The Anna Hazare campaign last week had many dangers. So did the Jan Lokpal Bill it was championing. Now that the noise is over, the real debate can begin
ORDINARILY, A COMMON man’s show of strength against corruption should have been a moment of great celebration. But the Anna Hazare campaign last week was neither revolution nor awakening: only a giant notice-board spilling with complex messages. Some hopeful, some deeply disturbing.
The crux of the campaign was: we, the people, have had enough; it’s clean-up time. A simple exhilarating message. Why then did it become such a debacle?
No one can refute that the Indian State has become fatally unresponsive. It refuses to talk to aggrieved citizens until they either throw stones, pick up guns, take hostages, kill, get shot themselves. Or fast-unto-death. Basically, until the plea for dialogue escalates into confrontation.
It is also true that most elected representatives woo the people every five years then become inaccessible for the next five, until disillusioned voters vote them out and elect others in. Hollowing democracy into a mere game of musical chairs.
It is also true that corruption has become too endemic to Indian life. There is a dangerous erosion of faith in every public institution. No one has any presumed credibility. Not politicians, not the judiciary, bureaucracy or even the media.
It was inevitable then that some rousing television coverage, the jungle drum qualities of the social media and a kindly man with an emotive appeal, generically reminiscent of Gandhi, would result in a catalytic upsurge. There were many at the candlelight vigils at Jantar Mantar, Azad Maidan and elsewhere in the country who did not have the faintest idea what the Jan Lokpal Bill meant. Or who this “lady Anne Hazare” was (sic). But, in some sense, it did not matter. Hazare was merely the lightning rod. People had not come to debate the finer points of law but to express a sentiment. A loss of faith; a desire for change.
The image of Hazare and the catch-all idea of an anti-corruption campaign therefore was a masterstroke as far as precipitating public mood goes. Ninety hours of non-stop jingoism on television may have ratcheted it up, but the nerve was genuinely there to be pressed. Despite everything that was wrong with the campaign then, it would be a mistake to dismiss the frustration — and cry for hope — it expressed.
Beneath the skin of this cynical age, there is a yearning for shining leadership. Moral icons. Pristine philosopher guides. For many people, the idea of the Jan Lokpal — unexamined and untested as it was — embodied that yearning.
That is why they lit candles in its defence.
THE TROUBLE is too much was wrong with the architecture of the upsurge itself. It combined disturbing doses of hypocrisy, fakery and plain ignorance with media hysteria.
For one, its ill-thought out articulations undermined the very basis of democracy. To liken the Anna Hazare movement — or rather moment — to a revolution or liken it to events at Tahrir Square is to mistake one’s infant playpen for the Olympics. Flawed as it is, India is a robust democracy. Poor farmers or tribals who are summarily shot as they battle for their land and livelihood might deem India a highly repressive regime, but there was absolutely no risk of bullet or baton for those who lit candles at Jantar Mantar and Azad Maidan last week. In fact, given the largely middle-class nature of the protesters, it’s unlikely they would have ever felt even the first syllable of State repression on their skin.
To call the campaign Gandhian, therefore, was a further travesty. Despite his admirable track record, there has been deserved criticism of Hazare’s endorsement of Narendra Modi’s Gujarat and his zealous statement on a television channel that whoever is corrupt should have their hands chopped off. Clearly not very Gandhian assertions. But Hazare’s own inadequacies as philosopher-guide are only the dip stick: the real problem lies with the fundamentally lazy understanding of what it means to be Gandhian today. To discover the candle as an accessory or merely send an SMS is not being Gandhian. His satyagraha made much tougher demands of its practitioners. It demanded acute self-awareness, internal transformation and the immense moral strength not to resort to violence even in the face of great physical harm to one’s body. How would last week’s demonstrators have scored on any of those counts? Crucially too, Gandhi understood himself to be a flawed work-in-progress not an immaculate one-stop morality shop. He understood societies evolve slowly, painfully, dialogically. They do not sprout overnight into freshly programmed video-games.
Which brings one to the deeply problematic nature of the idea of corruption as it was articulated last week: its naïvete, its apolitical certitudes, its complete obliviousness to the larger meanings of corruption. Would last week’s super agitated demonstrators now swell the ranks of those who have been protesting the unfair corporate capture of national resources for years, or join Irom Sharmila’s staggering 10-year fast to end the draconian clauses of the AFSPA? (To name just two causes worthy of a national upsurge.)
