Originally Published 2012-10-04 00:00:00 Published on Oct 04, 2012
The IAC is at the cross-roads now. That it has also been the fate of most such organisations over the past years in various parts of the country should not also be lost sight of. Many have come and gone, but very few have remained as an electorally successful political outfit.
'Party-ing' against corruption: too little, too early?
The formal announcement by the organisers of ’India Against Corruption’ (IAC) of their decision on floating a political party of their own has not come a day too early - or, a day too late. It came when the apolitical organisation was seen beginning to lose steam after making an impact, again as had not been wholly unexpected.

If the choice of ’Gandhi Jayanthi’ for the formal announcement now, followed by the pre-determined date, November 26, ’Ambedkar Jayanthi’ for coming out with the new party’s name, flag and symbol, if any, gives a feeling of de ja-vu, the nation cannot be blamed for it. So has been party co-founder Arvind Khejriwal’s swearing by the names of all national leaders of yesteryear at the launch-function. Unlike the open-air affairs of the past, this one was held under the roof of the Constitution Club in New Delhi. India has seen enough parties and their leaderships similarly swearing by the names and values that all those national leaders had stood for.

This time round, for effect, the picture of Myanmarese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was among those displayed on the dais. If it is not for the determination that goes with her and the relentlessness of purpose identified with her, the organisers in India would have some explanation to do on that score. The Indian system, unlike the Myanmarese scheme, has provided enough democratic space for dissent and experimentation. Suu Kyi’s primary focus was on democracy issues, and not corruption, as yet - which has been the lifeblood of the IAC campaign thus far.

The IAC is a prime example of our times. So are all other civil society organisations that have captured the nation’s imagination on a variety of issues and common man’s concerns like land-use patterns, nuclear energy and tribal rights. It remains to be seen how many of them, if at all, would take the IAC way to float a political party of their own. The anti-nuclear Kudamkulam movement in southern Tamil Nadu may be a prime candidate, among many. Prior to the Assembly elections in West Bengal, and for contemporary reasons, the Opposition Trinamul Congress (now in power) could effectively reap the electoral benefit of the hard work done by others on issues of land-use and small-land ownership. In doing so, the Trinamul Congress straddled the thin dividing line between legitimate NGO practices and the dangers that the revival of left militancy bode not just for the State but for the nation as a whole.

From ’experience’ to ’experimentation’

The IAC experience, now bordering on experimentation, would be watched with interest, by those with ideas to float issue-based political outfits of the kind. The nation’s polity at all levels would also be watching the upcoming party, for signs of constitutional and/or institutional weaknesses that go with experiments of the kind. True, present-day political parties in the country, barring some that have splintered from others, have mostly been born out of similar ideas, which later shaped into ideologies of some kind. The Indian National Congress (INC) is a prime example.

The comparison should stop there, however. It took the Congress decades before it could call itself a political party. Until around the mid-Thirties, when it was called upon to contest elections under the Government of India Act, 1935, the INC remained an ’umbrella organisation’ of pro-Independence groups of all shades and shapes. In a way, the 1937 elections characterised the Congress as a political party. The role and the route that went hand in hand through the party’s chequered career since is history. The period has seen adjustments and re-adjustments, splits and defections, purportedly based on policies and programmes, but at the same time centred on personalities, all the same.

The IAC is no different. Before it could start off as a political party, it has already split. Little is also known about the internal consultative mechanisms deployed before a decision was taken to convert into a political party. That Anna Hazare, the spirit and fountain-head of the anti-graft movement, has publicly disassociated himself from the political party is alone known. It will be useful to know how the various State-level IAC chapters have reacted to the proposal. It is also unclear if the new party proposes to be national in character or would like to reach out to the masses one State after the other. Between these two questions lies the answer to the prospect of the party being able to create and sustain grassroots-level organisations that are required for any electoral machinery.

At best, the IAC at inception was deemed to be an ’umbrella organisation’ for individuals and groups striving and/or seeking a corruption-free India to work on an idea and pressure the entrenched system to do likewise. To most of them, absence of corruption was synonymous with good governance, just as to some others absence of autocracy is democracy - and by extension would lead to good governance. There are such other civil society organisations in the country today that have made similar linkages between good governance and the issues of their concern.

Good intentions do not make for good governance. Nor do bad practices (like corruption and autocracy) automatically mean ’bad governance’ as is commonly understood and felt. If one-agenda outfits are to wear the political colours on the strength of it, and focus on their available constituency and nothing else, we are going to replace one group of regional parties with another set of sub-regional ideas-outfits. It is unlikely any of them would have the steam to carry on the nation’s affairs - or, those of the States -- on their own.

In a way, a coalition of ideas may be better on paper than a coalition of political parties. Offering ’good governance’ may also work thus. But governing India is much more than that. It cannot be done through inspiration of the Anna Hazare kind. An inspiring icon with proven leadership qualities like Mahathma Gandhi too did not taste or test politico-administrative power. The game is different, the rules are different. What needs to be done is to play the game by the rule, and not change the rule, midway, or shift the goal-post, either.

