The charade of Anna Hazare’s arrest exposes a government bankrupt of political ideas. But there are some lessons there for everyone else too. Shoma Chaudhury on the dark events of 16 August. With Revati Laul
ANNA HAZARE was exceptionally prescient in picking 16 August for the start of his indefinite fast against corruption. 15 August is India’s collective memoriam of soaring freedoms, hardwon by enlightened political action. 16 August will now always be a sobering reminder of how easily those freedoms can be lost.
The preventive arrest of Hazare and around 2,500 supporters of his anti-corruption movement by the Delhi Police cannot be condemned strongly enough. The right to dissent is a foundation stone of democracy. No matter how much you disagree, democratic societies must defend with their last breath the right of every citizen to protest peacefully and have their say.
But 16 August has another significant lesson: sometimes banality can be even worse than evil intent or classic authoritarianism.
The arrest of Hazare and his supporters by the government has been equated to the Emergency by some Opposition political parties and commentators. But, in a sense, this is a mistaken comparison.
The ignominy is, the UPA government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh does not even have the political will to be genuinely draconian. Instead, it has reduced politics to petty bureaucratese.
Since 2 August, when the Hazare team first let the Delhi Police know that they intended to go on an indefinite fast from 16 August, this government has progressively diminished the idea of protest to an over-the-counter haggle. It put 22 conditions for the Hazare team. Some of them were routine and justified: an undertaking not to damage public property; not to indulge in violence; not to leave the grounds in a mess. But six conditions were not only insupportable, they beggared the imagination.
The police demanded a guarantee that a) not more than 50 vehicles would be parked outside JP Narayan Park during the protest, though the parking lot could accommodate many more; b) that not more than 5,000 people would gather though the capacity of the park is in excess of 20,000; c) the protest would only be for three days, not an indefinite period; d) there would be no tent or protective shelter for the people gathered there, regardless of the weather; d) that there would be no loudspeaker or amplified audio facilities, even though this would mean no crowd control would be possible for the organisers; e) that only a government doctor rather than an independent doctor would examine Hazare and determine whether his health had deteriorated enough to take him away; and f ) that no permission had been received from the land owner.
As Leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley thundered in the Rajya Sabha, “Is the government that the people are protesting against going to decide where the protest will be held, how long it should be held for, and how minuscule its size must be?”
What makes the travesty even worse is that as the political face-off grew over the weeks, instead of taking charge, the prime minister’s response was to send a letter washing his hands of the affair, saying his all-powerful office does not intervene in the affairs of the Delhi Police. Later, when public opinion had swelled against the arrests and the Opposition had forced him to make a statement in both Houses of Parliament, disappointingly again, instead of claiming supreme responsibility as the head of government, he read out the requirements of the Delhi Police and his reluctance to override them.
What greater diminishment can there be of an august office? How does one deal with a prime minister who reduces big civilisational questions to the small print in an administrative rulebook?
This malaise does not just end with him. Several of the government’s most powerful ministers have resorted to similar dogged sleights of hand; insisting on the little picture when bold questions faced them. For instance, on the emotive issue of Hazare fasting at Jantar Mantar — the great symbolic site of protest in the Capital — the home ministry, to which the Delhi Police reports, refused to grant permission because, according to them, it was unfair for any one group to monopolise the area for one month. Protests, the ministry felt, should happen by rotations; equal time to different groups every day. Fair enough if there were other groups protesting Hazare’s right to fast there for a month or claiming competing time. In this case, there were none.
As the crisis has spiralled then, even the staunchest detractors of the government have no fear that Hazare or his supporters will be locked indefinitely in jail as political inconveniences. Or that they will be physically manhandled. But that is the bewilderment. How is India to respond if it loses its precious civil liberties not even as an outcome of a fearsome clampdown but a bureaucratic and politely ironclad idea of crowd control and fair play?
Most societies have the tools — emotional, strategic, moral — to fight oppression. But how does one fight simple-mindedness and a bankruptcy of ideas?
On 17 August, as this story went to press, in a move even its well-wishers would not be able to buy into, the government continued to duck behind its exasperating and faux hands-off positions. Union Home Secretary RK Singh said as far as the government went, Hazare was free to go anywhere he pleased but the Delhi Police would have to take the final call.
