Politics of Anna Hazare Anti-Corruption Movement by Sanjay Kumar
Guest post by SANJAY KUMAR
Sonia Gandhi Hinsak Hai
Rahul Gandhi Napunsak Hai
(Sonia Gandhi is violent, Rahul Gandhi is impotent)
(placard displayed by a young man on Barakhamba road crossing, during anti-corruption march on 21st August, Delhi)
Rahul Bhaiyya! Why don’t you get married so that Bhabhi can take care of Sonia Aunty, and you do not have to spend so much (black) money to get her treated outside the country? (placard carried by a three year old girl child)
Manuvadi Krantikari Morcha supports Anna Hazare
(a banner heading for a group of 20-30 middle aged men)
Bihari Nahin Ham Jaat hain
Ham Anna ke saath hain
(We are not Biharis we are Jaats, we are with Anna)
(shout of youth in open jeep in Darya Ganj, after the 21st Aug march)
Gems like these in public space are not likely to be reported by the media. But they graced the rally, and its aftermath, on the 21st August in support of Anna Hazare fast, without anyone in the crowd showing visible displeasure against them. Signs and slogans of this ilk were in minority, and the claim here is certainly not that these represent the core of Anna movement. It was obvious during the rally that a virulent, sexist, castiest and openly patriarchal fringe was trying to make its presence felt in the Anna gathering, which undoubtedly attained a mass character. It is true that the movement against corruption led by Anna Hazare and associates has exploded much beyond expectations of its leadership. The Anna Team has been too preoccupied by its confrontation with the government to put its mind to the desirability of any limits to the permissibility for the open mass it has galvanized. Movement’s spontaneity and open character is its strength. It is snow balling because many social groups are joining it without feeling inhibited by its agenda. Further, the leadership of the movement is on record, in numerous interviews after Sadhvi Rithambra had addressed the anti-black money protest of Baba Ramdev, that as long any one agrees with their anti-corruption stand they do not mind them in their movement. Is the presence of sexist, and casteist elements merely a reflection of the openness of the Anna movement? The question can as well be turned around. Why do such elements feel emboldened enough to come out openly in the Anna movement? Or, why there are no slogans or posters from trade unions and other oppositional progressive groups, and no picture of Ambedkar, which graces the public presence of almost all Dalit groups? Anna Hazare movement resonates deeply with the ‘soul’ of its core constituency of upper caste Hindu middle classes. That is the reason of its phenomenal success. It flows so smoothly into, and draws out these sections so wholesomely, that the deeply ingrained castiesm, communalism, and sexism of these classes is bound to manifest itself now and then, even though the espoused agenda of the movement has no connection with these.
The theme of Anna’s speech on 21st August is sacrifice. He asks his followers to be ready for sacrifice. With the self assurance of a well meaning patriarch he tells the crowd that having no immediate family he can sacrifice more, and will not hesitate to even sacrifice his life, but they too should sacrifice, a little bit, for reforming the country. The discourse is mildly (Hindu) religious, demonstrators at houses of MPs are asked to sing bhajans, the Janmashtami next day is also brought in to remind people of Krishna’s fight against evil. Anna sits in front of a giant image of Gandhi, alone on a snow white stage. Symbolism is perfect for a clean image. His tone is sufficiently aggressive, but not shrill, when it comes to warn the government with a deadline, which predictably elicits a thunderous applause. Anna calls his followers to be fighters to get the government to pass the Jan Lok Pal Bill. Messianism of the call is not in the person, but in the message. He has declared that the Jan Lok Pal bill will eradicate 60% to 65% of corruption. Why this figure, and no other? The hint perhaps is in the fact that in earlier times 60% marks in an examination stood for the much tried for first class. And, one can’t miss the demeanour of a school master of yore in Anna. Crowd’s sloganeering demanding Jan Lok Pal bill is hysterical. Magic wand is the image many commentators have used while questioning such calls. That appears far from the reality. Anna’s followers want JLPBill, but realistically only few of them are likely to share the optimism of a glowing corruption free India after its passage. It is a means to protest. It is a lathi to browbeat a government whose legitimacy has hit rock bottom after series of scams. Further, the entire discourse around and conception of the JLPBill accords with the crowd’s sense of right and wrong.
