In deciding to be the change it wants to see, Team Anna has a striking parallel in the Janata experiment which proved that a popular movement can quickly gain political credentials

Minutes after Anna Hazare and his team announced their decision to consider entering electoral politics, Union Minister Ambika Soni said this was evidence of the group having had a political agenda. Ms Soni’s statement, by implication, meant that only she and her kind had the right to contest elections and that the average Indian voter must restrict himself to choosing from among them. It is another matter that these were the same people who indicted Team Anna for undermining Parliament’s role in political democracy.

The fact is Anna Hazare and his close aides could have made this decision almost a year ago when they captured the imagination of a cross-section of the Indian people, including the urban middle class, in August 2011 and rattled the establishment.

The atmosphere then had striking similarities with that in northern India in November 1973, when Jayaprakash Narayan had galvanised the youth and the students against the ruling Congress. The then establishment, in a declaration from Narora, called him a conspirator and even accused JP of being a CIA agent. And after many instances when he and his fellow protesters were beaten in public and put in jail, JP finally declared that he would lead a political alternative to Indira Gandhi’s Congress in the ensuing elections.

Well, the Congress, after daring JP to prove his point in an election, developed cold feet and invoked Article 352 of the Constitution to postpone the polls. The general elections, due in March 1976 were not held. And when they were in March 1977, JP proved his point. To cut a long story short, there are striking parallels between then and the present, when Anna Hazare and his team have reluctantly agreed to take the plunge. If one is to choose between lobbying for change, putting pressure for change and trying to be the change, the most democratic option would be the last; to be the change and go to the people seeking their mandate. And when the decision was taken, it was an explicit statement that the two other options did not work.

Even those who agree that going to the people is the best option in a democracy harbour the fear that Anna Hazare will face the same fate as JP. The Janata alternative collapsed and Indira Gandhi returned with a thumping mandate in 1980. It is also true that Janata threw up leaders whose record on probity was as bad, if not worse, as those against whom JP had campaigned. The Janata Party ended up as a platform for those who had mastered the art of corruption and the BJP, founded out of the Janata’s rubble, was no exception.

But then, the Janata Party sprang not from the crucible of the anti-corruption crusade that JP launched or even the one that was conducted by the students in Gujarat. The experience of the Emergency mediated the phase between the anti-corruption movement and the birth of the party. The excesses of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency made heroes out of scoundrels. The Emergency prematurely released a certain kind of opposition leader and encouraged them to strike deals and thus did all that could be done to discredit the opposition. It is worth remembering that the Janata Party also consisted of a Jagjivan Ram and an H.N. Bahuguna, who were part of the notorious regime from day one and crossed over just when the elections were announced. The sequence of events involving Baba Ramdev and the midnight swoop were indeed similar to that game Indira Gandhi played 35 years ago.

With a sense of history, it is incorrect to blame JP for having glossed over these problems when he put the Janata Party together. The struggle for restoring political democracy had to be top of the agenda in March 1977. If JP had insisted on sticking to his priorities as they were before June 25, 1975, he would have been guilty of participating in the destruction of our republican Constitution. JP responded to the situation and presided over the process of cobbling a party together. The Janata Party was constituted in just 12 days between January 18, 1977 — the day Morarji Desai was released — and January 30, 1977, when the leaders announced their party. JP and his colleagues could not afford a longer time because Indira Gandhi’s strategy was to give the opposition as little time, fox them and ensure victory for herself in the elections.

There are lessons for Anna Hazare and his team from this. Team Anna has men and women who are eminently capable of seeing things. Notwithstanding the naive but earnest Kiran Bedi here or an Anupam Kher there, one would expect Shanti Bhushan, an active player in the making of the Janata Party, to play another big role. The elder Bhushan had, in a sense, been a catalysts in the making of the crisis then. He had argued Raj Narain’s case against Indira Gandhi’s election from Rae Bareili and the ensuing judgment had, in a sense, set the stage for the declaration of the Emergency.

And in the end, unlike some abstract notes that JP had put forth under the rubric of ‘Total Revolution’, Team Anna has propounded a concrete draft for an effective legislation against graft. Therein lies the hope. The nation can afford to take another chance even while staying prepared for another disappointment and another battle thereafter. This is better than putting up with the crop we have.

(V. Krishna Ananth is Associate Professor, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Sikkim University, Gangtok.)

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