Originally Published 2011-06-06 00:00:00 Published on Jun 06, 2011
With the midnight melodrama involving the Delhi Police and Baba Ramdev, the issue of fighting corruption has been over-shadowed by the propriety of the police using excessive force to disrupt the peaceful crowd of people, who were sleeping in those tents after all.
Ram to Ramdev, the continuing political void
The controversy attending on the ejection of Baba Ramdev, the self-styled yoga guru, from his makeshift protest camp at Ramlila Grounds, New Delhi, over the weekend, goes beyond the immediate debate involving the avoidable midnight march of the Delhi Police. It also goes beyond the larger issues of black money and corruption that the Baba as also social activist Anna Hazare had taken up over the past weeks. In a limited way, it questions not only the responsibilities of the State but also its inherent legitimacy that has since been challenged. The two have emerged as symbols of an existing political void that the deteriorating scheme and system, parties and personalities have failed to bridge, if not fill, over the past decades.

The popularity of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev in the 'IT era' should be cause not just for the Government at the Centre, or those in the States to sit up and think. It should make the rest of the polity, both at the national-level and the regional-levels, too to ask themselves as to what had gone wrong in the system that they had evolved, sustained and 'strengthened' over the decades since Independence. Most, if not all political parties in the country, have by now tasted power in one form or the other, either at the national level or in the States. If the likes of Ramdev and Hazare are now donning what necessarily is a political role - without responsibility and accountability that they preach to others - the existing political class should be asking questions of itself.

Close to two decades ago, when a political vacuum emerged likewise at the national-level, Lord Ram not only helped the BJP-led 'Sangh parivar'. The 'Ayodhya issue' helped the BJP to invent a central issue around which the national political discourse could revolve. In an earlier era, 'democratic socialism' had provided the meat for political debates and electoral agendas of the kind. Both issues transcended the immediate name and title that they stood for. They branched off into elements that were seen as an extension of an existing scheme, and came to be discussed and debated in great detail. Positive discrimination in the form of reservations and its further extension and relevance in the form of the 'Mandal issue' were parts thereof, as were seen relevant to the times. In the era of 'Ayodhya issue', the alternative issue was the 'economic reforms' that was being ushered in by the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo. Those who understood it did not have an alternative agenda to take the nation out of the embarrassing economic morass that had led to the fiscal crisis of the late Eighties. Those who did not understand it - or, did not want to be seen as understanding it, and thus having to oppose it - wanted an issue that could re-draw the nation's focus away from the economy to something more immediate and equally emphatic as an election agenda. The 'Ayodhya issue' answered the prayers of the two sections.

Between the time the 'Ayodhya issue' grabbed national attention and now when Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare have become the main political talking-points of the nation, political parties and leaders and the system that they have embedded in the national psyche have failed to measure up. Independent of the media hype on one scam after another scandal, the reality is akin to the Biblical adage of those that had not sinned alone having the right to stone a culprit. Recent memory is replete with instances of scams, scandals, irresponsibility and lack of accountability of every kind being heaped on media institutions and individuals. Some of these incidents have also thrown up questions about their putting commercial priorities and personal glorification over national sensitivities and patriotic sensibilities. Judges, though not the Judiciary, too have not escaped national attention of the kind. Yet, political parties and their leaders, starting with those in power, particularly at the Centre, Judges and media persons have together created a political vacuum that the civil society, intentionally or otherwise, is seeking to fill. Certainly, the civil society organisations did not create the political void. Nor did they intend filling that void. If they are called upon by circumstances in which the polity in the country has put them in, they are found wanting - starting with their inability to assess their strengths and weaknesses, and act accordingly. In a way, the increasing praise for civil society organisations is reflective not only of the lack faith and trust that the polity and Government have endeared. It is also a reflection on the inability of other constitutional institutions tasked with protecting national ethos and values to inspire the nation and build on them.

