In an earlier column, 'The agenda behind the anti-corruption agenda' (October 20, 2012), I had voiced my scepticism about the anti-corruption movement. A lot of readers were pained by what they felt was my excessive cynicism regarding Team Kejriwal.
Quite a few directed me to a recent article by Yogendra Yadav in Outlook, titled ‘Ethical Cleansing, not Ritual Purity’, in which the good professor has made an impressive case for transforming a social movement into a political party.
Yadav’s thesis rests on two basic arguments: One, "if politics is about shifting the balance of power in a society, then not resorting to politics is not an option. Politics is the yugdharma of the time we live in". Nothing wrong with that.
The problem is with Yadav’s second argument: that the politics of social movements, such as the Right to Information (RTI) campaign, or the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), are impotent when it comes to effecting changes that threaten the "interests of the political class". I find it curious that he uses the term "political class" here and not "ruling class".
In a rhetorical sleight of hand, political engagement, which we all agree is unavoidable, becomes mysteriously reduced to electoral politics. "Movement politics," writes Yadav, "is necessary but insufficient; in itself it can only be the second-best option. For those who dare to think big and press for fundamental systemic changes, there is no substitute for a political instrument of their own." And what is Yadav's vision for a "political instrument"? It’s the same old wine in a newer but 'cleaner' bottle – a political party, but composed of ethical individuals who, by definition, will not be from the existing ‘political class’ which has become ‘impure’ due to corruption and is therefore in need of "ethical cleansing".
But since when did 'cleansing' come to mean 'systemic change'? Cleaning a house is very different from breaking it down and building a new one. Yadav claims to be breaking the house (system) by seeking to clean it. Not happening.
I find it strange that even a brilliant political scientist like Yadav seems to run out of imagination when it comes to thinking of a genuine alternative to the prevailing system, which he himself agrees needs an overhaul. Is starting a new party to contest elections the best way to change a system that is programmed to accept and incorporate new political parties, and depends exactly on such initiatives to give its fast-fading legitimacy a new coat of varnish?
By locating the cause of our system’s failure in a ‘political class’, Yadav sidesteps the class conflict at the heart of the systemic crisis. His logic is: we are stuck with parliamentary democracy, so why not make the best of it?
But history has proven time and again that electoral democracy never works as well for the masses as it does for the classes. Let us look at just one example from recent history.
The African National Congress (ANC) is a mass movement-turned-political party. When the ANC, which led the anti-apartheid struggle of the black majority in South Africa, came to power in 1994, it too had a 'vision document' just like Team Kejriwal's Vision Document. Called the Freedom Charter, it's worth a glance – it's freely accessible on the ANC website.
Among other things, the ANC promised black South Africans the right to work, nationalisation of mines, banks and monopoly industries, and land redistribution to poor Blacks. The party has been continuously in power for 18 years, from 1994 to the present, and the disparity between the black majority and the tiny white elite has only gotten worse.
The ANC government has followed every single one of the neoliberal policies of its white supremacist predecessor. Though it had the power to carry out reforms (the opposite of the Manmohan kind) needed to make South Africa a more equal society, it chose not to do so, and today the country’s economy is firmly in the hands of the white business elite.
So what happened? Can anyone doubt that Nelson Mandela's ANC winning the elections was a good thing? That Mandela himself was a good man, like Gandhi and Nehru were? Then how come the ANC today is known more for its corruption scandals than for taking care of the interests of its primary constituency – the poor Black majority? The parallel between the Congress of pre-independent India and the ANC of apartheid South Africa is matched today by a similar parallel between the corruption-ridden, 21st century avatars of the two great parties.
Of course, democracy is useful. But it is more useful to some than to others. As the American activist Pete Dolack notes in his blog, Systemic Disorder, "Democracy is a historical accident of capitalism." Modern democracy emerged as an institution to adjudicate conflicts between capitalists. It worked because it offered a mechanism "for selecting political leadership in the absence of an absolute monarchy or the continued ascendancy of a static landed aristocracy". It is to the credit of the working classes that they were able to "wrest some of that democracy for themselves". But there is nothing about democracy that is inherently revolutionary – and in a capitalist state like ours or America, no way!
Yadav wriggles out of this contradiction between democracy’s political potential and its anti-political source code designed to suppress that potential, by conflating all politics with electoral politics.
What drives him to do this? I don’t know but my guess: His infatuation with electoral democracy. It is a common failing of all liberals. They go all weak-kneed at the very mention of the word 'democracy'. But it is the neo-cons, the Pentagon and our own corporate masters who have best understood, and mastered, the political uses of democracy: that it's value lay not in its practice but as an idea, as a vision for social and political mobilization, as rhetoric, and as a sugar-coating for the bitter pill of capitalism that the classes need the masses to swallow (preferably of their own free will).
The writer is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.