The faces of mass movements

01 May, 2011

IT WAS ONLY IN THE EVENING of the fourth day of Anna Hazare's fast that I visited Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Admittedly, a visit at this late a stage in the development of what was being touted as perhaps the biggest manifestation in decades of a countrywide Gandhian protest movement placed me in the ranks of those rubbernecking bystanders who had decided to drop in more out of curiosity, to witness firsthand what was going on, rather than to extend unflinching and absolute support to a cause that Hazare and his followers were willing to starve to death for.

It obviously discomfited me a bit. Would I, seeking to be a dispassionate spectator, stand out as a misfit among the dedicated and committed activists who were united in their conviction? Would I be able to figure out a place for myself—if such a personal need arose—among the people pouring out in support of the movement?

As I walked toward 'ground zero', with this sense of unease gnawing away, I thought of Baba Ramdev, a controversial yoga-ministering figure of dubious integrity, who had visited a day earlier to extend his support to Hazare's campaign. What was I to make of Ramdev, who had lately bragged about floating a political party, sharing the stage with Hazare? And what to make of Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, who is facing charges of corruption and illegal land deals, and yet stated in support of the movement that “it is time such a legislation (Jan Lokpal) to eradicate corruption in the country is enacted"?

Earlier in the day, I had seen on television Bollywood actor Anupam Kher fervently sharing the stage with Hazare. Superstar Aamir Khan, too, had volubly supported Hazare, in a letter to him and another to the prime minister, and so had many of the glamour dolls of Bollywood. Also conspicuous in their support were many opposition politicians, whose motives were clearer: they saw this as an opportunity to jab at the government.

Surely, among these people, there must have been many who really believed in the cause, but likely many more who were either supporting it as the latest fad or trying to gain some mileage off it. This became all the more evident when I reached Jantar Mantar, there were music, dances, street food, photography, quirky slogans, facepaint, badges—all the ingredients of a street festival, albeit one wrapped around a poker-faced cause.

What to make of this motley group of people who had come out in support of Hazare's campaign? Perhaps then, rather than looking at them through a common lens of earnestness of their belief in the cause, it might be more pertinent to look at what was happening at Jantar Mantar, as a microcosm of any mass social movement, in which people with different interests and driven by distinct motives, end up congregating behind one common cause.

For the success of a social movement, it is imperative to have a core group of 'fanatics' whose motivations overlook personal consequences and who are ready to stand fast even in the face of scepticism or possibility of failure. They lay the groundwork and provide the ideological foundation. A movement, however, needs more than just a small group of fanatics: it needs the strength of 'collaborators', who believe in the cause and are willing to actively work for it (but can only be galvanised by the spark that the fanatics initially provide). Most importantly, any successful movement needs huge swathes of 'conformists', whose zeal is second to that of the collaborators only because it is social pressure and, possibly, a herd mentality that gets them involved. Finally, not always on the fringes, are the 'opportunists', whose participation is motivated by a desire for material gain.

Anna Hazare, his co-campaigners—the likes of Arvind Kejriwal, Swami Agnivesh, Kiran Bedi and the Bhushan père and fils, Shanti and Prashant—and other less-known volunteers who had campaigned for months till the culmination at Jantar Mantar comprised the ideologically driven fanatics of this movement.

The collaborators gathered in the form of the many, many volunteers who joined Hazare on the first day of the fast, when the whole affair was still on shaky ground and was being watched sidelong, by the government, the media and the public alike. Once the event had passed the test of a certain morality, the conformists descended to enjoy the chaat at the food stalls, sing, dance and chant slogans. They enjoyed the 'show'—however counterfactual that might sound, it is on the strength and numbers of these sympathisers that the success of any social movement hinges on.

Like any other movement, this one, too, had its share of opportunists—the politicians who saw it as a means to weaken the government; the spangled celebrities who used it as a promenade to reinfuse a gloss of integrity into their iffy public images; sections of the media that were more interested in building their ratings by providing asymmetric coverage; and, the last and the least of the opportunists, the street food vendors out to make a killing during the regular sit-ins in this corner of the capital.

The line between the fanatics and the collaborators is sometimes blurred, and the one between collaborators and sympathisers is often even finer. Who falls where? Who decides where they've fallen? And how does one sift out the harmful opportunists? These are difficult questions, but the participants in the movement will have to answer them to their own—and, for that matter, everybody else's—satisfaction if the movement is to progress.