An old man wearing branded shorts and sneakers is picking up plastic and paper thrown around. His way of doing something meaningful for the gathering he is part of is dignified. There is a protocol of decency in the crowd. It is heartening that in a city like Delhi, where people generally behave as self-centered brutes with each other, there is a crowd in which everybody seems to be a well-wisher of others. It is not just the anger against corruption, but this feeling too that binds the crowd. However, there is something missing. One wonders how many in the crowd will not jump a traffic signal the next day. After all jumping a signal is also attacking some one else’s right, and actually is an example of ‘public’ corruption. It is unrealistic to expect a few hours of bonhomie to overcome the habit of law breaking for self gain that has become a part of every day life. The point however, is that while the discourse on corruption of the Anna Hazare movement identifies villains and is loud about their villainy, it is deafeningly silently about how its audience itself is complicit in creating a public atmosphere of corruption for personal gain.
Religion in the current Indian public life is a surrogate for a near absent liberal and secular public morality. Anna’s folksy religious discourse reeks of morality, it presents a straight and easy choice in a good vs. evil contest. It is also apt for his politics of ‘nothing but the JLPBill’. The moral over dose compromises objectivity, and quite simply leads to hyperbole. Claims in the name of 125 crore Indians are rampant. ‘Doosri Azadi’ is another catchy phrase. Hindu public religion in the times of Baba Ramdevs, and after the success of cultural nationalist project of the RSS with Hindu upper and middle castes, has become virulent and hatred filled. Notice how many times Ramdev asks for phansi (hanging) for Afzal Guru in his sermons. Anna’s discourse and politics is different from Ramdev, which to an extent explains the difference between the fate of movements led by the two. However, school children protesting for JLPBill in Mumbai, still demand phansi for the corrupt. Absolutist morality of a religious kind with a violent and vindictive mindset is called Taliban in another context. Are Anna’s followers in the so called Indian civil society even aware of such dangers?
A sunshine argument doing the rounds is that Anna’s anti-corruption movement will prove to be healthy for Indian democracy since it has brought the youth and urban middle classes to the politics of the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. Youth in many parts of India, in Kashmir, North-East, Telangana, or in Maoist affected areas, are already in the thick of politics, a politics of the kind that has had, and will have, far deeper affects on their lives, than the politics of the JLKBill gathering at the Ramlila ground of Delhi. The youth of urban middle classes has given enough evidence of its politics by remaining indifferent to many protests in the capital against displacement, price-rise, loot of natural resources, state brutalities in Kashmir and North-East, to name just a few. This youth has agitated too. Just three years ago these youth were on streets against Central Govt. proposal to extend reservations to OBC students in institutions of higher learning. Brightest stars of this youth group, students of Delhi IIT had then come on road with brooms, to tell everybody their future under reservations. (That protest reconfirmed the common sense of oppressed castes in India that the so called upper castes just do not get what it means to be devalued in caste’s name.) Music bands and film stars had joined anti-reservation protests at Jantar Mantar. Media and internet everyday make a political public of urban middle classes. These are the classes which get to air their opinions on programmes like ‘We the People’. If participation in state politics is meant as access to, and influence over state policies, then the ‘upper’ caste, urban propertied sections are the most political of Indian population groups. With the open connivance of University administrations and judiciary, ‘upper’ caste students for the past three years have been garnering seats meant for OBC students. Hence, state money given in the name OBC students has actually facilitated access of ‘upper’ caste students to higher studies. Only last week did the Supreme Court disallow this flagrant violation of law. Access to all institutions of governance, the bureaucratic arm of the executive, the judiciary, the media, quasi-judicial regulatory bodies, etc., is mediated through money power and social capital, which obviously favours urban middle classes. Elected bodies are the only institutions in whose formation, at least formally, access follows the first democratic principle of equality. Here, urban middle classes have increasingly lost their status as leaders of the nation, the status they enjoyed during the freedom struggle and decades after that. Local processes and social churnings beyond these classes have taken over the electoral politics, failing ambitions of these classes to have ‘people like them’ elected. This failure partially explains the venal disregard of elected politicians by these classes. On the other hand, the rest of Indians keep on electing from the same bunch of corrupt netas¸ often rotating them, but finally from the same bunch, election after election in full gusto. Obviously, electoral politics has contradictory significance for different groups of Indians. For the majority of rural folk and urban poor, elections are mostly the only means to access state, unlike influential classes which use other institutions of governance and public opinion.
