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Showing posts with label Anna Hazare. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Anna Hazare. Show all posts

Monday, February 6, 2017

Mindless activism is the root of Goa’s political stasis

Contemplating the election just completed in Goa, my mind wandered to a Sunday afternoon a few years ago. At lunch in a friend’s place near Panjim, I found myself under assault by an “activist”. He challenged my assessment that the “India against Corruption” protest, then in full flower, was just another anti-Congress formation. My interlocutor was the well-spoken scion of an influential Goan family and he took umbrage at my assertion that Anna Hazare, the figure head of the protest, was a congenital publicity hound.

Sadly, the conversation degenerated into a diatribe with the activist scolding me for my views on politics, economics and society. There was not much subtlety in his charge that people such as I must be held responsible for the state of affairs in India, tainted as it is with political corruption, skewed economic priorities and consumerist societal norms.

Fast forward to 2014, post the Hazare protest: A group of “activists” led by Arvind Kejriwal emerged to form the Aam Aadmi Party. Kejriwal’s group did surprisingly well in the ensuing elections to the assembly and was able to form a government with support from the Congress. The rest is history.

Last year, when AAP announced it would contest elections in Goa, which is a particularly fecund political environment for activism, I was not surprised. All these years of living in the haven, I was witness to the mindless activism that challenged the long-reigning Congress on any and every development scheme or project. Bringing to bear their networking skills and media clout, activists went hammer and tongs after the Congress on often unsubstantiated charges of corruption. In the event, they did not change the fluid and corrupt politics in the state or root out corruption; they ensured the rise of the BJP.

The entry of AAP to Goa politics has been made possible by the cosy fit with local activists. Coasting on word-of-mouth publicity, AAP brought to bear its propaganda skills to project a victory in the just-completed election to the assembly. Many people, with a foot in both places, Delhi and Goa, are understandably appalled. In their view, Goans have regarded them with hostility as outsiders spoiling the Goan environment with their South Delhi ways. But Goans see no contradiction in embracing a Delhi-centric political party with roots in the rough-and-ready exurban areas of the National Capital Region.

This election was held against a national backdrop in which there is a massive pushback against the BJP and a growing disenchantment with the politics of AAP. Sensing this, the Congress put in place ambitious revival plans. It opted for a seat-sharing arrangement with: Two seats for Goa Forward, a year-old party pledged to defeat the BJP; one for Atanasio Monserrate’s United Goan, a party sworn to keep the secular vote from splitting; and it has decided to support an independent candidate.

Aside of the seat sharing arrangement, the Congress is likely to benefit from a split in the BJP vote. This is because of an alliance between Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, Shiv Sena and Goa Suraksha Manch, a new party floated by a rebel RSS member, Subhash Velingkar, head of the influential Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch. This Right-wing alliance, which had been instrumental in the BJP victory in 2012, threatens to jerk the rug from under the BJP.

The Congress sources in Goa and Delhi say they have long believed Kejriwal’s AAP was a front floated by the saffronistas to divide the Congress vote, especially in two-way contests as in Punjab and Goa. Their response to the split in the BJP vote in Goa is a nudge and a wink to suggest the Congress stands to make a huge gain because this split will take more votes from the BJP than AAP will from the Congress.

Though polls predict a hung assembly, the mood in the Congress camp is upbeat.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://hindustantimes.com, February 6, 2017.)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The rise of righteous reaction

Mahatmas with a small m

Through my pre-teen and teenage years, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. He was a medical doctor, a theosophist, a Congress party activist and a compassionate human being. He was my ideal.

One summer when my siblings and I were visiting his home in Surat, someone told him I had eaten meat. Grandfather wasn’t incensed or censorious; he simply said “We don’t eat meat.” I was in awe of this man who attracted eminences like Rabindranath Tagore, Annie Besant, George Arundale, among others to his home. When he said something, I listened, deferentially.

However on this occasion his comment rankled. Grandfather seemed to be suggesting that because of caste and religious strictures, our family was vegetarian. Having eaten a mutton samosa at a friend’s house, I thought to myself that his reaction was over the top. I knew he was tolerant and liberal; his extensive library included books by Bertrand Russell and other free thinkers.  Thanks to him, we were spared worst traditions of caste and religion.

