Monday, June 20, 2011

IA in the News: Collective madness

frontline (India): Collective madness
BHASKAR GHOSE
How does a democratically elected government change overnight and dance to the whims of some people designated by the media as “civil society”?

THERE is a fascinating short story by the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov ["Nightfall"]about a world almost exactly like ours where a cult generally considered zany believes that all people in the world will go mad on a particular date and time and warns its followers to take shelter in caves at that time. Most people are initially amused by this, but some astronomers discover that the imaginary planet with two suns will experience a solar eclipse when one of them, which is always shining, ensuring perpetual daylight, will be covered by the other. Since darkness is not a concept they know – such eclipses occurring in that imaginary planetary system only once in 1,000 years – they do not know what to make of it.

Then, of course, the eclipse begins. As the light, considered for generations to be a perpetual part of life, begins to dim, madness afflicts most people. They are terrified and driven to insanity by the inexorable spreading of darkness. Only those sheltering in special chambers built and provided with artificial light remain normal, while ravening insane crowds set fire to and destroy everything outside. Eventually they destroy themselves, before the eclipse passes and light shines on the planet again.

Recent events in the country remind one irresistibly of Asimov's story. Just how does a democratically elected government, with a fairly stable majority in Parliament, change virtually overnight and dance to the whims and directives of some people designated by the media by that now nauseating term “civil society”? What darkness has descended on them to make them lose their senses and caper about promising all manner of things to anyone who demands it? First, it was social activist Anna Hazare, a good man by all accounts, who seemed to have allowed the glare of publicity go to his head and who then, judging by his statements thereafter, began to fancy himself as a kind of great leader of the nation, a mirror of all that was good in it.

And the government, from the Prime Minister down, virtually stood on its collective head eagerly to agree to sit with him and his cohorts and discuss the nature of a law, which under the Constitution only the elected government can draw up (after, of course, consulting anyone they choose to but not under duress) and Parliament can pass. Or not pass.

Then, it was the turn of Baba Ramdev, who clearly wanted his share of the publicity that the press and television was giving Anna Hazare and declared that he would fast until a whole list of demands he produced were met. And again, the government started doing handstands to placate him. Union Ministers rushed to the airport to meet him, spent hours and hours discussing God knows what with him, then rushed to the Prime Minister to brief him, rushed back to Baba Ramdev and displayed, once again, the collective madness that an ensuing Asimov-like darkness seemed to be enveloping them.

It is really the behaviour of the government that is utterly inexplicable. Where exactly is the fire? Why the frantic to-ing and fro-ing? What battle of Kurukshetra was it trying to avoid? One asks these questions because this is not a government of shreds and patches; it has, as we have pointed out, a fairly stable majority in Parliament, duly elected by the people of India. Democracy is on the government's side, not on the side of the Anna Hazares and Baba Ramdevs of the country.

The answer seems to lie in the nature of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). You simply cannot have the centre of political power in one place and the government in another. Besides, the nature of the centre of political power is a curious one. It consists of a royal family, one of whose scions goes to “the masses” from time to time, swooping down from the skies like gods in their private jets and helicopters, swiftly meeting some bemused village folk, sitting with familiarity and eating with them, and then taking to the skies again.

The trouble is that this formula worked in the general elections in 2009, but most probably only because of the blunders and lack of credibility of the Congress' opponents. But then, there it was. An elected government where the power was in the helicopter elite – a government run by a one-time bureaucrat who had to be brought in through the Rajya Sabha by the diktat of that elite. A formula which has proved disastrous. The elite power group functions through a set of advisers whose incompetence appears to be considerable, and the government is running before the wind, being capable of nothing else.

Union Ministers such as Kapil Sibal and Subodh Kant Sahay are not really leaders even though they may have won elections. Nobody in the country would know who they were if the media did not prop them up and their offices did not surround them with pomp and circumstance. Which is why they are so easily frightened by the likes of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev. And the Prime Minister is a gentleman who cannot really lead; he can formulate policies, as he did when he was Finance Minister, but he needed the solid support of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to get his policies accepted. He can take orders from the helicopter elite and then try to have them implemented. But the Prime Minister's Office does not command the kind of awe and respect it had when, say, Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister.

What the members of this curious entity called the UPA have apparently forgotten is that they still have the power; they are the elected representatives of the people, and this is a democracy where it is the vote which counts, not ‘fasts unto death' before batteries of television cameras.

If Anna Hazare or Baba Ramdev had to confront Mamata Banerjee, who would have said “I will take these issues to the people” and then did just that, both would have faded away like wisps of smoke. Not because the lady ruling West Bengal has some magical powers, but because she has an unshakeable belief in democracy, and she knows just how to take an issue to the people. Not by descending on them from the skies and then returning to an air-conditioned paradise, but by being a part of them in a real and abiding sense.

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