When Performance is Power

By Oeendrila Lahiri, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 4Humanities International Correspondent

Between May and August, India hosted one of the biggest media enabled political dramas in our fight against corruption. By the end of August political activism had spiralled into a crisis which made one wonder if the humanities should be seriously and compulsorily taught at the school level.

The anti-corruption movement was launched around April around the Jan Lokpal Bill (citizens’ ombudsman bill) drafted by ‘ordinary’ citizens of the country.[1] India regularly features on the top five in the corruption list, and so measures to curb corruption are more than welcome. But what if the antidote is more dangerous than the ailment?

The law, if it comes into being, will empower this ombudsman body to investigate, arrest, and punish whoever is accused of corruption in the government and bureaucracy.[2] It intends to tap phones, mails etc. and exercise police powers, among other things.[3] Its board will be constituted of selective ‘ordinary’ citizens, which so far only includes the political glitterati. It is led by a Gandhian named Anna Hazare, who has now successfully caricatured Gandhi’s fasting stratagem, effectively putting Narendra Modi[4] on to the fast-track to salvation.[5] It seems that the quickest way now to assure results in politics is the fasting way.

The controversial and highly problematic aspects of Team Anna have been intensely discussed elsewhere.[6] What I thought was equally alarming, besides the draconian character of the bill, was the spectacle and energy. It was a time of hectic media coverage of Anna’s indefinite hunger strikes, his imprisonment, the thousands who daily thronged Ramlila Maidan (Delhi), furious social activists, and the even more furious exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the 74-year-old fasting Hazare. Overnight we had 500 or more pages in support of Anna on Facebook.

Middle India seethed and celebrated at the same time. It was Parliament versus the People. It was a commotion that declared itself to be ‘the second freedom struggle.’ Even the left intelligentsia struggled for a piece of the anti-corruption cake.[7] You were either with the nation or against it. Explaining why one wasn’t jumping on to the Annawagon became difficult without coming across as a snob de noblesse.

No doubt the hysteria was a symptom of fatigue and disillusionment with the system. Nevertheless, it is also a symptom of the short-sightedness of the middle class. The India which is truly affected by corruption was nowhere to be seen given that they are tucked away below poverty level. But this did not stop their articulate compatriots from storming the capital and twisting the parliament’s arm into accepting a bill. With the best doctors doting upon him before a crowd 100,000 strong, on a stage, in front of the media, Anna Hazare told Parliament it was the bill or his death.

India’s constitutional promises to its minorities, especially Muslims and caste Hindus, are a bulwark against the continuing political attacks on these sections. A political precedence that manages to install an extraconstitutional and extrajuridical vigilante body by non-parliamentary means will only undo the tremendous achievements of the constitution’s architects. The constitution doesn’t mean much to the professional mainstream Hindu, but it has been sometimes the only guarantee for justice for those who would otherwise be denied because they belong to the wrong caste or religion.

The majority of the millions who supported Anna did not seem to make this connection between their activism and the consequences. Apart from the media, academics, politicians and Team Anna, no one really had read the bill they supported.

The humanities must not be saved at the level of higher education alone, where it can simply remain one of many specialised knowledges. Given its bearing on our present, it should be imparted to all so that basic ideas regarding our own individual political selves are in place. To be able to connect one’s choices to one’s future is an urgent need that, in a democracy, should not only be the prerogative of those who are in academics or politics.

This last political debacle proved once again that in an age where image is everything, packaged performance is mass politics. However, the last time I checked, history and political philosophy in school were tedious notes on dates and theory to be chewed and spat out like cud. It is imperative, therefore, that we work to develop textbook content to help individuals question the world around them and exercise a degree of criticality, even if they go on to choose vocational and professional courses in higher education.

[1] It is a redrafting of the original Lokpal Bill (1963). In fact for a while there was a Lokpal Bill forwarded by the Parliament and a Jan Lokpal Bill forwarded by Team Anna.

[2] http://ibnlive.in.com/news/full-text-the-jan-lokpal-bill/148401-53.html

[3] http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=5486&pg=1&mod=1&sectionId=6

[4] Narendra Modi is the chief minister of Gujarat, Gandhi’s birthplace. He is currently under investigation for the Hindu Muslim riots in 2002. He is also a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party which is a right wing Hindu fundamentalist party.

[5] http://ibnlive.in.com/news/fast-not-about-my-pm-ambitions-modi/185149-37-64.html

[6] http://kafila.org/2011/04/12/the-making-of-anna-hazare/

[6] http://kafila.org/2011/08/20/we-should-be-there-the-left-and-the-anna-moment/

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