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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 9, February 21, 2015

The Giant is Awake / Allround Decadence and Ray of Hope

Monday 23 February 2015, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

The following pieces, written by N.C. in December 1970 and September 1994, are being reproduced here against the backdrop of the Aam Aadmi Party’s resounding victory in the Delhi Assembly elections.  

The Giant is Awake

Politics in this country has been passing through a cleansing process. The imprint of mass consciousness can be seen even in the jungle of petty factional moves and manipulations.

New wind is blowing through the corridors of power; its warmth could be felt even in the sophisticated political labyrinth of New Delhi, in the instant reactions of the common man to the Supreme Court verdict against the Presidential derecognition of the princes. The hoary-headed judges may look down with contempt upon the plebians at Chandni Chowk, but no political power—call it paramountcy or whatever you like—can be established in this country today without the authority of the Chandni Chowk.

This was the impression that one carried as one watched the mood of the multitude at the Judges’ verdict. The vetoing of the princes’ derecognition is not judged by constitutional niceties but is taken as a new challenge. If one has to go by the impact of the Supreme Court verdict on the mass opinion, one cannot help noticing the growing popular impression that if any changes in the present set-up have to be brought about, then one has to be prepared for encountering the resistance of the highest judiciary in the land.

If the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Constitution is equated with the upholding of the status quo in the popular mind, there is little doubt that the forces of change would demand, in ever larger number, the changing of the role of the judiciary itself in the Constitution, or, at least, its authority to resist social change.

If one has to go by the public reaction in the Capital to the Supreme Court’s verdict, there is an unmistakable urge for doing away with all roadblocks to change. The princes, as they are, are nothing more than a minor irritant, and yet the fact that their ill-gotten privileges and purses could get the protection of the law while the right to shelter is denied to thousands at the very doorstep of the august Court, cannot but leave behind its bitter, if not cynical, trail so far as the common man is concerned.

In a sense, the big issues of today are the consequences of our unfinished revolution of yesterday. If the transfer of power came without a shattering revolution, it has also left behind wholesome legacies which have to be removed, one by one, if the mass urge for social change has to be accommodated.

The princes could have been summarily derecognised on the very morrow of Indepen-dence, and they had no staying power to put up a fight—a fact which makes Sardar Patel’s deal with them all the more indefensible. If the judiciary is found today to be unaware of the compulsions of social change, that too has to be traced to an out-worn British concept about its role, although in Britain, its role as a bastion of conservatism has long been recognised.

It was the same liberal innocence that led the leaders of independent India—even the far-sighted Nehru—to let the ICS steel-frame continue, the steel-frame which in later years became another outpost of Toryism in this country.

Mass radicalism, recognised as an inescapable reality in the 1967 General Election, has been accelerated with every major political development ever since. The pronounced Left-ward swing in the 1969 mid-term poll, the nationwide popular support for Sri Morarji Desai’s ouster and bank nationalisation, the enthusiastic acclaim for Smt Gandhi’s daring crusade against the Syndicate, the sweeping success of the Indira Congress and the equally spectacular debacle of the Syndicate and its allies in most of the poll contests since then, right up to the Kerala mid-term election—all these are milestones in the fast-growing political consciousness of the masses.

After the dramatic Congress reverses at the poll in 1967, the so-called public-opinion specialists and self-styled political analysts characterised the mass mood as populism, as a mere desire for change after two decades of uninterrupted Congress rule. But what has happened is more than populism: it is the heightened political consciousness of the broad masses that has gone far ahead of the level of understanding of the parties and politicians. If populism had been the essence of the new upsurge, the antics of the SSP leadership—at least the ore vociferous section of it—would have made them supreme; but actually they find themselves not being the masters of their own house.

Much more than populism, more than a desire for change for change’s sake, are involved in the complex pattern of Indian politics today. The giant has awakened, aware of its own strength. And that is why many of the issues which were matters of interminable debates for over two decades—in which the Left demand was countered by a smug show of so-called prag-matism—have been disposed of by prompt, almost summary, decision, as has happened in the case of bank nationalisation and the derecog-nition of the princes. In other words, what was so long confined to the programme of the Left has suddenly become part of the order of the day for the entire nation. This is not due to populism but the radicalisation of the masses.

And this phenomenon is not confined to the frontiers of this country. Recent general elections in Ceylon, and much more strikingly in Pakistan, have shown how the millions have been reacting, and how rapidly is their outlook getting radicalised.

Pakistan, so long regarded as a political backwater of Asia, has shown that more than populism ha gripped the masses: had it only been populism, there the mullahs should have won against the Martial Law. Bhutto may be a political demagogue, but it is of no little significance that his anti-capitalist demagogy could win the day and not the anti-Communist diatribes of the Jamaat. Neither military dictatorship nor the parties of the Right can browbeat or hoodwink the masses any longer.

