Saturday, May 14, 2011

Elections 2011: One Clear Message; Several Ambiguities

Over seven days of polling between April 4 and May 10, five Indian states, together accounting for over a fifth of the membership of the two houses of parliament, had general elections to their legislative assemblies. The long drawn out process of balloting left everyone – candidate, voter and interested bystander – restless for final closure. And when the counting of votes started early on May 13, the results flooded in with the momentum of a fast-moving sporting encounter.

Analysts did not have to spend too much time parsing the results that emerged for a dominant message. Quite simply, the implosion of the Left Front in West Bengal, a state considered its impregnable bastion, was so dramatic that it overshadowed every other message. For the left parties, there was little mitigation even in the near miracle of Kerala where they almost beat the iron law of incumbency disadvantage, operative for the last seven rounds of assembly elections.

Though written off at various points during its 34 years of uninterrupted rule, the Left Front (LF) in West Bengal had managed to script one epic triumph after another. It managed a smooth transition from the leadership of Jyoti Basu, the patriarch who led it through nearly a quarter century, and won two consecutive state elections under his handpicked successor. But when things started falling apart, the disintegration was rapid and almost catastrophic.

In the days of reflection that will inevitably come, the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the leading party of the left, will wonder what went wrong. As a party, the CPI(M) has seen its fortunes plunge from stratospheric heights to virtual rockbottom in five years. In May 2006, the last time the same five states of the union went into general elections, the left won two of them. It had at the time, 58 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. And the Congress-led coalition, the United Progress Alliance (UPA), which ruled at the centre, was crucially dependent on its support in every legislative and policy initiative.

Today, the left has none of the major states under its control, since the north-eastern state of Tripura, which sends two members to the Lok Sabha, counts for little in national politics. Its strength in the Lok Sabha is down to 24 and the UPA has no need to seek its support in anything it undertakes.

The LF built its base in West Bengal with its visionary reforms in the agrarian sector, of which the most important were connected with the land - the registration of unrecorded tenancies and the distribution of land held above a legally notified ceiling. Towards the last years of Basu’s stewardship of the LF, the stimulus was beginning to fade. Under acute threat, the left managed to consolidate its monopoly on power because of disunity and disarray in opposition ranks. The Congress then faced what seemed an existential threat from the BJP and tended to look on the left as a friendly opponent. And the most significant leader of the Congress in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, was so bitterly alienated by this ambivalence that she chose to break away and seek an alliance with the BJP, rather than be part of it.

Coming to power just in time to capitalise on these multiple fissures in the opposition, Basu’s successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharya won a massive triumph in 2001 and followed up with an equally impressive victory five years later. He was not content with electoral trophies though and was restless for change, for diversifying the economy and setting it on a pathway to rapid industrialisation.

In effecting the course change, the CPI(M) set its cadres to work in enforcing a policy of dispossession, or turning over large tracts of land in a densely populated state to business houses whose patronage the state government seemed rather too anxious to cultivate.

Opposition ambivalence ended in 2008, when the left walked out of its alliance with the UPA at the centre, over an abstruse geopolitical issue that did not strike much of a chord with the majority of the electorate. The Congress now had an incentive to team up with Mamata Banerjee’s breakaway Trinamool Congress, which had in the years since separation, grown to be a far larger and better organised political force in West Bengal. The final defeat was foretold by the outcome of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and successive rounds of local body elections. When the decisive moment arrived, the defeat proved more crushing than anything that even the most percipient had foreseen.

The creditable performance in Kerala comes as small solace to the left. Led by V.S. Achutanandan, the sole survivor of the group that walked out of the National Council of the parent party to set up the CPI(M) in 1964, the left (which goes under the name of the Left Democratic Front in Kerala) was not given a ghost of a chance. The LDF was riven by deep factional animosities through its five years in authority, almost entirely originating within the CPI(M). But in the media spectacle that emerged, the underlying story was lost: that the LDF had provided a level of efficiency in administration that the state had not seen in years. And for this, the people of Kerala were inclined to credit Achutanandan’s leadership – which many among the newer generation thought rather hidebound and rigid, but was ultimately, about an unswerving sense of probity and political commitment. Again in a suggestion of its inability to feel the public pulse, the CPI(M) leadership first sought to isolate Achutanandan, before conceding him a ticket for reelection.

