Sunday, May 08, 2011

Anna Hazare and his children

Anna Hazare’s hunger fast for probity in politics captured the news agenda and unleashed a nationwide fervour. Declarations of victory may be premature since the real work of drafting a law is only just beginning. Corruption is not an abstract evil that can be combated by the virtuous few. It is about imbalances of power and the subversion of democratic goals by elite manipulation. Dealing with corruption is about deepening participatory democracy, rather than disdaining politics as the fount of all iniquity.

Kisan Baburao Hazare began his fast unto death on April 4 with the very specific intent of getting the Union Government to pass a law. India is a culture that respects the ascetic: one who renounces material comforts and in the extreme instance, refuses all nourishment. “Anna” Hazare as he is respectfully called, was clear about the evil he was combating. Decades had been spent in desultory debate about the need for an ombudsman that would exercise oversight and ensure the financial probity of the institutions of governance. Yet the goal remained as distant as ever. Meanwhile, the ethical deficit in governance had multiplied and acquired a dimension that threatened the very fabric of democracy.

This situation of deepening iniquity called for little less than an extraordinary remedy. A good and moral man had to vow self-abnegation rather than acquiesce in persistent evil. Dormant sensitivities of nobility in the human race would be stirred to the surface by one man’s personal example and long-needed correctives applied.

Beyond the moral dimension is the reality of Indian politics, where the institution of a Lok Pal (which could be rendered as “servant of the people”) has been discussed for over four decades. Public reassurance in the face of rampant corruption, has been an objective of various governments. The Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) chaired by the civil servant turned politician Morarji Desai had recommended the institution of such a body in a report submitted in 1966. The body has since wrapping up its tasks in the mid-1970s, been rebranded the first ARC since its efforts were finally deemed inadequate and required the institution of a second body with a similar mandate in 2005. In the fourth of its reports submitted in 2007, the ARC II had addressed the issue of “ethics” in governance, again underlining the need for an ombudsman that would address public worries and grievances over the performance of the institutions of governance.

That the proposal has failed to acquire any material form despite official homage and public concern, is partly about the reluctance of successive governments to accept the fetters that a Lok Pal would impose upon ministerial autonomy – a flimsy alibi at the best of times, since governmental autonomy has been no source of sustenance, but has indeed, been the enemy of the public interest. To accord the apparatus of governance the measure of autonomy it has in India is to surrender all norms of democracy – except in the purely ritualistic sense of having masses of people line up at polling booths once every five years to cast a ballot in favour of a corrupt clique that will rule with no accountability, till an opportunity arises to throw it out.

Leaving aside these insubstantive difficulties of principle, a problem that had attracted serious attention is about how best an oversight body could be structured and its procedures defined, to ensure that it would be an enhancement, rather than a positive burden, on the efficacy of the other institutions of governance: legislature, judiciary and executive. Indeed, rather than create a body that could potentially impede the performance of an already creaky administrative system, there have been several suggestions about reforming existing institutions as a way out of the crisis of mal-governance. Why add to an already confusing multiplicity of institutions, with another one potentially as corruptible as all the others, when the reform of existing institutions – the civil service, the police, the judiciary and the legislature – is still a possibility?

Numerous ideas have been floated in each of these limited spheres. And the translation of these ideas into practice has needless to say, proven difficult, because each of these domains is enormously complex, with entrenched interests that will resist any change. Further, there has been no effort to knit together these discrete endeavours into one overarching, grand narrative or programme of reform. ARC II was probably one such attempt. And the voluminous reports that this commission has produced are a valuable compendium of possible changes in law and practice that would make the administrative apparatus more responsive to public needs.

Legislature, executive and judiciary is how the triumvirate of governance is understood. But the relationship between these three pillars can be grasped only through reference to what is regarded as the fourth, in a gross misreading of the origin of the term that has now become commonsense. The media or the “fourth estate” is now understood as the indispensable pillar of democracy without which all three other institutions would fail to perform with any degree of responsiveness.

