The Man and the Movement

For all the criticism—much of it merited—the protests galvanised by Anna Hazare show surprising signs of life in our sluggish polity

Supporters look on as Anna Hazare begins his fast against corruption in New Delhi on 5 April. TSERING TOPGYAL / AP PHOTO
01 May, 2011

If a week is a long time in politics, recent evidence suggests that sometimes even five days suffices. A fast at Jantar Mantar has catalysed a vigorous reaction in our polity that is as yet active. Although we can discount the glib analogies with Tahrir Square or a second Freedom Movement, the immediate precipitate of this exercise in public chemistry is nevertheless worth examining.

The discussion and commentary in the media has dwelt, at length, on both the relative merits of the Jan Lokpal bill and the man of the moment, Anna Hazare. The amorphous nature of the leadership and participation by people of many political dispositions has created much confusion. The resultant difficulty in divining the true nature of the protest has lead to much criticism, of varying degrees of sophistication and validity. Without drawing too close an analogy, the spectrum of antagonistic opinion mirrors views on Gandhi's non-cooperation movement of the 1920s.

Some of the leftist critique today seems like a reprise of the Mahatma-as-brakes-on-revolution thesis. Other commentators of a liberal disposition have expressed disquiet at the "anti-political" mood at Jantar Mantar and have plumbed for parliamentary constitutionalism. While such sobering influences are useful correctives against passionate tempers, they are also reminiscent of the annual speeches by Viceroys, detailing how India was being led further down the road to orderly progress towards self-government. Indeed, at least one veteran journalist has brought back that paternalistic chestnut of the Raj, the Englishman's trusteeship of India. Writing in The Telegraph recently, Sunanda Datta-Ray tells us that "only an elected representative government has the moral right and administrative competence to fulfil public demand." "The most realistic remedy," he believes, "would be to ensure that the systems we already have start functioning again as they did before the kale angrez took over." Malcolm Muggeridge, who once quipped that the last Englishman would be from India, must be smiling in his grave.

The charge of being unreasonable has often been used to browbeat dissent against political mendacity. The reader may recall the attacks made against Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s, but this tactic also has an early precedent as represented in the title of a now-forgotten 1922 book, Gandhi and Anarchy. Undoubtedly, Hazare and his colleagues have to be scrutinised and held accountable. However, those politicians who are charging Hazare with undermining the democratic process might want to use their skills of persuasion on a second-term prime minister who has dispensed with such inconveniences as contesting a popular election.

In more substantial terms, there are some aspects of the Hazare movement that suggest its practice might actually be better than its precept. The draft Jan Lokpal bill, which calls for a collegium including  Nobel laureates and winners of the Ramon Magsaysay award, has been justly skewered in the press. Hazare himself made the astonishing claim of eradicating corruption entirely, but on being challenged, has allowed his critics a deeply discounted 10 percent. However, it is a mistake to believe that a movement that produces such purple prose has no substance in it. One example is the presence of the redoubtable Prashant Bhushan on the bill's joint drafting committee. A man of gentle demeanour, Bhushan has been a tenacious critic of the Indian state in his pursuit of justice for the underdog. Here, one is reminded of a poignant mea culpa that Bhushan had penned as the lawyer who lost the case against the notorious Sardar Sarovar dam in October 2000. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), he wrote, "had been reluctant to approach the court since many in the NBA viewed the court as an instrument of the haves, the powerful and the influential. I persuaded them to come to court since I had more faith. I must admit that I have been proved wrong." Although his faith was rudely shaken, Bhushan has lived to fight another day and has also earned powerful and unscrupulous enemies along the way. This betrays a deeper commitment to democracy than those who swear by the ballot box as the sole measure of public approval.

The middle-class participation in the protests at Jantar Mantar has also come in for much withering criticism. Many have pointed to the duplicity of the middle-class in upholding corruption while simultaneously targeting politicians as the source of all things evil. It has also been argued that the protests are of a self-serving nature—an anodyne jamboree of the well-off. There is much merit in such criticism, and one suspects that many of Hazare's supporters would be ranged against the real demands for justice in Dantewada, Kashmir and elsewhere in this land of much violence and oppression. However, in their critique of the circumscribed revolt of the urban citizen, many commentators are guilty of misrepresenting the groundswell of sentiment. Although one may wish that the candlelight vigil participants also spared some of their anguish for the really downtrodden, one has to recognise that theirs is a legitimate grievance. Justice is not a zero-sum game and it cannot be anyone's case that the middle classes do not also suffer from the degradation that corruption subjects them to on a daily basis. As Amartya Sen so tellingly wrote, quoting from a Victorian classic in the preface to his Idea of Justice, "there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice."

The authenticity of the public mood is also discernable in the ease with which the government capitulated to the demands of the fast. It seems unlikely that the UPA would have yielded ground so easily if it had not sensed the deep public anger and disgust with unbridled corruption in high places. In recent years, many people, including this writer, have worried over the deadened sensibility of an increasingly prosperous middle class fixated on satiating its own desires. It is unclear if the widened sense of public participation of recent times will be sustained and enlarged to include more substantial issues. Nevertheless, with hindsight, one can see that, beneath the facade of indifference, there exists an undercurrent of moral understanding. It needed the Pied Piper of Ralegan Siddhi to be drawn out.

As the visible face of the protests, Anna Hazare has himself been hailed and criticised in equal measure, and we need not rehearse his biography here. Despite the statements of breathless reporters who probably don't read history books, Hazare is no Gandhi. In fact, given the nature of his fast, even his credentials as a ‘Gandhian' are somewhat suspect. For one, a fast-unto-death is no ordinary matter and Gandhi always approached it prayerfully and used it as a time for quiet introspection. The Mahatma would have clearly articulated his objectives and steadfastly stuck to them. The speedy nature of negotiations carried out demonstrates an unseemly haste on both sides to find closure. Hazare and others are entitled to their opinions on Gandhi's limitations, but it is important to recognise that without adequate care, satyagraha can degenerate into duragraha. The easy espousal of hanging the guilty fills one with disquiet—and Hazare's praise for Gujarat's ‘rural development' can be charitably characterised as muddled thinking.

However, to solely focus on Hazare's maverick behaviour is to forget the moral weight of sacrifice and public service that lies behind his genuine and widespread appeal. As others have argued, it is as if out of thin air that Hazare has brought out a moral dividend. Indeed, it is no mean achievement to even momentarily lift society from a most corrosive sense of hopelessness and frustration. To understand the basis of this popular approbation we need to revisit the transformative influence of Mahatma Gandhi on Indian society.

The sannyasi has been an enduring figure in the Hindu order through the ages. If the traditional renunciant commanded respect for having withdrawn from society, it is Gandhi's genius then that gave rise to a new archetype that responded to modern needs. Instead of retreating into the metaphorical forest, Gandhi worked within society while providing it both moral ballast and internal critique. The appeal of this approach was strikingly demonstrated at the end of the recent fast, when Hazare was seated with two figures in saffron of quite different persuasions, Baba Ramdev and Swami Agnivesh of the reformist Arya Samaj. But the central moral figure in white—the upholder of dharma—was the renunciant of an entirely different nature. Despite all the valid reservations, Anna Hazare's appeal to the Internet-savvy urbanite is a welcome reminder that the Gandhian ideal continues to have resonance in the Indian mind.