Ten lessons of the fortnight that was: Jay Mazoomdar
Guest post by JAY MAZOOMDAAR
The 13-day blockbuster— peddled as the second freedom struggle, panned as irresponsible blackmailing, and a lot in between — is over. Anna Hazare accepted honeyed coconut water from two little girls, introduced to the crowd as a dalit and a Muslim, and went on to recuperate in one of India’s most expensive hospitals, one branded after Hindu spiritual literature at that.
News TV is still fighting the vacuum by flogging the debate – so much so that seasoned correspondents are chasing a rather dismissive Dr Naresh Trehan to unravel the mystery of Anna’s endurance. Biker gangs have gone into a sulk and roads at India Gate are looking safer for traffic and women (which is not saying much in Delhi). What is more, India has started taking note that too many Indians have meanwhile drowned in floods.
The show is over; at least for now. There is suddenly time (with deadlines no more literal) and space (the grounds again look big) for holding a thought or a few (though the calls to action, and only action, still haunt). Post mortem is perhaps a sensitive term in the context – Anna has survived some of his more obdurate team members, his movement is obviously alive, and some of the Protest TV still aching to go live. Yet, the torrent of emotion has somewhat ebbed and it is possible now to read the alluvial fan for signs of both hope and anguish.
THE BIGGEST GAIN of the Anna show is the emergence of a section of people on India’s streets and in its political equation. The Anna supporters are not quite the aam aadmi, they mostly come from different layers of the urban middle class with a few not-so-poor (by rural standards) from villages. Not all of them are new to agitation. For example, lawyers agitate so frequently that it does not even make news every time and Gujjars have mastered the art of crippling the economy by blocking road and railway arteries across north India.
The difference this time is the significant presence of the tax paying middle class (TPMC) in a popular, street movement. Yes, many of them formed picnic groups seeking novelty and some younger ones enjoyed a wild spin on the wheels daddy bought. But undoubtedly, a large number of the TPMC Indians were out there to simply register their protest.
This is a huge plus because so far, the power equations of our political class factored in only the so-called upper class, both urban and rural. Big corporate interests are always protected, just like landed farmers are guaranteed subsidy. The rest did not really matter. The majority of Indians — from the landless farmer to the marginalised tribal, the real aam aadmi – are still taken for granted just because it is possible to deal that way with the utterly disempowered. Yes, the poor do have the numbers and the politicians know how to tap them before every election with diktats (muscle/caste/religion) and ingenious promises.
While this aam aadmi remained far removed, physically and otherwise, from the Anna show, it has been fascinating to see the other taken-for-granted section of the Indians shed the very characteristic that often makes them fall off the political radar. Till now, the TPMC talked about their grievances among themselves but rarely got any political traction. They remained a resigned lot – too inconsequential to lobby and too inhibited to rally. The Mandal agitation was an exception, and largely a youth movement.
At the Anna show, however, the retired walked alongside the employed, the between-jobs, the unemployed and the student. As a rallying point, the figure of a largely apolitical Anna with an assortment of Gandhian symbols finally offered the TPMC a comfortable platform to vent their long-nourished frustration. They might still not be the majority in Anna’s rainbow crowd; but the fact that they have finally ventured out of their “status-quoist” bubble to hit the roads (with many others they instinctively hold in suspicion), may eventually help them emerge as a political interest group to reckon with.
THE ANNA MOVEMENT has shown Palaniappan Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal – arguably India’s two most insufferably arrogant politicians – their place. As the union Home Minister, Chidambaram was supposed to bring all that Shivraj Patil could not to this key office. Since the Maoists still ambush almost at will and terrorists remain fascinated as always about Mumbai, perhaps the only way our Home Minister can stamp his authority is by shooting his mouth.
Sibal’s perpetual smugness, however, is harder to understand than RP Singh’s smiles in the Oval test. No wonder that even the apex court found his dismissal of the CAG report on the 2G Scam objectionable. One can only hope it will be a while before the ministers recover their voice, and style.
The Anna movement also jolted our MPs who determine what Parliament is on any given day. If the callous waste of public money and, more importantly, delay in legislation is not enough, the honourable members have long conducted themselves in a manner that even pushed a succession of well-meaning Speakers to occasional profanity.
Institutions are abstracts that manifest themselves through the mundane. Not without reason has the impression of Parliament in the public psyche been reduced to a stage where even Kiran Bedi’s scarf act, or a certain Sreesanth’s antics, might not be quite out of place. The “challenge” from the Anna movement did not come a day sooner for our legislators. It was certainly reassuring to witness how the political class fought its divisive inertia to get a mature, sincere show of statesmanship going.
FOR MANY, THE civil society has been a villain this fortnight. What probably went unnoticed was that a large segment of the same civil society provided the necessary dissent to a discourse that often threatened to plummet in the realm of a dictatorial with-us-or-without-us. These dissenting voices from the civil society also refused to cross the lines of decency even as their counterparts undauntedly did so.
Even more heartening was the unusual courage and generosity displayed by some of these dissenters in the face of popular hostility. Aruna Roy, for one, was dubbed a “traitor”. It did not stop her from climbing Anna’s stage to lend her support to those clauses of his Bill that she agreed with or to the fundamentals of Anna’s movement.
AT A TIME when two of the country’s most senior politicians appear to have lost much moral authority even within their parties, Anna Hazare, a plebeian of limited education and worldview and hardly a leader of masses till a fortnight back, has set a rare example.