“Fourth estate” as a term has its origins in pre-revolutionary France and in the hostile reference, by an individual who greatly feared the forces of disorder, to newly literate scribblers who threatened to disrupt the harmony of the three recognised estates of the church, the landholding aristocracy and the trading community. Though it has its origin in a revolutionary context, the “fourth estate” has since had a rather ambivalent career, being in part an agency for positive change but in greater measure, an instrument of social conformism. Political theorists have in recent times equated the daily ritual of reading a newspaper to a manner of referendum on nationalism, an affirmation of a sense of belonging without which the sustenance of the political compact that makes the nation-state a stable and durable aspect of an individual’s life, would be virtually impossible.

This function of the “fourth estate” is sustained on the foundation of a certain definition of what constitutes “news”. For the Indian media, “news” at one time used to be the words of wisdom that politicians spouted. The country was fresh in its encounter with what was called “freedom” and it seemed that the media owed the duty of loyalty to those elected to govern. A few years into India’s life as a free nation, the media strayed from the course of unquestioning loyalty. Business interests were involved and the so-called “licence-permit raj” that was being created under a newly independent nation’s quest for development, seemed antithetical to personal liberty – indeed the fount of all political corruption.

That challenge to the authority of the political leadership was quashed by recruiting the poor to the cause of eradicating themselves. “Garibi hatao” as a slogan defeated the worst machinations of the business barons, partly by recruiting the poor to an electoral cause that gave the Congress party a massive parliamentary majority, shortly after it had broken from its moorings in tradition and Gandhian paternalism. The political advantage had shifted and new sources of finance had to be tapped, new networks of patronage created. Ground rules that had guided earlier generations of politicians were proving irksome and had to be altered if not jettisoned entirely.

The targeting of “corruption” as an abstract evil without any real form – begins from around this time. Unlike the fabled monsters of Indian mythology that embody all evil, but have a form that can be seen and felt – and can hence be vanquished in physical combat -- “corruption” was seemingly an ailment of the spirit. It was something to be dealt with not through institutional reform and the widening of participatory politics, but by the moral force of a few good men who could move multitudes.

At the vanguard of this campaign against “corruption”, was Jayaprakash Narayan (“JP”), a man who renounced the possibility of high political office to be with the people, to be the voice of conscience and rectitude when the Indian State was straying dangerously from its democratic commitments in Kashmir and the North-East. It was a time of deepening economic strife and people rallied to his banner in large numbers. Yet his movement lacked the ideological cohesion and organisational strength to withstand a harshly repressive State response. And despite regrouping and securing a historic electoral mandate, the forces that JP marshalled proved unequal to the task of wide-ranging political reforms.

Anybody with an inkling of the historical background would see that Hazare’s programme is potentially a great deal more vulnerable than JP’s. And yet, though clearly dwarfed by JP, Hazare and the close allies he has gathered, believe that they have achieved a major triumph, when the process has really just begun.

Hazare cannot obviously be dismissed as an ephemeral phenomenon that will vanish just as swiftly as it has appeared. Note must be made though, of the discord that has arisen soon after Hazare’s fast was declared a resounding success and a moment of awakening for the nation, over his praise of Narendra Modi, a particularly divisive figure. Hazare’s appreciation of Modi it turns out, was premised on a very narrow parameter: that as chief minister of Gujarat, he had successfully implemented rural development policies.

Few among his flock seemed to notice, but this endorsement of a divisive political figure, even if limited, represented a dramatic constriction in the vision of a man who had just a few days before, been determined to take on the multi-headed monster called “corruption”. “Corruption” could be construed as a narrowly defined set of offences that involve money transactions. On a wider scale, “corruption” could be understood as a small sub-theme on a larger failure of the Indian State, to live by its republican commitment to ensure the fundamental rights of all citizens. Corruption is about disparities of power and the subversion of formal laws that promise equality and opportunity, by entrenched relations of privilege and inequality.