This incident haunted me over the years. Since I admired him, I dismissed the episode as a one-off occurrence. Nevertheless, it came back to haunt me in the mid-1970s, when I was living in the US.  Our high-profile India Forum group in Chicago became a magnet for NGOs and activists of all types, looking at times for financial support but mostly to spread the gospel of the jholewala alternative.  I termed it “the rise of righteous reaction.”

The ascent of the righteous activist posing alternative, mostly woolly and impractical models, was like a riptide generated by the Navnirman wave.  Led by Jayaprakash Narayan, a Congress party dissenter, the movement was against the perceived corruption and, in a phrase cherished and propagated by the jholewala, ‘anti-people’ development policies of the Indira Gandhi government of the time.

Training his guns on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Narayan called for “Total Revolution,” a Maoist-style leap backward into anarchy which prompted the imposition of the Emergency in June 1975. Condemned worldwide as a dictatorial regression, the Emergency destroyed the government’s credibility. The Congress Party was defeated in the general election of 1977.

However, even before the first non-Congress government assumed office in Delhi, things had begun to go awry. During what he thought was a revolutionary war; Narayan had called on the armed forces to revolt against the government. That’s when the steady erosion of his vastly inflated stature began, helped in no small measure by the subsequent fumbling and ineptitude of the Janata government which came to power in 1977.

Narayan’s movement had its roots in the margins of the Gandhian movement. The Mahatma’s success with the independence struggle allowed him to exhume and propagate an anti-Western, anti-modernity ideology drawn from his 1909 tract Hind Swaraj. Mohandas Gandhi challenged Jawaharlal Nehru’s modernization agenda, recommending simplistic notions like village republics, self-sufficiency, nature cure and vegetarianism as national alternatives.

Like many students who studied in the US after him, Narayan became a Karl Marx admirer. However, when he returned to India he found his position pre-empted by Nehruvian economic policies that emphasized central planning and nationalization of core industries. For him and his acolytes, it was a short step to the vituperative and impractical edicts of Hind Swaraj.

The Navnirman movement was confused at birth. It combined the anti-Western, anti-modern strains of Gandhian utopianism and the anti-market, anti-constitutional Marxist dogma. This weird and unsustainable campaign fell apart as casually as it was formed.

After the failure of Narayan’s movement, the role of righteous reaction became marginal. The protest against the Narmada Dam project led by a global coalition of NGOs gave it a second wind. Through the 1980s, the Indian jholewala brigade became involved with relatively benign campaigns against child labor, deforestation, and for employment generation, education, healthcare, among others.  

In 2004, the newly-elected UPA government, recognizing their contribution to social welfare and poverty alleviation, sought to co-opt the jholewala brigade into the National Advisory Council (NAC). The NAC’s deliberations focused on welfare and (Citizen’s) rights rather than the legitimacy of the government and the political system. But a more virulent strain of Jholewala activism surfaced with the appearance on the national stage of Anna Hazare and his disciples.

The Hazare protest went further than Narayan in challenging the legitimacy of the Constitution and the credibility of the political system. Sophisticated in the use of propaganda, the rural chieftain and his jholewala acolytes cleverly projected their protest as being against corruption when actually it is a political assault on the UPA government and its leading party, the Congress. Like Narayan, Hazare over-reached and today, his protest has degenerated into a media relations effort.

Is the tradition of smug righteousness so deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche that it can only be contained, never eradicated? Who will be the next mahatma (with a small m)?

This Article appeared in the Education World magazine in August 2012 issue.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Power, Not Principles

Anti-Congressism is the common plank of those motivated by short-term political gain.

Peeling the onion of political ideology in India is an assault on reason. You have Hindutva rabble-rousers who held sway from 1998 to 2004. Then there is the intellectually bankrupt Left that met its Waterloo on the India-US strategic partnership agreement. Sitting on opposition benches, their one-point agenda is to defeat – which is difficult – or cause problems – which is easy – for the Congress. It is a matter of wonder how closely these two so-called inimical forces, the BJP and the Left, have combined time and again to oppose the Congress for short term political gain. 

