THE BANALITY OF FREEDOM
There was a time when the outbreak of idealism brought Jantar Mantar closer to other datelines of the struggle against power, at least in the imagination of those who still believed in the revenge of the street. A profusion of Gandhi caps and little flags of tricolour added to the romance of resistance, but Delhi’s official site of protest did not become an Indian version of Tahrir Square, or Wenceslas Square, not to mention Tiananmen Square. Last week, in a finale without revolutionary fizz, Anna Hazare and his fellow satyagrahis parodied themselves past the headlines— into that rare remoteness where most freak shows of dissent end up. Ideally, there should have been a different script, one that jelled well with the 65th anniversary of India’s Independence. And we needed one, a counter- narrative of national freedom in a country abandoned by its ruling class.
We didn’t get one. Fasting is a waste of time, said the disillusioned Hazare, and his bitter pragmatism stopped short of throwing away his Gandhi cap. But for his Sancho Panza, frail but the fire still raging within, the debut fasting was an act of empowerment. Martyrdom was postponed for the larger interest of the Republic and Hazare’s first lieutenant— a monochromatic, onedimensional personification of self- righteousness— was quick to realise the uses of a political alternative and the redundancy of Jantar Mantar. Shall we say the anti- corruption movement has reached its post- Gandhian, post- Hazare phase, with Arvind Kejriwal, fierce and fanatical in his simulated loftiness, as its mascot? It may be too early to ask such a question but its very possibility magnifies the dangerous trajectory of dissent in this country. We are being shortchanged even in our unfinished struggle for freedom.
It is as if we can never get the text right, even when the context is perfect. Sixty- five years into freedom and India is one of the world’s most misgoverned countries, and what makes its self- inflicted wretchedness all the more glaring is the fact that its shambolic record in national responsibility is only matched by its inflated pretension as an aspiring regional power. The second phase of the Manmohan Singh era paints in pastel the slow disintegration of national credibility. Words of revulsion and anger have become clichés: Say corruption and we have learned to take it with a stoical shrug. The courts may send one or two politicians to jail but the system that legitimises corruption as the religion of the ruling class remains intact. If we needed a live metaphor for the state of the nation, we got that too, unsolicited: The lamps went out all over north India for two consecutive days.
Now it seems, at India’s darkest hour, even the most rhapsodised Gandhian of our times cannot hold a candle. But there is someone from his disbanded team who thinks a soaring fist and a newer flag can shatter the calcified citadel of corruption. Nothing inappropriate, considering the elasticity of our democratic space, even if he names his organisation as Revolutionary Guardians of Moral India— and even if there is a whiff of Pyongyang about it. But what will a man with such frightening belief in his own moral infallibility, and a matching contempt for the institutions of civil society, do with a much mauled democracy? He certainly knows its uses, as all fanatics do; and to know what revolutionaries— the moral custodians of “the people”— do with democracies, we just need to look at some of those people’s democratic republics presided over by a leader loftier than the rest. On independent India’s 65th birthday, even the struggle for regaining its squandered freedom offers no cheer.
SIXTY- FIVE YEARS INTO FREEDOM AND INDIA IS ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST MISGOVERNED COUNTRIES, AND WHAT MAKES ITS SELF- INFLICTED WRETCHEDNESS ALL THE MORE GLARING IS THE FACT THAT ITS SHAMBOLIC RECORD IN NATIONAL RESPONSIBILITY IS ONLY MATCHED BY ITS INFLATED PRETENSION AS AN ASPIRING REGIONAL POWER.