Can We Afford Another Unquestionable Mahatma?

Posted on January 6, 2012 in Politics

By Dr. Sukant Khurana:

Most people are predisposed to consuming news, views and analysis that fits their own world-view. To save you the effort of reading a critique of Anna and then being disappointed that it was not from the perspective of saying he is on the wrong side, I will state upfront that I stand strongly with the anticorruption drive. In fact, I am for expanding the revolution to a progressive holistic drive with bigger goals of sustainable development and socioeconomic level playing field for everyone in the country. This is a criticism of the unquestioning wide-eyed support and personality cult resulting in both deification and vilification of heroes instead of the focus being on policies. An unquestioning support during our independence struggle to those who made money on the name of the saint of Sabarmati or those who came to power by stoking religious fervor, gave us broken, fractured and chaotic countries instead of a possible modern, secular, progressive and united Indic region. I do not wish to see a repeat of our past mistakes of having too much reverence and faith in leaders. The personality cult of leaders, Gandhi, Jinnah and others at the time of independence and now of Anna or Nehru-Gandhi royalty is a manifestation of an infantile weak spot of our culture. Just as Gandhi played an important role in the fight against British, so have Anna and his team, in what is essentially a revolution of our generation but if we put blind faith in anyone, instead of harbingering a real change in Indian life, we could be cheering for exit of one corrupt politician in New Delhi, only to make way for another. If we let political opportunists ride people’s genuine discontentment against corruption, then only the masks in Delhi would change but not the corrupt culture. The goal for a common man is not to replace a crook that comes with a label of UPA, with another crook having a label of NDA or communist or regional party but a genuine transformation of the system.

Personality cult and following should not be confused with a questioning admiration of leaders and their veiws. Let me make it clear too that I admire Anna as a person and more importantly the movement he symbolizes on many but not all the issues. I do not want to make a great hero into a scapegoat just as I would not see him made into a sacred cow. I am also not interested in driving the catalyst of this anticorruption campaign into ditch by promoting questioning of personal conduct and beliefs too much. Beliefs and personal conducts of leaders are important but vastly less than the policies they guide, hence my admiration and criticism is mainly about the policies of the team Anna. Just as we question the direction of anticorruption movement, it is far more important to question a government that has been arrogant, incompetent, unjust, corrupt and dictatorial. In the same breath of questioning Anna, we also need to ask ourselves if we should buy into the demonization of Anna, the person, as well as the phenomenon. This demonization of Anna by the bulldogs of Congress would not have been much different by any other party in power. Support and opposition to this bill is based on shear political equations and not because of principles. So my criticism is of the whole opportunistic political class in general and not specifically of the chamchas yes men of Sonia memsahib and Yuvraj Rahul, the heir apparent. We need heroes to be the Sutradhars between chapters of history (those who connect one episode of the play to another, providing continuity and transition) but not be the Margdarshaks (spiritual guides). We all need to be our own margadarshaks for a vibrant democracy. Heroes are required as catalysts of struggles but they should never be made bigger than issues. We need our Irom Sharmilas, Medha Patkars and Anna Hazares to lead in fights to make a better India. We need to stand by our heroes when they make sense and we need to pack them home when they don’t. The dangers of personality cult, irrespective of the current portrayal in popular history, of Gandhi, Nehru, Subhas, Patel, Jinnah, Hitler, Roosevelt, Mandela, Stalin, Mao and Churchill etcetera are all too evident to me at least, to do the mistake of putting anyone above questioning.

While I was very active in my humble internet activism ways in recruiting people for the campaign, I never said that “I am Anna”, wore his cap or will ever do such a thing but I never miss any opportunity to land a right hook or a straight jab at the corrupt political class within the confines of currently popular and pragmatic ahimsa sentiment. I was not yelling in unison along with the drunk on patriotism crowd that was at times (not always) rather poorly informed, unquestioning and wide-eyed, looking for a miracle cure to corruption. Yet, despite my serious differences, I was not throwing the kitchen sink at Anna when the political class had let its hounds free to tarnish his image. My resurgent support and criticism comes at this crucial juncture now when we need to unite again for a next big round of fight with the ruling elite so that we can have a better-informed campaign. This opinion piece in essence is an appeal to have an independent and critical thinking. I believe such an approach would increase participation in social campaigns, including the ongoing anticorruption struggle rather that decrease ones enthusiasm. I believe this questioning would help us to steer this campaign away from becoming a tool of selfish politicians back to the original intent of being a vehicle of people’s voice. This questioning would also make us realize that lokpall (citizens’ ombudsman bill), if successfully implemented, can only take out some corruption but not the whole of it. It is not a panacea but just a step in the right direction. Questioning will lead us to desire a bigger cultural and educational shift, judicial reform, executive reform, and checks on corruption-infested media, armed forces and corporate houses, while in parallel laying foundations for construction of an alternative system based on evidence and not ideology. This questioning spirit will also dissuade genuinely and justifiably angry people from supporting reactionary ideologies that advocate overthrowing a rotten system without presenting viable better alternatives.

