Hazare, Khwahishein Aisi: Desiring a new politics, after Anna Hazare and beyond corruption
Hazare, khwahishein aisi, ke har khwahish pe dam nikle
bahut nikle armaan, lekin, phir bhi kam nikle
Hazare, so many desires, that every desire takes our breath away
so many hopes, and yet so few
(with due apologies, for liberties taken, to Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, sometime poet and native of Delhi)
On the ninth of april, this year, I wrote a posting on Kafila titled – ‘At the Risk of Heresy : Why I am not Celebrating with Anna Hazare Tonight‘. A little more than four months later, I have to say I have not yet found reasons to celebrate. But I am not in mourning either. What follows is my attempt to think this through, in all its contradictory character. For once, I am not even trying to be consistent. If my argument occasionally faces two directions at once, it is probably because I feel the needs to be double faced in order to understand a double-faced moment. When all the talk is only of the need for honesty, one might want to stake a claim to being double-faced, if only for the sake of breaking the moral monotony.
The Story So Far
A lot has happened since April, and not all of it is bad. A seriously bad draft Jan Lokpal Bill with its frivolous provisions of setting up selection committees composed partly of Nobel Prize winners to choose the Lokpal has given way to a draft Jan Lokpal Bill that is still marked by flaws, still worrying in the way it concentrates power, but is, at the same time, a much more substantive and serious piece of work. Unlike its earlier avatar, the current version of the Jan Lokpal Bill can be the basis of a serious discussion on how to confront the issue of corruption.
This only goes to show that close and vigilant reading of the things that are never read but get talked about very loudly on television still has its uses.
We also have the suggestions made by activists associated with the National Campaign for the Peoples Right to Information, and many of them are substantive. The draft bill prepared by the state is a joke, which is not surprising, because this government is a joke, and a bad joke at that. The government bill is just as much of a joke as the first draft of the Jan Lokpal Bill was. So at least on the matter of circulated drafts of legislations for the institution of the Lok Pal, we are in a sort of two steps forward, one steps back dance. Still, I suppose, some movement forward is much to be preferred to stasis, or to regression.
Meanwhile, babas and sants have come and gone, and more will come and go. Baba Ramdev has danced his dance, and Rahul Baba has sung his song. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar offered us his wisdom (delink the agitation from the fast, and proceed with both, because Indian tradition teaches both steadfastness and accommodation) and Srimati Kiran Bedi has visited her erstwhile office (Tihar Prison) in the entourage of its recent most honored guest. The Anna Hazare touch is truly transformative. How else can we explain the phenomenon of Ms. Bedi blossoming into an excellent and lively vaudeville performer from the dour guardian of law and order that she once used to be. Clearly, the struggle against corruption can do wonders for personal development, as was in evidence in her excellent recent performance at Ramlila Maidan. On the same stage, we have also witnessed the moving ‘coming out’ of a management guru’s ‘inner revolutionary’. This management revolutionary, this shining lodestar, endoresed Hazare-ji’s crusade and promised us that we would become as clean as South Korea and Singaore. Perhaps it was merely a paucity of time that prevented him from mentioning that South Korea had matured into its cleanliness over several decades of military dictatorship and that Singapore, while it is known to be free of the corruption of chewing gum traces, is not exactly a shining example of vigorous democracy, or fiscal probity. Never mind. The speech was excellent. It will go down in history as the kind of thing we will look at several decades in the future while wondering how we ever got there.
Even T.N. Seshan, that sweet old curmudgeon, has come up with his own version of a Lokpal Bill, I suppose it can be called the Run Lokpal Bill (Seshan was always thought to have run every institution he served).. A serving prime minister is beginning to resemble his predecessor (or at least the mukhota/mask of his predecessor), cocooned as he is in the silence (or statemanseque staccato statements) of his own devising.
And yet, the wheels of politics are turning. Sooner or later, somebody will offer Shri Hazare the customary glass of orange juice that signals the timely restoration of what is praised as harmony and good sense in our polity. And in all probability, a bill, maybe even two bills, maybe three, will be tabled on the floor of parliament. The more things change, the more they remain the same. What started out as a fast may well eventually turn into a feast. Times Now has said it is a ‘victory’ and when Times Now is victorious, all times past and future are bound to submit in homage.
Where is the ‘Independent Left’ ? Where can it be ?
Many amongst us on the left, especially on what we like to think of as the ‘independent left’, have felt bereft by the fact that ‘we’ seem to be unable to ‘respond’ adequately to this situation. I have been told, “We are committing another historic blunder if we remain distant from this situation” and so on. The situation, meanwhile, seems to be doing quite well without us. Regardless of how many ‘people like us’ turn up at Ramlila Ground, like slightly bewildered tourists, the crowds, vast numbers of whom are unaffiliated, have swelled. And they are not tourists, they are more like pilgrims at a Kumbh Mela or an Urs. They know what to do. They know that a lot of what needs to be done is about being patient, listening, sitting, chatting, finding echoes and resonances, comparing genealogies and geographies, just being there. As ‘peoples’ movements’ go, this one seems not to be suffering in the absence of the left’s effective presence at all. The crowds are peaceable, they are diverse, they are ridiculously, amiably well behaved. I don’t think that we can improve them in any way. Even the Delhi Police personnel at the venue (“with you, for you, always”) are being chivalrous and gentlemanly. I hope they stay that way.