As Jaitley had said in his response to the prime minister’s statement on the Hazare crisis earlier that day, “I’m left wondering who really runs this country. We have a serious political crisis and we find its political leaders are hiding behind the men in uniform. The prime minister has invoked clauses of the CRPC to solve a political problem. The inimical consequence of this is it reduces the prime minister to hide behind a police commissioner.”
Clearly, nothing had changed till evening.
DOES THIS government have a death wish? Why is it on this suicidal course? Why is it behaving in this way? Did the country really need the ungainly crisis of 16 August?
As the Hazare campaign has unfolded, policy thinkers, jurists, social commentators, columnists — just about anyone one talks to in urban intellectual circles — seem to be asking these questions with increasing frequency.
Why would a government insist on putting five members of its ruling party in the Lokpal Joint Drafting Committee rather than secure its flank by including members from other parties in it? (“We were too rushed; we had state elections on our hands; it would have taken too much time to bring the other parties on board,” says a senior Congress minister.) But then why would the government’s senior-most ministers rush to receive a man like Baba Ramdev at the airport, then arrest him a few days later? Why would it unleash smear campaigns against everyone who raises the issue of corruption? Why would it let the Hazare team set the agenda on anti-corruption measures for months on end without retrieving a modicum of credibility for itself? Why would it shamelessly malign Hazare and others as armchair fascists and Maoists one day, then express obviously sham respect for them the next? Why would it clamp down clumsily on protests one day, prohibit Hazare’s fast, and then seek to release him the next day with an offer of the Ramlila Maidan?
As Vikram Lal, Eicher head and one of the early supporters of the Hazare campaign, says succinctly, “The government is doing itself no favours in the way it’s dealing with the movement.”
Despite the white noise of the past few months over 2G, CWG and black money, it would be only fair to remind ourselves that the UPA government does not have a sole franchise on corruption. One just has to recall the terrible track records of Mayawati, Jayalalithaa, Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Yeddyurappa, Sharad Pawar, Pramod Mahajan and Karunanidhi to correct the balance sheet on that.
In a curious way then, what the Hazare campaign has really shown up about this government is a condition almost unprecedented in Indian public life: a complete and debilitating loss of politics in its political leadership.
Politics in urban India has come to mean a dirty word. But in truth, the loss of politics is among the worst calamities that can befall a society. The art of politics is the ability to understand human nature; come up with big ideas; read a situation astutely; anticipate events; manage situations; steer through minefields; build bridges; take widely diverse people and views along; be game for both soothing words and firm action; play both statesman and strategist. Display leadership.
But as columnist and director, Centre for Policy Research, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, puts it, “This is a government without even a minimal political imagination.”
Every society needs an exalted rhetoric and strong leadership to keep it together and give it a sense of purpose. But this government has begun to look dangerously headless. It seems to have neither words nor political will to pull itself together, but is merely trudging along with a sense of fait accompli, banking on the fact that Opposition parties are in too much disarray themselves to present any real electoral challenge.
Traces of this inertia has been evident in the government’s inability to manoeuvre itself out of a corner on any of the issues that have plagued it this term: 2G, CWG, the clamour on black money, price rise, inflation or the Adarsh housing scam.
But the responses to the Hazare campaign have been the most dismaying. From the first day, every heavyweight — Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari — the government has sent out to combat the self-righteous anger of the Hazare team has ended up behaving as if a volatile political arena is a schoolboys’ debate or a victory to be won on fine legal quibbles. Even the doughty Pranab Mukherjee — veteran of many political battles and crises — has failed to come up with a single creative idea that would wrest the debate back on even ground.
At a time, then, when the country needed agile leaders with great heart and intuition, India seems to be landed with a reign of the tin men: no heart, just unidimensional cold-blooded intellect, clumsy actions, unnecessary polarities and a growing sense of crisis.
In many ways, this particular failure is doubly surprising because from its very inception, the Jan Lokpal Bill as conceived by the Hazare team has had many critics — even outside government.
WHILE EVERYONE applauds the cause and the immense mobilisation against corruption the Hazare team has been able to generate, the Jan Lokpal draft itself is a deeply debated issue.
