An interesting feature of this Gandhian anti-corruption movement, under the leadership of India’s most famous Gandhian since Gandhi himself, is the total absence of any portraits of Gandhi in the hands of any processionists. The only figure from our freedom movement to feature on placards is Shaheed Bhagat Singh. The principled and philosophical contradiction between his methods and Gandhi’s should be well known to anybody who did not flunk the history exam between Class VI and X. But that is not the story. When people are angry for good reason (as they are over corruption now), it does not matter in whose name they swear and whose portraits they carry. Because, any which way, their point is made.
But there may be a little wake-up call for our MPs from the history of Bhagat Singh’s times. At least the MPs from the north and the Hindi heartland would remember the favourite revolutionary invocation of Bhagat Singh’s campaign: Pagdi sambhal jatta… Lut gaya maal tera.
A wee bit of history will be relevant here. This call to the jat (the land-owning peasant) to save his honour (pagdi, or turban) and land was first made by Bhagat Singh’s uncle, Ajit Singh, to oppose a punitive land revenue imposed by the British on the peasantry. And if you failed to pay that cess (Rs 20 per acre, a huge amount then), your land was forfeited to the British. Ajit Singh was incarcerated along with Lala Lajpat Rai (later killed in a lathi-charge while opposing the Simon Commission) in the same Mandalay prison, in Burma, where Bahadur Shah Zafar had died in detention. Ajit Singh’s movement succeeded, and the cess was withdrawn but his nephew Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries embraced that pagdi-sambhal exhortation as a rousing battle cry.
But why are we digressing that far into the early history of our freedom movement? Particularly when what’s going on is being hailed as our Second War of Independence?
It is relevant, mainly because in this convoluted and yet simplistic and trendy interpretation of our freedom struggle, the new war of independence is being waged against our own political class, particularly Parliament. From mera neta chor hai caps to Om Puri’s stunningly crude condemnation of Parliament as peopled by illiterates and ganwaars (we are preferring the exact Hindi pejorative used by him, as the English translation, rustic, does not capture the contempt of the original), the movement is now utterly anti-political and anti-Parliament. From demanding that Parliament rubber-stamp a pre-drafted law without any change and by a certain deadline, bypassing all faltu institutions like the Standing Committee, to gheraoing the homes of the MPs, the central impulse of the movement is that parliamentary processes and institutions are, if at all, a dilatory mechanism in the hands of cynical, corrupt and self-seeking netas.
This is now a strong and growing sentiment on the urban street. That is why it makes you remember Bhagat Singh’s pagdi sambhal invocation. Because that should be the wake-up call now for our MPs, and indeed for the entire political class, without whom there can be no democracy but who, with their laziness, cynicism and indeed corruption, are now in danger of losing their honour, as well as their land, or their foothold in political power. This growing mood, at least in urban, upper-crust India is a rude reminder to the political class. A reminder that in focusing on vote-banks rather than on the larger common good, in treating politics as a hereditary avocation rather than competitive public service, and by themselves subverting parliamentary processes and institutions, particularly bipartisan institutions like the PAC and JPC, they have undermined the very structures of political democracy that bring them power, respect, and even wealth. For nearly three years now, since all of India saw bundles of currency being displayed in the Lok Sabha cash-for-votes scandal, our MPs have only indulged in acts that invite popular scorn and disgust. The writing off of an entire winter session; their inability to pass any bills; daily, nationally-televised obstruction and adjournments have all fuelled this popular disgust. So for them, our MPs, this movement is their pagdi sambhal… moment.
This week, after a very, very long time, it seemed as if the political class was waking up to the threat. If you watched the Parliament debate on Thursday, you would have only felt proud of that wonderful institution and not embarrassed. And what of your political class? The most stirring speech was made by a man called Sharad Yadav, an OBC leader who came in from nowhere, learnt political activism in JP’s movement, went to jail during the Emergency as a student leader and emerged as a minister, and a brilliant parliamentarian. And he would not be one bit embarrassed if I underlined that he fully personifies Om Puri’s description of half our MPs as ganwaar. Sharad Yadav is by no means anpadh (illiterate). He, in fact, has a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. But ganwaar, he would quite proudly admit to being. A line from his speech on Thursday, responding to attacks on Parliament, is worth a mention. Without the wisdom of Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi, he said, people like him would not have been allowed to bring even their cattle to graze in Delhi. This House, he said, is the only place, where you can see the face of the entire nation, where Dalits can be seen as equals and where names like Ghurau Ram, Garib Ram and Pakodi Lal walk around as MPs. It is only thanks to Gandhi and his freedom movement that today a Pakodi Lal can come here, he said. A Pakodi Lal in your Lok Sabha? Does that answer Om Puri’s description of a place filled with ganwaars? And if so, does that make you feel embarrassed? Mahatma Gandhi would have only been proud.
Parliamentary democracy is our biggest strength, and the greatest instrument of equality in a complex, diverse and unequal society. But, before it can argue with forces of corporate-style insta-solutions and indignant, impatient street-fixes, the political class has to make a quick return to old values. Political parties have to learn to keep talking amongst themselves even as they fight in the battleground of votes, ideas and ideology. Congress cannot treat the BJP as evil and unworthy of even speaking to. Similarly, the BJP cannot be so cynical as to block even virtuous legislation, or reform (like GST) just to spite the Congress. Because even when Parliament does function, when the floor of the House is used not to make or counter arguments or to pass bills, but to exercise lung-power and to jump to the well to earn one more adjournment, what impression does it convey to the street? Until now, only the Maoists used to describe our Parliament as a pig-sty. But if so many urban, educated Indians are now becoming equally disillusioned, it is not a moment too early for our political class to wake up.