Earlier this week, members of the Lok Sabha cutting across party lines were incensed by speeches made at Anna Hazare’s rally in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar last Sunday. If the angry interventions by the leader of the Opposition, Sushma Swaraj, the National Democratic Alliance convenor, Sharad Yadav, and the Congress backbencher, Sanjay Nirupam, were anything to go by, members of parliament felt they were being caricatured and vilified by over-sanctimonious representatives of ‘civil society’ who wanted to enjoy power sans responsibility. Moved by the anger of the elected representatives, the Lok Sabha carried a ‘sense of the House’ resolution censuring members of Team Anna who, it would seem, were also itching for a fight that would pit politicians against the anti-corruption crusaders.
The social media isn’t entirely an accurate representation of the true feelings of the Man from Matunga. In India, the barrier imposed by the English language has ensured that this new form of individual and collective expression remains, by and large, an instrument in the hands of the educated middle classes. Yet, despite its social limitations, it is noteworthy that the indignation of the MPs found almost zero support among the ‘twitterati’. Instead, the general disdain for politicians articulated by the likes of Arvind Kejriwal, a Team Anna member, was multiplied many times over in Twitter messages and Facebook postings.
It is always hazardous to draw profound sociological conclusions from this mismatch of perceptions. The improved turnout at the recently-concluded elections to five state assemblies would suggest that despite misgivings over the integrity of their elected representatives, the people of India are in no mood to jettison parliamentary democracy and take recourse to non-constitutional means to effect change. There is precious little in the political conduct of the Indian people that is likely to give encouragement to radical dissidents such as Arundhati Roy and armed Maoists who claim to speak for the people.
At the same time, there are reasons for those who have a stake in the future of India to be concerned about the creeping de-legitimization of the political system. Arguably, this is not a new phenomenon. The years following Indira Gandhi’s massive election victories in 1971 and 1972 saw a significant rise in middle-class unrest. The stir had its roots in both the failure of the Congress variety of socialism and the associated rise in corruption. The phenomenon was repeated in the period 1987-89 when Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘Mr Clean’ image was badly tarnished by the Bofors scandal and its attempted cover-up.
During both spells of breakdown in popular confidence in the elected government there was a perceptional difference between the classes and the masses. There was an Indian establishment that coupled its concern over political uncertainty with faith in the prime minister and the ruling party. Its stabilizing endeavours were, however, offset by the willingness of a large section of the middle classes to repose faith in either Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement or the Opposition grouping around Vishwanath Pratap Singh. In other words, every political crisis since the 1970s produced an alternative beacon of hope.
What should concern the custodians of national interest in India is not merely the state of rot in the Congress or evidence that a bunch of manipulative sharks has the ability to give a bad name to economic liberalization. Equally alarming is the mounting evidence that the mood of cynicism, bordering on arrogance, isn’t confined to the ruling party alone: it has both infected and debilitated the Opposition. The belief that things will get better if the present government is booted out and replaced by relatively untainted people is proving to be increasingly unrealistic.
What has made a world of difference is the termination of the Congress’s monopoly of political power. At one time, the Congress controlled the entire system and managed a network of patronage that began in the prime minister’s office and worked its way down to the lowest rung of democracy. The process incorporated the institutions of government both at the Centre and the states, the public sector and even a struggling private sector. To be a ‘fixer’ in the early 1970s, a person had to be well plugged into the Congress in its entirety and the bureaucracy. The Opposition parties did occasionally manage crumbs —mainly to offset their nuisance value — but it is no exaggeration to say that parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the various offshoots of Ram Manohar Lohia’s socialist movement operated on shoe-string budgets and were disproportionately dependent on modest contributions from members and sympathizers. It is also a fact that the non-Congress parties were far more conscious of the need to extract full mileage from every rupee spent on elections. By contrast, the Congress could always bank on an unending supply of funds.
The real test of integrity, a veteran politician once told me, is dependent on opportunities. “A man may be honest because he has had no opportunity to be dishonest. The real test is to see how he reacts in the face of temptation.”
Since 1991, Indian politics has witnessed three significant changes. First, the Congress’s monopoly over power at all levels is a thing of the past. Parties such as the BJP and regional parties are well entrenched and in command of the states. Second, the removal of the licence-permit-quota raj after 1991 devolved a great deal of economic decision-making to the states. Indeed, states now began competing among themselves to attract investments leading to a new regime of sops and incentives. Finally, the two decades of liberalization have produced areas of spectacularly high growth and patches of obscene prosperity. Although inequality and unemployment persist, there is more money floating about the country than at any time before. Mining and real estate in particular are witnessing a boom, and local politicians have been quick to exploit opportunities from the lease of mines and the conversion of land use.
One of the emerging features of India’s political economy is the connection between corruption and prosperity: the higher the growth rates the more rewarding is political life. The real cost of elections, in turn, is linked to the relative levels of prosperity. Elections in Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and the northeastern states are still relatively low-cost compared to the southern states (minus Kerala), Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and even Rajasthan. Among the high growth states, only Gujarat has been able to escape the insidious consequences of big money power — and that has to do with Narendra Modi converting assembly elections into a de facto referendum on himself.
The net effect of these larger economic shifts is that it has boosted competitive politics and created a level playing field for all the major parties. The group that is not in power at the Centre is not automatically disadvantaged by its inability to wield national power. Marginalization in Delhi is compensated for by wielding power in the states.
In psychological terms, the hunger to replace a decrepit regime at the Centre has waned in the Opposition ranks. The BJP, for example, is becoming less and less capable of popular mobilization for the simple reason that its survival no longer depends on winning power everywhere. As long as it can hold on to some important states, its leaders are content.
In today’s India, corruption has become more evenly spread among political parties. This may explain why there is a political consensus against those in civil society who want to disrupt the cosy, new normal.