The hunger strike is becoming the dish of choice in India’s political market. And therein lies a bitter pill about truth and falsehood in the world’s largest democracy and one of the fastest growing economies.
This is why India’s UPA coalition government led by Congress – the 126-year-old party of Indian independence – is engaged in an ill-tempered war of words with various fasting gurus and latter-day Gandhians who claim, with some justification, that “people power” is with them, not with the democratically elected government. Within that paradox lies an enigma wrapped in a 21st century Indian mystery. It might be called unrepresentative, unresponsive democratic leadership.
It has resulted in three months of high-stakes drama centred around two hunger strikes in the heart of Delhi. It has been said, correctly, that there is no greater symbol of coercive non-violent protest in India than a fast. But as Dr BR Ambedkar, the father of India’s constitution, warned: recourse to such methods means opening up democracy to the “grammar of anarchy”.
No one is sure what will happen next but this government’s contract with the people appears to be fraying; it seems increasingly probable that Congress will be voted out of office in the next general election, which is three years away. That would be only its fourth defeat in 64 years.
The Congress Party’s loss could be a gain for the politics of protest, which would genuinely reinforce democracy. Borne on the breath of recent protest songs and mantras is the faint echo of a truth, namely that successive governments cannot expect business (and corruption) as usual.
How did this come to pass? After two hunger strikes, there is still a sparring match between anti-corruption activists and a government that seems to play the somewhat seedy role of a brawler. On Sunday, Baba Ramdev, a yoga teacher with immense influence and an enormously wealthy “wellness” empire, ended his nine-day hunger strike. But before he did, he had unveiled a powerful and assertive support base – “Middle India”, the newly-risen bourgeoisie, which is variously estimated at between 100 million and 400 million people and is central to the India growth story.
Baba Ramdev’s made-for-TV antics in the capital and the government’s bumbling response – negotiation followed by police action – laid bare an unsuspected truth. The guru’s sprawling, electorally significant constituency is angry and intensely hungry for a less corrupt, better governed system. More to the point, it seeks political engagement after decades of quietly casting ballots.
And it has been only two months since Anna Hazare, a 73-year-old activist, brought Delhi to a standstill with a 96-hour hunger strike against corruption. The westernised upper strata of Middle India has embraced Mr Hazare’s campaign to establish a powerful ombudsman to check corruption, fancifully describing it as “our Tahrir Square moment”. Hyperbole aside, India’s elite showed a willingness to join the fray, if only from a safe distance.
It goes without saying that both Baba Ramdev and Mr Hazare’s supporters habitually bribe officials in order to navigate the system in which they have lost faith. Even so, two hunger strikes by two very different men with very different constituencies have united an increasingly fragmented India against the government of the day, and in favour of virtue in public life.
So what happens next? With a general election still far away, both the government and activists are truculent about their rights. The government says it was elected to speak for the people and that “unelected and unelectable” civil society activists cannot hold it to ransom by coercive methods like hunger strikes. Activists accuse leaders of arrogance and remind them of the famous exhortation of the reformist US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter: “In a democracy, the highest office is the office of the citizen.”
Now there is a stalemate of sorts while Mr Hazare and his activists meet with government ministers to draft legislation that would set up the Jan Lokpal, or people’s ombudsman. Meanwhile, Baba Ramdev threatens: “Two ways of changing a system … enter politics directly [or] create such an enormous groundswell of pressure from the public that the political class is forced to act responsibly.”
There is no sign as yet that political leaders have been “forced” to act in any such way. But it is obvious, as a popular quote that is making the rounds observes, that the government has abdicated responsibility, allowing “a bunch of oddballs and fetishists, masquerading as the new Gandhis” to lead “a media-driven anti-graft movement”.
The real danger of an impasse between the government and its constituency is the subversion of honest democracy. One of the more crackpot suggestions by Mr Hazare’s activists, for example, is that Nobel laureates of Indian origin and Ramon Magsaysay Award winners help pick the “Great Ombudsman” of India. Another is the demand that the Jan Lokpal law comes into force by Independence Day, August 15, which scores symbolic points but is both dictatorial and arbitrary if it forces parliament to serve as a rubber stamp.
Finally, of course, India’s ongoing argument with itself swings between an incontrovertible truth and one warty, unmoving falsehood. It is true that there is a yearning for graft-free governance, but it is misleading to believe that reforming the state will achieve this alone. Hunger strikes are not an alternative to the difficult and often dangerous job of rooting out corruption. There are no short cuts to a more virtuous India.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is the former editor of the Sunday Times of India