The two main national parties, ironically, had rather modest stakes in these five states. The Congress had only an indirect stake in the two largest of the five: riding piggy-back as it were, on the fortunes of powerful regional parties in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. It scored a win in one and went down to a humiliating defeat in the other.

The Tamil Nadu verdict conforms to the pattern established since at least 1991, when the two main regional formations have alternated in power, each election bringing a decisive shift. The swing this time has perhaps been stronger than before, with a powerful new ingredient being added to the mix by the brazen nepotism in the family of the incumbent chief minister, M. Karunanidhi. Kalaignar, as he is known in tribute to his literary gifts, first took office as chief minister in 1969 and at 87 has quite possibly contested his last election. He has a legacy that will unfortunately now, be forgotten as the people of Tamil Nadu seek to grapple with his least welcome political bequest: a dysfunctional family, squabbling bitterly over the spoils of office.
Expectations that the United Democratic Front (UDF) that the Congress leads in Kerala would win comfortably, were demolished and the Congress performance in terms of seats won has been decidedly worse than its main coalition partners’. The Muslim League and the Kerala Congress – both junior partners in the UDF – have scored a much greater success rate in seats contested and will almost certainly demand a commensurate share in the allocation of ministerial responsibilities. This does not suggest a smooth course ahead for the UDF ministry that will shortly be sworn in.

It is only in Assam, where it won an unprecedented majority of over two-thirds of the seats at stake, that the Congress did itself some credit. Its main opponents, the BJP and the Asom Gano Parishad, were once allies in state politics, but this time managed to fight each other to a state of paralysis by their brazen over-use of the xenophobia card in a state where the issue of illegal migrants has always been politically touchy.

The BJP which once showed the conceit of actually seeking to spread its roots into Tamil Nadu, Assam and West Bengal, contested several of the 800 odd seats that were at stake, allowing its ambition to overwhelm rational calculation. Nobody quite knows how many seats it contested, which is an eloquent comment on its ambition, rapidly evaporating, of being the sole and singular representative party of a true Indian sense of nationality. What is germane here, is that the number of seats the BJP has won will not touch the double-digit figure.

The 2011 assembly elections underline further that the BJP will remain narrowly based in its geographical spread, since minority baiting, the key to its dominance in the few states it governs, is precisely what drives potential partners away in other parts of the country.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Political Corruption and Social Anxieties: Lokpal Bill as a Magic Wand

At a mid-April public discussion on the proposal for a tough new statute to deal with corruption, J.S. Verma, former Chief Justice of India, raised a red flag. Certain of the ambitions of the draft bill to create a Lokpal, or ombudsman, with wide-ranging powers of scrutiny and sanction, were simply out of order. Indeed, the draft bill in circulation, he feared, would likely impinge on features held to be part of the “basic structure” of the Indian Constitution.

Since these words of caution came from a jurist of high standing, the media paused briefly, took note and then moved on. There was little reward in unravelling a complex question of constitutional practice, when quick and easy entertainment was available elsewhere. An accomplished political blackmailer had launched a smear campaign against another eminent jurist, Shanti Bhushan. And that was where eyeballs were more likely to focus.

A later public consultation came out with the definitive suggestion to keep the higher judiciary outside the Lokpal jurisdiction. Alongside J.S. Verma, another former Chief Justice, M.N. Venkatachalliah, was party to this proposal, which came with the explicit recommendation that a tough new mechanism of accountability be instituted for the judiciary, though one mindful of its autonomy. Despite this caveat, the cyber-space and blogosphere, which have been major arenas of mobilisation on the Lokpal bill, were soon suffused with chatter about how judges were intent on remaining above scrutiny.

Impatience and a degree of intolerance are dominant moods of the current phase of anti-corruption activism. It is a mood that induces a certain disregard of democratic proprieties. The favoured metaphor of the flock gathered around Anna Hazare during his five-day fast, was of corruption as a “cancer” eating into the core of the democratic process. Radical remedies were called for, even at possible risk to basic principles of democratic governance.

For the corporate media, public accountability stood triumphant the moment the government gave into Hazare’s demands. Others who have been engaged in democratic accountability as a grassroots cause, worried about the prospect of imminent defeat.