The question that my friends are really asking, then, is not about what the left can do for the movement, but rather, about what the movement can do for the left. So, the real concern is not necessarily the merits of Anna Hazare’s crusade against corruption. Rather, it seems to me to be based on a dispute over the dividends of finding a place to stand in the big tent of Hazare.
As of now, the most important thing that the Hazare campaign seems to be offering is an opportunity to wreck the fragile consensus that an independent left might have been able to build for itself, within itself, post-Nandigram. Now, it is no longer a question of what kind of attitude one can have to the ‘mainstream’ left, but also about whether or not to align with Anna Hazare. Surprise, surprise, all those who thought they had finally ridden the hump of longstanding internal differences in the post-Nandigram and Singur euphoria are now confronted with the enigma of how to respond to some of the camp followers of ‘Faster’ Hazare, (not necessarily on the left) who, like the Marathi children’s detective hero, ‘Faster’ Fene, can find the whiff of a pro-corruption tendency in the most unlikely of places, even in the deep well of the minds of those within the independent left who are not wearing ‘I am Anna’ caps.
Because, after all, they have said, if you are not with Hazare, (read a certain thread of comments on any postings that question the Hazare agenda, even on Kafila), you must be with the Hazaron, (thousands) Lakhon (hundreds of thousands), Karodon (millions and tens of millions) rakam (amounts) of Kala Dhan (black money) that is secreted away in all those locations (Switzerland, Mauritius, Dubai) where song sequences in Hindi movies are routinely filmed.
We need to separate this natural suspicion and hostility that might greet the choice of some of us not to be celebrants of what is going on from our own assessment of the importance of this moment. Even if people caricature our distance and our questions as, ‘indifference bordering on support for corruption’, ‘insensitivity’, ‘stand-offishness’ and ‘elitism’, we still need not respond with counter-caricatures of our own – with mistaken claims that this is all only a result of an RSS conspiracy (notwithstanding the fact that the RSS may indeed be playing an important part) or that its all upper middle class and middle class posturing translating itself into a media-friendly spectacle. The moment for making this kind of comment, in my view, is past. It has been overtaken by the genuine transformation of a narrow anti-corruption stance into the possibility of a mass movement, or even, several mass movements. A movement does not have to be endorsed only because it stands at the threshold of acquiring a mass character, even if momentarily, but it has to be taken seriously. This does not mean that there are no longer things to be critical about. In fact, the need for criticism, unmarked by dismissal, is greater today than it was before.
At such a juncture, we can maintain the vigilance of our questions without being arrogant towards the people who flock to Hazare. At the same time those of us who haven these questions can refuse to silence or even mute them. To do so in the name of the chimera of a slippery and fragile unity of an independent left position would be to let ourselves by overwhelmed by what we have seen unfolding on Ramlila Ground in the past few days.
My heart does not break easily over left disunity, or about the difficulty of choosing clear sides, which then becomes the ‘obstacle to unity’. I actually occasionally prefer the confusion that the complexity of situations like this bring in their wake to the holy grail of left unity. Unity is necessary when the left claims itself to be the vanguard, the leader. I think it is time that people on the left realized that sometimes the interesting revolutionary thing to do is to listen, and to have a conversation, rather than to lead. That in a genuinely transformative situation, the best thing that the left can do is to be an interlocutor, a learner, not a dictator, or a pedagogue, so that people can make up their own minds. That is what makes the left democratic, when it chooses democracy. Otherwise, the left can turn into an authoritarian vampire, sucking its own blood, and the blood of all those who are drawn to it.
A platform like Kafila, which does not try to conceal real differences under the rhetoric of false unity, is indicative of the kind of possibilities that remain open to us, and to a new style of politics. For these possibilities to be realized, maintaining a diversity of positions, which is sometimes also known as ‘disunity’ may not be a bad thing. In order to even understand what this means, the men and women on the left, especially the young men and women on the left, need to stop giving slogans that contain ‘the only path’ or ‘the only party’ as subordinate clauses. There can be more than one path in and out of this ‘situation’. One path might be walked into being by going into Ramlila Maidan and another might be trudged by walking out of it. Instead of being demoralized by what some might think of as our own apparent insignificance, we could also say that encountering Hazare makes us realize that Hazaron Khwahishen Aisi Aur Bhi Hain ( a thousand desires still remain), and that we could then begin articulating those thousand desires. The Hazare phenomenon has made it possible for a lot of ordinary men and women to actualize their desires of being in public space, of articulating their discontent, of discovering solidarities. This is something for us to build on, not to dismiss. Especially, and even if we are not comfortable with a lot of the content of the things that get said when people meet under the tricolor. It is not a matter of what we do with, or within, the crowds at Ramlila Maidan. It is more a question of realizing what we can do by being within the terrain of the social even after the crowds melt away from Ramlila Maidan. It is more a question of how we learn from this experience to organize in a myriad disaggregated ways. It is about how we shape popular discontent at having been cheated by the way things are run in the direction of claiming a share of the social surplus directly. It is about staying the course, and about being in there for the long haul.
