‘Anna Hazare’, Democracy and Politics: A Response to Shuddhabrata Sengupta
In an earlier post, (hits to which have broken all records on Kafila), Shuddhabrata Sengupta has raised some extremely important points in the context of the media-simulated coverage and celebrations around the ‘Anna Hazare’ movement. I agree with the central argument made by Shuddha – which is about the authoritarian, indeed totalitarian implications of the proposed Jan Lokpal Bill (though, as many commentators to the post have pointed out, the Bill really remains to be drafted and passed in parliament).
I have no doubt whatsoever that any demand that simply seeks a law of the sort that has been raised by the movement (even in the proposed form), is completely counterproductive. Indeed, it is naive. Matters like corruption or communalism cannot simply be legislated out of existence through tougher laws. Inevitably, they will lead us up to China type situations where you will end up demanding summary trials and executions. Even in the best of cases, a law and state-dependent mode of addressing such problems, adds to the powers of a corrupt bureaucracy. I also agree with his (and Bobby Kunhu’s) criticisms of some aspects of what they have both chosen to designate as ‘mass hysteria’ of sorts – I certainly do not agree with this description but that need not detain us here. I am interested in something else here and that has to do with the way the movement has struck a chord among unprecedentedly large numbers of people – mainly middle class people I am sure, but the support for it is not just confined to them. In fact, on the third day of the dharna at Jantar Mantar I received an excited call from a CPM leader who works among the peasants in villages of northern India in the Kisan Sabha, about the response to the movement he had encountered in his constituency. I doubt that this was a support simulated either by the government or by the electronic media.
On 30th January this year, when many of us were participating in a largish demonstration in Delhi demanding the release of Binayak Sen, precisely on that day a huge demonstration was held on this issue of the Jan Lokpal Bill. The fact that all the usual suspects like us were there at the Binayak Sen demonstration, meant that there were innumerable others, not the usual suspects, who were there at this other rally. Yes, some people could have been in both places, but by and large, the presence at the two rallies was very different. And there was no ‘media-simulated mass hysteria’ at that point. If Arnab Goswami and Times Now (and other TV channels) have now picked up the issue, that can be read as trying to appropriate a movement that was gathering strength independently of them. (By the way, it is also instructive to see the anger of the demonstrators at India Gate against Barkha Dutt in the video posted by Anirban in a comment on Shuddha’s post.) And if one looks at the cast of characters who have been associated with the mobilization, there are many (including Anna Hazare himself) who have been working tirelessly in villages and towns across the country. And while I hold no brief for Anna Hazare or the others, to reduce the entire movement to a media-simulated, anti-political middle class urge is to completely misread the signs.
What is disturbing in Shuddha’s post is the attribution of a kind of conspiracy where, apparently, UPA government and the electronic media have been complicit in ‘orchestrating’ this movement. I think this claim not only does not stand up to any actual scrutiny of facts on the ground but is, on the contrary, based on the mode of reasoning that is a staple of political rhetoric:
“We have been here before. Indira Gandhi’s early years were full of radical and populist posturing, and the mould that Anna Hazare fills is not necessarily the one that JP occupied (despite the commentary that repeatedly invokes JP). Perhaps we should be reminded of the man who was fondly spoken of as ‘Sarkari Sant’ – Vinoba Bhave. Bhave lent his considerable moral stature to the defence of the Internal Emergency (which, of course, dressed itself up in the colour of anti-corruption, anti-black marketeering rhetoric, to neutralize the anti-corruption thrust of the disaffection against Indira Gandhi’s regime).”
This passage is then followed up by a reference to the regime sponsored mass mobilization of the cultural revolution in China. Suggestions like these are taken to new heights in Bobby Kunhu’s post when he says:
“The timing also seems to be impeccable for reasons apart from TRP. India Inc. was facing a credibility crisis and the crisis had managed to drag the office of the most iconic representative of the lot – Dr. Manmohan Singh into every dreadful business. And then every representative of India Inc. seemed to be at the receiving end of the crisis – corporate houses to media icons. From Kashmir to Tamil Nadu – Manipur to Chattisgarh – people in the margins seemed to be mobilizing themselves trying to take their fights into their own hands. Mere cricket was not enough. A more serious national diversion was required – a diversion that would also help in subverting the multiple simmering discourses on democracy.”
What is the evidence for any of these claims? Give me any event, and I can guarantee you that I will cook up a conspiracy scenario (of the kind that Shuddha and Bobby do) with circumstantial ‘evidence’ of this nature. Our discomfort at certain kinds of mobilization cannot and must not become a reason for us to pass off that discomfort in rhetorical claims about the mobilization.
