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Political parties must shed politics of puritanism and become reformists

Puritanical zealotry doesn’t stand the test of time. AAP is not the only party to practise the politics of puritanism. Until a change of heart recently, Rahul Gandhi’s stand on the rural-urban divide was highly puritanical, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Feb 12, 2014 02:43 IST
Sagarika Ghose
Sagarika Ghose
Hindustan Times

In his riveting book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, the historical character who lived in the context of Jewish insurrections against the Roman empire, historian Reza Aslan writes: “Poor, pious and anti-aristocratic, the members of the Zealot Party wanted to remain true to the original intentions of the revolt: to purify the Holy land and establish God’s rule on earth.” Purify the nation, rid the land of the unclean, sweep away the filth: if we transpose Aslan’s words about the first century CE and transpose it to 21st century India, we find that almost similar inclinations towards ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ are creating a politics of puritanism by all political parties.

Anthropologist Louis Dumont in his classic, Homo Hierarchicus said, ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ are central to the Hindu caste system. The higher one is up the caste hierarchy, the cleaner one is, lower down, you become ‘polluted’ or unclean. No wonder discourses around ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ have such a subliminal resonance in our minds.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has signalled his willingness to give up his chair for the sake of the Jan Lokpal Bill. Yet at the core of AAP’s conception of corruption is a puritan notion of ‘good people’ vs ‘bad people’, the ‘pure’ vs the ‘polluted’. Thus, a super-cop in the form of a Jan Lokpal striking fear in the hearts of ‘bad people’ will force them to become ‘good’ and corruption will end.

But is corruption about a puritanical crusade of ‘good’ against ‘bad’? Or is it about creating systems that incentivise honesty? For example, corruption in the telephone delivery sector was eradicated not by daroga raj but because of the revolution in mobile and land telephony. Once phones became readily available, we no longer had to bribe the line man. Once airline tickets, Maruti cars, Bajaj scooters and computerised rail tickets became readily available, corruption in these sectors largely disappeared. When the system creates shortages, there is an institutional incentive for corruption because demand far outstrips supply. Jan Lokpal may be a good idea but relying on it as the only way to punish ‘bad people’ can’t work because corruption is about systems not individuals.

AAP is not the only party to practise the politics of puritanism. Until a change of heart recently, Rahul Gandhi’s stand on the rural-urban divide was highly puritanical. The rural areas were where the ‘good pure’ people lived, cities were where ‘bad people’ lived. Gandhi spent nights in village huts, undertook padyatras, invoked Kalavati and proclaimed himself as rural India’s sipahi. However, during urban movements against rape and corruption, he stayed aloof. He’s paid a price for this puritanism. The CNN-IBN Election tracker has shown the Congress badly losing support in rural areas.

The politics of puritanism has already rebounded badly for the BJP. The attempt to create a ‘Hindu-only’ movement by metaphorically ‘purifying’ society of minorities and Macaulayputras in the 1990s, could hardly be sustained. Hindu puritanism of certain sangh outfits is still strong. They justify moral policing to eradicate the ‘filth’ of western culture. They believe in re-writing history by harking to the ‘purity’ of the Vedic Age, preferring to forget the achievements of the ‘polluted’ era of Muslim rule. Since Sultanate and Mughal rule is erased, no wonder the cultural repertoire of Hindu ‘purists’ consists predominantly of either Vedas or Bollywood!

The politics of puritanism is fundamentally anti-modern. Somnath Bharti’s language of the ‘dirt’ in our culture, the need to ‘cleanse’ neighbourhoods is hardly the language of modern democracies around the world, where debates focus on bridge building in divided neighbourhoods and in some countries, even on legalising prostitution. Democracy itself is a messy business. Politics is the art of the possible, because political leaders are expected to negotiate deals, which may not be perfect, but are better than no-deals. Puritanism cannot be practised in politics because puritanism, AAP-style, seeks to exclude everyone except the ‘pure’, thus making politics impossible.

Wearing a Gandhi topi does not suddenly make you pure. Living in the rural areas does not make you pure. Rejecting western culture and upholding bharatiya sanskriti does not immediately make you pure. Imprisoning ‘bad people’ will not make society suddenly ‘good’, unless you change the reason why people are becoming ‘bad’ in the first place.

In fact, the politics of puritanism tend to inevitably fail. Instead they open up spaces for new thinking. The BSP had to modify its Dalit puritanism and move from bahujan to sarvajan to gain its first full majority in polls.

The Janata Party swept to power in 1977 promising to end Indira Gandhi’s corruption and to create even-more-socialist-than-Indira policies. MNCs like Coca Cola and IBM were thrown out. But within two years, the Janata Party collapsed and Indira Gandhi was back, emboldened by the failure of ultra-Leftism, to bring in reforms like the entry of Suzuki to rescue Maruti.

For the BJP, Hindu puritanism failed to create a permanent vote-bank and defeat in 2004 has forced the saffron party to reach out to minorities. The AAP’s politics of puritanism too can come a cropper if its ‘good people’ vs ‘evil people’ discourse comes in the way of delivering real systemic change. Purity and pollution are ideological stances, but a lasting legacy depends on creating genuine change.

Reza Aslan writes, “The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth...has been almost completely lost to history.” Jerusalem was destroyed yet Christianity survived as a religion of the Gentiles although not in the pure form of Jesus’ rebellion, even though Jesus himself was “compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy”. Puritanical zealotry doesn’t stand the test of time or win a vast following, but a genuinely transformative way of thinking, does.

Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN The views expressed by the author are personal