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Politics as showbiz

The theatrical protests of the Ramdevs and the Hazares pose a challenge to our politics: grow up or wither away

If last year was the “season of scams” in India,this is surely the summer of theatrical protests against those scams and the scourge of corruption of which they represent but the tip of a large and submerged iceberg. If the wizened war veteran,Anna Hazare,carried some credibility despite some bizarre pronouncements ,the antics of yoga guru-turned-putative politician and social activist,Baba Ramdev,beggar the imagination.

While it offers much fodder for the social media (where Ramdev is being,rightly or wrongly,pilloried),a deeper question is begged. I have previously compared today’s India to America’s gilded age,pointing out two ways in which the comparison is apt. First,rapid growth is always accompanied by rising inequality and rampant corruption. Second,it is in the public’s reaction to these latter unwanted brethren begot by the source of the growth itself,that the future evolution of the polity depends.

Some commentators have been questioning whether India today can be described as living in a gilded age,suggesting that the comparison with America of the era of the robber barons is facile. However,the analogy is meant to point to the causal mechanism which allows growth,inequality,and corruption to coexist — rapid growth under the aegis of poorly-regulated capitalism. Further,it draws attention to the diversity of possible responses to corruption. In America,the salutary result was a thoroughgoing cleansing of the Augean stables,with electoral and regulatory reform,and the painstaking creation of a welfare state that took the economically and politically empowered nation-state into a position of world leadership in the dying days of the World War II,erecting thereby those institutions that govern the global political economy to this day.

While there is a superficial similarity between the Hazare and Ramdev anti-corruption campaigns with Theodore Roosevelt’s “trust busting” movement,in galvanising middle-class revulsion against the excesses wrought by freewheeling and unregulated gangster capitalism,there the comparison ends. Roosevelt’s movement was,from the outset,articulated within the prevailing political structures of US federal politics of the time. Messrs Hazare and Ramdev and their supporters,by contrast,pointedly and deliberately portray themselves as political outsiders,and use the the tactic of hunger strikes and mass protest,rather than channelising their support into a viable political party that could reap electoral rewards at the ballot box.

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Part of this represents a fundamental failure,to date,of the Indian polity: the inability to transcend the domination of what political scientists call “brokerage parties”,the Congress,of course,being the exemplary instance. Brokerage parties are guided not by principle,but by constructing unwieldy and improbable coalitions of convenience whose sole aim is the division of the spoils — what economists call rent-seeking.

Here,India is uncomfortably close to repeating the post-war experience of Italy,which failed to develop a mature and modern political culture,in the wake of its emergence as a republican nation-state at the end of the World War II. A series of brokerage parties,for decades the Christian Democrats,and today the centre-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi,have presided over a decaying civil society that has failed to nurture principled political parties that take a stand on issues such as economic or regulatory reform or combating corruption.

Rather,in Italy,it is political theatre that dominates rational political discourse: a modern variation on the cynical maxim of the Roman emperors,that what they needed to keep the populace in line was a combination of “bread and circuses”. It is perhaps some consolation that Ramdev cuts slightly less ridiculous a figure than Berlusconi,but only just.

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How mainstream Indian politics deals with Ramdev and those of his ilk will reveal much about where we are heading as a nation: toward a more mature Western-style democracy,such as our Westminster system is heir to,or toward the showmanship of Italian politics as exemplified by Berlusconi. Part of the answer,surely,will lie in the reaction of another prominent Italian-born politician.

The writer is an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa,Canada

First published on: 03-06-2011 at 03:49:35 am
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