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Summer of Protest

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The fireworks celebrating India’s Independence Day on August 15 illuminated shifting political terrain.  Appropriating the motifs of the anti-colonial struggle against the British Raj, the anti-corruption movement that has been gathering momentum for months erupted in full force, staging the most widespread popular demonstrations in decades.  The protests presented Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s seven-year-old government with its most serious crisis as well as exposed an acute leadership vacuum in the Congress Party, which was the nucleus of the nationalist movement and has governed the country for most of its post-independence era.

But the limelight that should have been Rahul’s was instead wrested away by Kiran Baburao Hazare, a social activist some three decades his senior who was largely unknown a year ago.  Widely called “Anna” Hazare (the honorific for older brother), he has emerged as the leader of the burgeoning public outcry against the procession of corruption scandals that are consuming the Singh government.  Dressed in homespun cotton and a white cap, the diminutive and bespectacled Hazare takes another Gandhi as his role model.  His personal asceticism recalls the Mahatma’s lifestyle, and his widely-noted record of social uplift in his home village in Maharashtra evokes Gandhi-ji’s vision of rural self-development.  Hazare’s methods of hunger fasts and mass demonstrations are reminiscent of the satyagraha (“civil resistance”) tactics employed against British colonial authorities.  He has even availed the rhetoric of the independence movement by proclaiming in a YouTube video that “the second freedom struggle has started.”

The heavy-handed government response was redolent of the British crackdowns on the country’s founding fathers, as well as the emergency rule used by Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s to suppress domestic criticism.  Adding to the latter comparison, the Congress Party’s spokesman even adopted Indira’s noxious practice ofblaming the “foreign hand” for the tumult.

If Hazare is now in the catbird’s seat, Prime Minister Singh and Rahul Gandhi have been politically scarred.  The latter has been conspicuously silent over the past week, choosing to remain quiet during parliament’s raucous debate over Hazare’s arrest.  Far from leading from the front, he gave the impression that he was running for cover.  Indeed, he even ducked out of New Delhi for what appeared to be an impromptu visit to a remote village in Maharashtra to console victims of a police shooting.

With the government’s confrontational approach followed so quickly by its capitulation, Singh reinforced his reputation for ineffective governance.  As one observer puts it, he increasingly looks like “yesterday’s prime minister.”  Attempts to deflect blame onto the Delhi municipal police were believed by few, since the police force is responsible to Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who has taken an uncompromising line toward Hazare.  The episode only added to the controversies that now besiege Singh.  His undoubted personal rectitude is now besides the point.  With charges multiplying that he was phlegmatic – or worse yet, willfully blind – to the egregious malfeasance of his own ministers, his capacity for leadership and political judgment is increasingly the question of the day.

Rocky to begin with, the road Singh will have to travel over the next year has suddenly become harder.  A bandwagon is growing inside the Congress Party for Rahul Gandhi to assume the reins of government.  Yet with Rahul focused on preparations for the important mid-2012 elections in Uttar Pradesh and Sonia Gandhi out of the picture for what may be a prolonged period, the party has little choice but to soldier on with Singh.  The opposition parties also do not have the numbers in Parliament to oust him as prime minister.

As an earlier post argued, Singh could even yet refurbish his legacy, as well as revitalize the Congress Party’s electoral prospects, with a bold program of governance reforms that eliminate the opportunities for high-level graft.  The leadership vacuum revealed by last week’s events makes this scenario very unlikely, however.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this writing are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of League of India, its Editorial Board or the business and socio-political interests that they might represent.

This article was first published on his blog here


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