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Thursday, August 18, 2022

Return of the pantomime

There is mutual accusation. And no hope of cleansing the system.

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As the BJP and Congress continue to play out the predictably destructive parliamentary pantomime, a quiet sense of unease is setting in. The political parties may think they are kicking up dust to blindside their opponents, but the net result is more suffocating darkness. In India’s previous moment of churning, the disquiet with the political dispensation manifested itself in a hope for the new. In different ways, both the AAP and Narendra Modi tried to occupy that ground. There was hope that they would absorb the poison that was being unleashed in India’s great churning. This time around, who knows what political form the disillusionment will take.


Currently, the impression both parties give is of a cynically choreographed script: “I scream corruption, you scream corruption, we send the people to their damnation”. But the purpose of this mutual accusation is not a cleansing of the system. Quite the contrary, it is to engage in mutual protection. Just look at the sheer shamelessness with which Indian cricket is dealing with cleaning up. The entire political class from both sides of the aisle, responsible for the corruption mess in the first place, has put itself in charge through the BCCI and control of the Enforcement Directorate. If India had shown half as much bipartisanship over legislation as it had over cricket, it would have flourished. The second tactic is to engage in diversion. Poor Lalit Modi, like Arvind Kejriwal, is realising the modus operandi of the Indian media: raise the temperature enough, and then drop the issue so that you do not have to ask the hard questions of the league of powerful and fine gentlemen that are still ensconced in positions of power in Indian cricket. Find another hapless and less sophisticated CM to target.

The third tactic in this script is creating an illusion of accountability. India’s anti-corruption crisis was a crisis of the credibility of institutions, where not a single institution, from select committees, to the police, to the CBI, to the CVC, to the justice system, could be relied on to do a half-credible job on mediating the truth. We know political parties have skeletons in the closet. They would rather turn democratic institutions into a corpse to protect those skeletons than think of reform.

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Can you think of any major institutional steps any parties have taken that are a sign of credible reform? The BJP’s so-called black money bill is a bureaucrat’s fantasy in maximum government. It is not designed to root out black money at the source. When pushed to the wall, every political party has the same answer to corruption investigations: “Let’s get the CBI in.” And what is the record of the CBI in arbitrating the truth about powerful politicians? There is no evidence that the functioning of the CBI has become more credible, either in terms of capacity or lack of arbitrariness. The government’s use of the CBI in Teesta Setalvad’s case is frighteningly disproportionate to any infraction she might be accused of, and smacks of hyperbole and vendetta. It is a reminder of how politicised core law enforcement institutions are.

No political party is interested in serious police reform. There is a joke going around about the BJP’s vindictiveness towards the AAP, which it is trying to stymie by all means possible. It is a random experiment to show that you can actually get MLAs prosecuted if you divest the state government of control of the police! The Congress’s crocodile tears would have been more effective if it had shown any effort at serious institutional clean-up in the states it rules: Uttarakhand and Karnataka. In fact, it has rendered anti- corruption agencies there toothless. Seeking the resignation of individuals can, if selectively used, be a good political tactic and theatre. It can be an instrument of accountability through competition. But it can also disguise more than it reveals. You rather suspect that getting someone like Sushma Swaraj to resign is more about symbolic victories that will divert attention from other cricket functionaries.

The fourth element in this script is that no political party is capable of self-reflection. Rahul Gandhi may have found new energy. But so far, there is no evidence of any deep self-reflection on what the corruption dynamics that led the UPA to destroy every institution were (and, therefore, it cannot talk with a straight face on CBI or police reform), or on how its cronyism left us with one of the worst banking systems in the world. There is no sense of contrition or an affirmative agenda. The Congress also forgets that last time, the anti-corruption plank succeeded not on account of disruptions but because they were given momentum by a new civil society movement and a reinvented Narendra Modi. Where is the Congress’s ability to gather more trust in civil society or present reinvented credibility?

Similarly with Prime Minister Modi, who has been stunned into silence. The scale and nature of the Vyapam scam, for which the Madhya Pradesh government has to take responsibility, requires a political response, not just an investigative dodge. It makes good political theatre. But the idea that you can defend yourself simply by throwing muck at others is a way of infantilising voters. Indeed, you are setting yourself up for an even bigger fall because the cynicism you produce will devour you. Even if there is a modest economic revival, the sheer coarseness and crudity of public life, argument and institutions will take the sheen off any achievement. And the leadership will be held responsible.


The fifth element is the risk of casualness towards things that matter. It is true that parliamentary committees have been hard at work on important legislation like the GST. But so much recent legislation has tripped up on detail that serious time for public debate and moving amendments could have easily caught. There will be a lot of time wasted on disruptions. But eventually, some time next week, both parties will allow for an opening to pass a couple of bills, but without the elaborate debate commensurate to their importance. This will be prompted as much by a mutual assurance pact as a real concern for public disgust. However, this way of proceeding will have the double effect of making us even more suspicious about the intent of political parties — cynical disruption and casual legislation is a fatal combination. But it looks like neither political party has learned the lessons from India’s great churning. They are intent on spreading more poison.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express

First published on: 25-07-2015 at 12:00:00 am
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