It is very difficult to be not drawn into the maelstrom of rhetoric that has swept the Indian polity in the last week or so. It was, therefore, encouraging to see defence minister and veteran Congress politician A.K. Antony step back for a moment and offer a refreshingly different perspective. Viewing the recent developments as a phenomenon, Antony argues that the country is in the middle of substantive structural change.
Antony articulated his view at an event in Delhi last week. “(The) country is passing through a new era (of) revolution—the transparency revolution. The walls of secrecy are crumbling in every field gradually, including politics, business, administration and judiciary. Once the trend has started, you can’t stop it midway.”
Though confident that this situation will pass, he added, “India is not ready as Indian politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, Armed Forces and all those who are holding key position are not ready for this transition. That is why there are problems in this transition.”
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Implicitly, Antony is acknowledging that it is time for everyone, including his own party, to first accept and then embrace the change that is under way. The unsaid is that failure to do so could risk making conventional Indian polity redundant or, at the least, being replaced by alternative entities such as civil society.
This is different from what we are seeing immediately around us. The immediate governance crisis seems to stem from a collapse in the conventional and hierarchical decision making structure. The resulting vacuum has resulted in a host of entities jockeying to capture the space that has been vacated.
Not surprising, therefore, the shriller the challenge, the more the visibility. This is true as much for yoga guru Baba Ramdev as it is for Congress party general secretary Digvijaya Singh. In fact, it is true of almost every institution in the country, whether it be politics, the judiciary or even the media. It is as Pratap Bhanu Mehta, political thinker and head of Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research, said, “Moderation does not make a good slogan.”
Most of us are mixing the immediate (the cacophony is difficult to ignore) and long-term developments and, hence, failing to read the message of structural change. The current crisis is a symptom of a larger malaise. It’s like believing that a sudden increase in body temperature is the ailment; instead, it is just the body’s warning of a battle within and symptomatic treatment, often, is just not enough.
Both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in particular, have to be watchful. As national parties, it is easier for them to take a long view of things, besides the fact that they are the primary drivers of political change in the country.
In the case of the Congress, long used to being in power, mostly unchallenged, it has tended to become complacent. And now, when it is faced with an unprecedented challenge, it is struggling to cope. The mindset, based on its actions over the last year or so of the second term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), suggests that it is frozen in the 1970s. It was a much simpler world, where all this was possible. Today, the country has transformed. Not only is it almost a $2 trillion economy, the opportunities, especially in the services sector, are so much more.
The present affliction of the Congress party may have a lot to do with the party crossing the 200-mark on its own, allowing it to do without some allies (such as the Left parties, that for right or wrong reasons, operated like the conscience keeper of the UPA). Obviously, this won’t do when a billion aspirations have taken flight, giving rise to one of the serious structural fault lines. Since the Congress is the party in power, its missteps are more visible, even though the BJP, shackled by the right wing ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is struggling similarly.
In any case, it is not easy to address such a major shift in aspirations, and one that means different things to almost everybody; in a rapidly transforming society, these goalposts shift almost daily. Confused political parties, including the Congress and the BJP, are unable to moor these aspirations and, hence, end up tripping themselves—often reduced to firefighting. Consequently, political mobilization is not easy any more.
The political parties have for long been used to doing it through small groups defined around specific causes. It is not clear whether political parties understand that such monumental change is under way (which is why Antony’s observations are so significant). If not, they are simply trying to second guess and, hence, unsurprisingly tripping over themselves.
The bottom line then is clear: reform or perish. It would be prudent to remember the humbling philosophy that nothing is constant in this world but change.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org