First the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) underestimated Anna Hazare. Then they overestimated yoga guru Ramdev. And it finally demonstrated political immaturity by ordering, in the full glare of the electronic media, a violent midnight crackdown by the police on Ramdev’s assembly; and, this after serenading him for most of last week. If there was ever a lesson on how not to govern, then this was it.
Not only has it affirmed misgivings about the UPA’s governance skills, it has questioned the government’s commitment to the basic tenets of democracy and social discourse that are enshrined in the country’s Constitution. That it comes after Rahul Gandhi led an agitation against Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati for similar high-handedness against agitating farmers in Noida and three weeks ahead of the 36th anniversary of the promulgation of Emergency by another Congress regime, only makes the political action of the government that much more circumspect. Surely one state-initiated violent crackdown on dissent can’t be good and another be bad.
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This is among the many contradictions that have emerged in the aftermath of the episode. But none more stunning than the flip-flop, where within a week the UPA went from serenading Ramdev to vilifying him.
It began with the reception of Ramdev at the airport by a government delegation led by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, the UPA’s troubleshooter and veteran Congress politician; this was followed by a closed-door negotiation with another team led by Kapil Sibal. Not only did the UPA overestimate Ramdev’s damage potential, it also woke up rather late to the realization that the yoga guru was playing them; after inking a deal with the government, Ramdev continued to agitate. Whatever be the logic, the government then went to the other extreme—all in a span of five days. What is the UPA thinking?
It begs the obvious question: If he was good till yesterday, what happened in the span of a few hours? Worse, the state action potentially exposed the innocent public to a stampede in a crowd estimated to be over 50,000, especially when the police chose to fire tear gas shells in the closed confines of the gigantic tent that had been put up for the activists. It is good fortune (or probably an efficient police manoeuvre) that limited the injuries to the public.
It is as everyone’s favourite political writer, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, told Mint last week: “The real issue in this is that we don’t have a government. Part of the reason you have this problem is that there is no leadership. Can you imagine a government of a large democracy every time becoming hostage to someone saying that ‘I am going on a fast’? If we had a strong government (and) the Prime Minister took responsibility for government actions, this situation would not have come about.”
What makes it worse is that Ramdev’s ostensible agenda was to fight corruption, a charge that the UPA is finding tough to shake off. By using such violent means to quell Ramdev after first promoting his profile, not only has the UPA queered its pitch further on the vexing issue of graft, but also provided the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with a fantastic opportunity ahead of a crucial monsoon session of Parliament. Another disruptive session is inevitable and the continuation of policy paralysis in government; something the country can ill-afford when it is facing up to the serious macroeconomic challenges in high inflation and decelerating growth.
While this may be the case, the Ramdev and Hazare phenomena hold out grim warning for organized polity. It is a symptom of growing disconnect between organized polity and new India; something that may not be apparent in the electoral outcomes, but visible in social causes. The vacuum is creating a political space that is being seized by activists. We have seen it with the Left parties, which has seen a rapid erosion of its traditional bastions after the new economy began to take shape with an overwhelming preponderance of the service economy—which militates against organized trade unions.
Now, we are seeing it happening to mainstream political parties. Instead of shooting the messenger, political parties need to go back to the drawing board. It is important, because the country is at a crucial crossroads: on one side it has the chance to seize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and on another it is business as usual, which will ensure that the aspirations of millions stay unfulfilled.
Activists can’t replace organized polity. Doing so would be a disaster: one’s actions are accountable, no matter how prolonged, while others are not.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com