Democracy, Populism and the ‘Middle Class’: The Return of ‘Anna Hazare’
[This is a considerably expanded version of an article that was published in Himal May 2011. It is being re-published, elaborated and updated, in the context of the farcical draft of the Lokpal Bill roduced by parliament and the threatened round 2 of the movement. - AN]
Corruption – a Systemic Affair?
Let me start with an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ kind of question: What is a systemic understanding of ‘corruption’? What is a political understanding about corruption as opposed to say, a touchy-feely ‘moral’ problem? Yes, some of these phrases are straight from Arundhati Roy’s ‘When Corruption is Viewed Fuzzily’, published in the Indian Express on 30 April. But my question is not directed only at her. She represents – at least on this issue – a much wider consensus among sections of the radical intelligentsia.
Roy herself has left nothing to the imagination as to what she means:
“Among the millions of understandably furious people who thronged to Jantar Mantar to support Anna Hazare and his team, corruption was presented as a moral issue, not a political one, or a systemic one — not as a symptom of the disease but the disease itself. There were no calls to change or dismantle a system that was causing the corruption. Perhaps this was not surprising because many of those middle-class people who flocked to Jantar Mantar and much of the corporate-sponsored media who broadcast the gathering, calling it a “revolution” — India’s Tahrir Square — had benefited greatly from the economic reforms that have led to corruption on this scale.”
To her, the system that lies at the root of corruption is embodied in the ‘economic reforms’, which have led to corruption on this scale. I have no way of measuring the scale – though I might be inclined to agree with her that in my living memory, I have not seen so much compressed into such little time-space – from CWG to l’affaire Niira Radia to Adarsh Housing scam and the Bellary brothers – not to speak of the daily corruption in land acquisitions that dot the landscape of the country. Nonetheless, I do remember that something like the Bofors scandal or the ‘irresistible rise’ of Dhirubhai Ambani – all predate the ‘economic reforms’. And of course, I will not even try to mention the innumerable cases of corruption from Nagarwala onwards – including political corruption that led to big mass movements in Gujarat and Bihar in the 1970s. Those were the days when Mrs G proclaimed that ‘corruption is a global phenomenon’. To me saying corruption is systemic and must be analyzed ‘politically’ (whatever that means), sounds pretty much the same. So, if neo-liberalism is responsible for corruption, how do we explain the instances mentioned above? How do we understand the great socialist states which secreted corruption from every pore? What does a ‘systemic analysis’ of corruption really tell us?
However, Arundhati Roy was making this point, it seems to me, not in order to analyze the phenomenon of corruption but to comment on the Anna Hazare movement and its ‘character’:
“When corruption is viewed fuzzily, as just a touchy-feely “moral” problem then everybody can happily rally to the cause — fascists, democrats, anarchists, god-squadders, day-trippers, the right, the left and even the deeply corrupt, who are usually the most enthusiastic demonstrators.”
Now, this represents in my view, a pretty widespread opinion about the movement among left-wing radicals: How can radicals ally themselves with this motley bunch of people? How can they even remotely be seen supporting these people of loose morals ? How difficult it is for radicals to relate to anything that is not immaculately dressed up in ‘class analysis’, ‘systemic analysis’ or ‘political analysis’.
Let me clarify at this point what I mean by ‘corruption’ – in my non-systemic analysis. And maybe, it is better to explain my apolitical nonsense with some examples. Many years ago, when I did not have a phone (sometime in the mid-1990s), I used to go to the market to make all my phone calls at a PCO (a direct product of the ‘economic reforms’). My father had died waiting for his OYT (own-your-telephone) MTNL phone to materialize. The MTNL charge for a single phone call was Re 1/- but some of the PCOs charged Rs 2/-, leaving me fuming at their blatant corruption. And then, one day I was in Nirula’s restaurant and had to make an urgent call to a friend. I asked the reception if I could use their phone. I could, I was told, for a payment of Rs 14 per call. I paid up but from that day on, my understanding of corruption started changing. In the US or in Britain, it is common practice, I learnt, to tip the taxi drivers a couple of dollars or pounds. In fact, it is expected and we do it without batting an eyelid (on the rare occasion that you do have to take one). If the same thing were done as a bargain by a Delhi autowallah, we would find it atrocious.
