There's a thin line between people's power and mobocracy

Something is rotten in the Indian State. Everything stinks. People are crying for change.

They are desperate for an improvement in the state of affairs -- more transparency, more accountability, a stop to corruption, a halt to holding Parliament to ransom for one reason or another, end to non-functioning state legislatures, an overhaul of the judicial system with better and speedier justice delivered and the application of rule of law to all with equal force without fear or favour.

Against this backdrop, two and a half years ago, emerged – from almost nowhere -- the crusade against corruption led by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, who has since broken away from his master to establish the Aam Admi Party, borrowing, ironically, the title of his new political party from the slogan of the ruling Congress, his principle target of attack. The Hazare agitation declared every politician guilty, going so far as to say every parliamentarian must be strung up from lamp-posts. It even tried to usurp the function of law-making, the exclusive domain of the legislatures. In short, it tried to overturn the constitutional scheme for governance.

It was a similar scenario in the run-up to the 1975 Emergency that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had then imposed. A call for ‘sampoorna kranti’ (total revolution) was given by Jayaprakash Narayan. He asked men in uniform not to obey what he described as illegal orders and join the new revolutionaries. Efforts were made to bring the Railways, the lifeline of India, to a grinding halt. Common sense should have warned us that would be a recipe for disaster as it is the Railways that carries essential supplies of food, fuel and basic necessities like salt, foodgrain and fuel to the far corners of the country.  If the Railways had indeed been stopped (despite strong public criticism, Indira Gandhi made sure that did not happen) disaster, riots and famine could not have been far behind.

Indira Gandhi’s Congress was indeed swept out of power when elections were announced and the Emergency lifted in 1977. The brand new Janata Party made a clean sweep of the whole of the North of the country and came to power in Delhi. But two years later, Indira Gandhi bounced back, for the Janata Party experiment had collapsed and the people were fed up with quarrelling partners of the new ruling party causing instability and political chaos. The promised “total revolution” proved to be a disaster.

In other parts of the world more recently, Egypt’s mass protests at Tahrir Square were hailed as the beginning of an ‘Arab Spring’ that would be a harbinger of democracy to the Middle East. All that it achieved was the brining of a regressive Muslim Brotherhood to power. And without losing time the new regime set about gathering more powers for itself, leading to yet another revolt by the people. An article in the New York Times published in April 2011 came to the conclusion that a number of groups and individuals involved in the so-called Arab Spring had received “training and financing” from various institutes based in Washington.

Democracy vs rebellion

Further back in history, the great ‘cultural revolution’ initiated by Mao Zedong in 1966 took China not only back in terms of development, it took a toll of thousands, if not millions, killed and tortured before the curtain came down on it a decade later when the Gang of Four was arrested. Just around the time the ‘cultural revolution’ in China was coming to a close, the despotic regime of the Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran was coming under pressure from another ‘revolution’: that led to the monarch’s exile and the birth of the Ayatollah Khomeini regime controlled by Islamist clergy. The new zealots who had declared the birth of an Islamist theocratic regime also killed thousands of members of left and liberal groups that had opposed the Shah monarchy. Revolutions are known to devour their own children.

But children do not necessarily learn from the mistakes of their parents. Countries too are not quick to remember lessons from the past, let alone from the events in other nations. And somehow there is always the belief that what happened elsewhere will not happen here. Has not democracy taken deep roots in this country with the fifteenth Lok Sabha almost behind us and the campaign for the sixteenth in full gear?

Extreme radical thoughts breed and encourage fanatic and intolerant behaviour and often degenerate into meaningless violence. Witness the Naxal brand of politics, which wanted to change the oppressive system loaded against the marginalised sections of society. In the sixties it attracted a whole generation of young, educated and dedicated people who left the comfort of middle class living to work for a revolution that would usher in a new equitable social and economic order. Has it?

The AAP phenomenon promises to deliver the people from the rotten system that is denying equal opportunity to all, equal access to scarce resources, and above all, from the endemic disease of corruption eating into the vitals of the body politic. There is no doubt that the system is rotten. There can be no two views that the state of affairs in this country must change. Chipping away at the established structures and institutions is easy. Building new ones is challenging. The AAP leadership must remember that in the Delhi assembly polls, it managed the support of just about 28 per cent of the people. It cannot behave, as it has been, as if it speaks for the people every time and all the time. In any case, there is a very thin line between ‘people’s power’ and the lynch mob.

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