If one stops trying to be the advance guard of revolution, and brings up the rear instead, then a whole new set of possibilities open up. We can then also fight a few rearguard battles that are worth fighting. We can retreat, regroup and recover lost ground. We do not have to constantly worry about our ‘irrelevance’, or our ‘failure’ because we do not desire ‘our’ victory. What we desire is an interesting and fair outcome, one that maximizes liberty and justice for as many people, and as many kinds of people, as possible. We can be mature enough not to identify the prospects of this occurring with the petty political fortunes of our own formations. We can then learn to take advantage of our marginality, our ‘irrelevance’ even, by presenting agile and visionary proposals (that do not insist on being realized at all costs and thus are free to be more open ended and imaginative, more capable of shifting the goal-posts of the discussion than interested in scoring goals and self-goals). We can try and ensure that such visions, by admitting openly to their own imperfections, can open up spaces of discussion rather than close options through sheer force, manipulation, emotional blackmail and bluster. We can do the unspectacular thing of listening and talking, rather than fasting and feasting on fasting.
Let the independent left actually stake out the ground of constituting a radically imaginative politics that anticipates other worlds of action and reflection rather than be bound and gagged to a commitment to the fine tuning of this social order. The ‘current situation’ offers us that possibility, and we neither HAVE to be at Ramlila Ground to seize it, nor do we have to remain aloof from what is going on in people’s minds when they agitate against corruption. We can, instead, choose to be at Ramlila Ground and try and make things more interesting and lively for every one there, without necessarily buying into the dominant rhetoric of what is emanating from Hazare’s vicinity. Alternatively, we can stay away, and take advantage of staying away by questioning the very premises of a ‘moral cleansing’ of capitalism. Both seem to me to be valid options, and can be exercised by different kinds of people, for different purposes, in different styles. I will not lay a claim to constructing a false hierarchy of moral choices between them, because unlike Anna Hazare, I am not duty bound to making moral noises and moral choices. My only mandate is to make things interesting for my comrades on the left, and that too not necessarily by offering them a bouquet of better or worse choices.
A united leadership can be terribly authoritarian, and a disunited leadership can be a terribly fractious and annoying thing. It is a combination of both these dynamics that we see in the government and the congress party in the recent past – a leadership that is incapable of taking the lead, or even decisions, and yet tries to be authoritarian, and therefore makes a complete ass of itself. The productive disarray that I am advocating as a stance that some of us on the left might take to, perhaps to good effect, is something altogether different.
The Crowd in Hazare’s Tent
I had said earlier, and I say it again – i cannot effect a disdain towards those who flock to Hazare, because I do not possess that disdain. I do not doubt their sincerity. And today, I do not doubt their number. I also do not believe that what we are seeing is something that is happening because of media manipulation alone. The situation was different in April. Between then and now, the ineptness of this government, has transformed what might have been a vocal minority into a growing and very diverse constituency. This phenomenon is partly crystallizing around Anna’s charisma, partly mobilized by right wing as well as liberal formations, and partly conjured up from nowhere by the desperate foolishness of the government. Of course it is fueled by 24X7 coverage, but to say that it is being created by it would be both inaccurate as well as un-necessary.
I also think that there is something admirable in the fact that the crowds at Ramlila Ground have been as diverse as they have been peaceable. I said it before, in April, and it needs to be said again, I do not think this is a solely, middle class, upper caste mobilization. I think it is genuinely cross-class phenomenon, and must be recognized as such. I think that being there affords people a sense of solidarity, an experience of peaceable togetherness, between men and women, between generations, between classes and communities, that our fractured society rarely provides occasions for. What is tragic for me is that we think of this as exceptional, whereas it should actually be a part of the normal, routine, banal fabric of life. Strangers are finding themselves surprised by their friendliness towards each other, and there is something both sad and joyous about this realization.
We should recognize this hunger for solidarity, and learn from it, respect it, not hold it in contempt. If people say that this is what the experience of being there is about, I have no reason to doubt them. It is the experience of a society coming to know, in its own fuzzy, touchy-feely sort of way, that something in the nature of society actually exists. In a city like Delhi, the last two times crowds (as in crowds that are not bused in by political parties) were out in force on the streets were during the 1984 riots and the Anti-Mandal agitation. Both were occasions where the crowd had a menace written into it. This time, the crowd is altogether different.
But recognizing this fact is one thing, and endorsing the currents and the politics that generate the momentum of this togetherness is another. More of that later. That being said, I do believe that the fraternization, the friendliness of strangers, the search for ways of saying things politically on the street, even the random attempts at claiming public space, of gathering in front of the residences of ministers and the prime minister, that have been part of the experience of the past few days – all these are good things, and we on the independent left must find it in ourselves to build on the fact that a lot of ordinary people seem to have discarded their inhibitions about being out on the streets at all hours of the day and the night, peacefully, in order to hear each other and make themselves heard. We do not have to endorse the content of the slogans to appreciate the importance of the phenomenon that has unfolded before our eyes. Something in Delhi has changed, and that transformation need not be lamented.