I am not making a case for small, subaltern, corruption here but suggesting that maybe, there is something here that we need to think about. For one thing, it is worth studying how far the earnings of working class or lower middle class (even middle-middle class) families with a single earner actually go in sustaining them. How do such families provide for occasions of sudden crises etc? My own hunch is that most incomes are woefully inadequate and need to be supplemented – sometimes by doing extra shifts, overtime, and in the event that no other option is available, small-time corruption. But all this is corruption only as long as it is not institutionalized as ‘profit’ (as in the case of Nirula’s) or a mandatory tip or service charge.
That is why I will leave such everyday acts of ‘corruption’ out of the purview of the discussion here. What we are interested in here is the fleecing of the public, the loot of public resources with the active connivance of government officials. Corporate fraud, fraudulent land acquisitions, fraudulently provided mining permissions, fixing of ministers in order to loot the public exchequer or to raid the commons and loot natural gas – all these are issues that concern us. And these are precisely the issues that form the backdrop of the anti-corruption movement. Touchy-feely? Is there one instance here about which we can say that there is not a ‘class angle’ to it? On the contrary, every single instance here is one of corporate loot. So why, in order to rail against the ‘Anna Hazare’ movement, do we have to say that these are simply being posed as ‘moral’ issues? And maybe for some of the people who joined the movement (including say Anna Hazare himself), the issue is a moral one. So? Is that to be dubbed invalid or illegitimate? Even if this ‘middle class’ that flocked to Jantar Mantar “had benefited greatly from the economic reforms that have led to corruption on this scale” (a link that is not so clear) their desire for a less corrupt public life cannot be mocked at. Incidentally, as the story above will illustrate, I too have been a beneficiary of the ‘economic reforms’ – I now have two telephones and an internet connection at home and a mobile phone that I carry with me. Indeed, my vegetable vendor actually beat me to it, since he had acquired the cell phone before me, which he uses to do business – take orders and deliver vegetables home. He too is a beneficiary of the economic reforms!
My point here is not that economic reforms have benefitted everybody. On the contrary, I believe that has been unprecedented violence at the core of neo-liberal reforms: violence as cities are cleared of poorer populations, slums demolished, master plans imposed forcibly on people trying to earn a livelihood; violence unleashed on peasants and tribal communities as their lands are forcibly taken over for the corporations to earn profits. But, even while acknowledging all this, there is little possibility of denying that in certain other respects, lives of ordinary people have changed – not just in metropolises but also in small towns. And a lot of that also has to do with ‘economic reforms’ – a lazy term that allows us to get away without any concrete analysis.
The Middle Class and the Media
The last fast-unto-death undertaken by Anna Hazare in April raised a serious public debate and brought up issues that have far-reaching implications for democracy as well as the fate of radical politics inIndia. Before his fast began on 5 April 2011, Hazare was well-known only within a certain public – that of the environmental and social movements in the country, although in his home state of Maharashtra, he was more widely known. Suddenly, in the run up to the fast, Hazare emerged as a popular figure crusading against corruption. Virtually overnight, he was being talked about as a new messiah – a figure on whom a whole new section of middle class youth vested their hopes. The Internet was abuzz with support for the him and within days, the number of those who supported ‘his cause’ (through Facebook and Twitter) was being counted in millions!
Hazare was an unlikely youth icon. Apart from his fulsome 73 years, he is also an idiosyncratic moralist of the Gandhian kind. In Ralegan Siddhi, the village where he has worked for a long time now, he has combined a host of authoritarian methods with a pervasive Hindu symbolism, in order to put an end to once rampant alcoholism, theft and other maladies. Drinking alcohol in Ralegan Siddhi is rewarded with public flogging. This is certainly not a picture of someone on whom one would expect the upwardly mobile urban middle class youth to repose their faith. And yet they did! True, awe-inspiring tales of the environmental and economic regeneration of Ralegan Siddhi – a village that was once a picture of despair – have also long been in circulation. But even these hardly come anywhere near the concerns of the Facebook generation of urban youth most of whom could not care less about politics of any kind.