But perhaps these are unfair questions. Across the world, citizens often demonstrate only against issues that affect them personally. And the issue here was the narrow frame of financial corruption. The trouble is, even within that frame, the outcry was hypocritical. The campaign positioned corruption as something external, a cancer that emanates from elsewhere — mostly in the unclean figure of the politician. Not as something structural everyone participates in. It is this convenient definition that allowed an unsettling cast of characters — some highly communal, many visibly corrupt themselves and many merely making a social occasion of it — from joining the pious chant. Page 3 regulars, lobbyists, corporates, they were all there, terrifyingly blind to how their own hands are in the till, how they use the levers of power every day to help themselves to disproportionate doses of the goodies. The fact that even Lalit Modi was tweeting that he stood for Anna and saw himself as a soldier against corruption is proof of how self-indulgent the discourse was.
The Hazare moment yielded other worrying residues. Worst among them was the unthinking blanket denunciation of politicians. And the inefficacy of the voter. Every healthy society needs a complex web of pushbacks, a periodic and forceful shakeup of those who wield power and money. That is part of the checks and balances that lie at the heart of democracies: the important tool that ensures accountability.
But the hysterical dismissal of politicians and electoral politics last week set a dangerous precedent. It cut at the very root of democracy. Only those who live in ivory towers can dismiss the difficulties of seeking the mandate and then managing the competing aspirations of a billion people. Venal as some of them may be, for the most part, Indian politicians manage this task admirably. To write them and the wisdom of the common voter off is to write off democracy itself. Civil society is supposed to hold governments in check, not supplant them. The line between philosopher king and all-powerful dictator is a dangerously thin one.
But the blame for this mood probably lay less with the campaign, more with the media. Electronic media today has the power to change the nature of reality itself. Its attention can balloon an ant into an elephant; its neglect can reduce giant concerns to footnotes. Tremendous power brings tremendous responsibility. The media must remember that it can drive the nation to new consciousness. Or skid it off to hysteria. (One of the Lokpal movement’s lasting ironies is that the civil society television channels were eulogising so passionately last week is the same people it has reviled before when their concerns did not suit them. Fight for social justice, human rights, tribal rights, or the right to dissent and you are billed as intellectual terrorists, anti-development, anti-national or plain Maoist sympathisers. Fight for middle- class preoccupations and you become national heroes.)
STILL, IT is crucial in one’s criticisms to distinguish between Anna Hazare’s campaign and its goal: The Jan Lokpal Bill. Few can argue the need for a strong anti-corruption bill.
The dismay is that, like the movement itself, the draft of the Bill put forward by Hazare and his team combined good intention with crippling doses of hubris and naivete. What should have been a powerful moment of reckoning for the political establishment, therefore, ended up becoming a moment of reckoning for the Bill’s proponents themselves.
The saving grace is that having achieved its goal of coauthoring the Bill with government, its champions are completely open-minded about its clauses. The irony though is, this open-mindedness, this readiness to alter clauses on every passing advice, also smacks of extreme subjectivity and haste. The Bill is in its 12th version and still changing chaotically: what was the need to rush a shrill public campaign around it before it had even been wrestled through internal debate into a model shape? Why did it risk the hardearned credibility of India’s civil society?
To discover the candle as an accessory or merely send an SMS is not being Gandhian. Real satyagraha has tougher demands
Among its many contentious clauses, the Bill wanted to give the Jan Lokpal the right to check “reckless decisionmaking” by the government; suspend or transfer errant officials, including the prime minister; wanted Magasaysay and Nobel Prize winners to be part of the selection committee; wanted to ensure transparency by videographing and making public all discussions around the Bill and other Lokpal decisions; wanted to have the power to address grievances against maladministration; and roll the powers to investigate, prosecute and enforce all unto itself. Many of these clauses have been dropped as criticisms have flowed in, but their presence in a Bill that was allowed into the public domain displays the flawed thinking that had gone into it.
How can a non-elected representative be allowed to decide and alter what is “reckless” decision-making by the government? Who will define the parameters of the subjective word “reckless”? And why have an elected executive then? Also why take the desire for transparency to such extremes? How can decision-makers have a frank discussion if every stage of that debate — not just the final decision — is to be publicised and critiqued?
The real trouble at the heart of the Jan Lokpal Bill as it was drafted by Anna Hazare’s team is that the structural changes it proposed relied heavily on a belief in the immaculate virtuousness of its champions. It deemed itself worthy of accruing immense, even unconstitutional, power because it believed itself to be incorruptible as individuals. Dangerously, personality had come to stand in for structure.
Despite all this, perhaps the noise has been worthwhile. At least, it has challenged the status quo. Corruption is not just an Indian but a human malaise. Not even a magic wand can make it disappear. But it still needs to be curbed. India needs a Lokpal Bill with sharp teeth — along with a raft of other administrative reforms — to help create that curb.
Now that the noise is done, and the hubris of both sides — government and sections of civil society — has been exposed, the genius of our plural democracy is poised to take over. TEHELKA’s cover package this week is part of that democratic endeavour: the search for a multi-voiced debate on the Lokpal Bill. And the realistic shape it should take.
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka
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