As conceived in the most current draft of the bill, the Lokpal will be an agency with powers of investigation and prosecution. It would also in certain respects – as in issuing sanction for contempt – have the powers of a court of law. In prosecuting alleged cases of corruption, the Lokpal would have the authority to determine how many special courts should be constituted to fast-track the trial process. In setting up these special courts, the government would be obliged to submit a potential list of presiding judges to the Lokpal, which would determine who among them meets the standards of integrity required.

It does not take great legal acumen to see that these clauses between them, violate the principle of the separation of powers, held to be a “basic feature” of the Indian Constitution. And in its haste to gather these powers within one institution, the Lokpal campaign seems willing to blithely trample over another basic principle of the rule of law: the presumption of innocence.

The term “political class” has acquired a certain currency in recent times, pointing to a growing credibility gap for the practice of democracy in India. “Politics” has become the quasi-monopoly of a defined class. The electorate for all the belief and commitment it shows everytime it lines up at the polling stations to vote, has no real option outside a narrow slate of candidates – chosen through dynastic processes, or as part of a patronage transaction, for a cash consideration, or perhaps in recognition of services rendered well beyond borderlines of legality.

The Lokpal campaign has responded to this reality of Indian electoral politics with a proposal that effectively would suspend the presumption of innocence for the “political class”. Nobody would be spared the searching scrutiny of the Lokpal, not even the Prime Minister.

Earlier inquiries on ethics in governance have advised against bringing the Prime Minister under the jurisdiction of a watchdog, simply because the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy runs on a simple principle: that the Prime Minister is accountable to the people, through their elected representatives. If there is the slightest hint of a taint over his or her functioning – sufficient to invoke the scrutiny of an ombudsman – then Parliament would have the first right to insist on a prime ministerial resignation. Reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing – rather than conclusive proof -- is sufficient to trigger the resignation of a Prime Minister.

This is a principle that has often been lost in practice, pointing to yet another credibility gap in India’s democracy. But it is not clear that the solution proposed by the Lokpal campaign, with its distinctly authoritarian overtones, is best suited to this challenge.

Like it virtually discounts judicial reform as an autonomous possibility, the Lokpal campaign seems equally dismissive about the potential for overhauling the manner in which elected legislatures function.

A clause in the draft bill reserves for the Lokpal the right to prosecute legislators accused of receiving a monetary consideration for something done purportedly in an official capacity. This is seen as a long required antidote to the constitutional immunity that elected representatives enjoy, even for the most blatant acts of malfeasance. In the “cash for votes” scandal involving Jharkhand Mukti Morcha members of Parliament during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s term as Prime Minister, the Supreme Court held that the situation though far from happy, was the undeniable reality enjoined by the Constitution.

This patently unsatisfactory situation has led to at least some efforts to arrive at firm definitions of where parliamentary privilege ends and the abuse of power begins. Yet, as with the judicial reforms agenda, this debate is likely to get swept aside and submerged in the public fervour over the Lokpal as a magic wand that will banish the growing malaise in India’s system of governance.

Crystal-ball gazing is always a hazardous pursuit. But it seems fairly safe to predict that a Lokpal bill of the sort that is currently in circulation, is unlikely to make it to the floor of Parliament for even a preliminary debate.

In the remote eventuality that a bill embodying the spirit of the current draft is passed, a prolonged turf war is virtually foretold, with judiciary and executive leading the charge against the Lokpal. It is always wise to be prepared for remote possibilities. And if a bill of the sort that is currently in public discussion were to pass, it would be a monumental abdication of responsibility by Parliament, and a surrender to the populist mood.

A Lokpal bill, passed into law in the current shape, would be a tribute to the very same infirmities of the electoral process that the anti-corruption movement seeks to fight.

A paralysis of governance would be inevitable – an outcome that could be averted only if the Lokpal were to rapidly descend into the same swamp it seeks to retrieve other institutions from. The middle-class revolt that has fuelled the current mood of activism over corruption, could then assume different dimensions, potentially deeply corrosive of the basic principles and processes of representative democracy.

Free Speech and Its Perils: Ninth IFJ Press Freedom Report for South Asia

It is my honour to place before you the ninth press freedom report for South Asia, prepared by the International Federation of Journalists on behalf of partners and affiliates in the region, known collectively as the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN). As with the last five years, this year’s report has been supported by UNESCO and we place on record our appreciation for this. Unlike in the early years of this exercise, when we tended to focus on journalists’ safety as a single indicator of press freedom, we have in recent years been seeking to present a whole range of issues that have a bearing on the broader scenario of journalism as an activity in defence of human rights.