During this campaign I was also not sure if the Bharat Mata that was being invoked every time by my neighboring shopkeeper, few of my corrupt-to-core relatives, a poor rickshaw wallah, an idealist retired teacher, poor homeless kids, a hideously corrupt local MLA, a military widow of a shaheed sipahi, all those were the same Bharat Matas. I am not sure whether my Bharat Mata would even be able to stand the reeking presence of Bharat Matas of one my corrupt relatives, policemen, the local MLA, the kind of criminals whose day starts with corruption laden ritual of bribing a some God with a ‘chadhawa’ (bribe), with a hope that in their whole day they can in return get enough chadhawa from lesser mortals than themselves. I am in the struggle not because of emotional appeal on the name of mother India but because I see hope in eyes of people for whom this fight is not just a vain vent to their middle class anger but a fight for a better tomorrow. I see with such an involvement, a chance for our nation to reach its full potential. No, I am not completely immune to sentimentality myself, though I prefer not to leave my objectivity glasses at home. I fell in tragic love with the sentiment too, when as a bystander, I heard in a solidarity march that erupted spontaneously, poor street kids and some handicapped old women sing Vande Matram. For all my cold-blooded intellectual analysis, it was difficult for me to stop my tears from trickling. It was impossible not to feel overwhelmed with joy to see such hope and I could also not stay untouched by a deep sense of sorrow and shame to see that the banner of hope is held high by the ones with the most hopeless predicament. How much I wanted to tell them that it would not be all right for them even after an effective lokpall bill is enacted, that it will take a bigger transformation but I could not be heartless enough to break their transient hope bubble.

On the other hand, at times, I found the crowd quite unbearable, especially when I saw someone with enough gold on them, guaranteed from black money, to feed at least hundred people for a month. One could find both a well-fed fat man and a skeleton of a human marching together with fist up against the dysfunctional and non-representative but supposedly elected government, with slogans of “inqalaab zindabad” (long live revolution). This imagery reminded compatriots involved in the anticorruption campaign of the struggle of Chadrashekhar Azaad, Gandhi and Bose while the same imagery was portrayed by the government sympathizers as similar to one during the rise of the Third Reich. Undoubtedly this push towards increased transparency and democracy is an ongoing revolution of our generation, with Anna’s galvanization of public outpour a chapter worth writing with golden letters but is there a genuine parallel with the Fascist and the Nazi rise? Yes for sure, in terms of imagery, but not because that is the overwhelming character of the anticorruption revolution at least up till now but because all revolutions whether good or hideous in consequence, are all born of social crises and these occasions give hope to the needy and are grossly capitalized by the greedy. So the fat cat who wants bigger profit than what he can get from the current system will also march with the skeleton of a human- who has nothing but a hope to live on, only chains to free from. It is for a vibrant democracy to make sure that the outcomes of such social upheaval are good and not disastrous. Whenever people stop questioning their leaders, revolutions start to rot and produce fat cat politicians. Were participants bending and breaking the constitution? Absolutely and unapologetically yes, just as Gandhi was during his salt march. In fact the break from constitution was a lot less radical than the actions of our heroes of yesteryears like Batukeshwar Dutt and Bhagat Singh who had to make noise loud enough to make the deaf hear. Were they democratic? Yes and no, it depends on the aspects and consequences of this campaign. Let us talk about it in a little bit after we have looked at whose campaign it is, as of today.