This Left-ward swing at every election in recent times in Asia—significantly noted by the London Times—has a relevance for our country as well. For, nothing else can explain the survival of Smt Gandhi in power and the ignominious collapse of the Syndicate.

There was no dearth of seasoned political operators among the Syndicate leaders. In fact, they used to take credit as the Organisation men of the Congress, and they did have vast experience of running a well-oiled party machine. And yet at every step they have tripped and toppled. Their latest fiasco at Lucknow and the revolt in Gujarat—with many more in the offing (can anybody vouch for the location of Dr Ram Subhag Singh tomorrow?)—make it clear that the Syndicate leaders are today unaware of what the masses have been groping for.

A grand alliance of the Right has no future in the setting of today unless the parliamentary set-up itself is scrapped. It is this realisation which impels Sri Manubhai Shah, the shrewd politician that he is, to leave the sinking ship, and its unawareness makes a Don Quixote out of Sri Nijalingappa.

It is not that the Syndicate has not got the backing of Big Money or competent politicians, but what they lack is the realisation that the mass mood today is bent Left-ward and not towards the Right. Had it not been so, the Jana Sangh with its RSS storm-troopers should have by now established its Hindu Rashtra on the Gangetic basin instead of the wildfire of peasant struggle for land.

Tis mass mood is missed not only by the Syndicate and its Right allies, but by many of those who claim to fight them. Inside the Indira Congress, this inability to gauge the new temper among the common people leads a good section of the leadership to think and act in the time-honoured style of the political functionary. The hesitation to go ahead with long overdue land reforms; the chicken-hearted scare in dealing with Big Business when it indulges in corrupt, anti-social practices; the old habit of wallowing in caste politics as is seen so glaringly in Bihar: and the ancient pastime of managing defections through various allurements that some of the UP leaders are found to be indulging in—all these can never help to consolidate the mass base of the Indira Congress.

Plethora of platitudes has ceased to be a substitute for actual implementation of the promised radicalism. To the extent the Congress leadership fails to realise this, it will help to debilitate the party itself. Radicalism has ceased to be mere playing the heroics from the platform: it is measured today in the mind of the common man by the yardstick of actual performance.

With their awakened consciousness, the masses have much to teach the Left in our country. No longer can the gimmicks of arid anti-Congressism fetch dividends in terms of votes at the poll: many in the SSP ranks have realised that Sri Raj Narain with his easy access to Money Bags has ceased to be a political asset. And the Communists have yet to join hands with all the forces that stand for democratic advance: the full significance of the Congress split as a consequence of the mass awakening has to be grasped in the wider horizon of national politics and not confined to the hinter-land of Kerala. The Left consolidation loses much of its relevance if it keeps aloof with Brahminical disdain from the newly awakened democratic forces that the anti-Right stand of Smt Gandhi is capable of mobilising.

In a sense, the anarchist extremism of the Naxalites is an index of the inability of our Left to interpret the new sweep of mass consciousness before the youth in terms of revolutionary advance. Instead, their death-defying abandon is being frittered away in romantic revolutionism, missing the tremendous potentialities of the mass radicalisation that has fast been taking place before our very eyes. They have yet to learn that the guidelines of our revolution have to be found in the experience of our organised masses set in motion, and not in the Thoughts and diktats of some far-way Chairman.

Against this rich tapestry of living history, the judgements and pronouncements of those quarantining themselves from the salubrious infection of the demos sounds of little consequence. When the makers of history are wide awake, the cobwebs are not going to frighten them.

(Mainstream, December 19, 1970)

o o o

Allround Decadence and Ray of Hope

While there is no doubt a lot on which to attack those in authority for their dereliction in running an orderly system of governance, one has to ask at the same time why there has been such an appalling deterioration in social conscience in most of our public activity. In other words, the corrosion of values in public life is not confined to Ministers and top bureaucrats, but has become all-pervasive, the pollution of morals seem to choke out public service.

If we look around, there is undoubtedly a widespread feeling of being let-down by those in power, those who have been assigned the mandate to rule by the public that has elected them and placed them on the position of authority. It is precisely because of this reason that the Chief Election Commissioner has suddenly become a phenomenon—applauded by the public that expects him to weed out corrupt practices from the business of election, while he is the target of attack largely by those who feel that their citadel of vested interests in the business of vote-collecting is being invaded by Seshan’s attempt at weeding out irregularities in the running of the election machinery. Khairnar might be reckless in his charges against Sharad Pawar, but the fact that he, a minor fry in the bureaucratic set-up, could brace up to make such charges of corruption against the Chief Minister, who is patently on the defensive, shows that in the public mind Pawar’s reputation cannot smother out such a critic from inside the very government over which is presides. And quite likely there are many more Khairnars waiting to be counted in the months to come. Obviously the ministerial standing for probity has plummeted so much that it cannot make short shrift of critics from within the bureau-cracy itself.