Soon after the fast began television channels stepped in to give Anna and his movement a huge build-up. That, in my opinion, was the kiss of death. Support from television channels like Times Now and CNN-IBN was the worst thing that could have happened to the fledgling movement. These channels have distinguished themselves, over the years, by presenting themselves as the self-appointed guardians of ‘probity’ in public life. Shrill in the rhetoric they deploy against politicians and intellectuals, they (and their noisy anchors) have reduced public debate in India to a farce. No wonder the moment they stepped in, in support of Anna Hazare and the anti-corruption movement, a certain polarization of debate was bound to occur. I too squirmed at the thought of Arnab Goswami as an ally! In what has become the hallmark of television ‘news’, hysterics and histrionics take over from reporting. With characteristically misplaced hyperbole, New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar – the venue of Hazare’s fast – began to be referred to as India’s ‘Tahrir square’.
To many well meaning people who had only seen the movement through the screen of the television channels, it probably seemed like a media-created event. Added to this was the suspicion that the radical, left-leaning intelligentsia has traditionally nurtured, of any movement that speaks in an idiom that is not recognizably ‘radical’.
Here was a movement that comprised largely of people who normally do not participate in politics and do not even have a language to talk about politics – including Hazare himself. And judging by the huge support that was manifesting itself on Facebook and Twitter, one could safely assume that this was a largely middle class crowd. They did not have a larger theory of capitalism or democracy – or even a blueprint of democratic reforms. They did not even know what politics was all about. They simply understood, perhaps in a very visceral way, that something was grievously wrong with the way things were in the political domain. In the last year or two, they had witnessed multi-crore scams where hard-earned money of ordinary folk was looted and passed on to fill the coffers of corrupt industrialists, corporations and supplicant politicians.
But apparently, middle class, apolitical people do not have the right to protest. They cannot have the right to protest till they have learnt that corruption is not the real issue; ‘the system’ is the real issue! In order to earn even the right to protest, they must also talk about the ‘working class’, the ‘peasantry’ and so on. Indeed, they must learn the correct grammar of protest: fight elections, fight for electoral reforms, for strengthening democracy, or go to the courts. In directing their apolitical ire at the politicians, they are actually attacking democracy itself and weakening or de-legitimizing the system. One can understand such a position when it comes from the representatives of the ruling party or other political parties. It is also understandable when political analysts who have made it their vocation to be the voice of ‘Order’, or when commentators in the Indian Express argue in this vein. It is quite surprising, however, when it comes from large sections of the radical intelligentsia who, on other occasions, have shown considerable acumen in critiquing ‘actually existing Indian democracy’ and have supported struggles against land acquisition, for instance.
Antecedents of the Movement
It is important to not lose sight of the fact that the movement did not suddenly spring out of nowhere. The immediate history of the movement goes back a few months when the matter of a new Lokpal Bill was revived against the background of a whole series of high level scams. In that context, the provisions of the official Draft Lokpal Bill 2010, were understood be ineffective and toothless. In any case, the idea of an ombudsman-like institution has been ‘on the agenda’, a perennially deferred promise of successive governments, for the last forty-three years. It was the demand for passing a new Lokpal Bill that became the rallying point for most people. It looked like a relatively small and achievable demand, to be sure, but one on which there had been endless foot-dragging by the powers-that-be.
But there is a larger background as well, which has to do with a range of ongoing movements and struggles in different parts of the country. Some of these, like the Right to Information movement have directly taken up questions of transparency and accountability while others like the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) have been dealing with questions of livelihoods and issues like illegal mining, fraudulent land acquisitions through rigged gram sabha meetings and such like. Corruption, at one level, is central to all these struggles. So when the movement for the Lokpal Bill was being put together, unbeknownst even to their organizers, it touched a chord among large sections of people in small towns and cities. Among them was a large sector of the population that felt legitimately cheated at its hard-earned money being looted. But there were also others, who were not so much affected by financial corruption but had lived in helplessness for years, in the face of the combined oppressive power of corrupt politicians and power wielders.
