The much anticipated cabinet reshuffle in India on Sunday has sent out one clear message—the Congress has got its gumption back and has decided to stamp its authority as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha, directly elected by the people.
Perhaps the biggest story from this reshuffle has been senior leader Salman Khurshid’s elevation to the minister of external affairs from his earlier portfolio of law minister. The obvious promotion is significant given Khurshid was at the centre of a controversy only a couple of weeks back after a TV channel raised allegations of misappropriation of government funds by an NGO run by Khurshid and his wife. The issue snowballed into a bigger controversy after activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal decided to step in—something that seems to have become a habit of sorts for him now—and target Khurshid vehemently, demanding his resignation. The media group, which had carried out the ‘expose’ against Khurshid, also kept its attack on, demanding the minister step down.
However, the Congress, which appeared to have been bullied and intimidated by various quarters in the past couple of years, allowing multiple pressures to determine its decisions, now seems to have decided to put its foot down and go by its convictions and send out a loud message to Kejriwal and company. But there is another significant message that emerges from this reshuffle. The mandate to run the country and effect changes in the government lies with the popularly elected political party in power, not with self-proclaimed messiahs like Kejriwal or with the media. Of course, there is need for multiple watchdogs and agencies that can demand accountability in the government, and this includes the media and activists. But the line between being watchdogs seeking accountability and being actors with vested interests holding the government to ransom is getting blurred. And activists (and now politician) like Arvind Kejriwal embody this pattern.
In fact, the entire movement for a Lokpal bill to tackle corruption led by activist Anna Hazare and fuelled actively by Kejriwal is an example of this very trend. Hazare and company not just wanted a Lokpal bill but also devised their very own version and wanted the government to incorporate those very elements. There are several questions that arise here. Do activists have a right to protest against corruption? Yes. Do they have a right to demand some action? Certainly. But do they have the prerogative to tell the government what exact measures it should take? No. Do they have the mandate to dictate provisions of a proposed legislation and use blackmailing tactics like indefinite hunger strikes and massive public rallies threatening law and order if their demands are not met? Absolutely not.
This is precisely why the recent spurt of activism in India has become misplaced, blunting its own edge, and marking a digression from past activist-led movements. Social activists and movements led by them in the past have led to many meaningful legislations and decisions. In the recent past, acts like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act are perfect examples of constructive and meaningful activism, reciprocated equally sensibly by the government.
Both these landmark legislations were a result of movements led by renowned social activists who had a certain base with which they held consultations and then agreed upon the need for a certain type of action. In effect, these were collective, bottom-up movements that were led by activists, not dictated by them. Hence, the demands placed were realistic, rooted and reflected the aspirations of the grassroots. Activists and government then held consultations and finally, the government—by virtue of being the government—came up with legislations after effecting its own changes and keeping various logistical modalities in mind, which the Parliament then passed.
However, the movement for a Lokpal bill and all subsequent ‘movements’ headed by Kejriwal (particularly since he broke away from Hazare to form his own political outfit) have been markedly different. Kejriwal’s lines have blurred even further now given he plays the dual role of a politician and activist, treating himself as being outside the mainstream political sphere. His and his team of activists, or India Against Corruption, as it were, have attempted to dictate terms and demand blanket decisions from the government. Their demands are what they believe should happen; unlike previous movements like for employment guarantee and RTI (which Kejriwal had also been part of), these demands don’t represent any particular constituency. Kejriwal and company claim to speak for all of India—the irrationality and incredulity of that is obvious.
Activists like Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze, Nikhil Dey, Kejriwal and others who were behind the rural employment legislation or the RTI act represented a definite constituency. Both these movements were initiated from Rajasthan where these activists had a base and where people from several districts were actively involved in formulating and demanding these programs for many years. This was unlike the current knee-jerk demands by activists like Kejriwal and even Hazare (reference: Lokpal movement) who derive their strength not from a define people’s movement, but from holding huge rallies as show of strength, where most people turn up only to see the tamasha than to actually support the ‘cause’.
Sale of caps with ‘I am Anna’ or ‘I am Arvind’ captions don’t indicate grassroots support for a movement or even meaningful popularity. They also derive their strength from the media, which is used by them actively to promote and propagate their causes. Holding frequent press conferences, giving stories to the media etc. have not traditionally been the tools of grassroots activists.
There is a reason why the electoral process is the backbone of a democracy. The sanctity of the elections and people’s verdict cannot be disturbed. If the Congress-led UPA has been given the mandate to rule the country, then it is completely their prerogative to run the government and make changes. All legislations are collective decisions taken by the elected representatives of this country. Also, the fact that most issues have to be debated in Parliament where there opposition has enough strength, means the government cannot be unchecked. The activists and media have a critical role to play, but they cannot assume the role of being people’s ‘representatives’. They cannot issue diktats to elected representatives. If the representatives fail to deliver adequately, they would be punished in the next election.
In the past few years in India, while politics and corruption touched new lows, social activism also witnessed an unfortunate decline. The quiet yet determined work of several other activists working in different corners of the country has been forgotten, and the word activist has become synonymous with people like Kejriwal. Being an ‘activist’ with enough media space become more important than the cause itself. But now that Kejriwal has decided to enter the political process, it would be interesting to see how people react to him electorally in the next election; and whether people consider him capable of representing even one electoral constituency, forget about the entire nation. Till then, one only hopes that social activism of the progressive, people-led kind emerges again to prod the government to initiate the right policies for the country.