Monday, February 6

Anti-dhakka shahi

Message from Punjab may echo in other states: can’t subvert state for the party, writes Vandita Mishra in The Indian Express after a tour of the state that went to polls on January 30 
Among the 40 shabads and one shloka of the 14th century Bhakti saint Ravidass that are included in the Guru Granth Sahib, is “Begampura”. Be-gam-pura, or the land without sorrow. The spirit of the verse is this: Begampura is the name of the city where there is no suffering or anxiety, no fear or downfall/ Begampura is the city where there is sovereignty of god/ Where there is lasting peace and safety for all/ All are equal, no one is second or third in Begampura/ Ravidass the Shoemaker is a friend of all who are citizens of Begampura.
Unnoticed in the just concluded election in Punjab, the Begampura Lok Party, floated by some followers of saint Ravidass, made its electoral debut by putting up six candidates in Doaba region. Doaba is home to the largest concentration of Dalits in Punjab, a majority of whom are followers of Ravidass and have traditionally worshipped the Guru Granth Sahib because their saint’s baani or teaching is enshrined in it.
Doaba has also been the backdrop of a social and political confrontation between the Ravidassis and mainstream, Jat-dominated Sikhism represented by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). The flashpoint came in 2009 with a shootout in Vienna, allegedly by “radical Sikhs”, in which the head of the Dera Sachkhand Ballan, the largest dera of the Ravidassis in the region, was injured and his second-in-command killed.
Essentially, Doaba’s new party is a gesture of defiance against the political mainstream seen to be insensitive to the plight of the Ravidassis. It takes no great political acumen, however, to predict that the picturesque flailing will prove electorally futile.
As they queued up at the polling booths last week, for the people of Punjab, Begampura was not on the ballot paper — or in the political imagination. There was no ideal state on the political menu, or the possibility of a clean slate. The choice inside the polling booth was neither heroic nor stark.
It was not democracy against dictatorship. Or, as Team Anna Hazare would have it, “traitors” versus “patriots”, “corrupt” versus “clean”. On polling day January 30, it was, as it always is, an imperfect choice between the available options.
In this election more than others, it was clear that the people of Punjab were confronting a system in which the winner takes all and the aam admi gets less and less of a “sunvai” or hearing. This system is seen to have dug in its heels in Punjab, just as it had in Haryana under the Chautalas, or in Tamil Nadu under the DMK. Or, for that matter, in West Bengal under the CPM, before Mamata Banerjee rode the wave of popular anger against the all-pervading, all-invading Party.
In the run-up to polls, the term most often heard across Punjab was “dhakka shahi”. It describes the rule by partisanship and brute force, in which the ruling party monopolises the thana, the panchayat, the municipality, the mandi board, the cable network, leaving receding room for the political opponent or the neutral arbiter and institution. But in Punjab, as in other states, there was to be no grand or perfect fight against dhakka shahi because both parties in the fray are seen to be guilty.
Both the SAD and Congress share responsibility for the build-up of popular distrust in the government’s ability to play fair. If the SAD is accused of capturing panchayats and municipalities, slapping political opponents with false “parchas” or cases, and tightening its grip over transport, cable, mining and liquor businesses in the last five years, previous Congress regimes have shown no better.
In all likelihood, therefore, Election 2012 in Punjab hinged on the constricted choices made in village squares and city mohallas in response to questions such as these: Did dhakka shahi grow better or worse under SAD rule? How different were things under the Congress?
In popular perception, the Congress is the party that indulges in big scams and practises vendetta politics at the top, while the Akalis preside over a tangled system of petty corruptions that extends political vindictiveness to ground level.
Several dubious firsts were registered in the last five years of SAD rule. An unofficial post of the “halka in-charge” or constituency in-charge was created by the ruling party. It was the title given to the SAD MLA, or its defeated or would-be candidate, who became all-powerful in the constituency, by-passing the local administration or elected Congress MLA. In 2010, a government gazette notification made the police sub-divisions co-terminus with assembly constituencies, officially making the DSP subordinate to the MLA, formalising a systemic perversion already in play.
The real question in a state where all politics has been made completely personal was: will the SAD now also be forced to take personal ownership of the degeneration of political culture it has contributed to and accelerated, but one that it did not entirely create?
Or, did the voter balance her revulsion at dhakka shahi against evidence of visible development in the last five years? Along with the welfare schemes and subsidies it rolled out in election year, the SAD government is also credited with improvements in the road network and the kickstarting of power projects and governance reforms that will benefit Punjab in the long term.
Whatever the outcome on March 6, the misappropriation of the State by the Party can no longer be swept under the carpet and it is important that Punjab’s new government draws the right lessons for the future. If it goes, the SAD would be missing the point if it blames rote anti-incumbency, the dera’s verdict in favour of the Congress, or its own decision to relegate the “panthic agenda” and showcase “development”.
Should it stay on, the SAD must know that Punjab’s new government will be judged not just by its delivery of public goods and freebies, or even its vision for diversifying the economy in a state where the Green Revolution plateaued long ago. It will also be judged on its capacity to dent popular cynicism by its willingness to democratise itself.
There is a message from Punjab for the anti-corruption wallahs in Delhi. All too often, corruption is more than a charge against particular individuals, or instances of bribe and delay.
It is about the less tangible fuzzing of lines between institutions. And the growing personalisation and privatisation of the state. The fight against corruption requires not so much the apolitical or anti-political authority hectoring the System from outside, but the making of an intrinsically political choice, howsoever imperfect, by the aam admi from within, and for the ruler to read his lips.

No comments: