It is the penultimate day of Parliament’s budget session. Late in the afternoon, a minister rises in the Rajya Sabha to present a revised version of the lok pal bill. He makes a short speech explaining the salient features of the proffered revisions, and sits down. A first-time private member, not formally belonging to the ruling United Progressive Alliance, immediately stands up and proposes that the revised bill, be sent to a select committee of the house. This is quite irregular, since, according to rules, only the minister sponsoring a bill must move a resolution to refer it to a select committee. There is no way for the government to pretend it does not know the rules; if it does not, it has no business to stay in office. Obviously the government does not want to bear the opprobrium of further delaying the passage of a lok pal legislation, which has been for consideration on and off for more than four decades.
It therefore tries to pull a fast one on Parliament and the nation, by enticing a new member, not yet conversant of the rules, to be its gracious accomplice in subterfuge. An alert Opposition catches the government in the act; the prime minister sits on the front treasury bench in stony silence like a drugged Buddha even as one Opposition member after another lambasts his government in the harshest terms for the foolish manoeuvre it had attempted. Finally the minister who had presented the revised bill admits his lapse and moves the resolution to refer it to a selection committee, and the curtain is drawn on the episode. It, however, leaves an extremely bad taste in the mouth.
On to another curious happening. A run-of-the-mill politician, who was once Speaker of the Lok Sabha, dearly wants to be next president of the republic. He is crisscrossing the country trying to convince everybody what a first-rate commodity he is, there is nothing better going round in the market, why don’t you kindly take a look at his curriculum vitae, and come over to his camp, you will not be disappointed. His words and demeanour betray the attributes of a dealer in second-hand motorcars. So what, he is, reports say, a weighty enough candidate in the presidential race and in the shortlist prepared by one of the major national parties. He may not finally make it, yet, the very fact that he is being seriously taken by those who matter should send a shiver down the spine: less than half a century ago, Zakir Hussein, no less, was the nation’s president.
Oldsters will perhaps still feel a deep stirring inside remembering the lyrical proceedings broadcast by All India Radio at midnight of August 14-15, 1947, and Jawaharlal Nehru’s incantation that while the rest of the world slept, India was embarking on her historic rendezvous with destiny. Nehru was, for sure, a man of limited imagination. It would have never occurred to him that that destiny was the glitzy, scam-ridden Indian Premier League.
The IPL has denuded the lofty game of cricket of all its charm, grace and character. It is now a playground for archetypal Bollywood specimens on the look-out for tax havens for their fabulous earnings. The pot-pourri they present in the name of cricket is the lowest common denominator of assorted forms of crudity to waylay the sensibility of ordinary people: some bang-bang of bat against ball, some formula song and dance items à la the Mumbai filmdom and cheap drummed-up excitement building into a non-stop roar reminiscent of the frenzy of a bullfight venue. All this is cover for unabashed money-making-cum-money-laundering. Since this latter activity is the favoured pastimes of both politicians and tycoons, a grand cabal gets readily established, cricket is pushed to the furthest lower depths.
Now consider the absolutely unbelievable sight at the Eden Gardens in Calcutta in that recent dog-day summer afternoon during working hours. A team, with a perfunctory mention of Calcutta in its nomenclature and owned by a Bollywood celebrity, has won the final of the fifth edition of the IPL, the state government mobilizes all its resources to get hordes in their thousands out on the streets to give the team and its proprietor a raucous, chaos-scarred salute. The chief minister, the minions who are her ministers, the most shady lot of politicians are all there. Her one hand firmly clasping the hand of the club-owning film star and the other gripping the palm of the state’s governor, the chief minister proudly makes the outrageous pronouncement: this feat of winning the IPL trophy by the team owned by the Bollywood character was another of the major achievements of her regime. The governor — the president’s emissary despatched to ensure the maintenance of constitutional proprieties in the state — instantly chimes in: yes, this victory was indeed an instance of the transformation the chief minister had pledged a year ago to usher in.