Urban middle classes have joined Anna’s anti-corruption movement, not as pure white lilies. Their politics in the anti-corruption campaign is not an empty signifier. Nor is theirs an alternative form of politics, as some commentators are claiming. They are not a spontaneous agitated mass, only now waking from slumber to find their bearing in the morass of Indian politics. Their agitation is of a different kind than the others, mainly from the oppressed groups, we are used to seeing in India. Theirs is actually an agitation of a hegemonic block, which has always enjoyed a ‘passive’ access to state power in ‘democratic’ India. Anna’s anti-corruption campaign has come at the right moment to address a limited, but very serious crisis of the legitimacy of an elected government. Legitimacy of the hegemonic block of classes ruling India is not in crisis; nor is the state authority being directly challenged. Such crises and challenges are dealt with entirely different set of political tools and tactics. The issue here is not individual choices; nor are possible resolutions to crises like these affected by conspiracies. Anna certainly did not start his campaign with the aim of resolving the legitimacy crisis of government. Nor was it inevitable that crisis will unfold the way it did, with Anna’s campaign enjoying the central space. The legal form of the tool he chose to confront the government, the JLPBill, and his tatics, eschewing mass mobilization and keeping himself as the main fist of attack, fitted the political needs of urban middle classes well. Even the geographical sense of his assault, rooting himself at a place (Jantar Mantar in April and Ramlila Maidan in August) rather than a roving agitation like a padyatra, fitted the life style of these classes well. You could visit to show your support at your convenience. Anna’s fast was a twenty four hour convenience. The largest rally in Anna’s support on 21st August, one of the largest Delhi has seen in recent history, had many participants driving in their SUVs, widows rolled up, with full AC. Once Anna’s campaign got support of the urban middle classes, the government had to be conciliatory. The contrast with response to Irom Sharmila’s ten year old hunger strike could not me more telling. Anna’s consistency with his demand (some may call it his stubbornness, but credit must be given where it is due ), humiliating an incompetent, and a government too clever for its own good, in one round after another, received increased cheerleading from the crowd. More was the government humiliated, louder were the claps. Government was in no position to call off the bluff, the nature of its rule was such that it sought approval of very classes that bayed for its blood. The game could go on and on, till the crisis of government’s legitimacy worsened to the crisis of state power (government did well in this regard to not use its police force after the first folly of arresting Anna), or the real threats, the riff raffs, the traffic stoppers, usual participants of other kinds of rallies, were not on the scene.
Framing Corruption: The ‘Anna’ Way
Corruption and injustice are both ethically loaded terms. Injustice frames the wrong in a wider canvas, calling deeper ethical concerns. Corruption restricts its framework to the legal. There can be unjust laws, but not corrupt laws. Discourses on injustice often call for changes in social structures which make injustice possible, and inevitable. Their image of a just society is often utopian. Anti-corruption discourses on the other hand, move along the safety of a legal scaffolding, their aim is to establish a legal status quo, against a reality vitiated by corruption. In an unjust and corrupt society struggles against corruption and injustice are both liberatory. The point however is that classes with larger stake in the existing social system are more likely to seek change and mobilisation through anti-corruption discourses, than those on injustice. Corruption is a matter of social power, when those holding office use the authority which comes with the office for personal gain against the law. What makes corruption ubiquitous like now in India is not just the desire on the part of the corrupt to gain personally, but also the absence of a public morality, or rather presences of a public (a)morality which participates in corruption as a way of life. A comprehensive framing of corruption would include an understanding of the nature of power of public office in a given society, including techniques of governance, which makes corruption possible, and a critical appraisal of public amorality which accepts it as permissible. Very interestingly, the JLPBill campaign avoids both these in its framework. It over-emphasises the punitive part, i.e public institutions meant to punish the corrupt. It starts by asking why the corrupt are not punished, with an underlying assumption that if only the corrupt could be suitably punished, the problem would be solved. Anna’s claims about the golden arrival of a corruption free India after the enactment of his JLPBill are based on this simplistic understanding. The Lokpal leviathan imagined in JLPBill that rolls in the investigator, prosecutor and judge in one institution, comes out of the desire to create a ‘fool-proof’ system. What if the institution meant to punish the corrupt itself becomes corrupt (which is obvious if social power base and public amorality about corruption is not lost sight of)? This simple counter has been dismissed by Anna and his team as irrelevant. Urban middle classes prefer such framing of corruption. It avoids addressing uncomfortable questions about the nature of social power in India, which would certainly uncover their own privileged position in society. It shields their own complicity in corruption (how many professionals, lawyers, doctors, tradesmen supporting the anti-corruption movement pay their taxes?). The call for punitive measures resonates with an illiberal and vindictive mindset of classes of social order. All these factors explain why urban middle classes in India lapped up the Anna campaign when it appeared at the conjuncture of the legitimacy crisis of the government.
