City City Bang Bang, Columns

Shamed into Changing?

Sometimes, things have to get truly terrible in order for them to get better. Sometimes it is only when things touch rock bottom or when some event or incident takes things so far that we are all compelled to re-evaluate our positions and commit ourselves to sweeping change. It would appear, for instance, that Britain is going through that process of frank self-examination in the wake of the News of the World hacking scandal. It is noteworthy that in spite of this issue being out in the public domain for several years, it is only revelations that the conversations of the victims of a bombing attacked were hacked, that murmuring disapproval turned into a flood of revulsion; across the political spectrum, politicians came together to address this deep-rooted malaise, of which they had all been significant parts. The manner in which the subject is being debated, investigated and reported upon is an inspiring lesson for democracy, which seems to have arrived very late on the scene but now that is present, is doing its very best.

If we turn our attention to India, it would be fair to say that we are had more than our fair share of these rock-bottom moments, where by all accounts we should have been shamed into action. We could have been shocked into tolerance after the riots of 1984 & 2002, our politicians appalled enough to clean up their act after the cash-for-votes scandal, our police force compelled to act after cases like those involving Aarushi Talwar and Ruchika Girhotra, our terrorist apparatus completely overhauled after the Mumbai 26/11 attacks, the administration of sports bodies radically reconfigured after the CWG fiasco- the list is a long and illustrious one. In each of these instances, we reached what seemed like a point of no return, where outrage could not climb to a higher register, where the venality of the system was so nakedly exposed that words could add nothing to the spectacle. And yet, after each of these episodes, we have managed to return to status-quo, having fended off any real change and have gone back to waiting for the next episode in this serial-without-a-resolution-or-ending.

Take the recent case of Yeddyurappa who resigned after being indicted by the Lokayukta on grounds of corruption. Put more accurately, he has been prised out of power with an air of resigned pragmatism by the BJP leadership. He has been replaced, through democratic means, one must add, by someone who is for now at least a devoted follower. The episode throws up interesting insights into the nature of the Indian political process. What is perhaps significant about the change brought about in Karnataka is the total absence of any real contrition on part of the politicians or the party. Yeddyurappa had to go, largely because it would be difficult for the BJP to attack the Congress on the issue of corruption rather than on account of any real moral considerations. The fact that he clung on to power rather ferociously, that he received support from the majority of his legislators and that he eventually succeeded in getting his candidate selected to replace him through democratic means suggest that the system does not think that it is broken. And this is a problem that is by no means that is restricted to a single party; real change is a stranger across all political parties in India. But a deeper level, what is under challenge here is the idea that politics has a moral content, that it is based on any ideals at all.

What we have is a situation where the political system has lost what is perhaps the most important ingredient of successful democracies- the honesty of intention that drives change, and that finds a way among overwhelming odds to find a way forward into a world that is better. In the absence of this driving and guiding intention, the democratic process becomes very much like the market mechanism, which is founded on the principle of the every constituent aiming to maximize its own personal gain. Politicians contest elections to win power which is deployed towards building personal influence and fortune, which in turn requires them to co-opt business by granting them discretionary favours for a consideration. The media squawks in ratings-drenched outrage, intent on finding a plausible candidate for putting on public trial. The bureaucracy and the police become the personal instruments of the politicians and the voters have no choice outside the existing and deeply compromised field of political parties. The system develops a self-reinforcing ability, and perpetuates itself by attempting to co-opt independent pillars like the media and the bureaucracy. Attempts to fight this by zealous acts of activism by media, judiciary or civil society get dismantled either through their own tendency to overreach or by their becoming subject to unsparing and often devious scrutiny, something that we have observed in Anna Hazare’s crusade against corruption. As a result, scams and scandals, however repellent they might be, produce spurts of spurious or impotent outrage, but do not translate into producing any real or lasting change.

Of course, there is another way to read what is happening. Perhaps the Indian model of change is a different one from the British one. Instead of expecting big sweeping systemic changes, it is possible that change takes place in India in a stealthy way, by little acts that are part accident and part subversion. The RTI act for instance, has created some change as has the change of guard in the Supreme Court and the CAG’s office. Nitish Kumar has shown us that mature change, one that reconciles governance with political wisdom, is possible. Perhaps our expectation that change will come into India with the suddenness of a revolution and the neatness of an overhaul is flawed. Perhaps the picture is clearing gradually as the pixels of transparency and good governance are ever so gradually replacing those that are clouded with venality. We do not see the change because of it is entwined with the unchanging, and do not grasp the slow uncoiling of the fresh from the diseased. Perhaps this is how change always comes to India, not as a victor but as a refugee.