The 2011 edition of the South Asia Press Freedom Report (SAPFR) records that over the year under review, the hazards journalists faced in most countries in the region tended to be less lethal than earlier years. Yet, the sharp deterioration of an already bad situation in Pakistan far outweighed the relative improvement in the other seven countries. Again, even if there was a lessening of the threats to life that journalists faced, the challenges of securing decent wages and working conditions remain. To these could be added major concerns regarding professional standards, the uncertainties of the environment for news gathering as conventionally understood and the pressures that have been generated on codes of practice for journalists by the media industry’s changing commercial strategies.

To provide a brief and synoptic overview of the situation in the eight countries of South Asia.

Journalism remains a hazardous pursuit in the context of Afghanistan’s unending insurgency. The emerging power-sharing compact among the country’s more powerful political figures seems premised upon each of them having a stake in the media. Despite growing rapidly, the media in Afghanistan remains dependent on some form of subventions for survival, either from international donor agencies or local power lobbies.

Unlike in years immediately past, when the most dangerous parts of Pakistan were those that felt the spillover effect from Afghanistan most acutely, the year under review saw Balochistan assume that position. The northern part of Pakistan also remains dangerous and the sources of violence here are less predictable and the range of threats greater. Investments in safety remain an area of priority for Pakistan’s journalists, though few among the country’s media groups seem inclined to make the necessary commitments of resources.

Bangladesh is another country coming out of a long background of authoritarian military rule and seeking a pathway towards stable electoral democracy. Disagreements still run deep within civil society and the media community on the legacy of the country’s war of liberation and these are played out occasionally in an accusatory tone in media reporting and harsh retaliation by the political authorities. Frequent warnings are issued by governmental authorities about their intent to enforce a code of ethics for journalism. Bangladesh’s media community though has responded constructively and with some unity of purpose to these challenges.

Sri Lanka and Nepal are both coming out of years of conflict but along rather different trajectories. The political leadership in Sri Lanka continues to acknowledge the imperative of national reconciliation but there have been occasions when journalists have been prevented from attending the proceedings of the commission that is the main instrumentality of the process. As during the years of conflict, the cross-community dialogue remains weak, since the English and Sinhala language media are not seen to be providing adequate coverage to testimonies rendered in Tamil to the commission.

Nepal’s politics has remained unsettled and despite journalists’ bodies having succeeded in achieving far reaching legislative changes in the period of the interim constitution, these remain to be consolidated in practice. As in Sri Lanka, impunity for the worst crimes against journalists through the years of the war and the unsettled truce that followed, remains an overwhelming reality. Despite having secured a law that protects their entitlements, Nepal’s journalists continue to work for poor wages. Investments in quality and skills, though enjoined on media houses by the law, remain low or non-existent.

Bhutan and the Maldives, the two smallest countries in the region, are both in the process of political transformation, from an absolute monarchy in one case and a state of one-party rule in the other. Both face the difficulties of sustaining plural media in a context of modestly developed business infrastructures and low levels of advertising spending in the economy. Bhutan, where the government remains by far the largest advertiser, has seen a vigorous debate over the ad placement policy that would best serve the public interest and ensure a relatively open and plural media environment.

The Maldives has sorted out this issue by floating an official gazette that will be the sole medium for publishing government ads, a response that the country’s journalists believe is the worst possible in the circumstances. The Maldives has instituted credible constitutional and legal measures for defending press freedom. A regulatory body with the authority to decree an appropriate code of conduct for the media has been created by law, though sharp disagreements remain over the composition of this body. The Maldives president and parliament meanwhile, remain deadlocked over the future of the state-controlled media.

Despite having the largest industry and the longest established traditions of media freedom in the region, India has not always been able to set an example to be emulated in terms of media practice. As this report is produced, India’s journalists are in the midst of a campaign to ensure that the proposals of the most recent wage board for journalists and other newspaper employees are fully implemented. The wage board model of determining working conditions for newspaper workers, which has been adopted in other countries of the region, is under threat in its place of origin.

India’s journalists confronted serious ethical issues over the course of the year and came up with a credible analysis and understanding of the threat that the newly prevalent practice of “paid news” poses to the integrity of news gathering.