For a complete understanding of what precipitated this mass movement, we need to look back at the oppression and failure of the conglomerate of the political, bureaucratic and ruling corporate class over these years, along with the various short and long-lived violent and non-violent responses to the shortcomings of this constantly evolving Indian story. We need to look at the sources, the catalysts and the vehicles of mass struggles including the different colors of this Anna carnival, as it is proceeding under the full media glare of 24-7 television. A look at faces of people involved, can tell you who started the fire and who provides the fuel. This struggle in the beginning of its first round, acted as a safety valve for the middle class anger, releasing the pressure and hence preventing an Arab Spring like uprising. By the end of the first round, the idea reached out to almost all sections of our society. The message now resonates with street hawkers and rickshaw pullers who have to pay the policemen a bribe to do their business, it resonates with farmers suffering from local and state corruption and it resonates with youth who have to frequently pay bribes to get decent education and jobs. Now looking at the faces of this campaign one sees politicians on stage trying to cash in, when the fruit of public discontentment is ripe for harvest. One has already seen the drama of Advani’s anti corruption yatra where press reporters were given envelopes with cash so they cover his anticorruption drive and how Modi spent money from state budget on his anticorruption fast while refusing to accept a lokayukta to enquire 17 serious charges of multimillion embezzlement and corruption against himself. Who can forget Yedurappa of Karnata in cahoots of mining mafia either? Does one have to travel much deep into UP to see the corrupt fangs of Maya madam? I think just a trip to Noida can be enough. It is not just Lalu but almost everyone who ends up eating chara. Only in India can an uneducated coolie rise to be a multibillionaire, no, not through innovation or entrepreneurship, certainly not through hard physical labor but by whoring out the state resources in position of a chief minister to the mining mafia. The corruption of politicians does not fail to leave a mark even on national defense, whether it is purchase of guns like Bofors or coffins for our martyrs. Corruption and incompetence does not come with the slap of congress alone, it comes in form of trident of RSS up an aam admi’s rear and it also comes in the form of a hammer and sickele of CPM. Some abhineta may apologize to the neta log for the fear of consequences of telling that the king is naked but does an aam admi have any doubt of how someone’s fortunes change when they get elected or marry someone in power, say a rise from a small time scrap dealer to a billionaire for marrying into royal political dynasty? While the middle class started this fire, the whole Indian population continues to provide the fuel and now the political vultures are already eyeing the carcass of the current government, getting ready for a cannibalistic orgy of sorts.

The protest to this point has been mostly about reforming the current economic road that India has taken, with even the central architects of this campaign not thinking in terms of bigger socioeconomic structures responsible for corruption and bigger issue of underdevelopment, ecological rape, socioeconomic inequity and ethnic strife. The movement at present does not have any realistic ideas of dealing with the pillage of globalization, either of changing the course or of staying on course but making modifications to maximize the benefits for a common man while minimizing the losses. In some senses, this campaign is not that different than our freedom struggle in the very beginning of 20th century where ideas, ideologies and plans for long term combat are still in utero but what is clear is the dire need of reduced corruption. What is a common unifier for people with very different views of India, ideologies and objectives, is currently a common enemy and this time it is the Bhura sahibs sitting tight on kursi instead of the Gora sahibs. It is also not that different than our freedom struggle in the sense that literate and well to do sections first took fancy to the idea but the movement really took its wings with a mass appeal galvanized by Anna. It is also not that different in character from our Independence struggle that the butchers, both in power and opposition, with shear personal ambitions are already sharpening their knives in anticipation of the innocent lamb of Indian aspirations to become fat enough for slaughter.

Let us return to the question of the democratic impact and long run imprint of this campaign. This movement marked for the first time in the history of independent India a successful bending down of representative democracy for the sake of a participatory democracy. It may sound all good and definitely has great positive potential that attracted me to it but it is a gamble with the future, a real tryst with our destiny, unlike a mere transition in the skin color of the rulers of India. The reason it is a great gamble is that with over 1.2 billion people in India, in its current form, it is impossible to have a participatory democracy for all issues or on regular basis. If people need to stop their work and fight against the system for making changes every time, we will eventually descend into anarchy. Can better ways be evolved with technology to have more participation? The use of technology for better participation is certainly possible but I will keep that analysis for some other place. There is a big question in minds of many that if unelected people can speak on behalf of majority of the country. At this moment that is not the biggest concern, at least to me, as most of India stands behind this anticorruption drive. That does not mean that such questions could not be a valid at other times but as of today there are other more valid concerns on the lines of chaos of participatory democracy. Let us evaluate these concerns in some detail.

What happened to the voice of voiceless? What happens to questions that matter to a small group but not everyone: questions like AFSPA that affect Indians in Kashmir and North-East? What happens to rape and harassment of poor villagers by the men in uniform, done to advance interests of the mining mafia and other business interests in collusion with politicians on the pretext of containing naxalites? What happens to people displaced due to so-called developmental projects of national importance, some agreeably real projects with positive impact, while others farcical schemes designed for land grab? Who will come to protest in the capital for this silent scattered voiceless humanity? Will these not so catchy and primetime-worthy protests in the far-flung regions of interior India matter to the media and hence to the public of India in general?

