The love of autocracy

The love of autocracy

I was too young to understand the implications when Indira Gandhi declared a National Emergency in 1975. Years later, I directed an amateur production of Shashi Tharoor’s farce on the Emergency, 22 Months in the life of a Dog (read it if you haven’t done so; it is quite funny in parts) in B-school, but I was six years old when the Emergency was declared. Even later, through the early 1980s, I didn’t pay much attention to the wistfulness with which my parents and people in their circle recalled those years.

It was only much later, after I had read the kind of books that needed to be read, and asked the kind of questions that shouldn’t have been asked that I started wondering about the appeal autocrats and autocracies hold for the middle class in urban India. While being acutely conscious of the notion of free will where it concerns them, and sharply aware of their rights, these seemingly liberal people display a rigid orthodoxy when it comes to some issues. In my mother’s case, this issue is prohibition; in a different era she may have well become a famous abolitionist (what a pity, then, that her only son has a taste for Islay’s finest). In my father’s case, it is bribery and corruption. (“We should cut off their hands," remains a preferred refrain.)

The middle class probably loves autocrats because they are conditioned to do so in school—one of my earliest memories is being caned after scoring 100% in a math test by the teacher, a stout, dark woman, because I had used different methods “to solve the sums"—and in offices where petty dictators abound (I will ignore the sniggers at this stage). This people-need-to-be-told-what-they-need-to-do-because-they-don’t-know-better approach isn’t very different from the central message of Rudyard Kipling’s poem on The White Man’s Burden.

“An Emergency should be declared again", “We should move to a presidential system of governance" and “I wish we were a dictatorship" are some of the comments I have heard through the years (and continue to hear) from middle-class Indians who, more often than not, do not participate in the democratic process. Once articulated in living rooms in Chennai and Mumbai, such statements are now aired on social networks that are not particular about the signals they amplify; those who found it was easier to speak than vote have now discovered that it is even easier to tweet.

The current role model for this set is Anna Hazare, a man who advocates public flogging, and forced vasectomies (there’s an Emergency connection there, but it eludes me). He appears to be honest, but he is no Mahatma Gandhi; on a different note, I sometimes wonder whether the Mahatma’s reputation would have survived the constant scrutiny of 24x7 television networks. Hazare is surrounded by a few other people who, like him, wear their haloes openly and proudly. I don’t know about others, but I distrust people who proclaim their honesty. Baba Ramdev tried to become part of this grouping, but failed partly because of all he is and all he has done and partly because mainstream media distrusts God-men (as it should) and, at least in his case, asked the tough questions that needed to be asked. Together, these individuals have insinuated themselves into the process of policy-making, albeit for an anti-corruption Bill, the same way another group of individuals, the National Advisory Council, has done so for several other legislations.

Corruption is an evergreen issue in India. It isn’t clear whether an anti-corruption Bill is enough to combat the malaise, but it will be good to have one. Any effort to tackle this should meet three criteria: one, it should be in keeping with our democratic system of governance; two, it should be in sync with the Constitution; and three (and most importantly), it should work. Anyone who is working towards a solution that satisfies these criteria has my support. I am not sure whether Hazare & Co. are. And already, I have seen enough evidence—thanks to 24X7 television—of grandstanding by this group that would do a political party proud.

Democracies do not work by giving absolute power to a few people because they are honest, wise, or both. Yet, that is exactly what middle class supporters of Hazare & Co. seem to want. Inspired by images from Egypt, Africa and West Asia, they want to be part of a people’s revolution. And Indian television channels would like nothing better than to cover a revolution (one of them titled the protest by Hazare & Co., “The Second Freedom Movement"). Yet, the comparison is a shallow one. In Egypt and West Asia, the protests were pro-democracy. In India, they would appear to be pro-autocracy.

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