Why is LK Advani a spent force? He appears to have lost his presence in the party and Parliament ever since he practically gave up on his ambition for the PM’s office. Dr Manmohan Singh is an honest politician but the biggest of scams happen on his watch. Why does a man, who could be a monk, repeatedly claim ignorance as a defence?
At 74, Anna is younger than both Advani and Dr Singh. Tutored or not, Anna’s belief in the Jan Lokpal’s panacea-like utility maybe naïve. His method of fasting may be questionable. But once the man was convinced of the purpose, nothing, not even fear of death, seemed to move him.
This ability to stand up for one’s conviction is altogether missing in politics today. What it says is that our leaders have much more at stake than their principles. That is why Dr Singh carries around A Raja like an albatross and Advani refuses to come clean on B S Yeddyurappa. Ministers like Jairam Ramesh even make a virtue (“mature flexibility”) of the compromise involved in clearing “ill-advised” projects “under pressure”.
In an uneasy prospect for our political class, Anna has restored the lost standards: one is not a worthy leader of people if his or her professed stand (not necessarily on Bills but on principles) is negotiable.
THE ANNA MOVEMENT is too much about Anna. This has drawn sections of the hitherto absentee TPMC to roads but such reliance on individual appeal puts a movement on shaky ground.
For the record, the Team Anna — Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and Prashant Bhushan — were already a team when they approached Anna because they needed an icon to sell their cause to the media and the people. Once convinced, Anna inspired a popular movement (with ample help from eager TV channels and a fumbling government) in a matter of months.
But busy hardselling Brand Anna, Team Anna, by its own reckoning, has stuck to playing Hanuman to Anna’s Ram. They have not shared Anna’s grace, his sense of proportion or the moral authority (none of them even broached the idea of going on a fast). Take Anna away and this movement will disintegrate or spiral out of control.
TENS OF LAKHS of Indians support Anna’s movement. But India is a country of thousands of lakhs. So when Team Anna wanted to force the Parliament’s hand on behalf of the country, it was a case of dangerous misrepresentation. Movements against a dam, a factory or a nuclear plant either oppose misuse of certain laws or demand that certain laws be upheld. Moreover, these movements draw on large-scale participation of local populations who have every right to force local issues that affect them more than anyone else.
Yes, Irom Sharmila’s fast is to demand the repeal — just like Anna’s for enactment – of a law. But an overwhelming majority in the North-East is against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) which is not a pan-Indian law and applies only in the region (and later Jammu and Kashmir). So Sharmila’s fast or the anti-Posco movement derive “legitimacy” from their specific, limited context. But when a handful of activists from Team Anna want 1.2 billion Indians to accept a law that they have drafted and a few lakhs (or crores) support, they violate the fundamentals of a democracy.
TEAM ANNA HAD more than a million ears over a fortnight for at least 12 hours a day. For a movement built on values and morality, the Anna show wasted this enormous opportunity to build an informed constituency and mostly engaged in harangues. Yes, they called it Anna ki pathshala but very little education or debate happened on the Ramlila stage. Educators-cum-entertainers sang eulogies of the 21st century mahatma or incited crowds in a language very much identifiable with the political class they were lambasting.
This is particularly worrying because most of Anna supporters have the convenient holier-than-thou approach. Anna’s high moral ground that calls for introspection and purification of the self found little echo with his colleagues and supporters who simply played victims of bribery. What Anna clearly envisions as a movement for a better society has so far failed to aspire for anything more than changes in laws and institutions.
TO GARNER PUBLIC support, Team Anna has promised the moon. While peddling their miracle Bill, they even quantified the impact of the Lokpal in percentage terms. In this necessarily simplistic and often vague euphoria, unreasonably huge expectations have been created among the Anna supporters. If the Lokpal does not deliver a miracle, and we know it will not, natural cynicism may relapse. It took roughly 35 years from JP to Anna. If this wave peters out, we maybe in for another long wait.
FROM THE RAMLILA stage, Anna and his team have spoken of taking up the fight on electoral reform, farmers’ rights, land acquisition etc. The first leg of the movement has capitalised on a largely urban concern for corruption that is limited to bribery. Now the movement has its choices. For example, it is not difficult to sell the idea of “right to recall” that instantly appeals to the middle class. But garnering popular support for non-middle class causes, such as displacement of tribals, is not easy. It is still more difficult to bring the two Indias – aam and still more aam – together in this movement. These choices will test the intent, strength and pull of Anna’s movement.
For all its saffron undertones, this movement has fiercely defended its apolitical credentials till now. Though the key Anna lieutenants have so far dismissed calls by the critics who wanted them to fight elections and directly join the legislation process, the growing clout of the movement may eventually embolden them to test the electoral waters, either by jumping into the fray themselves or throwing their weight behind candidates or political formations. At all such times, they will have two choices: remain true to the movement or get co-opted in partisan politics.
TEAM ANNA HAS repeatedly acknowledged how the movement was as much the media’s as it was theirs. News TV, in particular, has been credited for a “social revolution”. While cynics and politicians have pointed fingers, alleging that the movement and live TV were tailormade for each other, channel heads have defended their editorial prerogative to play up what they felt was a genuine people’s cause.
They have not, however, bothered to explain why the same news TV rarely turns to the far corners of India (or makes do with hit-and-run coverage) where people fight gruesome battles to defend their livelihood and lives. Are those movements less genuine because they do not clear the TRP-vs-expenses tests?
The only way the media can put such doubts to rest is by being a little less choosy. If the media is indeed keen on social justice, as it should be, the cameras should now, like Anna’s movement itself, travel outside the bribe-stricken cities and towns to the much larger India out there and address issues far more complex. Journalism is not about convenience. Neither is revolution.
Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist