It isn’t often that events in contemporary Indian history collide in such sharply delineated contrasts as they will today when two strands of the Great Indian Narrative unfold on television screens across the country.
One of them – the swearing-in of Pranab Mukherjee as President – will be characterised by ceremonial pageantry calculated to make us feel good about ourselves. There will be spectacular images of the incumbent and the incoming Presidents in a horse-drawn buggy, which have had their metalware polished to perfection. Everything about this event has been carefully choreographed and planned out to the minutest detail, including the arrangements to scoop up equine excrement when the horses in the Presidential cavalcade surrender themselves to the call of nature that cannot go unanswered.
In its glitter and grandeur, and in uniting the political establishment in its entirety, the show will project majestic power. The subliminal message that it will seek to convey: All is well with India, and those who cavil at its minor imperfections are petty spoilsports who are incapable of seeing the bright side of things.
Elsewhere in New Delhi, however, another strand of the Indian story will play out in sharply different ways as Team Anna begins yet another round of indefinite fasts to press for a strong anti-corruption agency and to advance its case for an investigation of 15 Union ministers whom it has accused of being corrupt.
There will be nothing spectacular or ceremonial about this second event: in contrast to the hushed silence and the solemn atmosphere in the Central Hall of Parliament when the President is sworn in, the proceedings at Jantar Mantar, the venue of Team Anna‘s fast, will be raucous and perhaps even borderline disorderly.
Out there, there won’t be MPs in well-pressed bandhgalas or sherwanis, no silken regalia and no flashing diamonds, of the sorts that we’ll likely see in Parliament today. This is the other India – of the dirty, unwashed masses, of the decidedly un-telegenic hoi polloi. Their only interest in being there is to sustain their dying hopes that if they shout loud enough, perhaps their voices clamouring for an end to the corruption that is bleeding them dry will be heard by the members of the Power Club who will be a the swearing-in party.
The fact that they are gathering again today symbolises the triumph of hope over experience. They’ve been at it for more than a year now, since that spring day in April last year when Anna began his fast at Jantar Mantar, but they have very little to show for it.
Yes, they did kick up such a shindig and mount political pressure of such a high order that the UPA government, mired in monumental corruption, did initially attempt to acknowledge Team Anna’s angst and attempted to co-opt it. But before long, the entire political establishment realised that the anti-corruption movement would shake the very foundation of their political citadel. And they teamed up to whittle down the movement by slicing and dicing it a thousand ways.
Over this year and more, the tone of media commentaries too has turned decisively against the anti-corruption movement. Where once its leaders were seen as the warriors in a just cause, today the selfsame media rejoices in skewering them, picking on Team Anna’s minor failings and magnifying them a thousandfold to make false equivalences with the mega-corruption scandals of the UPA government.
So, if the television cameras decide to pan away from the same-old, same-old hectoring speeches at Jantar Mantar and the the riff-raff gathered there and dwell rather more on the horse-drawn buggy and the shining chandeliers in Parliament, don’t be too surprised.
In many ways, what we’re witnessing is a battle for the soul of India. For the insiders in the Power Circle, the system works just fine, and all this shrill sloganeering about corruption, which has gone on for too long, is a tiresome intrusion on their plush lives. But for the disempowered masses for whom the system is busted and who eventually pay the price for the corruption, today gives just one more chance to beat on the walls of the Power Club and let out another cry of anguish.
A line has been drawn in the sand. It’s time to ask yourself: which side are you on?