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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 7, February 8, 2014

The Anarchic Drift

Monday 10 February 2014, by Uttam Sen

Over the past few weeks we have faced the classic moral dilemma, when to obey one ethical imperative was to transgress another. There were several test cases. One was the Congress Vice-President’s largely uncelebrated interview with a leading television channel. In the normal course, a public figure would talk in generalities. But the national, or perhaps prime-time, mood was such at that moment that he was put on trial on specifics. He was not really grilled on them (for example, inflation or MGNREGA) but on Presidential-election-style detail vis-à-vis a potential adversary. His response was mostly dogged repetition of his reasons for wanting to change the system, which appear increasingly to be his party’s election plank, incidentally an AAP by-product.

However, the interviewee’s stated responsibility was organisational streamlining for the elections. Unlike his perceived competitors, one an unequivocal Prime Ministerial candidate and another the personified rallying point of a fledgling party, who were projecting their overall perspectives round-the-clock, he betrayed a preoccupation with his party organisation. The fact showed up in the stonewalling on subjects beyond his immediate centre of interest resulting in the occasional disconnect between question and answer.

But there were takers. Simplicity by definition defies complexity. People tend to forget their own diverse circumstances in their public utterances. Their answers at the polling booth may not be equally straightforward or predictable. Even if they do not choose to elevate the scion of a notable political family to a savant, they could respect his intent. The AAP movement has topped a series of actions and events reviving B.R. Ambedkar’s enquiry in the Constituent Assembly on political empowerment without corresponding economic entitlement. The ruling coalition, despite its professed empathy with sound principle, is finding itself out of step with the logical corollary of a body of people emerging to enforce it.

Renowned leaders have been known to get exasperated with their own milieus. A popularly-elected Indian Prime Minister had bemoaned the absence of a revolution and the Chairman of China’s Communist Party had habitually set his cadres off against the organisation. Change is the routine entrenched structures traditionally bury at their own expense. A revival would do all-round good, far beyond the party.

Alongside, the apparent contradiction of a party in government taking to the streets is perhaps proving irreconcilable to some minds. It is confounded further by the AAP leader’s fait accompli of releasing a list of allegedly corrupt people in high places, provoking threats of legal retaliation. The aam aadmi is being reassured that cleansing and governance can (or must!) go hand in hand. Arguably, the Congress Vice-President had taken his cue from the prevailing political climate. Vested interests were not expected to cheer.

The unfinished agenda of winning over or adjusting with a wide section of opinion seemingly distrustful of any such transformation remains, possibly a deterrent to those who do not enjoy the political credibility or clout to ring it in. The present still offers peaceful choices, but also presages uncertainty. The danger of an evolutionary process getting timed out by restive exercises is real. Extending true freedom of choice to people could still save the day. The winds of change will blow across political parties if the promise of ensuring justice and fair play is perceived to be genuine.

ON their part, people in semi-permanent national Opposition could be nurturing grievances. Apart from political denial they could feel deceived for abiding by time-honoured indigeniety that has not been sufficiently cherished. The other side could be impatient with out-of-date politics. Yet both are partially in with their antitheses because one is professedly corporate-minded and is reminded of global parameters (proficiency, pluralism, human development etc.) which it has to grudgingly recognise. The other harks back to sacrifice and martyrdom, which the Right in India had considered its preserve.

Simultaneously, the politics of the present are becoming more clearly visible in the closing of ranks between uncertain allies and their responses to public events (now and then indirectly the citizen-activist phenomenon) and legal verdicts. The major formations are getting their act together. The assumed Third Front of fellow-travellers with an eye on the suitable occasion, from Tamil Nadu to Odisha, and West Bengal to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, occasionally shepherded by the analytical and ideological factor, is beginning to stir. They will not forego their claims to political primacy, or good governance through macro-management of mid-day meals, cyclone relief, law and order and development in difficult conditions. Or, for that matter, their traditional means of self-preservation.

Their approach to governance is tried and tested (not always in the unacceptable sense) and the degree to which they will calibrate with the newcomer will be interesting to behold. They will be self-assured owing to their organisational ascendancy but wary of the new idea foreshadowing reform. They are astute interpreters of the political barometer and their calculations could well provide a foretaste of what lies ahead.

Yet the setting is propitious for cosmetically joining the bandwagon and making some political capital, provided bases remain intact. Not to be overly cynical, some genuine rectitude can also accrue. It is also high time to sink differences and cash in on windows of opportunity in the national interest. A strong nation or Centre is a blanket imperative rather than one or another partisan asset.