Times are a-changing. The latent ‘snootiness’ in the above paragraphs, it could be commented, goes ill with the ethos of a true democracy. Why should we not have the attitudinal flexibility to take in our stride the phenomenon inexorably unfolding around us? The Indian republic is no longer the cakewalk of the elite, the hitherto dispossessed and social outcasts are gradually asserting themselves and, on account of free suffrage, have acquired the power to make and unmake governments. In the process, values are getting transformed, culture too is undergoing mutations, even the language of social discourse is acquiring a new hue.
To survive in this environment, which is also intensely competitive, there is often no alternative but to have recourse to skulduggery or subterfuge. The same goes for the government of the day. Come what may, it must stick to power. Politics, after all, is for the sake of power. There may therefore be nothing wrong if the incumbent regime, should the occasion arise, indulge in some cutting of corners. Similarly, it is perfectly right and proper for an aspirant for Rashtrapati Bhavan to circulate his bio-data and launch a vigorous public campaign in support of his candidature. Besides, do not people have the prerogative to assess carefully the quality of the merchandise they buy; why should it be any different when they are choosing the country’s president?
On the issue of the state chief minister organizing a hoopla and appropriating the dubious glory of the Kolkata Knight Riders’ IPL triumph, scoffers would again be advised to shed prejudices. With few things to lighten the gloom of their daily existence, the underclasses love to squeeze pleasure — never mind how vicarious — from such events as the KKR victory. True, such occurrences mean no diminution of their daily sufferings. Nonetheless, the chief minister, it would be claimed, did the right thing by organizing this show that offered them a kind of cathartic delight; they are grateful to her. An intensely political-minded chief minister would not bother about the accusation that she was being absurdly opportunistic by exploiting the KKR’s achievement as her own; people cheered her all right.
As for the state governor virtually choosing to don the role of a sycophant of a chief minister, the time has arrived, it might again be said, to have a fresh look at our baggage of received wisdom. Look at the current plight of the hoary concept of collective responsibility. One or two cabinet ministers are accused of committing grave felony, are arrested under orders of the nation’s highest judiciary, and, while release on interim bail, are still undergoing trial. The prime minister has as good as admitted that gross illegalities were perpetrated by ministers of his government, but he disowns any share of responsibility, those ministers belonged to a coalition partner, he had no control over them. The state governor might feel free to refer to such changing realities in the polity, the ancient concept of political non-partisanship is increasingly moribund: if the Centre puts up with every whim of this particular chief minister and even the secretary of state of the most powerful country in the world takes care to call on her, it is equally the bounden duty of the governor to turn into her loyal courtier.
The overarching argument for getting reconciled to the vulgarization of the polity is the supposedly irresistible march of the ‘subalterns’ towards capturing its commanding heights. From now on, the ideas of the underclasses are going to be the ruling ideas. It is in that context, the IPL and the T-20 cricket, for instance, have to be assessed. The poor and labouring classes have to work to make a living. They cannot afford to watch a lugubrious test encounter stretching over five lazy days. The three-and-a-half-hour T-20 is the great liberator. It has allowed cricket to reach the common people.
Really? Who profits from all the money the IPL bonanza spurts? Only film stars, tycoons and politicians; the poor have no part of it. Players, commentators, coaches, trainers, advisers and such other foreigners make a quick buck and disappear. A handful of Indian cricketers, already filthily rich, became even richer. One or two channels, who bag the telecast rights, make hay. The highly priced admission tickets are beyond the reach of the poorer classes. It is a good season, too, for tax experts, cost accountants and corporate lawyers who contribute to the fudging of accounts. Barely a few belonging to the underclasses own a colour television set. Some of them watch the T-20 encounters gathering round a paan shop that has installed a set. Their attention is riveted more on the skimpily dressed cheerleaders than on the game. It is only when it is time to organize a frenzy, they are called for.
Plebianization is as distant as it can be from any uprising of the proletariat. It is in fact intended to take them for a ride.