If we look back on the immediate past, we find that in the last ten years corruption has become a by-word in our public life and is having a deleterious effect on the stability of the government. The fact that criminalisation of politics has become a serious item of concern for responsible people in politics irrespective of party labels—and not just the exaggerated outburst of some chronic critics of the establishment —shows the dangerous deterioration in our public life. All this has begun to stir the public in general. The shock of the scam, that nobody in authority is prepared to take the responsibility for, has contributed in no small measure towards the sapping of public confidence in the government.

But the government apart, the callous irres-ponsibility of people at different stations of public life is now becoming an issue of intense comment and concern all over the country. The scandal of the capitation fees for entry into educational institutions—and the angry objections at any ban being imposed on this vicious practice—has been widely commented upon and one would not be surprised if this touches off violent protests. It is not merely the crass commercialisation involved in this practice—which is nowadays sanctified by the authorities in the name of worshipping the God of the Market—but the bankruptcy of any coherent education policy of the government that is going to be the target of popular attack.

The mismanagement of hospitals, with large-scale pilferage of medicines, and the mercenary attitude of many of the eminent people in the medical profession bordering on venality, is widely talked about and may one day break out into angry outbursts from the deprived sections of the public. Meanwhile, the hospitals are not only neglected but left almost uncared for in large cases, while these are overcrowded indicating the magnitude of the needs of the people.

While there is a lot of enthusiasm in the community of students and youth, one finds very little effort at harnessing the youth power for gainful public activity. The universities are riddled with factional politics for which all parties are equally guilty, and one finds no effort at providing leadership on the part of the teaching community towards creating a sense of dedication and public service among the students. There are pockets of inspiring initiative on the part of the students in such activities as the mass literacy campaign, but one finds little effort on the part of those in public life to divert youth power to nation-building activity. The political leadership diverts the youth mainly for election purposes, while there is conspicuous absence of any sustained activity for socially relevant issues. While there is a proliferation of high-cost entertainment of the disco and pop types for the rich, there is hardly any concerted move to involve the vast segments of the less affluent and the impoverished among the youth. Whatever gainful activity by way of recreation and healthy social pastime comes to view is mainly through individual and local enterprise.

The sense of public accountability has gone down so miserably in service sectors all over the country where bribery has become the rule. How shocking this has become could be noted by the present writer during a recent visit to Gujarat. A leading member of Mrinalini Sarabhai’s Darpana Academy had lost his brother in a car accident. After post-mortem, the body was deposited at the well-known government hospital, Sayajirao General Hospital, Baroda. The mortuary was found to be in a state of utter dilapidation—without any effective cooling arrangement, bodies in a state of decomposition, limbs thrown apart, blood oozing all over the place, and a putrid unbearable smell with insects swarming all over. The locate the body, the staff there extracted a bribe, and to get a piece of cloth to put the dismembered body together, he had to shell out more money. Even the autopsy is carried out in a primitive manner with dismembered parts of the body often found scattered all over the place.

This hideous state of the morgue has long been commented upon by the local people but no action has been taken by the authorities. A local reporter commented:

There is no respect for the dead as the administration has been running the mortuary and the post-mortem department in a most callous maner for the last several years. Time and again, people who come here to claim bodies of their dear and near ones have complained of the appalling condition. But the dead command no priority in this hospital.

Why the dead, the living are relegated to a low priority attention in this allround decadence. While such a state of decomposition in many of the services hits the eye, one cannot help contrasting this decadence with the inspiring and uplifting experience of the work of many of the activist groups all over the country. A conspicuous feature of Indian public life in the last twenty years has been the phenomenal proliferation of what may be called NGO activity in different departments of public life. While the preoccupation of the political parties is almost wholly confined to election politics from the panchayat to Parliament, these activist groups can be found engaged in multifarious activities—from helping in rural-welfare, housing for the poor, literacy and education, environment protection, appli-cation of appropriate technology, popularisation of science, medical services and numerous experiments in cottage industries. Some are groups which are intensely rational in their outlook, others with a religious motivation. Their standards and approaches may be diverse and uneven, but their eagerness to serve the people can hardly be questioned.

But in the arena of power politics, these dedicated soldiers do not figure at all. Here is the basic problem of the Indian reality today: the state of our conventional politics or the silent dedication of the activists—which of these two will finally win?

(Mainstream, September 24, 1994)