There are also 1960s-style anarchic groups that include the Anna Hazare autocratic clique and Mamata Banerjee’s socially and intellectually challenged Trinamool Congress. Plunk into the mix the personality cults of Mayawati; the dynastic set-up of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Karunanidhi and Naveen Patnaik; the slippery appeal of Jayalalithaa and the holier-than-thou stance of Nitish Kumar. These are mercenary formations that will sway whichever way the wind blows, depending on the political advantage they can derive. 

It is not clear what any of these groups stand for except opposition to the Congress. In 1974, the great anarch Jayaprakash Narayan talked of “total revolution” and called on the army to revolt against the Indira Gandhi government; today Anna has subverted his fight against corruption into an anti-Congress political movement. Talk about deja vu. 

The foolishness of the Anna band of civil society buccaneers was exposed when the moving spirit, Arvind Kejriwal, was forced to issue a statement that they are not anti-Congress. Earlier, when cornered by thinking people on a television show, he said that India’s muchadmired parliamentary democracy is a fraud. Such increasingly shrill utterances suggest he is completely out of depth on the national stage. 

Meanwhile, BJP leader L K Advani led a rath yatra against money in Swiss banks in a nonetoo-subtle bid to cash in on Anna’s storm in a teacup against corruption. Of classic RSS vintage, he believes no one remembers his other 1990 Ram temple effort which led to communal riots. So where is the “glorious” temple he promised? He served as home minister and deputy prime minister for the six years the BJP-led coalition was in power. Advani’s confusion was complete when he went to Karachi and lauded Mohammed Ali Jinnah as a secular leader. 

There are many ideological fig leafs that political formations wear in their relentless grasp for power: socialism, casteism, social justice, identity, chauvinism, Hinduism. Scratch the surface and it all turns out to be an anti-Congress position. As such, political analysis in India is best conducted on a dyadic presumption: there is the Congress and there is everyone else. 

So let’s look at the Congress record. It has been the default option for the electorate. In the past quarter century, it suffered seminal defeats in the elections of 1989 and 1996. In each case, it was voted out of power on allegations of corruption. Each time, a coalition of parties was hastily put together that stood for nothing except opposition to the Congress. In both those defeats, any objective analyst could conclude the Congress lost because its governments undertook significant reforms that hurt the status quo. 

In 1989, an agglomeration of forces came together to restore the status quo of inequity and discrimination that Rajiv Gandhi had challenged. The motley crew of political parties that formed the opposition put together a makeshift government that did not last the full term; nor did they pursue the charges of corruption that brought them to power. 

In the ensuing decade, the BJP’s unbridled appeal to communalism brought it to power: first, for 13 days in 1996; then in two desperate coalitions in 1998 and 1999. The saffron dispensation lasted until 2004 and was then showed the door because of its misplaced nationalism that saw India conduct nuclear tests that were replayed tit-for-tat by Pakistan and because of its insensitive “India Shining” hype. 

Since then, the Congress has held sway. The key difference is the Congress’s approach to social harmony and economic development: the phrase “inclusive development” was introduced to the political vocabulary. In the interim, India, warts and all, grew to be a big player in the global dialogue. Most important, economic growth was accompanied by the largest-ever reduction in poverty. Today, thanks largely to the growth of the middle class, the Indian voice is heard in world forums. 

Unmindful of these achievements, the anti-Congress brigade has spread several falsehoods: the prime minister is opposed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi; Manmohan Singh is weak; Sonia is the real power. 

The truth is different: both Singh and Sonia are on the same page as they have always been. There has been in the history of the Congress no better combination. The former pushes reform in foreign and economic policy; the latter is the conscience to ensure there is a local sensitivity to these reforms. That is the operational definition of “inclusive growth”. 

It’s ironic that the anti-Congress formations should denigrate both leaders. Singh is a highly respected economist who forsook academic achievement to serve the country first as a bureaucrat, then as finance minister and prime minister. Sonia, who adopted this country as her home, foreswore the office of prime minister in 2004 and became the conscience of the government. 

The writer is a public affairs commentator.