Of staying capacity and delivery mechanism

That way, the IAC’s party may be too little and too early. Barring the national movement of the Independence kind, and the Congress reaping the electoral benefits of the same, all other political parties had toiled for years and through various avatars before reaching whether they have since reached. It is true of the BJP, the left-of-centre regional parties all across the country and a few splinter groups of the Congress parent, as well. As for the Congress Party, it had put in years of hard work for decades, reflecting the mass sentiments, reaching out to those masses and returning to them the Independence they had lost generations and centuries ago, before it could claim to represent and lead them - and the nation.

For a political outfit seeking to represent a 1.2-billion population or even a fraction thereof, expecting to reach out to the masses by itself may be too much to expect in too little a time. It has taken such others decades and generations. It is unclear if that is also the intent and content of the proposed party. It is equally unsure if such a party has the ’staying capacity’ to make it work at the grass-roots and in electoral terms. What it means for the party’s future in terms of longevity to begin with too would remain to be seen. Its electoral chances and successes would then have to wait - and wait out, too. In between, they would have to create the delivery mechanism and/or the vehicle that any political party requires to take it to the masses and keep it relevant, electorally and otherwise, too.

For starters, however, the new party, with a certain reach, may be able to contribute to the defeat of certain individual candidates representing existing political parties in individual constituencies, be it for Parliament or State Assemblies.

There is little or no chance of the party and its candidate(s) - unless he or she is popular in his or her own right in another sector of mass-contact (like the filmdom) - to win seats for the party. How under the circumstances the party would maintain a character of its own other than that what is sought to be projected by such individuals would become datable, too. The question would thus be asked as to which other political party’s electoral interests would the IAC party serve in electoral terms, if it is not going to serve its own interests yet not able to make a mark on its own. It would not be about intentions of the IAC leadership. It would be about the results those intentions produce on the ground, ultimately. In its earlier avatar as a civil society organisation, IAC did come under criticism for its selective targeting of parties, leaders and constituencies for campaigning against. Such trivialisation of the IAC ideology could hurt the new party during election time than is understood.

From Anna to Arvind

For now, however, changing the T-shirt slogan from ’I am Anna’ to ’I am Aravind’ has come easily for the new party. Anna Hazare still represents the spirit of the movement while Arvind Kherjriwal was the face of the processes involved. That a political party, despite the purported desire of the founders to consult the cadres on all issues and concerns, will still have to have an elected/self-appointed leadership to guide it and conduct its affairs (at times secretly, for purpose of tactical and strategic successes), cannot be underscored in this context.

After a point, the IAC as a civil society organisation was beginning to be seen as being top-heavy, with decisions being taken by a select few and enforced in the name of an individual, namely, Anna Hazare. During this phase, the issues and consultations were more about processes and procedures, not about issues and solutions. The great debate over the ’Jan Lokpal Bill’ was a case in point. Despite the faulty approach to the Lokpal, only Anna Hazare is talking about it, IAC is busy talking about the new party.

All this does not mean that the IAC did not serve any purpose as a civil society organisation. It captured the imagination of a large section of the silent majority as none other may have done in recent times. It filled a void that was felt by most apolitical citizens who were otherwise concerned about the course of politics and issues of governance in recent years. This was particularly so when the slow but steady and sure reach of independent institutions like the Judiciary and CAG, designated as such under the constitutional scheme, had begun to be felt.

The Judiciary and CAG having filled up the void in more effective way, since the IAC was on the wane, its relevance to the public discourse confined mostly to its own future, and not to the future of the concerns it had once flagged. Even the media that provided sustenance to the civil society organisation had something more credible and sharper teeth in constitutional institutions, when the effect of their processes began showing results to the naked eye.

Despite what may be said of it, the IAC is at the cross-roads now. That it has also been the fate of most such organisations over the past years in various parts of the country should not also be lost sight of. Many have come and gone, but very few have remained - as an electorally successful political outfit that could not be wished away, or that needed to be absorbed by a larger party, to provide sustenance to its founders or existing brand of leaders, as and when such mergers need to take place - depending on what their real/hidden agenda had been all along!

What applies to the IAC party now should apply to others that may be in the pipeline. Civil society organisations, by the very idea, are issue-based and often geographically confined to a specific area. However, as is the case with the anti-corruption drive and nuclear-safety, various interest groups, including motivated groups with agendas of their own, might pitch in alongside. Some create the goodwill, and some among them explore and exploit it in electoral terms. That by itself is not to say that they are all wrong. Yet, going by experience from the past, be they from the centre-right or centre-left or the politico-ideological middle-path, most, if not all ’umbrella organisations’ have only taken the beaten path. The IAC party is no surprise!

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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