Friday, August 26, 2011

Alpha Male To Omega Limp

From Byword- India Today (August 26)

Mistakes are not the exclusive preserve of government. It is only fair that opposition contributes its share, even if it is only a trickle versus a flood. Enthusiasm clearly got the better of common sense in the eminently sensible Kiran Bedi, a ranking confidante of Anna Hazare, when she called Anna India, which is preposterous, and India Anna, which is pretentious. I could almost visualise the simple, but not naive, Anna Hazare cringe at the echo, for Indira Gandhi's sycophants equated her with the nation in order to justify the imposition of dictatorship in 1975. Power is a beguiling intoxicant; when a peg hits the head, it tends to encourage notions of divinity. The management of power, whether through the sinews of office or the roar of a crowd, is a test of balance on a tightrope across a fall.
An opposition's mistakes, however, are never as expensive as a government's. Kiran Bedi's blip is already forgotten. The mistakes of Congress are embedded in public memory. There they will lurk, awaiting an election. Kiran Bedi lives among the people. The ministers of Manmohan Singh's government, prime downwards, are imprisoned in high-security bungalows and cars, their sanitised routes cleared of popular presence. Even if our rulers noticed them, they would barely recognise the emotions of young men careering through Delhi's streets on motorcycles, wearing the Gandhi cap as a martyr's band, a tricolor flying overhead. The young are claiming back their country from the political class- from the whole of it, not just a part of it. Even those political parties who will benefit from this spreading anger would do well to factor in caution into their plans.

The young have mobilised to question the obduracy of a government that proclaimed victory when, with a sneer and a giggle, it threw a frail Anna Hazare into Tihar jail. When reports last came in, the same government was genuflecting with an agility which belied the average age of the Cabinet. Manmohan Singh's government descended, within 10 days, from Alpha Male to Omega Limp. It doesn't take all that long for Delhi's high and mighty to get neutered.
Anna Hazare came to Delhi to change the law, not change the government. His second fast for a Lokpal Bill was an option of last resort, not first choice. Shorn of bells and whistles, what he wanted on day one was what the government offered on day 9 before it changed its mind once again on day 10. The Prime Minister's critical mistake was to channel the government's response through the belligerent partnership of P. Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal. Power does different things to different people: in the case of Chidambaram and Sibal it brought out the teenager in them. They thought they could bully Hazare. Instead, in a dramatic counteroffensive, Anna has left this government writhing on the mat. Anna merely looks fragile; his strength is in his will, not muscle. It is a dangerous to dance around a yogi sleeping on a bed of nails.

A popular insurgency is always hard to read, even more so when the lava has been long lost in the heart of an invisible volcano. Whoever thought comparisons were odious never knew the half of modern journalism. Comparison is the stock in trade of journalists in a hurry, particularly those trying to make sense of a strange land in which activists wear pointy caps and popular discourse is controlled by a man who refuses to eat rather than one who presides over dollar-plate dinners overloaded with rubbery chicken. If apples and oranges are sold from the same fruit stall, who can resist comparing them? If there was an Arab spring in January can an Indian summer be far behind?

Anna Hazare and his youth are not demanding the fall of a Pharaoh; or an abolition of parliamentary democracy. They insist on a cure for a cancer eating at the body politic. Parliament is in question only because it has not been able to pass a Lokpal bill in 43 years, or indeed been able to debar criminals from contesting elections for ever. When a quarter of MPs have a criminal record, indifference is the preferred strategy of the establishment. The streets are screaming against this indifference.

I don't know how long this confrontation will take. But the toll of this conflict is already significant. Quite coincidentally, while writing this column, Begum Akhtar's voice came wafting over FM radio. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh knows Urdu, and is familiar with its poetry. If he wants to find out what the Indian middle class now thinks about a prime minister it once admired, he might find a minute to absorb the meaning of this couplet: Hum to samjhe thay kay barsaat mein barsegi sharab Aayee barsaat to barsaat ne dil tod diya.

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