Ongoing conflicts and insurgencies in the north-eastern states of India, Jammu and Kashmir and the central Indian region, continue to cast a long shadow over journalism. Media communities have mobilised strongly to deal with these problems and are now more inclined to establish strong linkages with colleagues in the national capital and other major Indian metropolises, where the “national news agenda” is determined. This networking has also extended to forging global linkages and seeking international solidarity actions.

There were other events in India which pushed the issue of transparency to the foreground of public debate on the media. I need only mention the Radia tapes in this context and we provide a brief analysis in this report of that episode in the career of the Indian media.

In part, the mere fact that transparency in the media industry came to the foreground as an issue, was testimony to the growing power of the new media and the ability of India’s growing community of bloggers and cyber-activists to influence the course and content of public debate.

Finally, this report is about the imperatives of maintaining and expanding regional and national networks that track media rights violations and build organised power to defend and promote press freedom, freedom of association and the right to speak out.

Anna Hazare and his children

Anna Hazare’s hunger fast for probity in politics captured the news agenda and unleashed a nationwide fervour. Declarations of victory may be premature since the real work of drafting a law is only just beginning. Corruption is not an abstract evil that can be combated by the virtuous few. It is about imbalances of power and the subversion of democratic goals by elite manipulation. Dealing with corruption is about deepening participatory democracy, rather than disdaining politics as the fount of all iniquity.

Kisan Baburao Hazare began his fast unto death on April 4 with the very specific intent of getting the Union Government to pass a law. India is a culture that respects the ascetic: one who renounces material comforts and in the extreme instance, refuses all nourishment. “Anna” Hazare as he is respectfully called, was clear about the evil he was combating. Decades had been spent in desultory debate about the need for an ombudsman that would exercise oversight and ensure the financial probity of the institutions of governance. Yet the goal remained as distant as ever. Meanwhile, the ethical deficit in governance had multiplied and acquired a dimension that threatened the very fabric of democracy.

This situation of deepening iniquity called for little less than an extraordinary remedy. A good and moral man had to vow self-abnegation rather than acquiesce in persistent evil. Dormant sensitivities of nobility in the human race would be stirred to the surface by one man’s personal example and long-needed correctives applied.

Beyond the moral dimension is the reality of Indian politics, where the institution of a Lok Pal (which could be rendered as “servant of the people”) has been discussed for over four decades. Public reassurance in the face of rampant corruption, has been an objective of various governments. The Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) chaired by the civil servant turned politician Morarji Desai had recommended the institution of such a body in a report submitted in 1966. The body has since wrapping up its tasks in the mid-1970s, been rebranded the first ARC since its efforts were finally deemed inadequate and required the institution of a second body with a similar mandate in 2005. In the fourth of its reports submitted in 2007, the ARC II had addressed the issue of “ethics” in governance, again underlining the need for an ombudsman that would address public worries and grievances over the performance of the institutions of governance.

That the proposal has failed to acquire any material form despite official homage and public concern, is partly about the reluctance of successive governments to accept the fetters that a Lok Pal would impose upon ministerial autonomy – a flimsy alibi at the best of times, since governmental autonomy has been no source of sustenance, but has indeed, been the enemy of the public interest. To accord the apparatus of governance the measure of autonomy it has in India is to surrender all norms of democracy – except in the purely ritualistic sense of having masses of people line up at polling booths once every five years to cast a ballot in favour of a corrupt clique that will rule with no accountability, till an opportunity arises to throw it out.

Leaving aside these insubstantive difficulties of principle, a problem that had attracted serious attention is about how best an oversight body could be structured and its procedures defined, to ensure that it would be an enhancement, rather than a positive burden, on the efficacy of the other institutions of governance: legislature, judiciary and executive. Indeed, rather than create a body that could potentially impede the performance of an already creaky administrative system, there have been several suggestions about reforming existing institutions as a way out of the crisis of mal-governance. Why add to an already confusing multiplicity of institutions, with another one potentially as corruptible as all the others, when the reform of existing institutions – the civil service, the police, the judiciary and the legislature – is still a possibility?

