When the best ‘salesman’ of Hindi cinema, Aamir Khan, sheds a few tears on national television while listening to the heart-wrenching tale of a woman forced to undergo multiple abortions because she was carrying female fetuses, the rest of the country wakes up and cries along. This, despite female feticide being one of the best known secrets of the country that has been highlighted effectively by successive censuses. Most people, who would form the core viewership of Khan’s Satyamev Jayate, would read newspapers and be aware of our dismal child sex ratio—914 (number of girls per 1,000 boys in the 0-6 age group, 2011 census).
Why then does it take a celebrity actor’s histrionics on a reality show to make us sit up and take notice, empathizing with the sufferers—be it tortured women, victims of medical malpractice or honor killings—all well knows social ills? In fact, why does a mainstream commercial star even need to step into this sphere and become the ‘messiah’ of the masses?
It is the collective failure of India’s current political leadership that has created a huge vacuum in the country, waiting to be filled by aspiring activists, star-turned-messiahs, vested interests and dangerously, even radical elements. Anna Hazare and his ‘team’ being a case in point. What defines India’s politics today is the remarkable coordination with which all major political parties have failed to be the ‘people’s voice’, the upholders of social justice and democratic values.
The drift across the political class is palpable. The less said about the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the better. Each day of the UPA government is spent firefighting corruption charges, political scandals, unfavorable media reports and allies’ tantrums. To say there is a ‘policy paralysis’ would be hugely underwhelming. However, more dangerous than the inability to push through policies and reforms is the government’s misplaced priorities and lack of social intervention.
Ruling governments have, even in the past, floundered. The opposition, however, has often risen to the occasion. The ‘emergency’ imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1975-77) is perhaps the biggest blot on India’s democratic history and an obviously glaring example of the leading political party letting the country down. However, this period is also characterized by the blatant defiance by all other political parties, the courage of political leaders who stood against the despotic move and were subsequently jailed, and the emergence of players like the Jana Sangh (later Janata Party and now the Bharatiya Janata Party) as political forces that count.
Today, while of course the situation is far less extreme than during the emergency era, it is perhaps more disconcerting because of the combined collapse of political will. The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is way too occupied battling its internal schisms to really hold the government accountable or step in where the elected government has failed. It would be a truism to say the BJP has failed to seize the moment as an opposition facing a floundering government.
The Left parties, meanwhile, are plagued by disarray and decay. The bloc, which was once hailed for its role as a phenomenal political activist and a credible social force, is now nothing but a group of 40-odd parliamentarians who speak when their turn arrives.
Regional parties, meanwhile, are doing well for themselves electorally and politically but their concerns and agendas remain largely regional, except for arm-twisting the government at the centre on the basis of their newfound clout.
Thus, there is absolutely no political force at the national level today that can capture the imagination of the entire country and claim to speak for the people, highlighting crucial social issues and speaking out against pervasive ills. It is well known that the Anna Hazare movement—driven by a motley bunch of ranting individuals—was born out of this political vacuum. The erosion in the credibility of the political class has meant groups like Hazare’s can openly challenge our democratically elected leaders, call them names, attempt to dictate terms to the government, constantly shift goalposts and fuel public sentiments. The social issue that Hazare chose to highlight was corruption. The BJP and other political parties did make some noise about it but lost focus midway, having to deal with more pressing internal issues.
Baba Ramdev, meanwhile, has decided to take some time off from teaching Yoga on TV to attacking the government on the issue of black money stashed in foreign banks—technically, an issue first highlighted and made a public debate by BJP’s LK Advani but now hijacked by Ramdev. Advani had to take time out to further his political ambitions and tour the country in a modern version of a rath, so he and his party failed to capitalize on the issue and allowed a yoga guru—not a people’s representative in the democratic sense—to take over.
Aamir Khan’s latest offering, Satyamev Jayate, is a manifestation of precisely this political vacuum at the national level where there is absolutely no democratic force to voice social concerns. Look at the issues Khan has highlighted so far. Female feticide—we have a ministry of women and child development, which in fact, should have taken the initiative to perhaps even approach a well-known face to highlight the issue. We have several articulate women politicians like Sushma Swaraj, Brinda Karat, Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati. Heard any of them talk about this recently? And yes, our child sex ratio has in fact worsened in 2011 as compared to the previous census—cause enough for some political party to take up the matter. The worst cases are in Haryana—from where many young political leaders, including those from the ruling party like Naveen Jindal and union minister Kumari Selja have been elected. They, like everyone else in their fraternity, have chosen silence over action.
Medical malpractice—the health ministry is busy doling out health schemes that would be electorally beneficial, with the minister giving a moral sermon against homosexuality, instead of bringing the accused doctors to book. The latest episode was on the lack of sensitivity, particularly at the state level, towards the disabled. Last week’s episode was on the phenomenon of ‘honor killing’ where couples who marry against the wishes of their families are brutally killed. This is closely linked to the ‘Khap Panchayats’ (community groups that set the rules in an area comprising one or more villages that have now increasingly been getting despotic and regressive), prevalent mostly across Haryana. In a frightening example of political opportunism over social good, Jindal in fact supported the Khaps for rendering yeoman service to society.
Failure of India’s political leadership has created a huge vacuum, waiting to be filled by activists, star-turned-messiahs, vested interests and radical elements.
Contrary to common perception, it isn’t just Khan’s charisma and star value that is driving his show to such public popularity. He isn’t telling us anything new, not revealing any great secrets. The difference is that he is speaking out against social and cultural evils, he is speaking for the people through an effective and pervasive medium, and he is that collective voice that is resonating nationally. He has picked sensitive, emotive, yet completely relevant issues. He has taken over as an activist, urging state governments and heads of organizations to take prompt action—something that ideally should have come from the political class. His show is tellingly called Satyamev Jayate—India’s national motto, something that our political leadership should ideally stand for.
Khan is a shrewd and perceptive individual. He identified that massive political vacuum, the absence of a national voice that would speak for each one of us, or at least, most of us. He flirted with the idea of appropriating that role when he joined Hazare on stage during his protest fast but realized he could do much more than just being a sidekick. And thus, emerged this show—with all possible elements of a socio-political potboiler—in which he highlights the issue effectively, brings victims to talk, proposes solutions and even lobbies for justice, while engaging with the government and other stakeholders.
Make no mistake. This phenomenon isn’t necessarily peculiar to India. Anywhere in the world where democratically elected political leaders collectively turn a blind eye to glaring social concerns and fail to live up to their mandate, Anna Hazares and Satyamev Jayates will emerge. In Nepal, the demise of the only elected institution, the inability of the political leadership to fulfill its mandate of drafting a constitution, combined with the pre-occupation of the political class in bickering over petty issues while playing the blame-game, instead of talking about and addressing rising social concerns has created a similar void. Perhaps, Nepal waits for its very own version of Satyamev Jayate.