This is India’s Tahrir square, read one of the tweets soon after the campaign against corruption succeeded last week and forced the government to accept the demands of social activist Anna Hazare to announce a committee for considering a new Lokpal Bill against corruption.
After watching widespread public demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle-East countries to rid their countries of dictators, there was a frisson of excitement among our socially networked urban middle-classes. Could we also do something similar here, in India? With news channels giving round the clock coverage to this “people’s movement”, the crowds could be forgiven for thinking that a major revolution was in the offing.
But the comparison with the Middle East is facile, and not only because Tunisians, Egyptians and others were protesting against undemocratic, autocratic governments. India has many faults, but to compare it with those countries and systems, however clever it sounds, is simply wrong.
Instead, what happened last week in India reminds us of the 1970s when public disgust with corruption, inflation and the general malaise in the country got thousands of youngsters worked up enough to march on the streets of various cities. That campaign, too, had a leader in the Gandhian mold who had an even more radical demand—overthrow the government and the democratic system itself. Jayaprakash Narayan, who emerged as the moral beacon of the protesting youth, irresponsibly called upon soldiers in the army to rebel but before such a mutiny could happen, a national Emergency was declared.
The parallels are quite interesting. Then as now, the main issue was corruption. Chimanbhai Patel, a reformist but corrupt chief minister of Gujarat, was the main target of protesters, but Narayan was actually gunning for Indira Gandhi herself. Today it is the entire political class. In both cases it was the educated middle-class that took the lead. An even more interesting coincidence is the involvement of the socialists—lawyer Shanti Bhushan was representing Raj Narain in his case against Indira Gandhi on electoral malpractices, which Gandhi lost and now his son Prashant Bhushan has drafted the Jan Lokpal bill.
The turmoil of the 1970s ended badly and therein lies a key difference between the two situations. Today’s India is very different from what it was 40 years ago. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and 24/7 television news may have boosted the energy and spirits of the young, urban, middle-class crusaders, but despite inflation and corruption, the country is far more prosperous than it was then. The urban, educated and middle-class youth see opportunity ahead of them, not joblessness and despair, which was the case four decades ago. There is pride in our democracy and a self-awareness about the nation’s rising stock all over the world.
The anger with the political class is genuine, no doubt. Simmering frustration about how mendacious and corrupt politicians get away with unlawful acts has been brought to a boil by the recent exposures of scams. Big business is tainted too. Hazare got support because he was seen as someone with a good record of fighting corrupt politicians and with no perceived personal agenda. A Mr. Clean in this murky environment is a rarity. Youngsters came out on the streets, posted badges on their Facebook profiles, sent out tweets backing his campaign. But this anger against the system has blinded them to the implications of his style and his demands.
Serious questions have to be asked; that is after all the essence of democracy. For instance, do we need yet another huge, potentially rogue bureaucratic set up which a Jan Lokpal certainly will be? As envisaged by Hazare and his team, this entity will be given sweeping investigative and punitive powers which can turn it into a monster—it will not be answerable to Parliament, the government or to the judiciary. The idea that Magsaysay winners (three of them are in the forefront of this campaign) are somehow morally superior to the rest of the population is repugnant and sanctimonious. There is an inbuilt contempt for the people in the argument that people’s representatives (legislators) matter less than the “people”, whoever they may be.
Already Hazare has announced that he wants results by 15 August. He has laid down many other conditions. This is arrogance, whichever way one looks at it. He doesn’t want democratic debate; he will ask the questions and he will provide the answers. The wise men and women with him, unelected and unaccountable, want to preside over the lives of over 1.2 billion people.
Narayan, too, was in no mood to listen—he wanted to overthrow the system. The Indira Gandhi government, already jittery, panicked and we saw the end result, an Emergency which harmed democracy in a very fundamental way.
India today is far more vigilant and will not allow for any subversion of the democratic culture by political parties. But nor should self-appointed spokesmen of the people arrogate to themselves the right to declare what is right and what is wrong. That too is damaging to the democracy. Many mistakes were made then. This generation has an opportunity to make its own history; it must fully understand and grasp it.
Siddharth Bhatia is a Mumbai-based journalist and commentator.
Comment at email@example.com