Since being represented as the focus of patriotic loyalty in the early years of Indian freedom, the “State” was in quick time transformed in elite perception to being the fount of all iniquity. As global winds of neo-liberalism blew across Indian shores, the “State” began to recast its role in minimalist terms, to see itself as an agency that was most useful when it intruded least into the lives of ordinary people. Exceptions would be granted for people so needy that they had to be sustained through subsidies and other measures of support granted by the State. But in general terms, that government was deemed best which kept its discretionary authority within strictly defined limits.

As the State went into retreat with the neo-liberal reforms of 1991, the opportunities for elite aggrandisement multiplied. The daily “news” agenda, once about affirming loyalty to the political leadership, was transformed rapidly into a celebration of individual achievement, of the acquisitive instinct and the growth of personal wealth. The other side of this story, of rising inequality and of the numerous excluded sections seeking to assert their right to a share in political power through the electoral process featured in the “news” agenda as a sidelight, an interesting curiosity.

2004 was in some manner, a year of awakening, when the political consequences of living in a bubble of self-delusion became rudely apparent. In the years that followed, the battle against poverty was restored to the political agenda and accorded a priority not seen since the transient euphoria of the “Garibi Hatao” days. But as a process, the economic empowerment of the poor has not been free of friction. There is little discord over the need to frontally address poverty – this is indeed regarded by most political formations as a self-evident virtue. It is quite another question though, if the economic substratum that has been built and consolidated through the years of neo-liberalism, can support the ambitions of a direct attack on poverty.

If the first years of the millennium were a period of rising ambitions for the great Indian middle class, the years since 2008 perhaps mark the transition to an age of anxiety. The celebration of wealth and individual achievement continues to dominate the news agenda, but there is an uneasy awareness that inflation is already out of control and could soon be rampant. To retain its position in the hierarchy of income and wealth, the great Indian middle class could soon be required to accelerate the pace of its acquisitiveness – to run faster on the treadmill of economic competition to merely remain where it is. It is evidently a self-defeating exercise and this growing awareness is unleashing a mode of political behaviour marked by deep anxiety and seemingly irrational rage. It is a mood in which ordinary and modest individuals seeking to make a statement of conscience, could suddenly be invested with messianic qualities. And symbols of belonging become more important than the substance.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Hazare’s hunger fast was the manner in which it completely captured the news agenda. Unlike Irom Sharmila, the Manipuri woman who completed ten years on hunger fast some months back and is being force-fed in an Imphal hospital because the State simply will not countenance the popular demand of dismantling the ensemble of repressive laws in force, Hazare’s was a cause that the media proved eager to adopt. For the “fourth estate” today, the news agenda is driven not by loyalty to the political leadership, but a deep disdain for all the processes and institutions of representative democracy. In this respect, it has tapped into the mood of a brewing revolt by the elite, which sees its material security and privileges threatened by economic uncertainties and is impatient with a political system that is much too messy, noisy and disorderly.

The most striking visual representation of Anna Hazare’s “movement” – as it has been christened by the media -- was a portrait of Bharat Mata in the vivid hues of modern calendar art, holding the national tricolour securely in a left-handed grasp while the other hand bestowed a silent benediction on all who had turned up to bear witness to his act of conscience. Under this dominant motif were the subsidiary images of Mahatma Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and other martyrs in the cause of the nation’s freedom.

These are images that normally pass without comment since they are all considered integral to the canon of belonging. All Bharat Mata’s children belong and have a rightful place under her benign gaze. That place is accorded to each individual on merit, on virtue and on his commitment to the abiding values of the “nation” as the nurturing mother. It is a process in which the elite discourse as represented through the media, has a determinant role. “Politics” which dredges up the worst and puts them in positions of authority, is where all iniquity originates. And no institution constituted through politics can be trusted with the public good, free of the oversight of a body established on foundations of virtue. That is the paradoxical and self-defeating message of Hazare’s movement. And as defeat becomes an imminent reality, those who have invested their emotional fervour and intensity in the “movement” could react in ways that cannot yet be predicted.

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