Left and Right against the Centre

This article appeared in The Times of India on January 10, 2012.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Politics of Destabilization

Failed Protests Targeted Reformist Government

The “India against Corruption” campaign focused somewhat obsessively on corruption in high places. Accordingly, politicians and bureaucrats were labelled corrupt. As such, they have to be brought under the purview of an ombudsman; a body whose powers have to be decided by civil society activists, justices of the various high courts, eminent citizens and whoever else Hazare and his cohorts feel should be included.

The campaign attracted members who work in the modern Indian economy and are among the most obvious beneficiaries of economic reform. Bright and educated, they nevertheless overlooked Hazare’s unconstitutional political demand to override Parliament’s law-making powers, preferring to focus on the larger, more romantic objective of fighting corruption. These are men and women, incensed by reports of corruption and hungry to hitch their wagon to a messiah; much like the programming code they write or use at work to provide quick and effective solutions to problems; never mind that they are complex such as rural poverty, urban squalor, entrenched corruption, inflation, economic growth and poor infrastructure. The messiah will deliver!

Now the drama has ended, the question we must put to Hazare and his supporters is this: isn’t the bribe giver as culpable as the taker? Shouldn’t bribe givers also be brought under the ombudsman? In that case, private sector business and individual citizens will need to be included. Thus the agency would be given powers to haul up citizens, executives, boards of directors, owners. Such a sweeping empowerment holds in its own constitution the possibility of abuse.

Creating a super agency that can be abused or run amok is hardly an effective way to investigate and penalize corruption. If you look at recent allegations of corruption in the allocation of mobile spectrum, in infrastructure development, in mining…you will find these are sectors which are still under government control. To deal with this, the government introduced several bills in Parliament. Of the ones that got passed into law, there is the hugely successful example of financial sector regulation. The rest have been stalled because of the paralysis caused by the Opposition’s questionable tactics of stalling proceedings in Parliament.

As the Prime Minister said, these “second stage” reforms need political consensus. These have to do with land acquisition, environmental protection, financial regulation, education, judicial changes and a series of other difficult tasks in sectors like mining where vested interests hold sway and power, where the entire state-run system is bankrupt.

Hazare's handlers demanded their version of the “Lokpal” bill be adopted by a certain date. This was clearly not in the government’s power to promise because the bill must go before a parliamentary committee. The demand militated against compromise, leave alone consensus. It was divisive and corrosive and seemed to target a duly- elected government. In doing that, the Hazare protest revealed its ultimate goal: to destabilize the UPA government. The agenda seemed to be: create an anarchic situation that the government is unable to control it without resort to force and is thus forced to agree to mid-term elections.

What started out as a political demand to carve for themselves a role in drafting an anti-corruption bill appeared to have grown in scope. Clearly buoyed by incessant and uncritical media coverage that attracted crowds, Hazare's supporters raised the ante: derail the government.

Meanwhile, after initial missteps, the government managed to put a strategy in place to deal with the protest. Aware there was a sizable, perhaps dominant, segment of the population that wanted nothing to do with the Hazare campaign, the government moved to rally support. More and more voices spoke out, on television, in print and online, against the strong-arm nature of the agitation and its “with us or against us” stance. Anyone who challenged, as a respected television anchor did, the demands raised by the agitators, was branded as “pro corruption.”

Faced with adulatory fans in designer T-shirts and Gandhi caps, Hazare’s rhetoric became more self-congratulatory, more truculent and even abusive. He has called the Prime Minister names; the people at his rally used foul language to abuse UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, fuelling renewed suspicion that the RSS may be behind the protest. The crowds also attracted gaggles of hoodlums and petty criminals, resulting in instances of sexual harassment and theft.

Also people started looking into the antecedents of this new messiah. On Facebook, a post quoted from an article on Hazare that appeared in a Reader’s Digest 1986 edition. Among a host of petty dictatorial pronouncements, he banned the sale and use of tobacco and liquor. Those brewers and sellers who did not voluntarily accept the ban found their places of business ransacked. When some three people were caught drinking, Hazare lashed them to pillars in the local temple and flogged them personally with his army belt.