Numerous ideas have been floated in each of these limited spheres. And the translation of these ideas into practice has needless to say, proven difficult, because each of these domains is enormously complex, with entrenched interests that will resist any change. Further, there has been no effort to knit together these discrete endeavours into one overarching, grand narrative or programme of reform. ARC II was probably one such attempt. And the voluminous reports that this commission has produced are a valuable compendium of possible changes in law and practice that would make the administrative apparatus more responsive to public needs.

Legislature, executive and judiciary is how the triumvirate of governance is understood. But the relationship between these three pillars can be grasped only through reference to what is regarded as the fourth, in a gross misreading of the origin of the term that has now become commonsense. The media or the “fourth estate” is now understood as the indispensable pillar of democracy without which all three other institutions would fail to perform with any degree of responsiveness.

“Fourth estate” as a term has its origins in pre-revolutionary France and in the hostile reference, by an individual who greatly feared the forces of disorder, to newly literate scribblers who threatened to disrupt the harmony of the three recognised estates of the church, the landholding aristocracy and the trading community. Though it has its origin in a revolutionary context, the “fourth estate” has since had a rather ambivalent career, being in part an agency for positive change but in greater measure, an instrument of social conformism. Political theorists have in recent times equated the daily ritual of reading a newspaper to a manner of referendum on nationalism, an affirmation of a sense of belonging without which the sustenance of the political compact that makes the nation-state a stable and durable aspect of an individual’s life, would be virtually impossible.

This function of the “fourth estate” is sustained on the foundation of a certain definition of what constitutes “news”. For the Indian media, “news” at one time used to be the words of wisdom that politicians spouted. The country was fresh in its encounter with what was called “freedom” and it seemed that the media owed the duty of loyalty to those elected to govern. A few years into India’s life as a free nation, the media strayed from the course of unquestioning loyalty. Business interests were involved and the so-called “licence-permit raj” that was being created under a newly independent nation’s quest for development, seemed antithetical to personal liberty – indeed the fount of all political corruption.

That challenge to the authority of the political leadership was quashed by recruiting the poor to the cause of eradicating themselves. “Garibi hatao” as a slogan defeated the worst machinations of the business barons, partly by recruiting the poor to an electoral cause that gave the Congress party a massive parliamentary majority, shortly after it had broken from its moorings in tradition and Gandhian paternalism. The political advantage had shifted and new sources of finance had to be tapped, new networks of patronage created. Ground rules that had guided earlier generations of politicians were proving irksome and had to be altered if not jettisoned entirely.

The targeting of “corruption” as an abstract evil without any real form – begins from around this time. Unlike the fabled monsters of Indian mythology that embody all evil, but have a form that can be seen and felt – and can hence be vanquished in physical combat -- “corruption” was seemingly an ailment of the spirit. It was something to be dealt with not through institutional reform and the widening of participatory politics, but by the moral force of a few good men who could move multitudes.

At the vanguard of this campaign against “corruption”, was Jayaprakash Narayan (“JP”), a man who renounced the possibility of high political office to be with the people, to be the voice of conscience and rectitude when the Indian State was straying dangerously from its democratic commitments in Kashmir and the North-East. It was a time of deepening economic strife and people rallied to his banner in large numbers. Yet his movement lacked the ideological cohesion and organisational strength to withstand a harshly repressive State response. And despite regrouping and securing a historic electoral mandate, the forces that JP marshalled proved unequal to the task of wide-ranging political reforms.

Anybody with an inkling of the historical background would see that Hazare’s programme is potentially a great deal more vulnerable than JP’s. And yet, though clearly dwarfed by JP, Hazare and the close allies he has gathered, believe that they have achieved a major triumph, when the process has really just begun.

Hazare cannot obviously be dismissed as an ephemeral phenomenon that will vanish just as swiftly as it has appeared. Note must be made though, of the discord that has arisen soon after Hazare’s fast was declared a resounding success and a moment of awakening for the nation, over his praise of Narendra Modi, a particularly divisive figure. Hazare’s appreciation of Modi it turns out, was premised on a very narrow parameter: that as chief minister of Gujarat, he had successfully implemented rural development policies.

Few among his flock seemed to notice, but this endorsement of a divisive political figure, even if limited, represented a dramatic constriction in the vision of a man who had just a few days before, been determined to take on the multi-headed monster called “corruption”. “Corruption” could be construed as a narrowly defined set of offences that involve money transactions. On a wider scale, “corruption” could be understood as a small sub-theme on a larger failure of the Indian State, to live by its republican commitment to ensure the fundamental rights of all citizens. Corruption is about disparities of power and the subversion of formal laws that promise equality and opportunity, by entrenched relations of privilege and inequality.

