A new political configuration should be formed to appropriate the outcome of the recent mass awakening, rather than the BJP being allowed to exploit the mobilisation and consolidate its political base.

Let us make no mistake. What we witnessed over the last few weeks, hour after hour, under the blinding, incessant blitz of the electronic media was the triumph of a popular upsurge generated for a worthwhile public cause of great import. In recent years, exponentially growing corruption has assumed unacceptable levels. Enacting an effective Lokpal Bill will be a giant step forward. Hopefully, that will put the brakes on pervasive corruption. But that is not the end of the matter. More serious threats remain, and a new ominous one is emerging.

India's tryst with destiny started 64 years ago. Thanks to the overarching influence of Mahatma Gandhi, the wisdom and insight of the Founding Fathers, and the grand vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, we started well and the Republic prospered passably for some two decades. A necessary condition for the smooth and successful working of the Westminster style of parliamentary democracy that is incorporated in India's Constitution is the existence of two rival parties, or compatible coalitions, with well-defined ideologies, policies and programmes. Though this condition was never fulfilled in India, the Indian National Congress, by the nature of its composition and the manner of its functioning, remedied this defect to a large extent. The Congress practised a large measure of inner-party democracy. Policies and programmes were adopted after free debate. Usually, the conservative formation led by Sardar Patel and the progressive wing led by Nehru reached a consensus. After Independence, accepting the sage advice of Gandhi, the two rivals agreed to work together.

The Indian polity remained in reasonably good health for some 15 years. The decline was triggered by a sharp fall in Nehru's prestige after the debacle of the war with China and the emergence of a coterie of power brokers, collectively dubbed the Syndicate. Though Indira Gandhi started as a weak Prime Minister, in a short period of two years she trumped the Syndicate and emerged as the supreme leader. Then she proceeded to snuff out inner-party democracy, did away with periodic elections to party forums, identified and crushed powerful regional leaders and concentrated all power in her hands. The grand old party of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel became a plaything in the hands of Nehru's daughter. As a result of these ruinous developments the Indian National Congress could no longer perform its erstwhile role as the bulwark of Indian democracy.

Opportunistic coalitions

In the general elections held in 1967, the Congress lost power in most of the States and a medley of Opposition parties with conflicting ideologies and policies came to power. The only binding factors were a thirst for power and a quest for illegal gains. No Chief Minister could continue in office without succumbing to bullying by, in some instances, even small splinter groups. On one occasion in Bihar in the 1970s, one shaky Ministry could survive only by forcibly lodging a group of seven MLAs in a seedy hotel. Conditions were no better in the States where the Congress had a majority on its own, for the Chief Minister was often obliged to placate rival cliques to stay in power. These developments opened the floodgates of corruption.

The Congress remained in power without a break at the Centre until 1977. Indira Gandhi attained the zenith of her power after her brilliant success in the Bangladesh war. Unfortunately for her and the country, corruption became widespread, particularly in Bihar and Gujarat. Inept handling of the gathering storm finally led to the declaration of a state of internal Emergency. In the general elections held immediately after the lifting of the Emergency, the Congress was trounced, signifying the resilience of the Constitution. The Janata Party that won the election was a mixed bag of political parties with conflicting ideologies, and utterly lacking in cohesion. The grand alliance was put together by the charismatic Jayaprakash Narayan. The Janata government disintegrated after being in office for two years. Jayaprakash Narayan had played a splendid role in forging a grand alliance to put the Republic back on the rails. The attempt did not endure because the alliance partners had nothing in common except their opposition to the Congress. So, in the end, Jayaprakash Narayan's magnificent efforts culminated in a great tragedy.

The second United Progressive Alliance government is in a mess though it launched a few excellent initiatives, such as an expanded Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, a Right to Information Act, a Food Security Bill, and so on. However, it has a shabby record in dealing with pervasive corruption. WikiLeaks and the Radia tapes have brutally exposed the pathetic helplessness of the Prime Minister in dealing with erring colleagues. The root cause of the malaise is the nature of post-poll alliances of convenience which lack ideological cohesion and commitment to any well-defined policies and programmes. Anna Hazare's movement snowballed into a mass upsurge and generated unprecedented public anger against corruption.

Anna and his team of civil society representatives do not subscribe to any definite political ideology, nor do they have a firm political base. The only major political party backing Anna to the hilt is the Bharatiya Janata Party. Consider the alacrity with which the BJP president backed Anna with the slogan: “Anna is our leader, and we are behind him.” And now L.K. Advani, who perfected the art of the ratha yatra for mass mobilisation in favour of his communal agenda, has announced with unconcealed cynicism his intention to start a grand yatra against corruption. The BJP is poised to exploit the large-scale mobilisation of people to expand and consolidate its political base. If that effort succeeds, Karl Marx's prophetic words in the opening paragraph of his essay, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon' (1852) will become a reality. There, Marx wrote of how all great events and characters in world history occur twice… the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

In the history of Independent India, Jayaprakash Narayan was the tragedy and Anna presages to be the farce. All sensible citizens should join hands to avert this disaster.

Broad-based front needed

The remedy for the mortal peril confronting the Republic is a new political configuration based on compatible ideology and a package of relevant policies and programmes. The ideology should be unflinching adherence to the Constitution, particularly its basic structure that is founded on secularism and social justice. The bundle of policies should include a firm rejection of the harmful prescriptions of neo-liberalism and the reiteration of the proactive role of the state in promoting social welfare. The bedrock of the new front has to be a firm, principled alliance of a reformed Congress and the Left parties. Once that task is accomplished, all other like-minded people can join the alliance. To forge such an alliance, the Congress and the Left will have to bury the hatchet and do a great deal of soul-searching. They should both ignore minor irritants and concentrate on vital issues. The Congress will have to introduce effective inner-party democracy, discard the culture of sycophancy and get back to the Nehruvian vision of social justice and secularism. It should shun the baleful shibboleths of neo-liberalism while persisting with the salutary aspects of liberalisation. The Left will have to put an end to the unhealthy deviations of recent years that led to its discomfiture in West Bengal.

As of now, such a development seems unlikely. Will our political leaders have the courage and the wisdom to see the writing on the wall and rise to the occasion?

(The writer was an officer of the Indian Administrative Service and he held the positions of Chief Secretary, Bihar, and Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie. He can be reached at psappu@hotmail.com)

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