It is sad that those talking for Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev have not begun defending their positions as negotiation tactic. Their negotiating for a community is one thing. Their negotiating for the country is another. It is already out that some of them may not lack the ambitions of an ordinary politician but lack the skills to be one - and a successful one at that. From among the two non-political personalities mentioned, Baba Ramdev had started his current campaign against black money with a declaration that he was intent on floating a political party of his own. It is here that he and Anna Hazare seem to differ - on how far, and how fast should civil society leaders be walking the beaten path and yet expect to carry credibility with the country as a whole. They all need to remember that they at best could become a drop in the politico-electoral ocean that India is, and cannot by themselves replace the existing political class. For their being able to be successful as catalyst for change, they need to be not only effective but also circumspect. They need to work with the system and work on the system. The likes of them should not seek to work against the system. It would not only be crass and counter-productive, it could also create  chaos that could cause irreparable damage not only to the body-politic but more so to the systems that have been put in place and that are irreplaceable if they have to work. Shaking-up the system should not be confused with shaking out the same.

There is also a need for the civil society organisations to review their methodologies, for the sake of the nation, it would seem. The issues that they have flagged could make one's blood boil. Such issues could motivate more of Hazares and Ramdevs to go on hunger strikes for a cause. Yet, to expect the Governments at the Centre and the States to react to each one of them the way the protagonist of the cause would want - and not create a law and order situation - should be expecting too much. They should know where to draw the line between theirs and what the Naxalites, for instance, are preaching in the backyards of troubled States. There are limits within which the civil society should act, and there are limitations on their inherent rights, and non-existent powers, which are suspect to begin with. If nothing else, the Indian State, even while having to create methods and mechanisms to ensure probity in public life that is found wanting across the board, cannot be expected to accept every civil society group's demand and acknowledge every fasting volunteer's presence. It is the cacophony of the kind triggered by more organised sections of the society, like railway staff and bank employees that created conditions in which the infamous emergency of the Seventies came to be justified. The situation reached a stage when Jayaprakash Narayan's call for the armed forces not to obey the illegal orders of the Government came to be offered as among the immediate justification for the midnight proclamation of internal emergency. These are tricky trails that the civil society should not seek to tread without not getting hurt or hurting the larger cause and the nation, for which they claim to have launched their movement(s).

With the midnight melodrama involving the Delhi Police and Baba Ramdev over the weekend occupying much of the media space and consequent national discourse, the issue of fighting corruption has been over-shadowed by the propriety of the police using excessive force to disrupt the peaceful crowd of people, who were sleeping in those tents after all. There are questions about the Government talking to Ramdev in the morning and shooing him away by late evening. It is also about the Baba's aides talking about methods, not motives, tactic and not transparency. At the end of the day, fighting corruption has become a national past-time, unfortunately as anticipated, but faster than expected ('Fighting corruption should not be reduced to a national past-time', www.orfonline.org, May 31, 2011).  There are also questions about Ramdev's background that the ruling Congress Party at the Centre has begun rising. It should first answer questions as to why then did the Centre depute four senior Ministers to negotiate with him. That would not still wash off the questions raised by the ruling party, which will have natural follow-throughs. If it came to that, such a course could be seen as harassment by some, embarrassment by many.

Clearly, the credibility of the political class is in question. On issues such as corruption and black money, the nation has lost its patience and faith in the political establishment. It goes beyond the ruling party and/or combine. It is easy for the divided Opposition to unite on attacking the Government of the day, but the shoe had also been on the other foot - with nothing home to write about.  Whichever be the party or alliance, barring shouting matches that have disrupted parliamentary proceedings weeks on end, none of them has either offered anything reasonable while in office, or achieved anything substantial while in the Opposition. With the inevitability of anti-incumbency visiting the Manmohan Singh Government in its second term, with a media campaign to match, there is lack of credible responses not only from the ruling combine but also from the Opposition as a whole.