On the Right in Hazare’s Tent
Let me clarify, lest I be misunderstood, that I am also, not unduly perturbed by the presence of the right, or the predominance of nationalist motifs in the mobilization around Anna Hazare. Some of my friends on the left are upset because they hear ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. This fact upsets me not at all. I am not upset by hearing these slogans exactly in the same way as I am not upset by hearing ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ in a demonstration on Kashmir. Incidentally, there has been quite a bit of sporadic chanting of ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ at Ramlila Ground, and that, in my view, proves nothing. Neither that ‘minorities’ are with Hazare, nor that they are not. And those who are trying to base their criticism of the movement around Hazare on the grounds of the fact that it either excludes minorities and dalits are, in my opinion, barking up the wrong tree. Nor does the number of dalits and minorities in the crowd tell us anything about the ‘inclusiveness’ of ‘Team Anna’. Let us leave censuses to the examining eye of the state, and not try and reduce every political discussion to statistical performances.
I am also not disturbed by the presence of RSS workers in Anna Hazare’s camp in the same way as I am not disturbed by the presence of Syed Ali Shah Geelani and his followers in mobilizations on Kashmir. I oppose both these kinds of formations and the visions that they hold out (the RSS in India as well as the Islamists in Kashmir) politically. But I do not dispute their right to be present in the field of politics, even of their right to attempt to hijack and dominate the proceedings (which, I believe must be countered, and I have every intention of doing so, without denying them their claim to political space and attention). Any political current that seeks to enlarge its space would do the same. And for the same reason, I do not castigate those on the left, especially on the independent and far left, who wish to be present with Anna Hazare. I hope that they can respect my distance as much as I respect their decision to be close to the heart of the anti-corruption campaign. We should be able to talk with each other despite how close or how far we happen to be from the Hazare tent.
It is not inconceivable that an RSS shakha pramukh, a Jamaat activist, an NGO worker, a Marxist-Leninist, a Gandhian and a conscientious technocrat who prides himself on his apolitical stance, may all be equally enraged by the fact that this government is so egregiously corrupt and inept, that their rage may bring them, from their very different corners into the same space. That does not disturb me one bit. In fact, it is probably a positive sign, because at least they will not be able to dismiss each other so easily, and at least they will get a sense of each other’s presence in the social arena. It will certainly improve the quality of their conversation with each other, and even amongst themselves.
Perhaps I am just a congenital spoilsport. So let me continue to be a heretic, and a spoilsport. Because I think it is important that there be such people amongst us, even so that the rest might shine better in the reflected lustre of their own moral worth. And so, I ask for indulgence towards my spoilsport questions. After all, if those who claim to have right on their side, do answer them well, they will only be strengthened by the occasion and the opportunity to do so.
Corruption and Justice : A Complication
My main question is as follows. Why must we believe that a society cleansed of corruption (as ‘India Against Corruption’ see it) will necessarily be a more just society?
I do not mean to ask this question in the – ‘there are other and more important problems, structural issues, that need to be tackled, and the discourse on corruption is just a smokescreen’ – sort of way. I am speaking of corruption as substantively, and as narrowly, as Anna Hazare and his colleagues do.My understanding of what ‘Team Anna’ upholds as its discourse on corruption is basically a dispute about the way in which socially generated surplus is distributed under the conditions of the rule of property and capital. Wealth, or any asset, in this view, is legitimate when its owners can currently demonstrate their legal claim over such a resource, and is illegitimate, when they cannot. Access to an asset is legitimate when it has been acquired by the unsullied operation of the free market, without fear, favor or influence, or when it is yours by inheritance. Those who buy their food are clean, those who try and feed themselves by means that do not involve buying what they can get their hands on, are dirty.
This means that both the encroacher who builds a villa in Sainik Farms, in violation of land use laws, by greasing the palm of a local official is as much a party to corruption as the squatter who hacks away at state owned land in a city like Delhi by building an ‘illegal shelter’ protected momentarily by arriving at an accommodation with a lower level municipal official and the local thug. It means that the man who accumulates wealth by secreting much of it in a Swiss Bank is as corrupt as the person who cuts corners while at work during a grueling fourteen hour shift in a factory. Both are not doing something – not declaring their assets, not obeying the clock, concealing their earnings or stealing time on the shop floor. Look back on the history of prosecution under any law of the land and you will realize that more of the working poor were fined, imprisoned, punished, hung, detained in solitary confinement and tortured as compared to other, more privileged sections of the population. Equality before the law in a deeply unequal society always more often than not tilts the scales of justice in a direction favorable to the rich and the powerful. A Dominique Strauss Kahn gets away with sexual assault because the maid he had assaulted in the hotel had once been economical with the truth in order to substantiate her claim to asylum as an immigrant. Barring a few spectacular prosecutions, the majority of ‘corruption cases’ will fill the prisons with more of the working and deprived poor, and with those, especially in the lower echelons of the bureaucracy, who make things easier for the working and deprived poor for the price of a bribe.
