Sunday, September 04, 2011

What Anna Hazare achieved

In these times, when emotions and hyperbole are pumped up to suit the needs of TRP, and political battles are played out like John Le Carre thillers in the theater of 24 hour television, it is hard to separate the historical from the mundane, to distinguish the mediocre from the great.Thus, when television anchors and new age journalists hail Anna Hazare as the "New Gandhi", and when the nuances of political debate legislative legalities are drowned in chants  of  "Vande Mataram", it is a challenge to cast a critical glance at Anna Hazare and his movement, one that has gripped the nation for the last few days.

But even when I carefully keep aside the rhetoric , I cannot deny that what Anna Hazare and his team has achieved is monumental. Anna is no Gandhi, he is not even a Jayprakash Narayan, but he is certainly one of the tallest political figures we have had since JP. There are questions about Anna's own ideology. Anna's creation, Ralegan Siddhi, inspite of its amazing development story, has not had an election in the last 25 years. "Politics" apparently, is considered a bad word there. Anna's praise of Narendra Modi (although retracted later) cannot be taken lightly either, if we are to rally behind him in our subsequent struggles.

However, inspite of these ideological differences, I salute his leadership. With a young and inexperienced team behind team, this man with only small time political experience, has successfully fought the Congress Party, with the establishment, administration, propaganda machinery and experienced bigwigs behind it. Anna has managed to capture the collective imagination of the nation. In a large and heterogeneous country like India, which is often bitterly divided along the lines of religion, caste, ideologies, this is no small feat.

From the start of the movement, I have been quite ambivalent and cautious about it. There are important issues that the movement conveniently (I believe) ignores. The most notable is that of corporate corruption. While it is true that the corruption that has crept into bureaucracy and among the politicians of this country is scary, this is only one side of corruption. The source of the corruption in the higher echelons of the political establishment is driven largely by corporate greed. Economic liberalization has led to large amounts of capital pouring into the economy, and the stakes are high. Our politicians are acting merely as small time brokers, was they dole out telecom licenses or give permissions to bulldoze through villages and tribal hamlets to create SEZ and mines. Without a check on this corporate agenda, corruption cannot be curtailed, simply by trying to discipline the politicians. Anna Hazare's movement has largely been silent about this. Perhaps, they would lose a large amount of middle class and media support, if the issue was brought to the forefront.

Then again, there is a constant demonization of politicians. Speeches are made from the Anna platform, making the politicians responsible for all the ills of the society. That this resonates with the largely apolitical middle class is no surprise. They might be successfully playing to a certain gallery, but this is a dangerous exercise. Indian democracy is a miracle in itself, and long struggles have ensured that the flag of democracy is held high. The political system is one of the few weapons left for the powerless lower classes. Agitations and the right to vote remain the sole privilege of the poor. Nandigram is an excellent example, where the fear of a popular backlash has forced the political powers from pursuing the corporate agenda shamelessly. One only has to look back a few years, to take notice of the fall of the mighty Chandrababu Naidu, who was busy creating his high tech city and having photo ops with the Clintons, while cotton farmers in rural Andhra Pradesh were committing suicide. The poor have very few choices on how to influence the development agenda. The democracy, that Anna's team has so often jeered at, is perhaps the only one. In this, the Anna movement reeks of middle class privilege. The reason that I spent so much time harping upon this issue is because when Kiran Bedi's antics on the Anna stage are recieved with popular cheers, it scares me.

However, keeping all these reservations in mind, team Anna at this moment have achieved a momentous victory. The political system, inspite of its strong institutions, needed a jolt. They have been able to provide a power structure that successfully challenges the political establishment. Democracy, as any other system, performs best with checks and balances. The multi-party system ensures some of it. But it also poses the danger of politics itself becoming an establishment that believes it is supreme. The Anna Hazare movement, probably the first time after JP, has brought out the masses to the streets, irrespective of political color or affiliations, and has tried to influence the course of lawmaking of the nation. I do not see it as a bypassing of parliamentary democracy in any manner. Time and again, this allegation has been leveled at the Anna movement from various quarters. However, I find the allegation is flawed in its basic premise. The Parliament is not supreme in a democracy, it is the People who are. The supremacy of the Parliament is only till the time when it represents the people. That the Parliament has lost the confidence of a large majority of people is quite evident from the popular support behind Anna Hazare. It is because of this popular rage that the Congress Govt. has been forced to listen to Anna Hazare, and has not been able to ignore him like it has done to Irom Sharmila. Other critiques of Anna Hazare have raised the question of blackmail. Here again, I think Anna has a totally legitimate point. Fasting has been used time and again to express demands ranging from the withdrawal of draconian laws to separate Statehood. Anna is not the first to employ this political weapon, nor has he broken any laws. Since when did making demands to a Government become a "blackmail"? Are all worker's movements, all "Bandhs", "gheraos" blackmail then? The history of political movement is the history of ordinary people who have demanded justice. I do not see how Anna's demands are somehow more "illegitimate" than the others.

So, in summary, as a popular newspaper editorial described, "I am a bit of Anna". It is dangerous to get carried away by rhetoric and television propaganda. However, it is also important to understand the source of the popular rage that drives this movement, and support the cause of a stronger Jan Lokpal Bill which brings greater accountability. The political fallout of the Anna Hazare movement and how it would change this country's political landscape is another story altogether. I would not get into that, but let me end with an interesting observation.

The first "fast-unto-death" that had shaken modern independent India was about 60 years ago. The political weather in the capital looked very similar. The Congress party was literally invincible with a weak opposition and no threats to its popularity, or so it seemed. Nehru's political authority seemed to be abolute. A frail idealistic Gandhian, Potti Sreeramalu  undertook a fast unto death in a private home in Madras, demanding the creation of the State of Andhra Pradesh. The division of the State would be on a linguistic basis, a demand that Nehru had opposed all along.

 The indifferent Government in Delhi did not make any political efforts to negotiate, and Potti Sreeramalu became one of the first activists in independent India to die due to a fast unto death, after 82 days of continuous fasting. There was a huge popular backlash, which brought the powerful Nehru Government to its knees. In a few days, the Government acceded to the demands of the creation of the state of Andhra Pradesh. This was the first time a state was carved out on linguistic lines, and this changed the course of Indian history and politics forever. As history repeats itself, the Anna movement has perhaps done a lot of similar things. It remains to be seen how history will judge it.