It is interesting that Shuddha and Bobby Kunhu posit this movement as one that is directed against democracy, in terms almost identical to those of Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Mehta argues:
“But the claim that the “people” are not represented by elected representatives, but are represented by their self-appointed guardians is disturbing. In a democracy, one ought to freely express views. But anyone who claims to be the “authentic” voice of the people is treading on very thin ice indeed. It is a form of Jacobinism that is intoxicated with its own certainties about the people. It is not willing to subject itself to an accountability, least of all to the only mechanism we know of designating representatives: elections.”
This can be said of any movement and any popular struggle; indeed, Mehta has made it his vocation to argue for liberal, procedural democracy every time there is a mass movement. From Mehta’s point of view – and from the point of view of the powers-that-be – this is a perfect argument for their intention is absolutely clear. They do not want the boat rocked under any circumstances. Every form of dissent must be tamed and brought within the ambit of the rotting structure of the parliamentary system, under whose sign every single act of fleecing of the people has taken place – Suresh Kalmadi, Sheila Dikshit, the Bellary brothers, the heroes of the 2G spectrum scam (and of course the Nira Radia folk!). We have been silent witnesses to the political system – to which Mehta sings paeans and whose virtues Shuddha seems to have suddenly discovered – lying prostrate before the marauders and looters of public money. Now, I understand where Pratap Mehta is coming from but Shuddha, when you say the following, I am stumped:
“Finally, if, as a society, we were serious about combating the political nexus that sustains corruption – we would be thinking seriously about extending the provisions of the Right to Information Act to the areas where it can not currently operate – national security and defence; we would also think seriously about electoral reform – about proportional representation, about smaller constituencies, about strengthening local representative bodies, about the provision of uniform public funding for candidates and about the right to recall elected representatives. These are serious questions. “
Electoral reform! And who will contest the elections, dear Shuddha? The same lot who from the Right to Centre to Left have now distinguished themselves by their service to corporate capital and their fleecing of the public exchequer? Here you almost begin to sound like a bourgeois policy-maker (or political theorist) advising saner and more responsible methods. I am also surprised that you find the threat to democracy coming from a movement that makes its demands to the government and the parliament, and makes them in the most peaceful, non-violent manner possible! After all, it is the parliament and the political parties that will have to draft the Bill (or give the draft the final shape) and pass it in parliament. What can be more democratic than that? For even the people behind the current draft of the bill know that this cannot but go through a period of negotiation, scrutiny and democratic debate, if the Bill has to become law.
I think it is also important to underline that for many years now, in India at least, issues have been posed outside the domains where formal politics takes place. Think of all the important issues that have been raised over the last two decades: the question of land acquisition, mass displacement of populations, nuclear energy, communalism and the anti-communal struggles, Right to Information, Forests Rights Act…none of these issues, have either been raised or even debated in parliament except under mass pressure. Was there even a squeak from the worthies of Left and Right who populate the parliament and legislatures, each time the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam was raised? Was there a squeak when innumerable villages and towns like Harsud and Tehri, drowned for the sake of the luxurious consumption of the metropolitan middle classes? So, your sudden faith in the system and its democracy, and your claim that only those who contest elections can be really ‘representative of the people,’ really surprises me.
The current movement, to me, is only a sign of the fact that there is no faith any longer in any of the institutions of parliamentary democracy among large sectors of the Indian population. Increasingly, their issues emerge through those whom you and Mehta dismiss as the ‘self-appointed representatives of the masses’. Indeed, I fear that if movements of this kind are also dismissed, and with the political class long out of reckoning, there is really no other option that the large masses of people will be left with except to support non-democratic Maoist-type outfits. I cannot help recalling here the long debate on Maoism that we had on Kafila where I had, among others, argued about the efficacy of democratic struggles in stalling many an SEZ project. Not one of those struggles Shuddha, had the prior permission of the state and its certification of being led by a “legitimate elected representative” of the people. They were democratic struggles nevertheless, at least in my sense of the term.
Mass movements throw up their own leadership, and sometimes the pulse of the masses is sensed by a charismatic leader. To de-legitimize this phenomenon by claiming the formal electoral process as the only reflection of democracy is to limit democracy to its most formal liberal procedural version. I think we need to remember that the Right to Information Act itself, is a product of a movement which has indeed gone far beyond the confines of a purely liberal provision and has invited some of the most violent reprisals from those whose corrupt practices it affects. People have been killed – often with the connivance of political parties and their leaders – for using the provisions of the RTI. These people have no other recourse but work with ‘self-appointed’ leaders – usually a term deployed by power for those who have not received the official stamp of approval by the state.