Justice AP Shah, for instance, denounces the arrest of Hazare as a “monumental mistake and thuggishness”. But he is also very critical of Hazare’s draft. He says many of its provisions are “overboard, defective and preposterous”. According to him, to attribute such “mindboggling power to an ombudsman is unprecedented, not just in the history of India, but the history of the world”.
Shah is not alone in this criticism. There are many well-wishers of the Hazare team who are worried about its desire to create one gargantuan, authoritarian, sweeping institution. The government could easily have capitalised on this disquiet to wrest the initiative from Hazare, widen the debate in a positive way, and come up with a strong, well-intentioned, well-argued anticorruption Bill itself.
Instead, in a myopic and vindictive move, after weeks of discussion in the Joint Drafting Committee (which too it was coerced into forming), the government just unceremoniously dumped most of the Hazare team’s Jan Lokpal Bill and came up with a terrible draft itself.
The government Bill not only keeps the power to select and remove the Lokpal with itself (thereby defeating the attempt to remove conflict of interest between those who investigate and those who need to be investigated), it also has draconian provisions to punish complainants and whistleblowers to an extent that would deter people from speaking up rather than vice-versa. There are many other glaring, bad in faith lacunae in the government draft that the Hazare team is understandably incensed by (see box on page 33). The government draft also leaves out all the lower bureaucracy but brings all NGOs under the ambit of the Lokpal.
AS VIKRAM Lall, a Hazare supporter himself, says, “The government does not seem to understand that people are angry with its Bill. It’s not that the Jan Lokpal Bill drafted by the Hazare team has to go through as it is either. I myself don’t agree 100 percent with its fine print. There is Aruna Roy and her team at the NCPRI (National Campaign for People’s Right to Information), which has put up a five-pronged strategy for change. I think all these things need to be discussed in a threat-free environment. We should take a few months to discuss and negotiate this, put it on the Internet, re-discuss it, but that can only happen if the government is sincere about discussing it. If it is palpably insincere and cussed, nothing can happen.”
But palpably insincere and cussed is how the government seems to remain. How can we abdicate the right of Parliament to pass laws, is the broad point it keeps making. The easy counter is, no one would want Parliament to lose that right. But surely citizens should be allowed to discuss the best form a Bill can take. Why not voluntarily and self-confidently invite that discussion?
As Justice Shah says, “Even now the government can break the impasse and call different jurists and representatives of civil society and ask how can we improve this Bill? I believe Aruna Roy and others have gone to several ministers putting alternative ideas to them. They all say, great idea, but do nothing. It’s a really depressing, hopeless situation. One just doesn’t know whom to talk to in the government. With Sonia missing, even the party seems completely leaderless.”
There is no dearth of good ideas being offered to the government — if they would have the heart and imagination to listen.
The first and easiest idea is to genuinely acknowledge that the issues being raised by the Hazare team are valid and invite a credible and broad-based pre-legislative discussion on both drafts with other jurists and civil society stakeholders across the country, as there are irreconcilable differences between the government and the Hazare team over the form of the Bill.
This consultation could take many forms: several big conferences; small workshops; targeted meetings as Jairam Ramesh undertook as an environment minister; or even an invitation for written papers.
(In fact, just before the 30 June deadline for the Joint Drafting Committee ended, the Hazare team had been willing to draw up a list of 100 other civil society stakeholders to widen the discussion and reduce the temperature of the debate, but the government refused the offer.)
Another idea is for the government to call an exhaustive press conference where it explains its difficulties with Hazare team’s Bill in great detail yet announces a slew of corrective measures that it will work on concurrently and in a time-bound manner to fight corruption in the country: a sort of Lokpal Plus, which would include a strong and credible Lokpal Bill; a Grievance Redressal Bill; a Whistleblowers Protection Bill; a Judicial Accountability and Standards Bill and a renovated Central Vigilance Commission — all of it drafted keeping the key principles in mind of creating effective oversight and vigilance bodies that have teeth and are independent, transparent and have no conflict of interest.