Now let me propose a scenario to you. Imagine that you are a recent migrant from the hinterland in a city as heartless as Delhi. (in its legal avatar the city of Delhi is heartless although it is quite generous and welcoming in some corners of its ‘illegal’ soul). Imagine realizing that you cannot afford to pay rent, even in a tenement that looks and feels like a prison cell, because of the way in which real estate is structured in Delhi by the purely ‘legal’ apparatus of the master-plan. Imagine realizing that you cannot make ends meet with legal, documentable work. Imagine that you have to find ways and means to cut and paste a living by doing slightly shady work. Imagine that there is no ‘honest living’ to be made. For the vast majorities who face the glare of documents, the demand for transparency, the imperative to come clean and be visible – corruption offers an occasional patch of friendly shade. Corruption, at least as a certain looseness with the law and with the regulatory power of the legal apparatus, is what keeps this society humane at its deeper, darker recesses. When wages are horribly low, it is the circulation of surplus in the form of a bribe that brings food to many tables, and also makes way for some things to be done. Ask an ill paid clerk, a linesman, a postman, a government school teacher, a health worker, or a policeman what it means to raise a family on the pittance that they earn. Ask an industrial worker in NOIDA how much of his or her wage would be eaten by rent if he or she did not live in an illegal settlement. Then talk to me about corruption. If by corruption, we mean a hollowing out of the things that make life worth living in dignity, then the low wage is as much a sign of corruption as the bribe. And yet, while Anna Hazare does talk about the evil of the bribe, I have yet to come across anyone in ‘India Against Corruption’ speak of the evil of the non-living wage. In all probability, some of the good men and women who endorse them today might tomorrow find workers taking to the streets for higher wages a very ‘corrupt’ sight. If, by the eradication of corruption we mean that a woman in Kashmir has no one to bribe in the local police to get news of her son in custody, then I would much rather have her pay the bribe and know whether her son is living or dead, and have the policeman take the bribe and give her the information that the dark legality of the state forbids him to do, then have her face the possibility that he might be one of the more than two thousand odd unidentified bodies that are now known to be rotting in mass graves in the valley. And yet, while Anna Hazare does talk about the evil of the bribe, the scam and the sleazy deal, I have yet to come across him speaking about the corruption and the corrosiveness that placed the rotten body in the unmarked grave in the first place. In the last week, while Anna has fasted, we have also come to know that a state agency (the J&K State Human Rights Commission) in Jammu and Kashmir has finally admitted what was known all along. That there are at least two thousand and one hundred and fifty six unidentified dead bodies in thirty eight mass grave sites in different parts of the state. If this were to happen in any other part of the world, there would have been an immediate hue and cry. And yet, here, its as if, some remains have been found in an obscure set of archaeological digs. The problems of disappearances and of mass graves full of unidentified bodies that have been put there by people acting in the name of the Indian state ought to be central to any discussion of what it means to have corruption eat into the vitals of the political system. This is not just a question of bad policy, or errors of judgement. It is a huge, systematically constructed moral lapse, impelled by strong monetary incentives, at the very core of the functioning of the state in India. And Anna Hazare has nothing to say about this. His silence (and the silence of his close associates) about a black hole as profound as this at the heart of governance is as disturbing to me as Manmohan Singh’s silence about the 2G scam.
Life in 3 Cases
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that Anna Hazare, or anyone, can at any given time, articulate, or even be reasonably expected to articulate, grievances against everything that is wrong in our society. I am not one of those who is saying – “look he doesn’t talk about corporate greed, or big dams, or communalism, or private sector corruption”. Frankly, I don’t expect him to. He has said he is interested in the abuse of power by the state, and in the way it favours those who benefit from corruption, and that is why it makes sense to me that he talks about black money and land grabs So I am not disappointed when he doesn’t talk about things that he thinks are unrelated to what he says is his central mission. Perhaps other people should take up these causes with as much energy as he has shown, or take them up again, if they have done so already. But when Hazare and the people around him talk about how the people who run the state unjustly take away from us the things that we hold dear (hard earned wealth, assets, land, services, life) and that are ours by right, I do expect this very specific idea to be followed through. I am afraid that is not what I find happening in the big tent of Anna Hazare.
The most basic asset that all of us possess and have inherited is life. Bare life. And those with power who act in the name of the state, and with the force of the state, routinely, by legal and illegal means, deprive people of what should be theirs, their life, or the means to sustain life, through force or fraud, and sometimes through a combination of the two. That is why there is a connection between the fact that common people often do not have access to quality medical attention in a government hospital because medical supplies have been siphoned away in a minor scam (let’s call this Case 1), or that workers in large, prestigious, public building projects may be denied the wage (that can sustain their lives) that ought to be theirs by right (let’s call this Case 2) and the fact that somewhere, say in Kashmir, a common man – a barber, a baker, a teacher, disappears in the fog of the AFSPA because some officer in the army or the special police forces finds it necessary to demonstrate a ‘kill’ in order to try and maneuver a promotion, and with it access to unaccounted for counter-insurgency funds (let’s call this Case 3). In each of these instances, in terms of what happens to medical care, the prospects of earning a living wage, and life itself, the casualty, the harm, occurs because of acts of omission and commission, acts of force and fraud, by the state and its agents.
