Sunday, April 10, 2011

Almost a revolution

Just last week, I finished reading Eknath Easwaran's fascinating, if at times fawning, account of his mentor in "Gandhi The Man". I was still grappling with the impracticality of some of the ideas of Satyagraha when the last of the Gandhians decided to put together a little demo.

All sorts of people have commented on the goings on; the Arnab Goswamis have ruined their vocal chords by their declarations of a revolution, and on the other side, armchair intellectuals have been mourning the death of democracy. Probably as a consequence of reading a Gandhi biography so recently, I've been on the majority's side of this little show of hands. I've surprised myself at how many times I've questioned democracy over the last few days and I've been irritated at people who claim that Hazare should have used the provisions within the democratic system. The whole mechanism of civil disobedience, after all, is based on encouraging unconstitutional actions to upset an undesirable status quo. Why, then, should Hazare's "blackmail" be stripped of its context and judged by moral absolutes? If democracy is so unquestionable, why aren't we electing our judges and civil servants as well, for example?

Those questions at a philosophical level aside, I think the reason for the groundswell is that few Indians have escaped situations when we are forced to negotiate with our conscience. The last time I was in one such was when I had to get my tax refund. The babu clearly expected a bribe and I remember all that went on in my head. Should I refuse to bribe him and risk losing time and money? What if I end up jeopardising my consultant's relationship with the clerk? What really are my options for recourse if this turns ugly? Nobody likes to be in these stories, and when we are, we often choose inaction because we suspect we are in the minority. And collective inaction, I suspect, is what entrenches a culture that we find ourselves in. Sometimes the way out of these social traps is simply to KNOW that everybody else wants what you want. Anna Hazare's little circus has shown us that. For once people feel powerful, exactly the position democracy promised them. At least for a few heady days, you can be sure that a few more people will have the courage to refuse a bribe, and a few others will lose the gall to ask for one. That's a start. The Jan Lokpal bill, from all accounts, is a mess. But we can get that right. We'll use democracy then if we have to.

I am not being naive about this; we've not attained nirvana and politicians will continue to screw us. Yeddys of the world will still think 50x80 sites in Bangalore are theirs to give whenever overhyped sports stars bring home trophies. The next time the opposition swaps places with the ruling party, they will expose a scam in the way the last spectrum was auctioned. We'll continue to hear more brazen victories of the corrupt. Amidst all that, Anna Hazare has been that odd uplifting news story. We really could use more of those. I was sad that I missed out on the hoopla, being in Thanjavur which has too little of a middle class to care about revolutions, small, medium or XL. Besides, there's an election coming up in a week's time. The local candidate is trading refrigerators for votes this time. Democracy is healthy here.

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