A reputed columnist, who doesn’t want to be named, says, “Why doesn’t the government just write a strong and reasoned critique of the Jan Lokpal Bill, explaining their intellectual arguments and put it in the public domain, instead of coming on shallow television shows and indulging in smear campaigns and misinformation?”
Columnist Mehta is even more mystified. “I just don’t understand what’s going on. The government needs a strong counter story to face down this movement. It needs to show it is capable of taking its own credible initiatives. But even though it has actually initiated some good steps to stem corruption, it does not seem to be able to or want to bring any attention to this.”
He cites the government’s Public Procurement Bill and the Cabinet-appointed Chawla Committee report that has suggested a sensible framework to curb malpractice in the most corruption-prone sectors: mining; real estate; use of national resources; and public-private partnership projects. The government has also apparently begun work on the most crucial and foundational piece of all: electoral reforms through the Representation of People Act.
Yet none of this seems to make its way into public discourse. Is this driven by the insular arrogance of power, as Jaitley surmised in Parliament during the debate on Hazare’s arrest? Or just the tone-deafness of tin men, who cannot decipher when to strike the correct note?
Either way, it is time Manmohan Singh — good and kindly and accomplished as he may be — accepted that in a strange way the root cause of the overwhelming sense of crisis in the country today stems from him.
In an unusually statesmanly speech — rare in today’s public discourse, certainly from Opposition leaders bent on the kill —Jaitley exhorted Singh to remember the “prime minister is the tallest political functionary in the country”. It is true the government cannot find a magic wand to end corruption, he said, but the point is, it does not really need one. “You have to address yourself to the correct question. Do you have the political will to fight corruption? You have to say, sir, I have the authority and moral stature as the prime minister and evolve that will. Only then will you win back the confidence of this country.”
This government looks headless. It seems to have neither words nor political will to pull itself together. It is merely trudging along with a sense of fait accompli
Jaitley went on to urge passionately, “Have you lost all sense of statecraft? Of how a political crisis is to be dealt with? This movement is a wake-up call to all of us to put our house in order. The people of this country are getting restless. Release each person arrested. It is time to take bold steps. Power is not immortal, the more arrogant you get, the earlier it disappears.”
Despite all this, despite the debris of the day, instead of coming back with a grand pre-emptive idea that would capture the nation’s imagination and put a balm on its bruises, the prime minister told the waiting media that he was not worried; the government would find a way. A few hours later, the Kafkaesque news trickled in that Hazare had been offered release and the right to fast in the Ramlila Maidan, but the Delhi Police would iron out the details.
According to journalist Madhu Trehan, the Chinese word for crisis comes in characters that mean both opportunity and danger. Perhaps, this government just prefers the latter. Or perhaps, as another commentator put it, all of this is just a dialogue of the deaf.
OF THE many lessons for Indian democracy from 16 August, another key one would be for political parties to give up self-deception. Jaitley may have given a stirring speech in Parliament in defence of Indian citizens’ right to protest and dissent, but the BJP itself has no great track record on this.
The unconscionable smear campaign and jailing of Binayak Sen for raising his voice against the Salwa Judum; the arrest of Shankar Sharma; the witch-hunt and massive propaganda against TEHELKA itself; and the victimisation of police officers in Gujarat are just some of the blots it has to answer for.
The CPM, which has been righteously denouncing the government, is no better. Brinda Karat told TEHELKA, “As far as we are concerned, the right to peaceful protest is ingrained in our democratic system.” While the government in Bengal did allow Mamata Banerjee to fast for three weeks in Kolkata without clamping down, Karat angrily refused to take any questions on the police killing 14 protesting farmers in Nandigram or the draconian crackdown on tribals in Lalgarh.
Naveen Patnaik who, according to media reports, has also likened the Centre’s arrest of Hazare to the Emergency, was clearly suffering from a moment of amnesia, forgetting the shooting of unarmed tribals in Kalinganagar or the heavyhanded police crackdowns there have been on Niyamgiri tribals and farmers agitating against the POSCO project in Odisha. Nitish Kumar too seems to have forgotten the recent brutal shooting of protesting farmers, including a child, in Forbesganj in Bihar. And the stone-throwers of Kashmir would tell you they took to stones after they were repeatedly stopped from going out on peaceful rallies or flag marches due to security concerns.