Let me illustrate this with one instance from an email message from an acquaintance, Dr Bhupendra Yadav, who teaches in MD University, Rohtak. I quote:
“I teach in a University where a teacher was suspended in the Academic Council meeting by a Vice-Chancellor who was the most corrupt we have had till then in 2006. A retired Major General of Army Service Corp, the Vice-Chancellor was giving recognition to Colleges after taking bribes. The teacher, Dr Himmat Singh Ratnoo, protested and paid for it by his suspension. There were more than 50 senior Professors in that meeting but sadly, not one teacher protested in the Academic Council that the VC was wrong. Not one walked out of the meeting when Dr Ratnoo was physically removed from it by security guards. This was my worst tryst with the arrogance of the power of corruption. It was also the reason why my expectations from the middle class are very little.”
Nevertheless, Yadav adds:
“Kudos to the middle class campaign against corruption led by Anna Hazare. I salute everyone who came out to Jantar Mantar which my wife, my friends and I frequented too. Next time, I hope Suresh Kalmadi will not try to walk tall, custom officials will not resist improved procedures and Dr Ratnoo will not be suspended. If this happens again, however, we hope it will be followed by loud protests from civil society”.
I need hardly add here that both Dr Yadav and Dr Ratnoo are active members of the CPI(M)-linked teachers’ movement. They are not helpless individuals without a political community. And yet their story speaks volumes. I should also add here that in the same mail, Dr Yadav underlines all his misgivings, and indeed suspicion, of the cast of characters who are associated with the movement. Yet, the power of that movement was one that gave them a sense of a wider churning in society. I have also received telephone calls from old friends – some of them live and work in the kachchi colonies of Nangloi (north-west Delhi), who have been once active with the CPI(M). They are still active in the area and have faced the nexus of the land mafia and the police for a long time. They too joined Hazare at Jantar Mantar, in search of a larger sense of community and struggle.
Corruption and Anna Hazare
Thus ‘corruption’ here becomes a term which condenses within it a number of other grievances and issues. It has become for that reason, a radically open platform – which has its own possibilities and attendant dangers. Opportunities because, it provides openings that Leftists and radicals, who have always missed the bus, can use to enter into and make connections they would not normally be able to. Thankfully, this time around, some of the Left parties (especially the CPI(ML) Liberation but also the mainstream CP’s, to some extent) have been more careful in spelling out their relationship to the movement. CPI(ML) Liberation and its student and youth organizations have actively been part of the movement while the two mainstream CPs have refrained from publicly attacking it.
But it is precisely this openness that also contains some dangers. For ‘corruption’ also has a wide moralist appeal and can be quite attractive to the most politically retrograde and dangerous elements as well (and to that extent, Roy is right). The appeal of fascism and Nazism also lay, in part at least, to their strident rhetoric against corruption – which in their discourse became synonymous with ‘parliamentary democracies’: That is to say, in fascist discourse, the argument against corruption inevitably led, towards an argument for a strong, authoritarian/ totalitarian state. But this is only one possibility among many others and if others decide to hand over mass struggles against corruption to fascists, there is indeed little that anyone can do.
It has been rightly pointed out that the insistence of the ‘Anna Hazare movement’ on the Jan Lokpal Bill (that is, the counter bill drafted by the initiators of the movement) with its heavy reliance on special provisions of law and its seriously authoritarian implications, indicates the presence of such possibilities within this movement as well. And given the fact that Hazare himself has no qualms about showering praises on the likes of Narendra Modi, the possibilities of the reactionary edge of the movement getting strengthened cannot be ruled out. But that is a far cry from fascism.
Nonetheless, at this moment, I want to insist on the radically open character of the movement and its platform. From the structure of the movement, its lack of organization, its relatively nebulous decision-making process to the completely unformed character of its mass support – all these provide avenues for intervention by radical political forces. At the moment, despite the problematic personality of Hazare himself, the overall control of the movement is in the hands of people who have been active in the struggle for strengthening democracy. Certainly, there are serious problems with the way in which the leadership has tended to push through the issue of the legislation in great hurry, which as some allies of the movement like Aruna Roy have pointed out, leaves little room for public deliberations and discussions on the Bill. Others like the NAPM have supported the movement even while cautioning that allies have to be chosen with care – indicating and underlining, precisely, this radically open nature of the movement. In other words, there is no inherent essence of a movement like this: it acquires the character of those who constitute it.