The intimidating fact is that the principal, or most discernible, actors in the electoral fray have undisputed constituencies, namely, business, the rich and the “growth” States, the parallel constituency of competitors in the same brackets, traditional lobbies, competing regions, castes and communities, and the unlikely mix of the mainstream and the residuum, the politically-correct, young, qualified and aspirational along with those left behind, the underprivileged and the traditionally downtrodden.

Though cross-cutting affinities also thrive, the daunting truth is that these categories feed on each other in electoral battle, for example, the rich and the poor, the conservative and the radical, espoused by their respective parties. They are also grist to the mill of media-text binary opposites for creating reader/viewer interest. Some contention, particularly at the communal level, can get pernicious. The encouraging word is that they can strike social equilibrium outside the bounds of elections.

IN the circumstances the most arresting disputation has centred on the meaning of the word “anarchist”, construed as one who creates disorder. Yet extrapolation is more interesting. Etymologically, “anarchy” in Medieval Latin was anarchia and in Greek anarkhia which meant “without a leader”. The multiple meaning of words admit of defining “anarchist” as one who advocates abolition of government and a social system based on voluntary cooperation. There are precedents in abundance, some very celebrated. Gandhiji’s tempting exposition of Satygraha was against foreign rule. The AAP’s case is for manifest, transparent democracy, that is, a system of government of the whole population through their elected representatives, not far from that of a social system based on voluntary cooperation.

As it happens, the social condition, particularly when troubled, has been the initial assumption of far-reaching political thought and literary romanticism, even religious and ideological action, both at home and abroad. Questioning the establishment’s approach by non-violent means when other agencies have failed and a tenable reference made to the people (for example, the Delhi elections), have to be taken as hard-headed techniques of last resort.

If there was evidence against the AAP Government at Khirki Extension, the charge amounted to a Minister having taken his constituents verbatim, disregarding the wider perspective. People’s rights and perceptions of how to go about addressing a grievance infringed the legal entitlement of a corresponding group who happened to be foreigners, arguably eligible also for the extra care and gentleness preserved for guests. There could still be a way of meeting both: the racial aspersions need to be overtly regretted, as they apparently have been by party spokespersons, and the sentiments of the foreigners suitably soothed. But the people themselves have probably taken care of the police and agent provocateurs. The guardians of the law themselves could well be grateful for a freer hand to act in future with shadowy, interfering mischief-makers put on notice that they can be nailed. For all practical purposes, the AAP ended up tackling a countrywide phenomenon.

It is equally clear that the case is now politico-legal and the party’s stated logic must be viewed from that qualified perspective.

The argument from a stronger reason (a fortiori) is that contemporary democracy also assumes pluralism and tolerance, arguably the remedy for principles that appear to be in conflict. If the subsequent dharna could be seen as a manifestation of that dilemma, both parties had to meet halfway. Even as avowed members of the AAP, its leaders had to rise above the squabbling along with the other side, which the two did to ring the curtain down.

YET discriminating decisiveness and adjustment can prove crucial in checking the political drift that threatens to make the impending electoral verdict hopelessly fractured. Neither the perception of the harm done nor the redress demanded can be unqualified absolutes without relation to other things. We are not entirely aware of the compulsions behind the goings-on leading to culpable acts. But we do know that cutting corners has become universal, the cure for which is vigilance through greater participation of the people.

If we do not worsen existing difficulties, we could get on with the future. The electorate’s objective assessment of its needs and the best way of securing them through conscientious representatives could reduce red herrings and false dissensions. The AAP’s unmediated imprint could again be the touchstone. Shorn of melodrama even a worst-case scenario would be politically absorbable. Fortunately, major political parties have put their finger on governance.

Semantically, the antonym to “absolutism” (the holding of absolute principles in political, philosophical or theological matters) is in truth “constitutionalism” which relates to an established set of benchmarks governing a state. Even if lexically cleared of the mischief of anarchism, if the AAP hopes to eventually be a party to governance at the Centre, it has to be resilient. It must exploit the ingeniously acquired political mileage to meet the popular expectations that have been raised, to the extent possible.

The extent is, however, considerable. As an eminent columnist once quipped, agitators found themselves on the wrong side of the barricades after the promulgation of the Indian Constitution, with “we the people” being invested with unprecedented rights (and corresponding duties). Rescuing fundamental rules from the post-Independence departure of obfuscation could be Kejriwal’s working objective. In truth, the sense of agency should be pervasive, that is, people should have the awareness to initiate and execute their own actions.

The reviewer is a Bengaluru-based journalist.