In fact, the events of 16 August is a sober reminder that the right to protest peacefully has not just diminished in India, it has almost vanished. (Protesters walking long distances to the Capital, for instance, are not even allowed to camp overnight in Jantar Mantar any more.)
But the lessons are not all for politicians: there are many catechisms for the media too. It’s not just crackdowns that have diminished the space for dissent in India; it’s the disinterest of the media. In a sense, protest is theatre: to be effective, it needs an audience.
Yet, while urban candlelight vigils and SMS campaigns capture media fancy, the vast ground fights for land and livelihood rarely do. In many ways, it is the electronic media’s attention that has given real wind to the Hazare campaign. Imagine what similar attention would have done to Irom Sharmila’s superhuman 10- year fast and her campaign against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act? Or to the lakhs of people who gathered to protest the drowning of Harsud? Or the victims of Bhopal who trekked 800 km twice to the Capital seeking justice? Or the 20,000 tribals who walked miles to Azad Maidan last year, demanding the implementation of forest rights?
The government could easily have capitalised on this disquiet to wrest the initiative from Hazare, widen the debate in a positive way, and come up with a strong Bill
This media neglect — both print and electronic — then is a kind of reign of tin men too. In a curious way, it is again the absence of politics — in its deepest sense of understanding and engaging with the root causes of injustice and inequity — that is responsible for this.
In a fascinating reading of the changing nature of protests in India (see interview on page 38), political scientist Yogendra Yadav says the protest culture in India is both simultaneously broader across social strata (taking in the middle class) and yet thinner and more anti-politics today than it was a few decades ago. “What do I mean by thinness?” he says, “I mean that the particular issue about which people are protesting is not understood in depth. What is the source of corruption? What is the solution for corruption? What is the source of displacement? There is a structural logic for this but there is a refusal to link up movements with their deeper structural causes. And, curiously, chances of these movements succeeding are higher when they are not connected with the base… One of the complex reasons why Hazare is succeeding is precisely because of this. He is the perfect person for this. The Gandhian topi, no skeletons in his closet. And he does not want to talk about corporate corruption or communalism. Or the big mining deals taking place in this country. He talks about corrupt politicians, which is the easiest thing to talk about. If he had actually raised everything else, chances are, he’d be much less of a success. The overall situation is such that it encourages you and actually rewards you for being thin.”
The essentially apolitical — again in its deepest sense — nature of both the anti-corruption protests and their coverage is also apparent in the inflated rhetoric around it. Crucial as its impacts have been, to liken the Hazare movement either to the Arab Spring, JP’s movement or, indeed, India’s “second independence movement” is, to put it mildly, misplaced.
You only have to hear the enthusiastic youngsters on the streets craning into television mikes excitedly to say, “I am Anna. I will be here for Anna for three days, for four days, for however long it takes. It is my democratic right to protest…” to know this is very different territory.
Hazare’s arrest smacked of extreme myopia and high-handedness. But unlike Egypt or Syria, there are no tanks rolling on the streets against urban Indians. And JP did not ask for a magic wand that would fix “65 percent corruption overnight”, he called for “total revolution” and urged students to leave their colleges and go to the villages and engage with issues of land redistribution, and socio-cultural inequities. His lasting legacy was not a law that would change everything, but an entire generation of politically engaged young.
Finally, the independence movement and the glorious idea of India crafted by the country’s first-generation leaders — cobbling together myriad people overnight as a free, liberal democratic nation — is among the most creative political acts in human history. That fight was against an autocratic colonial government. Unless the Hazare team has a seriously luminous alternative to the idea of democratic government, it should stop short of calling the anti-corruption campaign a second independence movement.
