The Anna Hazare movement must measure success not in terms of electoral gains but its ability to set the political agenda
There is at last some clarity on the politics of the anti-corruption movements. Baba Ramdev’s dramatic call for Congress-hatao and the ‘political turn’ of the Anna movement have confirmed that a movement aimed at rooting out corruption cannot defer a direct encounter with party politics for very long. The manner in which both decisions were announced left something to be desired. The announcement by ‘Team Anna’ invited serious criticism that it was a hasty afterthought, a face-saving device or, worse, a sinister design. Baba Ramdev’s flip-flop and final dalliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party and other non-Congress forces irrespective of their own record on corruption were hardly expected to add to his credibility. Yet this clarity is to be welcomed, for it opens an unusual window of opportunity for people’s politics.
Right from its beginnings last year, the anti-corruption movement comprised three tendencies. One section was staunchly opposed to all parties, all politicians and all forms of politics. More pronounced in the first phase of the movement, this anti-politics tendency had worrisome authoritarian overtones. The second tendency translated anti-corruption as anti-Congress and did not care if its actions ended up aligning with the opposition parties, especially the BJP. Eventually owned up by Baba Ramdev and briefly preferred by Team Anna last year, this tendency has evoked suspicion about the hidden hand of the sangh parivar in the anti-corruption movement.
The third tendency, which has finally prevailed within the Anna movement, though not without dissent, searched for its own, alternative form of politics. While this has generally been understood as forming a new political party, the impulse underlying this tendency awaits more careful elaboration. A formal separation of this third tendency from the politics of anti-politics and mere non-Congressism may appear to have weakened the popular upsurge and let the ruling class off the hook. Seen in a wider context, however, this development has opened up the possibility of new ideas, energies and allies for alternative politics of people’s movements.
A political vacuum marks the people’s movement sector. Ever since its emergence in the 1980s, the movement sector — comprising farmers’ movements, Dalit movements, women’s movements, environmental movements and the movements for information and deepening of democracy — is one of the most vibrant spaces in the democratic arena. These movements are inherently political in that they seek to challenge the settled relations of power. They have quietly shifted the terms of political engagement and brought new issues to the foreground. Legislation and policies like the Right to Information, the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Forest Act and the new Land Acquisition and Rehabilitations Act are a tribute to the power and creativity of these movements.
Yet these movements have not succeeded in posing a direct challenge to mainstream politics. Attempts to establish political parties representing the movements failed to cross the high threshold of viability in our electoral system. These include the Samata Sangathan and Karnataka Rajya Rayyata Sangha in the 1980s, the Samajwadi Janparishad and Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha in the 1990s, and the Loksatta Party, Women’s Political Front, Uttarakhand Jan Vahini and Sarvodaya Karnataka in the last decade. Attempts at forming a grand coalition of these movements in electoral politics did not work in the last two Lok Sabha elections.
These efforts have involved some of the finest activists and thinkers of our time. There have been many creative organisational experiments and ideological innovations. Yet, they remained largely invisible: most educated and politically informed Indians may not have heard about these. Even the most powerful mass movements failed to translate their support in electoral terms. In order to give effect to their political agenda, these movements remained dependent on the very political establishment they critiqued and struggled against.
During this period, mainstream politics became more insulated from popular struggles and movements. Here’s the paradox though: ever since the sudden decline of the Congress in 1989, the third space has expanded while the third force has shrunk. The failure of the Janata Dal in the early 1990s and the collapse of the United Front experiment in the mid-1990s meant that much of the expanding political energy of the third space drifted towards the two poles represented by the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance. The Left used to be a natural home for popular struggles and movements, but its ideological dominance, moral authority and political presence have been severely eroded. The energy of the third space is in search of a national political vehicle of its own.
This is where the anti-corruption movement offers something of a breakthrough. It is after more than three decades that a movement outside the organised party sector has registered a nationwide presence and visibility. More than the number of people that participated in highly visible protests in Delhi, what matters is that the Anna Hazare-led movement spawned smaller protests in a large number of towns and even villages. A fairly large proportion of citizens who did not participate in any protest heard about it and sympathised with it. The activists, supporters and sympathisers of the anti-corruption movement constitute a larger pool of potential support for alternative politics than generated by any other popular movement in recent times. After a very long time, a movement promises to cross the high threshold of viability required for creating a national political alternative.
At the same time, this is no more than a promise of a breakthrough. The support was not based on any grassroots mobilisation and was almost entirely triggered by extraordinary media coverage in August last year. Therefore the support base is very mixed and variable and could well be ephemeral. Besides, a good deal of the support for the anti-corruption movement may not translate into support for alternative politics.
There are ideological issues here. A single issue like corruption could serve as the focal point of mobilisation of otherwise contrary forces in a movement. This was a smart choice: the more ‘classical’ radical issues do not permit cross-sectional mobilisation, nor do they resonate in popular consciousness. At the same time, corruption understood in a narrow way cannot be the centre-piece of an alternative politics. Minimally, an understanding of corruption needs to go beyond bribery of individual politicians and bureaucrats; corruption embedded into policies and perpetuated by the system needs to be addressed. There have been legitimate concerns about where this movement stands vis-à-vis bigger questions like communalism, caste-based injustice, crony capitalism and ecological destruction. Anna’s movement was wise to distance itself from communal and anti-Dalit positions, but it is to be seen if it can expand its ideological bandwidth to include larger issues raised by people’s movements in the last couple of decades.
The movement also faces serious organisational and leadership challenges. The success of the movement required a leader like Anna Hazare. The challenge of quick response in the face of sudden success also required decision making by a small and flexible group. This is not suited for making a transition to political organisation. Any form of political organisation would require a clearly established and consultative procedure for mature decision-making. The leadership of the movement would need to reflect the social diversity of the country and the rising aspirations of the hitherto marginalised social groups.
The larger challenge
Finally, there is the challenge of political and organisational vision. While ending the fast, ‘Team Anna’ committed itself to creating an alternative political force. But it was soon translated into a new political party aiming at electoral success in 2014. It remains to be seen if this new effort is alive to the larger challenge of imagining and building alternative politics. Specifically, the challenge is to visualise a political organisation that does not replicate the structural flaws of mainstream political parties. The movement also faces the challenge of looking beyond the next election and redefining what political ‘success’ means. Instead of exposing itself to conventional measures of success in terms of votes and seats, the movement needs to think of its success in terms of its impact on the political agenda and the established political culture. Its success depends not so much on whether it wins an election but on how much of positive energy it releases into the political system.
In other words, the anti-corruption movement offers a possible breakthrough for creating an alternative politics, but it faces serious mobilisational, ideological and organisational challenges. Fortunately, the people’s movements can complement the anti-corruption movement in this respect. A fusion of the tendency within the anti-corruption movement committed to a political alternative and the stream within people’s movements wedded to the idea of alternative politics is the need of the hour. Such a fusion is historically possible and desirable, but forging it in real life is going to be a very difficult and delicate operation. Medha Patekar and Aruna Roy, two of the leading and most credible voices in the movement sector, have cautioned against this move. They are not non-political and certainly not anti-political, but they are not convinced of the merit of turning a popular movement into a political party. Keeping their concerns in mind and yet trying to forge a new political instrument is the challenge of our times. This is the challenge for all those who dare to think beyond the limited political alternatives that we have had to live with.
(The author is a political analyst and has been associated with various people’s movements for the last three decades.)