Anna Hazare’s movement would have no difficulty in recognizing and acknowledging corruption in Case 1 – the poorly equipped government hospital. With regard to Case 2 – they would probably quibble over whether or not low wages (not stolen wages, not unpaid wages, just low wages) constitute a corrosive force in society (even though it is impossible not to link the scale of bribes to the level of wages, especially at what gets called the lower level of the phenomenon of corruption). I do not think that they would even acknowledge Case 3, or, their recognition of Case 3 would be so muted as to be of no consequence. Questioning the terms of what is happening in Case 2 would require them to think about the relations between classes, between capital and labour. Questioning the terms of what is happening in Case 3 could take them uncomfortably close to a close examination of the way the state governs its intransigent peoples. And that is why they stick to Case 1. Case 1 is corruption (as Hazare sees it) through and through, but the rage against it in Hazare’s tent does not seem to translate into even a modest reflection about Cases 2 and 3. In reality it is corruption of the ‘safest’ kind – easy to initiate, easy to end, easy to mask, easy to unmask and easy to be seduced by and easy to hate. This is the kind of corruption that translates into filmi dialogue, breaking news on TV and soapbox oratory. It requires little to explain it or to explain it away. But the overemphasis on Case 1 and its variants also means an underplaying of the significance of Cases 2 and 3. Does this tell us something about an inability to see and hear what is in front of one’s eyes, or is it actually a willingness to look away? Righteous indignation always troubles me. But selective and safe righteous indignation troubles me even more.
Let’s look at Case 3 more closely. Perhaps the body, the asset, that went missing in the fog of the AFSPA was never ‘clean’ enough, not patriotic enough, to begin with, to merit the attention of the newly constituted moral majority . If we are interested in the question of justice, we have to be interested in it even for those who can’t be legal all the time, or even ever. If we cannot discuss that possibility, then the talk of corruption sounds really hollow to me. Elsewhere, the connection between corruption, the AFSPA, and an atmosphere of impunity that does not allow mass protests of the kind that are held in Ramlila Maidan does get talked about. Here, for instance is a letter to Ramlila Maidan from the security ward of JN Hospital, Imphal, Manipur.
A Letter from Manipur
23 August 2011, Tuesday
10.27am, Security Ward, JN Hospital
I whole heartedly welcome your invitation to join the anti corruption rally you are crusading. And yet I would like you to be convinced of the reality of my situation, that I cannot get the advantage of exercising my non-violent protest for justice against my concerned authority as a democratic citizen of a democratic country, unlike your environment. This is the problem I cannot understand.
My humble suggestion is if you feel seriously; please try to reach the concerned legislators (read authorities) to let me get free, like yours, to join your amazing crusade to root out corruption – which is the root of all evils. Or you can come to Manipur, the most corruption affected region in the world.
With full solidarity and best wishes.
Hunger Striker to repeal the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act
A society without bribes, need not be a society with better wages, or without encounter killings that exchange for cash and promotions. It could also just be a hungrier, more desperate and bleak society, especially if there remain large sections of the working poor, and the disenfranchised, who have no means to live a straightforward life, or die a dignified death and not be buried in an unmarked grave.
Some caveats (to my own argument) – of course I know that the corruption of those who occupy positions of power is based on privilege and violence. That it feeds like a dark cancer into the vitals of every process in our society. Of course I know that one needs mechanisms to inhibit the egregious abuse of power. And of course I know that legislation to rein in the arbitrary use of power by people entrusted with office and responsibility is a necessity. Of course I know that a bill is needed. And that eventually a bill will be passed. But the framing of laws and by-laws, and the fine tuning of the police powers of the state does not capture my imagination as the task that a new left , the kind that I would be interested in, in our part of the world, needs to be doing. Let this be done by those who dream of filling prisons with more offenders, not by those who dream of opening their gates.
Tasks and Legacies : Legalese and Militarese
The tasks of politics do not begin or end with the framing and passage of laws. The legacy bequeathed to us by the big tent of the Anna Hazare movement will not be simply a well drafted bill. it will also be a set of attitudes, a basket of sensibilities, things that are beyond the question of mere laws. Some of these attitudes and sensibilities fill me with delight, others fill me with dread. I am delighted by the new found sense of entitlement to public space, by the raucous,unruly asking of questions, by the improvisatory sense of a politics that is made on the fly, by the way in which (like in a good old time Hindi movie) brotherhood can be lost and found in a fair-ground. I think there are things to learn from the dynamism of a networked, agile political intelligence that has made itself known, sometimes spontaneously, during this campaign. There is reason to be delighted by the way in which the whimsical, the cranky, the odd, the queer – off-stage and in the crowds have created an elegantly awkward counter-weight to the dull earnestness of the do-gooders on stage. All these things are well worth holding on to. But I am not at all sanguine about the way in which the Anna Hazare campaign tries to create divisions based on morality and law over and above the categories of class and justice. To steal and to be corrupt when you are poor and weak is not the same thing as to grab privileges for yourself when you are rich and powerful. To focus one’s attention on dealing with corruption through a purely juridical-repressive-punitive mechanism (the institution of the Lokpal) is also to assume that all kinds of corruption can be viewed equally. The principle of equality before the law would ensure that a monomaniacal obsession with the law actually strengthens the status quo.