ARUNDHATI ROY — who has often been the first to read the storm warnings and understands the structural causes for corruption as few other contemporary writers do — says the real crisis India is facing is a crisis of representational democracy.[box]
What’s Wrong with The official Lokpal bill
THE SELECTION and removal process of the Lokpal is faulty, compromising its independence from the government
IT CREATES provisions to penalise complainants for frivolous and vexatious complaints. This could lead to harassment of whistleblowers
IT HAS no oversight mechanism for middle and lower bureaucracy
IT HAS justifiably removed the higher judiciary from the ambit of the Lokpal. But the government makes no commitment for an effective Judicial Accountability and Standards Bill
IT HAS a faulty and inadequate grievance redressal mechanism
THE BILL does not even mention the need to protect whistleblowers
ITS DEFINITION of corruption is limited in scope and coverage
IT MAKES no provisions for the creation of state Lokayuktas. This is a huge lacunae, as it will require individual agitations in every state to push this through[/box]
The big troubling questions are the kind of people who get elected and how; how Bills are passed even without a quorum; how institutions have become conclaves run by oligarchies; how the country is led by a prime minister who has never won an election.
But there are other even more worrying questions. The government often acts merely as an agent; it’s corporates who make the money and still get away. How is corporate excess to be curbed? How can they be stopped from having so much power and money that they can subvert any institution?
Why is the media exercised only about the 2G scam, why not the uncountable human cost and loss of what’s going on in mining? Why has the media focus shifted away from corporate crime exclusively to corrupt government?
But even she does not see all the answers as necessarily lying in the Jan Lokpal Bill. “The real crisis is of representational democracy,” she says, “and the worrying thing is both sides are displaying shades of authoritarianism.”
The Hazare team present a real conundrum: all its constituents — Shanti Bhushan, Prashant Bhushan, Santosh Hegde, Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi — are people of high integrity, calibre and commitment. Hazare himself may be more exasperatingly simplistic and rough-hewn in his worldview but has displayed a tenacious honesty in this campaign.
The heat they have generated on corruption through a determined and peaceful campaign is also to be hugely saluted and welcomed. As Mehta says, “The real impact of this will be seen in 3-5 years. There may be a short-term paralysis in government now, but it will change the norm. No public servant ever thought earlier that anybody would ever get to see or scrutinise a file.”
Either way, it is time Manmohan Singh accepted that in a strange way the root cause of the overwhelming sense of crisis in the country today stems from him
But while the deterrence the Hazare team has built up is superb, their draft of the Jan Lokpal Bill itself is not. And on this, they are almost as intractable as the government. They insist that as the government draft is a bad joke (which it is), the government should introduce their Jan Lokpal Bill in Parliament instead. However, Justice Shah says he has tried engaging with them three times on his concerns with their own Bill too, but they “refused to budge”. Others too have tried and failed.
THERE ARE a few common and central criticisms of the Jan Lokpal Bill. It is too gargantuan; it centralises too much power in one institution; and it seeks to do too much. Several human rights and civil libertarian co-travellers have urged the Hazare team to achieve the same objectives through different means: most importantly, separate the oversight mechanism for the judiciary and grievance redressal from the Lokpal. The other contentious clause has been the inclusion of the prime minister under the Lokpal.
On 16 August, Prashant Bhushan told TEHELKA that the Hazare team was willing to have an open mind and discuss all this in the Parliament Standing Committee. It merely wanted the government to withdraw its Bill, improve some of its basic principles and reintroduce it in Parliament.
However, on 17 August, the position had changed and the Hazare team was again insistent that the government introduce only their Bill for debate in Parliament — a slightly less supportable proposition.
Kejriwal himself fluctuates between a desire to be absolutely open-minded and an absolute refusal to discuss the basic structure of his Bill. Several well-wishers have been confused by his invitation to talk and his ultimately low receptivity.
Fundamentally, the team believes an extremely centralised and strong institution is the only feasible way forward. The problem is, in holding this belief they also claim to be the “real voice of the people”. They have made other tonal mistakes. They have insisted on the government’s acceptance of their draft even while it was a flawed and disputed work in progress; they have mocked and ridiculed politicians to an extent that politics itself looked bad. And they have painted everyone who disagrees with them into an uncomfortable “you’re either with us or against us” position.
But TEHELKA has been sufficiently critical of the Hazare team on these counts in earlier stories (see www.tehelka.com). This week, with the rudely aborted Hazare fast as the backdrop, clearly the room for heart and imagination and intelligent response is all in the government’s court. For starters, a show of genuine sincerity may be the first key through the impasse.
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.