Can this way of Indian politic result in a hooligan culture? Is India strictly a country where one with bigger voice due to majority or vocal minority, ends up having their say? Are we forgetting the fear of a majority dictatorship, some real threat due to intolerant and bigoted actions of Hindu right wing at that time and some due to fictional concerns of a Hindu raj stoked by the selfish separatist leaders to create our militarily strong yet culturally and economically stillborn sibling of Pakistan? If resolution of issues will depend on a show of strength in few metropolitans, will this way of political life become a means of suppressing minority viewpoints? Aren’t we are all minorities on some issue? Only conformists with no brain of their own, seek comfort in being part of a sizable group to feel they are on the right side. Any freethinker is bound to be a minority at more than one occasion. Will the Indian story, a sublime and subtle failure in many dimensions but also one with great accomplishment of having some semblance of a democracy be thrown to dogs, with such a change in political culture? There were traces of fascist tendencies in crowd with youngsters of clearly affluent family having a picnic, yelling vande matram without understanding the meaning of it. Near zero understanding of problems facing India in some of the blind hero worshipping followers of this campaign, beyond empty sloganeering at high decibels could make anyone afraid of this crowd’s destructive potential. For some of the upper-middle privileged class, in the gym I went to while staying in Delhi, the protests were just cool, a place for socialization and meeting other single people. While this hooligan and picnic culture has been a lopsided picture portrayed by the pro government critiques, this aspect is almost completely ignored by those razzled-dazzled by Anna mania. This picture is undeniably true to a small extent but it is only one small dimension of the participation. This image ignores a significant informed activist section and an overwhelming majority that was seeking to be increasingly more informed. Anna’s team has not failed to inform people but when information has to come from the mouth of campaign alone, instead of proactive information gathering by the public from multiple sources, it can hardly be called an overwhelming success of informed democracy. If we are going to enter a much-needed era of increased participatory democracy, our struggle needs to meet the challenge of finding better mechanisms to counter and discourage hooligan culture soon.

Is majority always right? Most villagers in villages with honor killings done due to the rotten taboo of inter-cast relationships of Hinduism agree with their Panchayats. Has one forgotten the story of a poor Muslim woman ordered by Islamist panchayat of her village to marry her father in law who raped her? Are we not aware of sectarian feudal stone aged judgments anchored in stupid religious and cultural bigotry of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism alike that is passed by local majority in many regions of India on an everyday basis? Are dumb people in street more dangerous than their voices filtered through structures of so called democratic apparatus? This mass movement if gone awry can set a precedence for people to go against the constitutional framework that provides options of standing against popular sentiments to preserve modernity. No, I am not saying that the dysfunctional and corrupt judiciary often has any guts or conscience to stand up for the best national interests but there are few examples where progressive decisions have been made despite largely unpopular sentiments. Let me also make it clear the flip side of the coin, an argument for an elitist approach that some people have more wisdom than others is an equal recipe for dictatorship. The solution lies in balancing the two forces. Current constitutional fix of balancing safeguards and popular vote is not an optimal one but it is better than nothing. We soon need to find novel solutions to protect from the dangers of herd dictatorship without stifling the immense productive and transformational potential of participatory democracy.

While these questions remain in my mind and so does my support and criticism of the movement but I believe staying on the sidelines will not result in a better future for our country. I urge you to hop on this wagon of struggle. The journey is not going to be easy but it will be worthwhile. Express your views and question everything if you want to shape this revolution. We already had one Mahatma; one too many. We frankly cannot afford another one. We need more questionable and life like heroes like Gandhi (not Mahatma), Maulana Azaad, Ghaffar Khan, Bose, Ashfaqulla Khan, Bhagat Singh of yesteryears and leaders of today who hold no ambition of a political position like Irom Sharmila, Medha Patkar and Anna Hazare but most importantly we need politically active, everyday common man, woman and child to fight for India. With a questioning and healthy irreverent spirit, my dear compatriots may long live our revolution – Inqalaab Zindabad!

Dr. Sukant Khurana is a New York based scientist and author of Indian origin. He is also a columnist for Youth Ki Awaaz. Some of his social commentary can be read at: https://sites.google.com/site/sukantkhurana2/

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