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Rarely has India faced Republic Day in as somber a mood

January 24, 2013 19:34 IST

The general disaffection of the masses arises from a widely shared perception that those in power have stopped listening to them, says Shreekant Sambrani.

India has rarely faced the anniversary of its becoming a Republic in as sombre a mood as it does this year. Many reasons cause this despondency.

The year just past began with the sheen from the supposed glory of the Indian economy fading. The process rapidly accelerated through the year. Now the reality of the Masters of the Economy being utterly incapable of dealing with the gnawing cancer of inflation with anything other than misleading doublespeak completely eclipses any cheer.

The serial unfolding of scandals, even if they were exaggerated, added venality and indifference to the already poisonous brew. And the country became deeply traumatised by a single event at the end of the year, where the victim remains an unnamed member of an amorphous population and the perpetrators of the atrocity equally faceless creatures of no devilish origin.

A spontaneous outpouring of grief at the unspeakable plight of the hapless young woman morphed in no time at all into an all-encompassing sense of outrage.

Yet it would be incorrect to interpret the anguish of the last year merely as cries for greater economic probity or safety of women, or any other vulnerable group. It is also not merely about various degrees of insensitivity on display by numerous persons or groups.

The collective angst would still remain even if some magic began to bring the perpetrators of economic and social wrongdoings to book and to make the environment safer for all women and minorities. Nor would our discomfort diminish significantly if we all learnt to think before we talk.

For want of a better term, I call the malaise that pervades across India anti-politics. That might sound strange, because politics dominated the last year like it seldom has in the recent past.

The Gujarat election was covered and its results analysed over and over as if it decided the fate of the whole country. Earlier in the year, the election in Uttar Pradesh and its consequences for the central government similarly engaged our collective attention.

Nonetheless, today every national party elicits loathing from a significant portion of the population -- as do regional outfits, even within their own bailiwicks. No politician attracts anything remotely close to admiration, not even Narendra Modi, our favourite demagogue.

Political will is a hollow term devoid of any meaning. What is one to make of the remark of the newly-anointed heir to the country's largest and oldest party that power is poison? That is sheer hypocrisy because there can be no politics without power. It also presumes that people are idiotic enough not to see through this.

Only sycophants of the most grovelling kind will see an Obama parallel in Rahul Gandhi's call for total change when his own party has been in power for close to nine years.

Under these conditions, when there is no dialogue, or any respect for the electorate among those who claim to represent it, democracy is reduced to a periodic exercise of punching buttons in voting machines with no expectations. Any outfit which even remotely seems to address issues that bother people gets instant attention, no matter how ragtag it is or if it is an outfit at all.

That explains why people with no belief in democracy or politics -- read Team Anna, past, present and future and its offspring, legitimate or otherwise -- command not just media attention, but also strike a popular chord. That should also explain why Aamir Khan's staged tears got a huge response.

It might sound heartless to say that the protests about the tragic gang-rape victim are devoid of political significance, but that is nevertheless symptomatic of anti-politics. The revulsion of all matters political is now so strong that it takes no time at all after the commission of such heinous offence for the outrage to manifest itself almost as a mass movement.

We have been here before. Toward the end of 1973, students in the L D Engineering College hostels in Ahmedabad were outraged by rising mess bills, which they blamed on the nexus between the new state government of Chimanbhai Patel and traders.

Demonstrators gathered in their tens of thousands in the cities and towns in the cold nights in January 1974. They were mostly young, educated and seemingly without leaders, which appeared to bother them not at all. They defied the night curfews without fear.

They had but one demand: The state government must go. They carried the defaced pictures of the chief minister and hurled abuse at him, which, of course he did not hear, ensconced almost hermitically away from the crowds.

This became the Nav Nirman agitation.

It succeeded in not just booting out the government, but also led to the Jayaprakash Narayan movement, the Emergency of 1975 and its aftermath, the electoral defeat of the Congress and its leader Indira Gandhi in 1977. The irony was that what started as an apolitical movement fighting a perceived injustice quickly got co-opted into the political mainstream.

The main student leader of Gujarat, Manishi Jani, eventually drifted to the Congress. Many others were parts of the anti-reservation agitations of the early 1980s. At the national level, many student activists of that period -- Arun Jaitley, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Sharad Yadav, among others -- have gone on to national leadership positions.

This has both positive and negative connotations. The good arises from the formalisation of a dialogue and channelling of the energy and anger of youth into a political process.

Unfortunately, this assimilation also signifies that the sense of injustice and outrage that spawned such young leadership in the first place has been pacified with the fishes and loaves of office.

If the seductive charm of the political establishment is undesirable because it corrupts any potential for change, so is the nihilistic 'down-with-all-politics' cry for instant justice of the kangaroo-court variety. That negates all political processes, good and bad, and sows the seeds of anarchy or fascism.

The general disaffection of the masses arises from a widely shared perception that those in power have stopped listening to them and are content to pursue solely their own interests. Even small incidents are enough to convince people that their understanding is valid.

The Internet, mobile phones and social networks may have helped spread the word instantly in Tunisia and Egypt, but in the Gujarat of 1975 and the North India of 1977, even the print media did not reach most people or were muzzled (the electronic media were still two decades away).

Just the word of mouth sufficed and spread quickly. Every story of greed of the leaders or excesses of the Emergency found ready acceptance without any documented proof or oratorical brilliance.

The leaderless, inchoate anti-political anger could succeed in bringing down the ancien regime, as it did in post-Tahrir Square Egypt or post-Emergency India. But can we honestly say that what followed was necessarily a change for the better? That is the question we need to mull as we get into yet another ritualistic incantation of our glorious Republic.

Dr Shreekant Sambrani taught at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad and was the first director of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand.

Shreekant Sambrani