To combat the corruption of those who captain the ship of state with the letter of the law is something like trying to defeat the standing army of the state with the standing army of revolution. The centralization of power in the organs of the state is something that I think needs to be resisted at all costs, regardless of who wants to to the strengthening, regardless of whether it occurs in the name of fighting corruption, increasing GDP, strengthening capitalism or building socialism. It is time for us on the independent left to stop focusing on the state as the source and destination of all things good and bad in our society.
You might achieve a coup d’etat against corruption only to realize that the standing army of the revolution is now the standing army of the state and that the revolution is now, effectively a counter-revolution, at the very moment in which it succeeds. I do not believe that the administration of social surplus that the state is required to undertake in India can proceed without fear or favor. As long as social inequalities remain as sharp as they are, the very effort to administer an unequal society through ‘clean’ methods requires one to safeguard the rules of property.
I am not one of those who opine that ‘Team Anna’ ought not to be trusted because it is contemptuous of parliamentary procedure. There may be debates over timing, pace and whether a legislation brought in at a central level should be automatically operational in the states, but these are all questions about procedure. And in the days that follow, what we will see will be endless wrangling about procedure, not about content. The discussion will be about when and how to pass the bill, not about whether the bill furthers the question of justice. That seems to have been taken for granted already. It is this confidence that I find disturbing. This confidence cuts across the government-opposition-civil society divides.
Contrarian that I am, my reason for keeping my distance from Team Anna lies partly in the fact that they are all too wedded to legalese and parliamentary procedure. They are not dismissing parliament and standing committees, they are merely setting themselves up as the tribunes, as the permanently standing committees of very civil society. They are by no means ‘anarchists’, as some have suggested they are. Instead, they are the most vehement (even if ‘would-be’) custodians of law and order. They are lawyers, former law ministers, prison governors, bureaucrats, technocrats, saints, do-gooders, earnest men and women all.The kind I run a mile from when I see them arrayed so impressively. They mirror the legalese of the state, just as those who fight the state with people’s armies mirror the militarese of the state. Both are the state in waiting, and act as if they know they are. They are waiting to cleanse the state, in the name of what they both believe will be a better state. Is their ‘better state’ going to be more just ? Will it not uphold with equal alacrity, with even more intense passion, the law of property, the rule of capital, the marking of social assets and surpluses in terms of who controls them and who does not, even, who must not ? Will they not divide social surpluses into state and non-state actors without challenging the way in which social surpluses get produced, at what human cost, or even the rate at which they get produced. Do they, for instance, ever call for a reduction of the working day, or even a modest amelioration of production targets, even, the occasional modest rise in wage ? No, at the most, they tell us that a person working under NREGA must know how much they are entitled to get. (a goal with which I have no quarrel), as if to know what one’s wages are can adequately compensate for the fact that such a wage is not a living wage.
In this way, what tends to happen is that the fight for a change in the conditions of production, becomes subsumed under a fight for a living wage, a fight for a living wage, becomes subsumed under a fight for the right to information about the same paltry wage, the fight for a right to information about that paltry wage becomes subsumed under a fight for a Lokpal Bill, and finally the fight for a Lokpal Bill becomes a dispute over how long it will take to pass the bill, and who will form the standing committee that will scrutinize and assist in the passing of the bill. I am not suggesting that none of these fights are not worth fighting. Only, that I find something strange about pressurizing some imagined ‘left” into doing this fighting. Since this ‘left’ is being imagined into existence even as we speak, why not provoke it to fight for the maximum demands with economy and intelligence, rather than waste its time and scarce human resources fighting for minimal and steadily diminishing demands with maximal energy.
Here and Elsewhere
Everywhere in the world, in Cairo, Damascus, Tripoli, London, Madrid, Paris, Tel Aviv , Athens and Santiago, people are disputing the apportioning of the social surplus. They want more, or what they think they ought to be given and are in fact given less. This is what brings them out on to the streets. What is happening in Delhi is NOT exceptional. It is part of what is happening all over the world. There is nothing new about this dispute. It is after all, as old as class society. All struggles against power derive their existence from this basic fact. But there is something else going on in our time. For the first time since the twentieth century ended, capitalism finds itself in a situation of severe crisis. The diminishing share of social surplus is giving class conflict a very sharp intensity, it is also, at the same time creating the conditions for conflicts within ruling elites. There is ‘less’ of the ‘more’ going around and naturally, disputes over who can claim what are proliferating. A great deal (though certainly not everything) of the current talk about corruption is taking place under the shadow of a dispute within ruling elites about legal and extra legal claims on the appropriation of a diminishing social surplus.