Needless to say, if radical political forces leave the field open to say the Hindu Right, the movement will end up confirming our worst fears. The field can be kept open only as long as the space opened up by the movement is not abandoned to forces inimical to democracy. In a sense, the Ramdev intervention was one such attempt to take the movement in the direction of a closure, and though I disagree with most excessive reactions to Ramdev, I do think that there was a real danger of it becoming a more open Hindu Right platform.
Like ‘corruption’, Anna Hazare too has become something of what Ernesto Laclau calls an ‘empty signifier’ – a sign to which any number of contradictory meanings can be assigned. Through his studies and his life-long engagement with the phenomenon of populism, especially as witnessed in the figure of Peron/ Peronism in Argentina, Laclau has shown that populism has no necessary class belonging, no necessary radical or reactionary content. Populism, he suggests, may actually be the ‘royal road to the understanding of the constitution of the political’ itself. Far from being anti-political as some have suggested, the populism of the Anna Hazare movement must be able to tell us something fundamental about the nature of politics and ‘the political’ itself.
For, it was the Anna Hazare movement that informed us that a bill on the Lokpal was lying in waiting for forty-three long years. Forty three years! Does that say something about the constitution of the political domain in independent India? And have we heard a word of condemnation from the likes of Indian Express and some of our radical friends of this farce? How is it that all the righteous anger is reserved for the ‘blackmail’ of the movement? Even if you have no faith in laws; even if you do not think parliament is worth a fig, is it not necessary to tell us what the forty three years of delay are supposed to mean? And now with the joke of an official Lokpal Bill (see Manoj Mitta’s excellent critique in this link) on the table, it might seem that the fears of the movement were after all not that misplaced. The joke is that not only is the PM kept out of the purview of the Lokpal, the accused (in cases they are within its purview) will have the right to ‘be heard’ before the FIR is even registered. The Lokpal is forbidden in this Bill, from even registering an FIR without hearing the accused – a provision that overturns all provisions of criminal law! The supreme irony of the Bill, Mitta points out is that a false complaint can make a whistleblower liable to a two-year prison term while the errant public servant could get away with just six months!
At a time when the ‘political system’ and the political class has become fully immersed in the loot of the people and is completely unable to raise any issue of any consequence, the emergence of a movement of this kind reflects a serious crisis of legitimacy. For over two decades now, important issues have all been posed from, and contested, outside the fold of the party-system. These include issues like mass displacement of populations, questions of environmental degradation and pollution, critique of the development model, right to information, the question of nuclear energy and indeed, the struggle against communalism (from intervening at the time of massacres to tracking court cases, providing assistance to victims) and so on.
Increasingly, the legitimacy of party-representation is under question today. It is true that people still vote and often in very large numbers but it is really worth asking what they really do when the vote? Do they vote for particular parties because they have faith in them? Or do they, most of the time, make tactical choices? Sometimes these choices may be of the lesser evil; on other occasions, they may have to do with opening out channels to power through the local dadas – channels that give access to people in the bureaucracy or the police. Sometimes people may participate in elections simply to vote out a set-up that has become unbearably oppressive. These questions call for much greater investigation and reflection.
In conclusion, a word about democracy: Is the movement anti-democratic? We should be very suspicious about an imagination that ends with framing a new law, especially of the kind that is embodied in the Jan Lokpal Bill. As has been pointed out by commentators, the movement draft proposes a structure that can become a law unto itself. On that we are all agreed. But what about an imagination that draft the Bill that the great parliament has! Any critique, anyone? Any class or systemic analysis?
And let us make this very clear once again, for what it is worth. A new law can only come into being after it is debated and passed in parliament. The fact that it is being drafted by a committee of ‘Team Anna’ does nothing to undermine that. It just brings out a debate that was suppressed for decades, right into the open. That is to say, it makes it the object of a much wider process of public deliberation. So the allegation about bypassing democratic institutions is wrongly posed. What we see in this movement is a form of involvement of ‘citizens’ and surely no democracy can be possible without an active citizenry – with or without the mediation of political parties. Political parties are merely the means for ensuring democratic representation; they cannot be the be-all and end-all of democratic politics.