As the anti-corruption movement has acquired a mass character beyond its core support base of ‘upper’ caste, urban middle classes, and has become the process determining the character of government and state in the perception of hegemonic block, a number of diverse engagements with corruption and the anti-corruption movement have emerged from different quarters. For instance a dominant argument from left seeks to explain the explosion of corruption in the past two decades as a direct consequence of neo-liberal economic regime. Neo-liberalism allows for, and in fact encourages, new arenas of corruption through collusion of state functionaries and private capital. However, it also diminishes the controlling powers of these functionaries, which in the earlier regime of state-led capital accumulation, was a fountainhead of corruption. In a society with deeply anti-democratic ethos, with no liberal and secular public morality, with a very narrow base of public rationality (that too limited to state institutions), it is inevitable that any positions of authority will degenerate into corruption. There will be opposition to corruption, because the liberal framework of political governance allows sufficient leeway for it to emerge. But opposition movements will not be able to remove corruption unless the question of a modern public sphere is directly addressed. Let us be clear, even transparency and accountability are very modern notions. Pre-modern social powers based on divine rights or strength of arms, had no need to be transparent and accountable for gaining legitimacy.
If the above argument from the left restricts the social base of corruption, another argument coming from popular struggles tends to expand the notion of corruption. Hence, the forcible displacement, starvation, caste discrimination, etc., i.e. all issues of long drawn out struggles, are now being called instances of corruption. This is surprising, because these have so far been seen from the perspective of much more robust frameworks involving injustice, exploitation, casteism, etc. How will calling these also corruption help struggles against them? Besides calling them corruption is factually incorrect. For instance, displacement due to Narmada dams is not a result of corruption. It is a legal displacement, it has occurred with the concurrence of the highest court of the land. But it remains unjust, and that is still the ground on which to struggle against it. AFSPA in Kashmir and North-East is not corruption. It is a logical and legally permissible companion of armed aggression against people.
Another argument has implored the left to join the anti-corruption movement, lest it be taken over by the rightwing. This argument presents the current movement as an eruption of popular anger against corruption of state functionaries. It assumes this eruption to be a pure questioning of the nature of governance, with no presumed answers. This argument does not recognize interests of upper caste urban middle classes in supporting the anti-corruption movement, and how these interests have already fashioned, not absolutely, but yet in a way, the discursive and political terrain of this movement. It is not that leftists and other social groups, say Dalits, do not understand importance of anti-corruption struggles. But they find the support base of Anna Hazare movement, its discourse and politics so against their own other interests that they think it wise to not to join it, lest they end up gifting it a wider legitimacy than it deserves.
Now, that on 27th August the current crisis has ended with the government agreeing to most of the demands of Anna Hazare, it becomes possible to speculate on the future of corruption in India. A central govt. Lokpal, broadly on the lines demanded by Anna Hazare, is likely to see the light of the day sooner rather than later. Formally it will be a deepening of the association of the people with the state, as it will give an avenue to people to place their grievances before a state institution not directly under the control of government of the day. In a democracy people are expected to be associated with the state, as the state is actually their state. But is India a democracy? If so, then of what kind?
The formally liberal democratic structure of governance given in the Constitution of India has surprised both its supporters and critics alike. Equal right to vote has firmly established competitive electoral politics as a legitimate means to form government, with incumbents getting regularly unseated. Yet this politics has not led to the emergence of a rights bearing individual citizen as the basic building block of the political process. Rather a competitive politics of patronage has consolidated, reconfiguring old communitarian groupings like the caste. Political parties with different social bases and ideological and programmatic orientations have emerged and consolidated, as should have been expected in a pluralist politics. Yet, almost all parties are severely undemocratic internally, with many degenerating to dynastic rule. Privileged sections retain privileged access to state and its institutions, as is the case in all capitalist countries. However, even for privileged groups this access is essentially mediated through patronage networks; a great source of corruption in itself. Welfare is one way through which liberal capitalist states try to square the requirement of popular legitimacy with the constraints of the rule meant to serve the privileged. Indian state is no different in this regard. A surprising development is that a number of state institutions have been established that bring people closer into the state fold as self validating agents, rather than as mere targets of welfare, and hence liberal framework has widened. Panchayati Raj institutions, Right to Information Act, Forest Rights Act, etc. are the most important in this regard. Even MNREGA has done the same for the poorest of Indians to a limited extent. Lokpal, in what ever form it comes, will soon get added to this list. More institutions designed to ensure more rights to people should have reduced corruption, but the reality does not warrant this expectation. It seems wherever corruption has reduced, it is more due to developments in technologies of governance, and the decay of old regulatory framework, rather than these new institutions. Panchayats in fact have become new channels of corruption.
There are many liberal capitalist societies that have little corruption. What distinguishes them is a very deep and wide practice of citizenship, and an evolved sphere of public morality. Will the institution of Lokpal usher India in that direction? One can not be very optimistic on this point, particularly after looking at the politics of the movement that is bringing the Lokpal into being.
(Sanjay Kumar teaches Physics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. He is associated with a group committed to the regeneration of revolutionary socialist politics in India.)