What went wrong?
In late nineteenth century the British created the Indian National Congress to develop 'a safety valve for great and growing forces'. Even after educated Indians took over leadership of the Congress they functioned with discipline and procedure associated with the best of British tradition. That is why the Congress has lasted despite enormous decline. The problem for India arose after Independence.
Pandit Nehru was independent India's first Prime Minister. Steeped in British culture he was endowed with a liberal instinct. He was deeply committed to democratic norms. In the early years of independence he was Prime Minister, Congress president and most popular mass leader rolled into one. The Congress ruled the centre as well as all the states. He could have become a dictator if he wanted to. He didn't need to. His word was law. Yet he respected chief ministers and delegated responsibility. He did this because he was at heart a democrat.
It was easy for Nehru to slip into a flawed view of our Constitution. He tried to make India's political system synonymous with Britain's Westminster model. That view became a false mantra for succeeding generations. Consequently India's federalism all but vanished. As long as a democrat like Nehru and a single disciplined party like Congress ruled the nation things appeared deceptively fine. That is why perhaps the government never felt the need to establish the Inter-State Council intended by the Constitution to deal with all matters pertaining to centre-state and intra-state issues. But while political attitudes remained stuck in the Nehruvian groove, the nation's federal character relentlessly asserted itself. Linguistic states and assertion of caste identities were an inevitable outcome of the democratic process.
But why didn't any new credible national party emerge?
The reason was abdication of responsibility by the class of Indians normally expected to provide leadership. This too was a legacy of history. Post-Independence leaders of Congress, communist and socialist parties had all-India visions. Due to prolonged one party rule they gradually fell by the wayside. Quick-fix leaders propelled by caste, community and language replaced them. The educated middle class, basking in the comforting shadow of the Nehru dynasty, was content to leave dirty politics to quick-fix leaders while itself it pursued career and profit. Therefore both the federal democratic spirit and a national vision gradually disappeared from India's politics. Today, a score of squabbling parties led by tin pot dictators govern both the centre and the states. In such conditions, what can any single leader accomplish?
However, the first faint stirrings of change are now perceptible. Buffeted by crime, corruption, cover-ups and collapse of administration, the middle class is slowly waking up. Citizens are joining protest. Some are even entering politics. In Tamil Nadu young computer savvy citizens have floated a party and entered the electoral fray. They want to change India's political culture. It matters little if they all lose their deposits. The actor Vijay Kanth has floated his own party which will contest all seats in the state.
Celebrities are intervening in social causes. Some time back a host of Bollywood stars took to the streets against administrative neglect in Mumbai. Aamir Khan joined the Narmada and Bhopal gas tragedy protestors. Earlier, actor Roshan Seth took to the streets to put the Delhi administration on the defensive. Cynics made snide remarks. All this was for cheap publicity, they said. The comments of the celebrities were na've, they said. But celebrities don't need publicity through political or social causes. And the depth or otherwise of their political understanding is irrelevant. What matters is, they are concerned. And their concern reflects the sense of growing alarm and disgust in most of India's urban class. Which is all to the good. Let them get involved. The rest might follow.
There are of course many NGOs and social activists who have devoted years to working on the ground. Despite their best intentions they are missing the wood for the trees. After all their labor and toil to highlight legitimate grievances what do they achieve? They end up seeking redressal from a bunch of corrupt and unresponsive politicians. Don't they understand that social activism has become irrelevant in a society governed by a class that is so corrupt, criminal and callous that society needs nothing less than a cultural revolution? If Naxalites are succeeding there is good reason for it. Alas, the dedication that NGOs or Naxalites display in social activism or self-defeating violence is wasted. Deployed in electoral politics it would change the face of India.
Recently India's leading social activist Medha Patkar ended, after twenty days, a fast unto death in protest against inadequate rehabilitation of victims displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Asked if pressure tactics like an indefinite fast should be used to influence decisions, she said all democratic channels had been exhausted. 'Gandhi showed this path to gain freedom,' she said. But Gandhi operated under foreign rule when democratic options were unavailable. He chose non-violence in place of violence. Medha Patkar is wrong to assert that all democratic channels had been exhausted.
The most obvious channel has not even been attempted. Namely, to organize a new political party, electorally defeat the corrupt leaders, and assume power to redress grievances.
But that is a daunting task. It requires a different kind of courage. Perhaps Medha Patkar and others will summon such courage? She did say she would launch a new campaign to propagate not 'a Narmada Bachao Andolan but a Desh Bachao Andolan'.
All strength to those prepared to address India's real problem ' the lack of a suitable political instrument. To create one they need a sensible agenda, democratic procedure for running their organization, communication skills to spread their message, and organizational effort to mobilize voters. Similar skills are required of entrepreneurs establishing big corporations. In this, many succeed spectacularly. But they seek profit. Are there no Indians who seek power for changing India and making it a just society? Medha Patkar and others are mistaken if they think that in today's India they can deliver justice without acquiring power.