Before it shut down, the London School of Economics Centre for Civil Society offered a working definition: "Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the State and market,though in practice, the boundaries between State, civil society, and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated."

In India, the 'civil society' debate is a polarised one, pitching ideologues of the left and the right against each other. So, the liberal enclave that welcomed the Anna Hazare movement is now horrified by some of the religious components of the Baba Ramdev campaign. However, whatever one's individual differences and discomfort may be with Ramdev, once you give one group the legitimacy to influence the political space, you do not have the right to shut out any other group, even one at ideological odds with your beliefs. After all, civil society is not an exclusive, members-only club. And it has long been pointed out that it was the Congress that set the precedent of giving sweeping powers to voices outside of Parliament, with the creation of the National Advisory Council.

Yet, the BJP must also ask itself whether it really wants to hitch its wagon to a motley crew of politician-hating vigilantes. Does the party support Ramdev's call to arms or his demand that economic offences be punished with the death sentence? The demand for public accountability and transparency is of course an unexceptional one. And the fact that these anti-corruption campaigns have made the political class nervous is also to be welcomed. But does the BJP not worry about the fact that we are in serious danger of becoming a lynch-mob society where, to borrow again from Lewis Caroll, the Queen of Hearts has only one thing to say: "Off with their heads... I warn you dear child, if I lose my temper, you lose your head..."

As we slip-slide into a self-created chaos, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi must break down the walls of silence around them and talk to the people who elected them. Political leadership demands a certain amount of emotional intimacy along with assertiveness. Thus far, we are missing signs of both. For how long will the party and the government regard themselves as separate entities? In the minds of the people, that is a technical difference, the re-iteration of which only adds to a perception of drift. India needs its sense of self back. Else, we can get ready for the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. And it doesn't promise to be fun.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Jun 10, 2011 21:44 IST