It all owes to the absence of credible alternative, and creditable leadership at all levels.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is in what many people have come to believe is his last term as the party's nominee for the high post. The Congress high command has not said or done anything to change this perception. Party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi, the heir-apparent, has not shown any signs of wanting to be there as yet. He still seems shy of building on the inherent advantages that his lateral entry entailed, and empowered with him, considering that in a nation as vast as India with a population as large as we have, it is impossible for a new party or political leader to 'market' himself effectively over a short . Rahul Gandhi is still busy travelling to protest sites on bike-pillions, defying police ban by subterfuge and wanting to develop the grassroots-level Congress organisation. With the exit of Atal Behari Vajapyee and the repeated defeat of Advani as the prime ministerial nominee in 2004 and 2009, the BJP Opposition is now fighting a succession battle of relative nonentities within. A situation is fast emerging where within the BJP a replacement for Advani could only be Advani, at least in the interim. The West Bengal and Kerala poll results in May 2011 have taken whatever sting remained in the political Left. The regional parties individual-centric as they have been, are as credible as their national counterparts in terms of popularity, public perception and reach. Barring less than a handful of individual leaders in a population of 1.2 billion with limited appeal and reach, there is no organisational structure, or structures that could together challenge the status quo in ways that they are able to remedy the wrongs that lay at their doorsteps.

The reference to emergency in the context of the midnight disruption of the Ramdev exercise and the subsequent BJP's day-long dharna at the Raj Ghat notwithstanding, the current episode(s) is/are a reflection on the inadequacies of the existing political leadership across party lines and regional boundaries. The reference to the 'JP movement' too needs to be read in context. Then, as now, political parties had lost their relative credibility and it required a retired freedom-fighter to lent credibility to what essentially again was against corruption and lawlessness, purportedly fostered by the rulers of the day. The student leaders of the movement are at present at the head of various political parties and Governments. They have faced, and continue to face charges of the kind that they had once fought against. It is thus a political vacuum at the top that the nation is burdened with, and which the likes of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev have been called upon to fill. Ill-suited as they may be for the task, they are trying to make the best out of a bad situation in which they as also the nation have found themselves.

At the introduction of the economic reforms, the BJP, for instance, had to revive the 'Ayodhya movement' and look up to Lord Ram to give itself a fresh political lease that was still relevant to the evolving national scenario. Today, the party has had to allow the likes of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev to lead what essentially is a political movement, where, as the officially-recognised Opposition party in both Houses of Parliament, it should have been providing a credible alternative in electoral terms. This diffusion of leadership and division of interests can do greater damage to the body politic than the short-lived euphoria about the need for an apolitical movement of the kind. The post-emergency Janata Party movement had its first convulsions even before it was born, and this, not the acts of commission and omission on the part of the Congress Opposition of the time, that became its undoing. If anything, the Congress Party and Indira Gandhi returned to power three years after the post-emergency election debacle, despite all the negative publicity heaped on them and all the internal convulsions that the party too was going through, in fixing/owning up responsibility for the emergency and emergency excesses.

Now, decades down the line, the political leadership, be it in Government, or in the Opposition, cannot run away from their responsibilities in the matter. They cannot outsource what essentially is a political cause, and blame others when things went wrong. If nothing else, the midnight melodrama involving the Baba has taken the focus away from not only the course issue on which he was fasting. It has also thrown greater limelight on him as central to certain solutions to certain issues that by nature are political. For right reasons or wrong, the political Opposition, from Right to Left, are seen applauding him in ways that would not have become possible earlier. They may have limited patience for his methods and even more real interest in his cause. But his midnight ejection from Ramlila Grounds has taken whatever steam that remained in the legitimate Opposition. If the divided Opposition still thought that allowing Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev their days in the limelight, for them to return to the centre-stage and eject them at will, their own credibility and sustainability have suffered in the interim, so much so any failure of the new messiahs for corruption-free India, with their limited vision and agenda for a complex nation, that the people in wisdom could choose other solutions that could be worse than the problems. The reference to the 'JP movement', the emergency and the Janata Party also revives memories of the failures attaching to them all, not just to one. The nation owes a responsibility to itself, and so do the polity and society at large - the civil society included, but not exclusive of the existing schemes and systems.

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

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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