The mounting anger in Middle India over corruption has been deftly used by ‘civil society’ to rally support for Anna Hazare’s fast in support of the ‘Jan Lok Pal Bill’. No matter how flawed, the Bill provides an alternative vision and goes beyond rhetoric. This is what the main Opposition should have done, instead of leaving it to rights activists. Will the BJP now come up with an alternative policy agenda different from that of the Congress?
There is no other way to put this but bluntly. ‘Civil society’ activism has left the principal Opposition party — the BJP — red faced and smarting. In an embarrassment the demand by the Leader of the Opposition for an all-party meeting on Anna Hazare’s fast got the short shrift from the Government. With known baiters of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi from the legal community who also double up as rights activists being nominated to the Lok Pal Bill drafting committee, thanks to Anna Hazare’s fast, the irony of extending full support to the agitation was perhaps not lost on the leadership. With Karnataka Lokayukta Santosh Hegde not just attending a National Advisory Council Working Group meeting on April 4 but also getting nominated to the drafting committee, one is left befuddled on whether the BJP even has a clue on where the line between activism and constitutional offices blurs.
The anti-corruption crusade was without doubt a momentous development. Anna Hazare’s persona has inspired outrage and emotion in the urban middle class in a manner not seen in recent times. The paradox of this singularly unparalleled tumult of hope and outrage lies in the fact that those activists behind Anna Hazare have been anything but champions of middle class issues. With the Lok Pal Bill now being set to be drafted with inputs limited to the Government and ‘civil society’, one is led to the inescapable conclusion that the middle class has been co-opted by ‘civil society’ in its new avatar as the non-political opposition. To be sure the Bill needs to go through with the motions in Parliament but given the nature of commitment made by the Government to the ‘civil society’ groups, it is highly unlikely the political opposition will have the legroom to force significant amendments when the Bill comes up for debate in Parliament.
There is much that needs to be examined closely on both the manner in which this issue was thrust on the political class and in the substance of that which has been thrust on them. It is paradoxical that those advocating for an ombudsman independent of the three arms of Government — executive, legislature and judiciary — have no faith in those who have been put in office through elections while they simultaneously repose immense faith in those they desire to put in office without any kind of an election. They don’t trust the Government they elect or indirectly control yet they trust an ombudsman on sheer good faith while exercising no control — direct or indirect.
It is also paradoxical that they seek a credible platform to influence legislation yet they bypass the one platform that exists to make legislation — Parliament. From the Sonia Gandhi NAC variety Left-liberal NGOs to the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption NGOs, there is a bipartisan consensus on subordinating Parliament and elected lawmakers in the process of law-making. This highlights yet another attitude towards Government in that our faith in democracy doesn’t exactly extend to its mechanisms as sanctioned by the Constitution.
Lastly it is strange that those advocating for independence for an unelected ombudsman in the hope that he or she will be a faithful guardian of our interests also hold deep skepticism and stubborn resistance in granting the same independence to enterprise and local communities to be guardians of their own economic self-interest. They trust centralised decision-making in Delhi to safeguard their interests but cannot trust themselves to be the judge of their own economic choices.
But then what of the BJP that has ceded the moral high ground to ‘civil society’ groups which have succeeded in mobilising a vocal minority within the Indian middle class? What explains the failure of the BJP to speak for the middle class or to be identified as the voice of the middle class?
For much of the last two years since the 2009 Lok Sabha debacle this commentator among others has been calling upon the BJP to articulate an alternate narrative on what exactly it stands for. From the street protests on inflation last year to the Mahasangram rallies on corruption this year, a consistent critique of the BJP has been that while it has managed to stoke public anger with rhetoric, it has not advanced an alternate vision based on concrete policy proposals. Both the Budget Sessions of 2010 and 2011 had witnessed much demagoguery and legislative motions to embarrass the Government but failed to produce a concrete narrative from the BJP on how its stewardship of the economy would have been different.
The ‘India Against Corruption’ motley group of NGO activists has succeeded where the BJP has failed. Their championing of middle class anger and frustration over corruption did not stop with mere demagoguery and political rhetoric. It built on all of that public sentiment with a concrete proposal, howsoever flawed the ‘Jan Lok Pal Bill’ may be, to force the issue on the Government. The BJP’s belated attempt at getting behind that proposal notwithstanding, it is now largely redundant in its role as the principal Opposition in the deliberations to follow on that Bill.
This is not to say that ‘civil society’ groups will come to occupy the political space currently held by the BJP. The BJP continues to be a significant political player in specific States. But the cold reality is the BJP has lost the national narrative. The BJP is now merely a super regional party with a permanent Delhi-based leadership that can neither help it break new ground nor arrest the process of slow but terminal decline staring it. With too clever-by-half political calculations the BJP’s permanent Delhi-based leadership has timidly submitted itself to conventional wisdom that the role of the Opposition is to merely oppose the Government with rhetoric. This timidity has prevented it from taking sharp ideological positions on the UPA’s Left-liberal socio-economic agenda.
In a contest between the Congress and a BJP that is seen to be a B-team of the Congress on socio-economic issues, conventional wisdom of the 1990s no longer applies. The BJP’s leadership in Delhi may be non-dynastic and incorruptible but it no longer inspires a vision of being a credible alternative. The national narrative on corruption has been lost by them to ‘civil society’. On socio-economic issues and rights-based entitlements the Indian voter would rather vote for the original, the Congress, than a pale imitator in the BJP.
At a pivotal moment when the middle class angst in India needed political leadership the BJP failed to provide it. For a national revival in time for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP needs a renewed moral purpose. Its current avatar has long lost that moral purpose. It is time for a new avatar relevant to this day and age in line with Hindu tradition. The BJP must reinvent itself as both the political and ideological opposite of the Congress’s Left-liberalism with a concrete Centre-Right policy agenda that shows Middle India where its enlightened self-interest lies.