Corruption versus Dharma as way of life

The unhappy situation in which the BJP-led coalition finds itself today has mesmerised most political analysts and social scientists. Reams of reportage has been expended on the mini-cyclones regularly splattering the regime and clouding the image of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, easily the most respectable politician on the spectrum. Despite this, it remains something of a mystery why the government has to face problems that need never be made public in the first place. Perhaps the principal characters in this political opera themselves do not understand why they feel compelled to behave in a particular manner.

Cobbled out of pre- and post-election alliances in one of the nation’s most fractured mandates, the BJP government strove for cohesion with a no-nonsense national agenda for governance. In the span of a year it has taken bold decisions with matter-of-fact determination, viz., the Pokharan n-explosions, economic breakthroughs with Sri Lanka and other neighbours, a new diplomacy with Pakistan, and test-firing of Agni II. Nevertheless, constant pressures from allies have conspired to give it the appearance of instability, which tempts opposition parties to attempt to topple it. This reinforces the image of impermanence, though few believe Signora Gandhi will actually make the grade.

Indeed, there is a view that for all the heave-ho, the regime will stay put, since the opposition parties lack the unity to put an alternative in place – a realisation that may finally be dawning on the Congress prima donna. Proponents of this view either express exasperation at the Prime Minister’s failure to make some of his allies toe the official line, or pour venom on the allies for stepping out of line. In this scenario, the emerging fault-lines in the Indian political landscape are projected as the fickleness of first-time-in-power politicians.

I believe the problem is not so simple. Under the surface of an apparently wobbly alliance is a complex battle for the soul of India. It is a struggle between those striving to preserve partisan ideologies and socio-economic structures, and those determined to replace the phoney Nehruvian consensus with a structure of values and an ethical code rooted in the nation’s traditional ethos.

The battle is an old one, but it has entered a qualitatively new phase. Till the beginning of the decade it was still defensive; it sought return of the Ram Janmabhoomi to the Hindus on grounds of righting a historic wrong. But six years later, the contest has widened from a defensive soliloquy on pseudo-secularism and minority appeasement to a larger deliberation on the nature and role of morality in politics. This is simply the ancient Hindu concern with dharma as a fundamental concern and obligation of the ruler. This realisation is what makes leaders with as varied backgrounds and interests as Dr Farooq Abdullah, Dr Chandrababu Naidu, and Ms Mamata Banerjee overcome old ways of thinking and offer truly constructive support to the Vajpayee government. This is a major turning point in Indian politics.

What motivates the present attempt to overthrow the government is a tussle between civilisation (dharma) and anti-civilisation (symbolised by the non-Hindu Nehruvian worldview). In this respect, the BJP’s critics been more alive to the stakes involved than the ruling party,  a fact that should shame its top leadership, because what is involved is more than ideology or the loaves and fishes of office. At stake is the future of the India that is Bharat; whether there shall at all be a Bharat.

From this perspective, Harkishen Singh Surjeet’s despicable manoeuvres and Sonia Gandhi’s desperate ambitions make sense. Both are sentinels of an alien non-Hindu, indeed anti-Hindu cultural ethos. They stand to lose everything if the government settles down, whips up national fervour with Pokharan and Agni, and wins over the common man with budgetary initiatives that show promise.

What is inexplicable is the BJP’s nonchalance regarding this do-or-die battle for Bharat, its lack of awareness of the levels at which it must struggle unrelentingly. From the time it took over South Block, it has been defensive and reactive, oblivious of the larger currents shaping the country’s destiny. Certainly coalition compulsions made it adopt a pragmatic programme, deferring contentious issues like construction of a Ram Temple at Ayodhya and the uniform civil code. But only the BJP believed that these issues had ceased to be, and that the experience of a riot-free administration would prove that it was not “communal.” That is why the BJP felt aggrieved when labelled “fascist,” and was embarrassed when angry sadhus vowed to construct the Temple.

The BJP has not understood what Congress and the Left have always known, viz., the Ram Janmabhoomi as a symbol of Bharat runs like a thread through its being, and is its raison d’etre and goal, not a mere electoral convenience. And BJP is ‘a party with a difference’ not because its members are not corrupt, but because it is committed to restoring dharma – the moral code and moral conduct – to its rightful place in the political realm.

This situation is qualitatively different from the prevailing rule of law concept, in which a person accused of abuse of power, corruption, or nepotism is considered innocent until proved guilty, and can continue to wield power and responsibility till the law takes its course. Mr L.K. Advani’s decision to resign from Parliament and not take public office until cleared of charges in the hawala scam was mandated by an appreciation of this critical difference. The BJP leadership upheld this stand by compelling an unwilling Mr Madan Lal Khurana to step down from the chief ministership of Delhi on similar grounds. The Janata Party, on the other hand, virtually self-destructed when forced to emulate this standard under pressure of public opinion.

Understandably, parties that have profited from the culture of turning the Nelson’s eye to corruption have little empathy for such a worldview. Signora Gandhi emerged as the Congress party’s star campaigner even after the Bofors documents that arrived in this country pointed the needle of suspicion at her personally through her friend and countryman, Ottavio Quattrochi. She went on to become party President and leader of the Parliamentary Party. Laloo Yadav preferred to split the Janata Dal rather than resign the presidentship, and his protégé Prime Minister, Mr Inder Gujral, remained silent about the continued presence of his MPs in the then union cabinet. True to type, Laloo went on to anoint his wife as Chief Minister when his arrest under the hawala scam became inevitable.

Obviously, in the wake of the Centre’s decision to prosecute the then Foreign Minister, Mr Madhav Sinh Solanki, for his role in attempting to scuttle the Bofors probe, and the heightened vigour with which courts are pursuing cases of corruption in public life, there is a large vested interest in the installation of a regime that will “take care” of the prosecution. This explains the shady machinations to bring down a government that is keenly delivering the goods on a number of fronts, on specious charges levelled by a dismissed service chief and his verbose wife. But larger forces shape a nation’s destiny. While the critics have been unable to get their act together, the issue of dharma in public life has been thoroughly politicised. It cannot now be easily brushed under the carpet.

The Pioneer, 13 April 1999

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