Anna Hazare succeeded because he tapped into a deeply felt anger against corruption and systemic gang-up. But the campaign must define itself ideologically or risk appropriation by right-wing usurpers.
A future historian attempting to document the Anna Hazare fast at the Capital's Jantar Mantar will likely confront contrasting images: of multitudes enthused and galvanised by one elder citizen's crusading zeal, of Mr. Hazare's almost single-handed ability, within days, to bring the government to its knees. The Hazare campaign would connect strangers and unite voices, making it the first time in two decades that anyone had been able to mobilise support on the issue of corruption.
However, the chronicler would also be perplexed by the motley bunch that formed the audience at the principal venue. Not just the young and the idealistic, of whom there was evidently no dearth, but also the lynch mobs who seized the platform to show off their contempt for politics and the due process. The constant presence of babas and sants did not help, nor for that matter the unsolicited support from sundry Bollywood divas. Thanks to the mish-mash, rousing strains of brashtachar mitayenge (we will end corruption) mingled with incendiary calls to “kill” and “hang” the political class. The contradictions were only accentuated by the way sections of the visual and print media presented the event.
Indeed, the nuances have gone missing in the Anna Hazare story, with Anna being projected as all white or all black; either as a Gandhi at the vortex of a blazing revolution or as a manufactured hero with only an imaginary following. On the television screen, the Hazare fast became a TRP-raising blockbuster, a 24x7 “people's movement” that brought a profitable rush of eyeballs and advertisements. Curiously, in sections of the print media, the same “throbbing, pulsating” event that TV grabbed with both hands, transmogrified into a charade, a “fast one” pulled on the nation by the “Hazare circus.” In this narrative, the veteran was “a self-serving blackmailer” who would use the threat of his own death to force the government into submission. There was also the suggestion that corruption excited only the rootless urban elite; the buzz on twitter and facebook was just that — a passing interest in a transient curiosity.
So what ought to be the takeaway from the Hazare campaign? Undoubtedly, it was a campaign that was waiting to happen. It also ended as it should have, with the government agreeing to share responsibility to bring a comprehensive and effective bill to investigate and prosecute corruption. By any yardstick this is a spectacular breakthrough. But equally, there has been unease over a campaign that seemed predicated on instant justice — prioritising deadlines over consultations — and that has looked so far to be ideologically adrift.
To airily dismiss the Hazare event because TV magnified it or because the facebook generation lapped it up, or even because disparate elements jumped on the bandwagon, is to ignore the elephant in the room. The truth is that Mr. Hazare tapped into a deeply felt popular anger — against corruption of course but even more against the arrogance of the expanded class that fed off this corruption. If the disillusionment was missed, it was by this class, by people who were complicit in the system and its privileges, and who were shielded by the closed nature of the compact they formed. Rewind to the fury unleashed in the wake of the Niira Radia tapes — the citizen is hardly likely to have missed the “business as usual” manner of most of the cast. Perhaps Anna had shown a way to break the gang-up.
Nor is it true that corruption finds no resonance in the rural areas. No news reporter travelling in Uttar Pradesh in the late 1980s could have missed the pervasive anti-Bofors mood in the villages. At the time, private television was not even a glint in the eye of the still smallish media industry; Bofors and V.P. Singh were blacklisted words on All India Radio and Doordarshan. Yet the villages could have been located on an information superhighway, judging from how eagerly they absorbed and passed on Bofors-related news. The 1989 general election saw the Congress finish with 15 Lok Sabha seats — down from 83 in 1984.
Had there been no undercurrent of popular support for Mr. Hazare, the United Progressive Alliance government — or for that matter any other government in its place — would not have rushed to wrap up the show, much less respond to Mr. Hazare's ultimatums. Jantar Mantar is the Capital's designated place for protests. This is where nameless morchas ended; this is where hunger-strikers pitched their tents, waiting for the government machinery to move. Over the years, the tents and the hunger-strikers had become part of the landscape, a distant blur unnoticed by those rushing by.
