President Pratibha Patil might have meant well by using her Republic Day address to warn reformers not to shake the tree of state so hard in their drive to remove bad fruit that the tree itself is brought down but behind her arboreal metaphor lie contentious assumptions and unacceptable insinuations about the civil society movement against corruption. Nobody can disagree with the idea that India's democratic system must be safeguarded while introducing reforms in its political institutions such as a strong and effective Lokpal. Corruption in India, however, is much more than a case of some bad fruit. It is a deeply-entrenched, systemic problem that is corroding the nation, widening the gulf between ordinary citizens and those with access to power and privilege, and undermining the faith of people in democratic institutions. But if President Patil's metaphor was misplaced, so too was her analogy: equating the people's struggle for a strong anti-corruption institution with the bringing down of the entire edifice of democratic India. More than as a word of caution, her remarks seem intended to discredit the civil society movement against corruption. The easiest way to weaken a democratic movement for change is to suggest it is disruptive, inimical to long-term interests, and the cause of political instability. Through their choice of words, the drafters of Ms Patil's speech might have betrayed their intentions more clearly than they intended to.
Also, while calling for concord in dealing with matters of national importance, President Patil should have addressed her own government, and not the people of the country. It is the state that needs to accommodate the interests of different stakeholders on important issues by building political consensus and by being transparent in the way it functions. Actually, “negativity” and “rejection”, the states of mind President Patil warns the country against, are words that best describe the attitude and response-mechanism of the UPA government at the Centre. As such, introspection, and not words of advice and caution, would have suited the solemnity of the occasion better. As Ms Patil also pointed out, the country's foremost priority is to remove poverty, disease and illiteracy. The government will certainly have to do a lot more in achieving sustainable, socially equitable growth. For that, the country needs a strong popular movement that puts pressure on the administration. Of course, civil society movements too have an obligation to be open and transparent, rational and inclusive. But if the Indian Republic is to flourish and prosper, the tree the President spoke about cannot be left to the mercy of politicians alone.