Since being represented as the focus of patriotic loyalty in the early years of Indian freedom, the “State” was in quick time transformed in elite perception to being the fount of all iniquity. As global winds of neo-liberalism blew across Indian shores, the “State” began to recast its role in minimalist terms, to see itself as an agency that was most useful when it intruded least into the lives of ordinary people. Exceptions would be granted for people so needy that they had to be sustained through subsidies and other measures of support granted by the State. But in general terms, that government was deemed best which kept its discretionary authority within strictly defined limits.

As the State went into retreat with the neo-liberal reforms of 1991, the opportunities for elite aggrandisement multiplied. The daily “news” agenda, once about affirming loyalty to the political leadership, was transformed rapidly into a celebration of individual achievement, of the acquisitive instinct and the growth of personal wealth. The other side of this story, of rising inequality and of the numerous excluded sections seeking to assert their right to a share in political power through the electoral process featured in the “news” agenda as a sidelight, an interesting curiosity.

2004 was in some manner, a year of awakening, when the political consequences of living in a bubble of self-delusion became rudely apparent. In the years that followed, the battle against poverty was restored to the political agenda and accorded a priority not seen since the transient euphoria of the “Garibi Hatao” days. But as a process, the economic empowerment of the poor has not been free of friction. There is little discord over the need to frontally address poverty – this is indeed regarded by most political formations as a self-evident virtue. It is quite another question though, if the economic substratum that has been built and consolidated through the years of neo-liberalism, can support the ambitions of a direct attack on poverty.

If the first years of the millennium were a period of rising ambitions for the great Indian middle class, the years since 2008 perhaps mark the transition to an age of anxiety. The celebration of wealth and individual achievement continues to dominate the news agenda, but there is an uneasy awareness that inflation is already out of control and could soon be rampant. To retain its position in the hierarchy of income and wealth, the great Indian middle class could soon be required to accelerate the pace of its acquisitiveness – to run faster on the treadmill of economic competition to merely remain where it is. It is evidently a self-defeating exercise and this growing awareness is unleashing a mode of political behaviour marked by deep anxiety and seemingly irrational rage. It is a mood in which ordinary and modest individuals seeking to make a statement of conscience, could suddenly be invested with messianic qualities. And symbols of belonging become more important than the substance.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Hazare’s hunger fast was the manner in which it completely captured the news agenda. Unlike Irom Sharmila, the Manipuri woman who completed ten years on hunger fast some months back and is being force-fed in an Imphal hospital because the State simply will not countenance the popular demand of dismantling the ensemble of repressive laws in force, Hazare’s was a cause that the media proved eager to adopt. For the “fourth estate” today, the news agenda is driven not by loyalty to the political leadership, but a deep disdain for all the processes and institutions of representative democracy. In this respect, it has tapped into the mood of a brewing revolt by the elite, which sees its material security and privileges threatened by economic uncertainties and is impatient with a political system that is much too messy, noisy and disorderly.

The most striking visual representation of Anna Hazare’s “movement” – as it has been christened by the media -- was a portrait of Bharat Mata in the vivid hues of modern calendar art, holding the national tricolour securely in a left-handed grasp while the other hand bestowed a silent benediction on all who had turned up to bear witness to his act of conscience. Under this dominant motif were the subsidiary images of Mahatma Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and other martyrs in the cause of the nation’s freedom.

These are images that normally pass without comment since they are all considered integral to the canon of belonging. All Bharat Mata’s children belong and have a rightful place under her benign gaze. That place is accorded to each individual on merit, on virtue and on his commitment to the abiding values of the “nation” as the nurturing mother. It is a process in which the elite discourse as represented through the media, has a determinant role. “Politics” which dredges up the worst and puts them in positions of authority, is where all iniquity originates. And no institution constituted through politics can be trusted with the public good, free of the oversight of a body established on foundations of virtue. That is the paradoxical and self-defeating message of Hazare’s movement. And as defeat becomes an imminent reality, those who have invested their emotional fervour and intensity in the “movement” could react in ways that cannot yet be predicted.