The participation of an ‘independent left’ as a party to this dispute, without changing the terms under which it is framed, can only end in tilting the balance in favor of this or that faction of the ruling class. It cannot serve the purposes of a radical refashioning of social relations. And if it cannot do so, I do not see what end will be served by being cannon fodder for conflicts within capital. It is entirely another matter to countenance entering the fray as individuals, answering private calls of conscience against a venal crony-capitalism. And there may be a total justification in doing so, as private citizens. In fact ‘India Against Corruption’ functions best as a coalition of otherwise apolitical private citizens, that is its strength and its weakness. But a fight against crony-capitalism is not a fight against capitalism. Sometimes it can even be a fight for capitalism. As far as I understand, (but that could just be silly, dogmatic me) nothing that claims itself to be the ‘independent left’ has any business doing anything other than fighting capitalism, pure and simple. Choosing between this and that form of capitalism, making fine distinctions between legal and illegal appropriations of surplus value, need not be our function, let alone our goal.
If, despite all this, some on the left seek to join the fray for purely ‘opportunistic’ reasons, for the marketing of their specific agenda and as a public-relations exercise amongst a burgeoning constituency, I have no quarrel with them. But I do have a quarrel with dressing up such efforts in the costume of moral righteousness and revolutionary zeal. I think the cloak of moral righteousness sits more elegantly on moralists and those who want to improve society than it does on those who say they want to transform society.
If the transformation of society is our goal, then we have to work very hard to ensure that the terms of the discussion of corruption are also transformed. The big tent of Anna Hazare has momentarily brought in many people into the conversation who may or may not share everything that ‘India Against Corruption’ sets itself out to be. Some of them may see the corrosiveness of low wages and disappearances in places like Kashmir. We should keep a line open to them.
This does not mean we have to commit ourselves in any way to ‘Team Anna’. We should neither want to supplant their leadership, nor should we applaud them. We can choose to ignore them, as we can ignore the platitudes of all people who set themselves up as leaders. If we are interested in creating a society of free and equal people, without great men and leaders, we can also have the courage to turn our back on leaders of all stripes, including those who speak most loudly in our name.
Free Floating Signifiers, Whispers, Wages and Life
Anna Hazare, the apostle of non-violence who routinely calls for public executions, is a leader today because he acts as a free floating signifier. His fast makes for fast politics, just as a greasy snack makes for fast food. It can feed a sharp hunger but is guaranteed to give you indigestion after. He can be all things to all men, because he trades in a currency that is universally convertible, the currency of morality, and yet he is careful of where, with whom and how he wants to trade. He wants a government of good men,clean men, incorruptible men. I fear such a government, not because I like paying bribes, but because I fear the unwillingness of good men to doubt themselves. The incapacity to doubt oneself lies at the beginning of authoritarianism.
On the other hand I see the bribe, and the whole spectrum of behavior characterized as ‘petty corruption’ as the only means available to those without power to seek accommodation and tolerance in the face of the incredible violence and force of the state and capital. We have a predatory ruling class that wants to sweep away every blemish, every obstacle in its path. It wants to render all things and people transparent, visible, accessible to its power by unleashing catastrophes like the Unique Identification Database Scheme. It wants to create categories of the deserving and the underserving poor, which it will then apportion meagre benefits to in the name of a sham welfare state. it wants to reward the poor, not have them claim what is theirs by right. At the same time, it wants to do nothing by way of denting its own privilege. It wants to reshape a metropolis every day by ensuring that there will be no housing at all for those who are not privileged enough to pay the kind of rents that a city like Delhi demands from you. Remember, not so long ago a judgement had actually stated that those who squat on urban land are pick-pockets.
The fat cats will simply legislate themselves a monopoly over society’s resources through legal means, even as they ensure the passage of one, two, three, as many anti-corruption bills as takes their fancy. Their relentless accumulative drive does not need to be corrupt if the state is theirs to mould, and the state, remember, is always theirs. They can mount campaigns tomorrow to build big dams or fight wars of plunder with as much ease as the ones we have witnessed to cleanse society. They can do so in the name of cleansing society. And they will get all the time they need on television.
I would rather stand with the dirty, the shifty, the malcontent, the spoil-sport. Even if it is their last stand. And that is why I am still not celebrating with Anna Hazare. And I am not mourning either, because despite everything, I see in the present circumstances, an opening, the bare outline of a possibility. I would rather that the imagined, ‘independent left’ not offer the meagre glow of its ectoplasmic presence to a stage where the lights are burning way too brightly already, but I do hope that it (myself included) will find it possible to remain attentive to the opening and the possibility that now beckons us.
We can begin to whisper about wages, when they talk about bribes. We can talk about hunger when they talk about fasting. We can celebrate life when they rehearse their martyrdoms.
(This text is the expanded form of an informal address made to students of Jawaharlal Nehru University at the invitation of the Democratic Students Union at Tapti Hostel Mess, JNU on the night of August 25th, 2011. I am grateful to the questions that came from the JNU students after the talk and to conversations (and the occasional late night walk) in the last few days with Aarti Sethi, Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, Iram Ghufran, Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam, they have helped me shape and clarify many of the thoughts expressed here.)
Those who might want to listen to a fine rendition by Abida Parveen of Ghalib’s original Ghazal ‘Hazaron Khwahishein Aisi’ (from which I have shamelessly pilfered and ‘adjusted’ the title of this posting) would do well to stop by – here.