‘This is the politics of anti-politics’
Where does Anna Hazare fit in the long arc of protests in India? Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Yogendra Yadav tells TEHELKA’S Revati Laul
You said that the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies conducted a survey asking people what they felt about street protest. What did you find?
One of the first national representative surveys was the National Election Study held in 1971. This is when a protest culture was beginning to take shape in the country. There was the Naxalite movement and also a time when the Congress was dislodged for the first time in 1967 in several states.
We asked people: “Would you say these demonstrations strikes, gheraos, etc, in our country are a proper way of drawing attention to peoples’ grievances?” Forty percent of the people said ‘No’, 26 percent said ‘Yes’. Now after the Anna Hazare protests, a reversal of that pattern has emerged. Now 39 percent said ‘Yes’, only 24 percent said ‘No’.
This survey also covers the nation’s pulse on the Lokpal?
Yes. We did our survey and realised that 33 percent said they’ve heard about this thing called the Lokpal. Our next question was whether they knew what it really was (if their reply had anything to do with corruption, we’d deem it correct). That brought down the figures to 24 percent. So actually only a quarter of the country has any sense after such carpet-bombing by the media that there is something called a Lokpal and that it has to do with corruption. We also found that among those who had an idea of the Lokpal Bill, Anna’s version had many times more takers than the government’s Lokpal Bill. Thus these surveys serve as a reality check, provided of course you take a national representative sample.
Since you’re mapping this objectively, what would you say has changed over time in the way people protest in this country, and the way governments react to that?
There are three sides to this question — 1. Have the protesters changed? 2. Has the popular reception changed? 3. How has the state responded. Clearly, there is much more reception today to protest, than there was 30-40 years ago. The protest movements too have undergone a fundamental shift. In some ways, I think the protest culture is simultaneously broader and thinner today than it was 40 years ago. In the 1950s and ’60s, all the major protests originated in political parties. The Communist parties, the socialist parties and the Jan Sangh spawned a series of largely urban protests. There were food riots, the anti-English agitation, the anti-inflation agitations. Gujarat and Bihar movements led by Jayaprakash Narayan in 1974 signalled the end of this first phase and the beginning of the second phase of protest movements.
The 1980s were characterised by new social movements — peasant movements, women’s movements, anti-displacement agitations — which were not led by political parties. Then suddenly after 1989, the political system opened up. Coalitions came in. There was a democratic upsurge from below. Hitherto unincorporated movements like Mandal were absorbed into the political mainstream. But by the late 1990s, a quiet closure happened. While some of the leaders of these segments of society were incorporated at the top, and some of their symbolic demands were taken up, the substantive issues raised by these movements were given a quiet burial. So by the first decade of the 21st century, that upsurge came to a dead end, where its positives were only largely symbolic
So what happened to protests in this current atmosphere?
Protest movements like Ayodhya and Mandal got incorporated into the political mainstream. But the real issues that motivated these movements got left out. Popular movements have not disappeared. On the contrary, people’s movements represent one of the most vibrant sectors of our democracy. But there is a distancing of movements from politics. This takes many forms. This is the politics of antipolitics. It’s elite driven, very aggressive, and negates politics in any form.
Does this include the Anna Hazare movement as well?
Baba Ramdev more than Anna. Baba Ramdev’s movement, if one can call it that, represented a danger, the danger that someone could run away with popular anger against politicians and use it for a populist coup of sorts. Anna’s movement is more complex and has many strands. There is a powerful democratic strand in his brand of anti-corruption movement, which could strengthen alternative kind of politics. At the same time, there is an unmistakable element of the politics of anti-politics in his movement. But if you want a very neat expression of the politics of anti-politics, the mobilisation on Mumbai streets after the terror attack was a textbook case. So that’s one form of the current protests — starkly anti-political.
The second category is ‘non-political’ issue-based protests that you find all over the country today. These protesters carefully distance themselves from any political party. Take the struggles against land acquisition all over the country, symbolised by the anti-POSCO protests in Odisha. These are not anti-political but are non-political. They know that their success depends on ensuring that their leaders are not from any political party.
But that’s not true on the Nandigram and Singur protests.