Many were embarrassed by his low-level comments about the Prime Minister, whom he called a ‘liar.” It is this lack of restraint that he and his aides demonstrated that people began to find disturbing. Hitler and Mussolini used the same tactics to discredit the political process in Germany and Italy. His methods came to be seen as Goebbelsian: pitch it as a fight against corruption when it really is an assault on the Constitution; pitch it as apolitical when it is truly a campaign to dislodge the government.

Hazare's managers became so besotted with media driven popularity that they could not see they were losing ground. The Parliament bailed them out by passing a resolution that allowed them to claim victory. In the end, India's constitutional democracy proved mature and resilient. Completely outmaneuvered, Hazare and his horde will return to the dark spaces from whence they emerged.

Not being much of a chip-on-the-shoulder patriot, on this occasion I want to shout from the rooftops: Jai Hind!


Friday, June 10, 2011

Beyond the corruption battle

Let us not get carried away by the crusade of the self-appointed guardians of public interest

First, a "fast unto death" fueled by Information Technology; now, another one inspired by Yoga. Two of India's major exports have come home to roost, cheered by hyperventilating television news channels. Combating corruption is the larger cause that Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev advocate. And damned be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'

Never mind the Constitution; a pox on all politicians, Hazare says. The good people of India are on the move. By the sheer goodness of their lifestyles, by the shining nobility of their intent, they will cleanse the body politic. Girding his high-minded campaign is a bare-knuckle political demand swaddled in Gandhian homespun: give my chosen people a say in the framing of the Lokpal bill.

Who elected you? We nominated ourselves by virtue of Magsaysay awards and membership in "peoples' movements." What about the Constitution? Ours is a higher cause.

Ramdev's demands are too absurd to be given any sort of respectability. His potent mix of religiosity and postmodernism threatens, nevertheless, to overwhelm the Hazare protest. His followers are true believers, seeking to achieve perfect communion of the self with the universal truth.

In contrast, the cappuccino-swilling denizens of cyberspace, who form the bulk of Hazare's supporters, are causerati; tomorrow they will turn their attention to the dangers of cellphone use or the hazards of nuclear power. Small wonder then that Hazare, despite being "unwell", has said he will be present at Delhi's Ramlila Maidan in solidarity with the godman.

The question arises though: if civil society activists inspired by grandiosity and true believers mesmerised by a godman can demand a say in the way laws are made and the government is run, then why not business associations like the CII and Ficci? Or trade unions? Or for that matter, Rotary and Lions Clubs? What makes Hazare and Ramdev and their acolytes so special?

What is alarming about the hunger strikes is that the people who support them seem to have no time for political processes and constitutional restraint. Indian democracy has managed to negotiate the mind-numbing diversity that could have splintered the country; the Constitution is a charter that legitimises and separates the role of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Despite the obvious governance deficit, there prevails a modicum of the rule of law.

Changes are needed to usher in the idea of a government not as a master but in service of the people. A corollary to the notion of government as master is that of bureaucrats and politicians as a rentier class that extorts money from hapless citizens to provide services and permissions as favours rather than as due process. This is the source of corruption in all socialist systems where the dead hand of government smothers entrepreneurship and opportunities to make a dignified living.

India took a giant step two decades ago when it scrapped the licence-permit raj. Its emergence as a significant global player can be traced back to the reforms of 1991. Loosening controls is easier than the second stage of reform: to provide effective governance. Political stability is a key element in second-stage reforms.

In the UPA's first turn, we had the unseemly spectacle of an arrogant Left combining with a peeved BJP in an effort to oust the government over a foreign policy initiative: the strategic partnership with the US. The UPA survived and in the 2009 election went on to win bigger. The Left and the BJP saw their influence shrink dramatically.

But political uncertainty persisted as the UPA was confronted with accusations of corruption in telecom deals, the Commonwealth Games and various other projects. Today's challenges come not from opposition political parties but self-appointed guardians of the public interest: righteous activists and now, a slippery godman. Dealing with such groups is problematic because they don't abide by the Constitution but owe allegiance to a "higher cause".

