Pragmatic | The bigger challenge

A crisis of confidence in the government of the day shouldn’t end up as a crisis of legitimacy of the state.

On this, there can be no two opinions. The dead cat has been left at the doorstep of the UPA government and the Congress Party, and deservedly so. This metaphor comes from the repeated failures of Israel-Palestine talks where the other side is left with what former US Secretary of State James Baker once referred to as the “dead cat” of prospective blame. With the caveat (of the UPA government’s inept political handling and continuous flip-flops being at the root of this crisis) out of the way, it is time to focus on some of the larger questions thrown by this agitation.

A theory has been put forth, and is being recycled continuously, that it is the political awakening of the new Indian middle class, a middle class often decried for its apathy towards the Indian state and democracy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is not the political engagement of the new middle class with India’s democratic system and processes. It is in fact a rejection of India’s democratic politics of 64 years. The message driven home has been: the elections and elected representatives don’t matter, the middle class votes don’t matter — because in any case, either the poor sell the vote or the rich buy out the politicians. There is no need for middle class to engage with the system. The system should instead be captured or subverted by street protests and public blackmails, with the help of the news television channels which can act as a force multiplier. When you mobilise supporters telling them that their votes don’t matter, and only street protests and blackmail do, these people are not going to stand up in queue to vote in the next elections.

It is for this precise reason that the current agitation is different from the earlier political movements in this country —- one led by Jai Prakash Narayan against the emergency imposed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1975, and the other launched by Mr. V.P. Singh against corruption in 1987. Both were ‘political’ movements where the leaders were proposing an alternative political formulation in front of the electorate. By seeking votes against the ruling establishment, they were reposing their faith in India’s democratic system. In contrast, Mr. Hazare’s handlers are self-righteous activists with a disdain for politics and politicians. The basic belief arising from the nature of their work with the NGOs is that politics and government cannot deliver, and only they can do a better job. In following their beliefs, the current movement is being assiduously apolitical, where its leadership is subverting — if not overtly rejecting — the democratic institutions like the Parliament and established legislative processes.

With its implicit message of subversion in a democracy, it illustrates the paradox of the current movement. The enthusiasm and commitment of the people in coming to the streets for a non-sectarian cause in a democracy is breathtaking. Yet this is a movement without an agenda beyond pushing its own version of the Jan Lok Bill. It could bend towards a new political party the way V.P. Singh’s Jan Morcha evolved into the Janata Dal, or it could be sophisticatedly co-opted by the UPA government as a new National Advisory Council. The essential truth is that nobody can predict just where this upheaval is heading. The political parties are being wise in moving carefully — and avoiding the facile embrace of a movement whose trajectory is unknown.

As the victory procession of this movement traverses the streets of Delhi, it’s a good time to take stock — and to remind ourselves that there won’t be any automatic movement toward prosperity and rule of law. This movement will probably retard the process of economic reform in India. The populist anger is understandable, but this public sentiment of a dysfunctional state will neither help India get much-needed international investment nor push the government towards the next generation of economic reforms. As the middle class gets further alienated from the government, the reflexive response of the UPA government would be to embrace political populism — open its coffers for schemes for the poor and the disadvantaged, leading to a fiscal catastrophe. Remember the loan melas for farmers organised by Janardhan Poojary in the 1980s to counter V. P. Singh’s challenge. And the electoral promise by the opposition parties to waive the loans off which brought India to the doorstep of the economic crisis of 1991.

However there is a fundamental threat that should worry us all: in harvesting the anger generated by this confrontation, a crisis of confidence in the government of the day shouldn’t end up as a crisis of legitimacy of the state. By constantly invoking the Right to Protest, there is a danger of seeing protests as an end by themselves, and not the means to an end. The middle class protesters have come onto the streets to demand a corruption-free life; they believe it will magically transform India in one stroke — and they want it now. Mr Hazare has promised them a magic wand. the protesters will soon realise that no such wand exists. The protagonists of this movement could then end up joining the Indian democracy in disappointing the impatient middle class. Mass movements, devoid of intellectual clarity and bereft of an enlightened leadership, that start off calling for a revolution often produce the opposite.

We are in the danger of ending up with an even more disillusioned and disenchanted middle class which doesn’t believe in a social contract with the Indian State. While the existing social contract seems to have lapsed, there are no alternatives being articulated by the leaders of the current movement.

This a huge challenge for the political class. But it also provides them with an opportunity. The political class can restore sanity by changing its conduct and by regaining credibility. The government requires creative political thinking instead of waiting to tide over what it can dismiss as a momentary formation, a mere situational effect. The need of the hour is a political leadership prepared to marshal the toughness, reassurance and commitment to lead the way.

A representative parliament must also become a responsible and responsive parliament, which has the credibility and earns the respect of the masses by its actions. And India needs an engaged government — a government that doesn’t wait for five years to communicate to its people what and why of what it is doing, and what it intends to do. If at least this much can be achieved, it would be the proverbial silver lining amidst the dark clouds of the current movement.

It is true that the moral standing of the Indian state amongst its own population has declined over the years. Much of this pain has been self-inflicted by short-sighted politicians, inept bureaucrats and an ineffectual judiciary. The effect has been cumulative and devastating. India is an imperfect democracy. The answer doesn’t lie in jettisoning that democracy but in refining, reforming, improving and strengthening the democratic institutions and processes. Anything else paves the way for systems of governance which are far more dangerous than an imperfect democracy.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.