Last week, the faded-out venue dramatically came alive, and at the centre of the commotion was an unlikely figure — a forgotten old man, relegated eons ago to the margins of protest politics. Mr. Hazare clicked because he struck at a time when many of the previous heroes had fallen from their pedestals. Corporate heads and media celebrities, who had been the toast of the middle class, had been exposed as colluders in power politics. The vacuum needed to be filled, and Anna, who, stories claimed (there are counter stories too) lived in a temple with no bank balance, filled it as no one else could.
It is clear that without Anna's perceived simplicity — and integrity — the campaign could not have taken off. It is a given that a campaign for probity must be helmed by a person of unquestionable moral stature. However, any such campaign will flounder without ideological focus and a larger understanding of history as also of the checks and balances that are inherent to the democratic processes. Members of Mr. Hazare's team, among them Arvind Kejriwal and activist-advocate Prashant Bhushan, were on the ball when they argued that the Lokpal bill was a sham promised over 40 years by corrupt governments that shut themselves out of transparent and independent scrutiny. However, the Jan Lokpal Bill, offered in response, has been criticised for possibly being an overcorrection, with fears that the pendulum could swing too much to the other side.
It is instructive that Team Hazare has received bouquets and brickbats in equal measure from within civil society. Bouquets for resuscitating the comatose Lokpal bill and brickbats for the “here and now” impatience visible in such things as the imposition of quick deadlines for the bill's enactment. The National Advisory Council's Working Group on Transparency, Accountability and Governance, headed by Aruna Roy, has repeatedly emphasised the importance of the “pre-legislative process,” urging “wider and more geographically spread” consultations to precede the “seminal legislation.” The drafters of the Jan Lokpal Bill seem willing to put the draft to greater scrutiny. Besides, there is one iron-clad guarantee against the bill turning rogue: the government itself. The drafting sub-committee includes sharp legal minds such as Pranab Mukherjee, P. Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal, none of whom would easily yield ground.
The bill will most likely sort itself out. But where does the movement go from there? And before it takes up other projects like electoral reform — as Anna has suggested it would — should it not define itself ideologically? As the past week's hunger strike demonstrated, the best of causes can be subverted by the indiscriminate offer of the platform to diverse elements. The appearance on stage of yoga guru Baba Ramdev was disconcerting as was the fact that Anna thought it fit to receive a letter of support from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, handed over to him by spokesperson Ram Madhav. The frenzied calls from the crowds to hang the corrupt were endorsed at times by Mr. Hazare himself, and the overall slant was worryingly anti-politics. Together these suggested a campaign that perhaps viewed itself as ideology neutral, a campaign that targeted corruption per se without situating the struggle in an overarching intellectual vision.
Post-Independent India has witnessed two major movements and the important lesson from both is that ideological neutrality is a short cut to power but self-defeating in the long term. In 1974, Jayaprakash Narayan captured the popular imagination with his call for Total revolution. Narayan drew his cadre support from the RSS, and unsurprisingly so because at that point the Indira Gandhi-led Congress was the only identified enemy. The credibility gained from the movement helped the Jana Sangh enter the 1977 Morarji Desai government.
Years later, in 1988-89, V.P. Singh would lead an anti-corruption movement against Rajiv Gandhi, with logistics managed once again by the RSS. In the 1989 general election, the Bharatiya Janata Party won 85 Lok Sabha seats — up from the two seats it held in 1984 and the rest, as they say, is history: The BJP grew to be the second pole in politics.
The Hazare-Kejriwal campaign was initially spearheaded by Baba Ramdev, with the spiritual preacher, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, bringing up the rear. It was the yoga guru who bombarded the Prime Minister's Office with letters, and who addressed mass rallies against corruption at the Ram Lila maidan. It was around late January 2011 that members of the core team realised the divergence between Ramdev's larger agenda — death for the corrupt is central to his vision — and their own limited interest in pushing the Jan Lokpal Bill. But by then the anti-corruption juggernaut had started to roll and it was too late to stop Ramdev from claiming space on the podium.
The nation will be well served if Team Hazare learns from history even as it basks in the sweet aftermath of its victory.