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

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

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.

Venu Madhav Govindu is an academic based in Bengaluru. He is currently collaborating on an intellectual biography of the Gandhian economic philosopher, JC Kumarappa.

Keywords: politics Gandhi Anna Hazare fast anti-corruption Jantar Mantar
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