TV news channels and to a lesser extent, the print media are obsessed by these protests. They convey the impression of a corruption-singed government at sea in the face of this 'uprising'. Overwhelmed by deafening din of TV reporters without the slightest sense of objectivity, I fled to the sanity of international journalism. There I found the following stories:

  • The Indian government has drawn up ambitious plans to double exports to $500 billion in the next three years. The trade-to-GDP ratio has already increased from 15% in 1990 to 35% today.
  • With supportive government policies, India's pharmaceutical sector has emerged as a global force, supplying low-cost, high-quality off-patent medicine to the developed as well as developing nations.
  • India has become the world center for 'frugal engineering', manufacturing low-cost products that are resistant to tough environments while maintaining high quality standards.

This is not to suggest that the protests should not be covered; only that it should not lead to a situation in which the adversarial nature of the relationship between the media and the government is twisted so much that a duly-elected government is portrayed an enemy of the people.

It would be fair if Indian journalists could also track other stories as well: of an India that is rapidly finding its metier on the world stage; of the rising aspirations of young India confronting the victim mindsets that enervate the older generation.

This article appeared in The Economic Times, June 4, 2011.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Monday, April 11, 2011

Fast Times in Modern Democracy?

Anna Hazare’s “fast unto death” is a throwback to more innocent times when the oppressor was colonial, clearly identified and vilified. Today, it is infinitely more complex. Hazare on a protest fast may evoke a longing for the black and white simplicity of yesteryear. The nostalgic appeal has sparked a cyber rush among young chatterati who wander aimlessly through the hills and dales of social networks, seeking company, making connections, buying and selling ideas and products.

If you cut back to the 1080i high definition picture of modern life with its 5.1 surround sound track, you’ll find that Hazare and his handlers have cleverly manipulated an old symbol made famous by Mohandas Gandhi. Calling it a fast against corruption, Hazare has touched a chord among young cyber savvy Indians, who see in the old man’s protest a chance to fulfill their youthful aspirations to revolt against the system. Budapest in the 1950s; Paris and Chicago in the 1960s; Beijing in the 1980s; Prague in the 1990; Cairo and Tunis recently and now Delhi.

Clearly, the seemingly innocent khadi-clad activist and his wily handlers have managed to rally young netizens. By calling it a fight against corruption, they have cleverly deflected the glare from the hard political demand underlying the fast: give civil society activists a role in framing laws; a demand no government can concede without violating its oath to uphold the Constitution.

The notion that civil society activists must be given a say in the framing of the anti-corruption law is misbegotten. No matter how righteous the cause; no matter how pious the protest, activists have no locus standi as lawmakers. The Constitution is very clear on the separation of powers and reserves the law making function to elected representatives.

Stripped of its saintly posture, Hazare’s protest is a challenge to the Constitution. Dreamy and romantic netizens, who have been set all a-twitter by it, don’t seem to realize that Hazare and his handlers have been active since the 1970s. Styled as people’s movements, these groups have never embraced the Constitution as the final arbiter of political, social, economic and cultural diversity. Theirs was always a higher cause.

The Constitution has helped India negotiate diversity, poverty and various challenges to emerge as one of the world’s fastest growing countries. Its government now has a seat at the high table of international diplomacy; its economy has lifted millions from abysmal poverty; its political system consists of the exercise of the largest franchise in the world blessed with a “throw the rascals out” mindset of the electorate.

Hazare’s crusade draws ideological inspiration from Hind Swaraj, the Gandhian diatribe against modernity. Corruption seems to be merely a cause recruited in the long-term campaign against modernity. It’s a clever choice because indeed corruption is public affairs topic one.

Fed up with incessant reports about large-scale corruption, influenced by the Jasmine scents of Tunisia and Egypt, hundreds of young people have rallied to the cause. In North Africa, the targets were clear cut: long ruling dictators. Here there is a democratically elected government. Even if the protest can draw hundreds of thousands of people into the streets; even if the most righteous, learned and saintly people turn out; they cannot challenge the legitimacy of an elected government.

What Hazare and his fellow travelers are saying is not new; they’re on a well-charted path laid out in Gandhi’s book. They damn the entire political process as corrupt and seek to replace it with high-minded vigilantism. Even if it is composed of angels and saints, a vigilante group has no place in a modern constitutional democracy.

This article appeared in The Economic Times, April 10, 2011.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011