Both these movements began outside the party political domain and gathered legitimacy on that basis. Because they were up against a very formidable political establishment, they took the support of the anti- Left parties, especially the Trinamool Congress. But they wanted to be seen basically as movements of affected farmers.
‘I am not sure Anna would have received as much media attention if he had offered an actual understanding of and solution to corruption’
Then there is a third form of retreat from politics. This happens with movements that are political in their vision and understanding, but which over the years have reconciled to a very narrow political space for themselves. I think of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and the Narmada Bachao Andolan. These are not apolitical movements. But what they have now accepted over the years, quietly and reluctantly, is they must not try and challenge mainstream politics by counter- mobilisations that could disturb partypolitical equations. They have decided to shun electoral politics. There is a sense that they would lose whatever little political space they have if they entered electoral politics.
So today, we have more protests in the country. But what do I mean by thinness? I mean that — that particular issue about which people are protesting is not understood in its depth. What is the source of corruption? And what is the solution for corruption?
One of the reasons Anna Hazare succeeds is precisely this. He is the perfect person for this kind of protest. The Gandhi topi, no skeletons in his closet. He does not disturb you with talk about corporate corruption or corruption in the media. He talks about the corrupt babus and politicians who everyone loves to hate. I am not sure if he would have received as much media attention if he had offered a more broad-based understanding of corruption. The problem is that the system encourages you and actually rewards you for being shallow. So the chances that you will succeed, in a very limited way, are higher.
What about the other side of the coin? The State’s response to protest?
That’s changed for the worse. Because the character of our political establishment has changed. The State functionaries are also much less political today, just like our movements. Look at the top of our political establishment — Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. You cannot say that they are political animals. Someone like Kapil Sibal is clearly not a person who’s led any street protests or demonstrations in his life, or spent days on end in a shamiana on a hunger strike. I asked myself, who is the last leader who came into the Congress party through an agitation, or a movement? You know the name I came up with? AK Anthony.
Really… what movement was this?
In 1959, when EMS Namboodiripad became chief minister (of Kerala). And an almost right wing Christian movement was started to dislodge the Communists. He came to the Congress via that. I’m not interested in judging the character of that movement. But he has seen street action. Who is the other current Congress politician who can claim that?
The BJP has some leaders who’ve seen street action.
That’s true, but as the party ‘matures’, even they are being sidelined. So what you have in the establishment today is a decline of political experience. Politics provides you with a capacity to negotiate. If you had Atal Bihari Vajpayee today, (and I hold no brief for him), he would have handled the Anna Hazare protest very differently. He would have tried to outsmart him, show Anna up to be someone who knows nothing about what he’s saying, or would have simply absorbed him. This is the art of politics.
What strikes me about the current situation is the inability of the establishment to respond to it politically. There is a decline in political imagination and political judgement.
What should they have done on the morning of 16 August ? The political judgement that we witnessed was astonishingly poor. They can’t distinguish Anna Hazare from Baba Ramdev. They’re clueless about what ordinary people think and what kind of street protests this can lead to and they have no idea what kind of martyrdom they are offering Anna Hazare.
‘If you had Atal Bihari Vajpayee today, he would have tried to outsmart Anna, show him up as someone who doesn’t know what he’s saying’
I’m not saying that Anna Hazare’s is a media-manufactured protest because there is a genuine mass support to his movement. He has put his finger on the nation’s pulse by raising corruption when it was a burning issue. The movement has more appeal than the ruling party realises.
The media has made comparisons with the Jayaprakash Narayan and Gandhi’s civil disobedience movements.
Unfortunately, this reflects a poor sense of history. Those who say so have not seen or even read about Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement. When JP gave a call in Delhi, the Ramlila Maidan was full. The government of India had to play the film Bobby that day on Doordarshan (the only TV channel at the time, that too State-run) to prevent people from coming to the grounds. Yet all streets leading to Ramlila maidan were choking. This is the scale at which people were mobilised. And it wasn’t a rent-a-crowd sort of political mechanism. These comparisons themselves indicate how much our worldview has shrunk. Whether we look at the tate or the social movements or the media, we witness a decline in politics, shrinking of political imagination and a loss of political judgement.
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.