The disinherited

An unintended consequence of the Ayodhya movement was that it improved middle-class India’s knowledge of German history. For a decade, intellectuals horrified by the phenomenal Hindu mobilisation for a Ram temple in Ayodhya drew analogies with the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s.

The demolition of December 1992 was equated with the Reichstag fire of 1933, the communal riots which erupted were compared to the infamous Kristallnacht of 1938 and the kar sevaks were viewed with the same degree of horror that the world reserved for Hitler’s storm troopers.
The second round of Anna Hazare’s movement that grew out of his fast in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan has witnessed an intellectual celebration of parliamentary democracy. An institution that had been tarnished in the public imagination for the quality of its members, the scenes of raucous disruption and the indifference to serious debate, has suddenly emerged as the cornerstone of Indian democracy. Abstruse parliamentary procedures, unfamiliar to most Indians, have also been painted as sacrosanct by MPs cutting across party lines. The sobriety of a select committee of Parliament has been juxtaposed against the emotional anarchy of an unthinking rabble. Like 18th century England, responsible politics has been posited against a mob that is potentially riotous.
Like most intellectual exercises, both analogies are flawed and based on hideous caricatures. The spectacular groundswell of support for a 74-year-old Gandhian with a genial disposition
wasn’t born out of a perverse determination to put an end to democracy and replace it with an oligarchy of the great and good. The mobilisation of people around a dhoti-clad icon in a Gandhi topi wasn’t effected by the army of “subcontractors” who helped popularise the message of the Mahatma in the 1920s. “Team Anna” was a catchy media construction and accorded a disproportionate importance to a clutch of individuals whose motivations were not always altruistic. But people didn’t flock to Ramlila Maidan, Azad Maidan and the umpteen demonstrations and vigils all over the country because they were followers of Prashant Bhushan, Santosh Hegde and Kiran Bedi. They responded to Anna out of a profound sense of exasperation with a system which, while democratic, was also venal.
The Anna movement was never a revolutionary movement; its orientation was always reformist. It was a movement that was not born out of careful pre-meditation by US-funded think tanks; it was astonishingly spontaneous and a product of the post-1991 process of liberalisation.
For many intellectuals, usually of a radical disposition, the term middle class has both pejorative and sinister connotations. It is automatically assumed that middle-class India carries a baggage of selfishness, prejudice and detachment. Just as Rudyard Kipling and Lord Curzon often contrasted the chattering babus speaking comic English to the rugged earthiness of the “real India”, there is an inclination to view the tricolour-waving Indians shouting Vande Mataram as the pampered children of an India that doesn’t really know the meaning of deprivation. If the 18th century London mob, immortalised in the sketches of William Hogarth, were gin-drinking ruffians, the lot that turned up on their motorbikes to cheer Anna were people with a lot to lose. They had a stake in India but very little stake in political India.
This alienation from politics is understandable. For the past seven years, a facile media has been enthusiastically tracking the emergence of the Gandhi “youth icon”. But regardless of the good work Rahul Gandhi may have done in building the long-term foundations of a new Congress Party, the public manifestation of change has been remarkably feudal. The proverbial brat pack of the ruling party is made up of sons and daughters of politicians and maharajas. A big, all-India dynasty has helped to prop up a new political aristocracy in the provinces and localities. Congress politics has given the impression of being a closed shop run by people with a fierce sense of entitlement. For them, the plethora of inefficiently managed anti-poverty programmes is noblesse oblige.
Ideally, the feudal distortions of the Congress should have provided an opening to the BJP to emerge as an authentic representative of a mushrooming middle class that is hungry for opportunities. The BJP, unfortunately for it, has been unable to gauge that its vision of nationalism is regarded as being too restrictive and fuddy-duddy. Narendra Modi may be the exception but he has to overcome the demonology built around him.
The chants of “Vande Mataram” and “Bharat Mata ki jai” in Anna’s rallies may provide evidence of the middle class’ incipient fascist proclivities to the paranoid, liberal intellectual. But these people are as detached from the BJP as they are from the Congress. An overdose of regimented ideology
doesn’t appeal to a generation that attaches priority to personal opportunities.
To this generation, intensely proud of an Indian-ness that transcends caste and religion (but not region), corruption is a drag on India and a restrictive practice that they would rather not accept as karma. The Anna movement, quite unwittingly and, perhaps, to its own consternation, has tapped a reservoir of entrepreneurial energy which is not finding a suitable political outlet.
In the eyes of the blinkered, the attack is on parliamentary democracy — a term that remains an abstraction to many of those inspired by Anna. Viewed from another angle, the Anna movement could also be an assault on the residual sludge of the licence-permit-quota raj.

Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist

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