Saturday, 17 September 2011

Why Not Make Anna Irrelevant?

The Anna movement drew criticism from many people for various reasons. Most of my peers kept a conscious distance from the movement or remained sceptical of it. Some saw thousands of people out on the streets as a sign of ‘belligerence’ or a ‘law and order’ problem created by mismanagement of the government. Some questioned the motive of Team Anna, claiming that they intended to subvert parliamentary democracy. Others criticised the involvement of the Hindu right, citing instances of mobilisation by the RSS. I took a stance, questioned it again and again and tried to make it as informed an opinion as possible. This is what I think.    

Anna and the Hindu Right

It is true that right wing elements were part of the movement. Anti-corruption has been the central plank of the BJP since the 1980s. Moreover, it came to power in the 1990s precisely due to people’s dissatisfaction with scandals, corruption and cronyism under the Congress. That the right wing will try to piggyback on an anti-corruption movement when the Congress is in power was predictable. It is the party of opposition and it has been provided with a stick to beat the Congress with and a golden opportunity to come back into power. The Right affiliated itself with the movement. But while this is true, to say that the Anna movement is therefore a ‘right-wing movement’ seems to be an incorrect inference. The Right’s affiliation with Anna is purely instrumental, and does not automatically lead to the conclusion that there is also an ideological affiliation between the two. 

Some have criticised the movement for being inadequately representative of weaker or marginalised sections of society such as Dalits and Muslims. Their response to Anna breaking his fast by taking a glass of coconut water from a Muslim and a Dalit girl was as predictable as the Right’s piggy-backing. Such ‘token’ representation means nothing, they said. But this movement aimed to highlight a specific issue that affects us all at different levels: corruption. All were formally invited to join in - it did not exclusively invite only higher castes or only Hindus or only men to join. It did not claim to be an overtly exclusive movement. If the right-wing RSS was mobilising people, the secular people of India had every right to put Muslims and Dalits at ease and bring them within the fold of the movement. If the religious right was mobilising people, what was stopping the left-leaning secular elements from mobilising as well?

But even if a mass movement did not start off as a right wing movement, the possibility of being hijacked by the Hindu right was a legitimate concern. Many left-leaning secularists remained wary of the movement because of this. However, neither their mere presence nor any mobilisation by the right wing automatically leads to the conclusion that the Anna movement had already been hijacked by the right.  Using this as a reason not to support Anna Hazare and to brand it as ‘fascist’ – a term casually used for almost anything undesirable - just because of piggybacking by right wing elements sounds like a lazy excuse. It betrays a tendency to protest and oppose without careful consideration and reveals an inability to provide constructive suggestions. 

Others criticised the movement for focussing too narrowly on ‘monetary corruption’, attacking it for ignoring ‘socio-religious corruption’ of the caste system. The caste system is despicable, inhumane and inexcusable: it is based on subordination, humiliation, degradation and exploitation. It is definitely as important an issue as monetary corruption. My reply to those who were against the Anna movement due to this reason would be that they are expecting Anna to be a magical Mahatma and this movement to strike at the root of too many problems at one stroke. This betrays a lack of understanding about how a mass movement can engage with the government successfully. Second, monetary corruption diverts funds allocated for development and schemes meant for lower castes and Dalits, and tackling it will help these sections of society as well. And finally, why not join the movement and raise it as an issue, instead of attacking the very movement itself?

Another reason why some kept a distance from the movement was due to the use of national symbols. The argument is that Hindu nationalists have used these very symbols – like the national flag – to create fear among the minorities, and therefore they must not be used.

It is true that the Indian flag can and does create among certain minorities because of its possible association with aggressive nationalism or majoritarianism. However, does it really make sense to be sceptical or cynical about the use of the flag simply because it has been misused in the past or can be misused in the future? The point is to gauge how the flag is being used in the present movement, and the dominant vibe at Ramlila was of the flag being used simply as a symbol of the hope for India’s regeneration.

The Indian flag is not a Hindu symbol,  nor is it a cultural one. It is a national, constitutional symbol and every citizen has a right to carry it. To say that one should be wary of carrying it because it has been misused in the past is to play right into the hands of the very Hindu Nationalists that you are opposing. It amounts to letting Hindu nationalists dictate to secular forces whether or not they should carry their national symbol! Moreover, it sets a dangerous precedent by succumbing to the fear that Hindu Nationalists thrive on and by letting them appropriate the national flag! Surely the way forward is to make minorities who feel alienated from the flag and from India, less alienated, not more alienated. For those concerned about the use of the flag further alienating these communities, the more responsible move would have been to put them at ease and try and include them, rather than encouraging them to exclude themselves further simply because of a fear that they had of the possibility of how the movement might turn out. 

When I asked a butcher at the meat shop that I go to about his view on Anna he said ‘I support him. I went to Ramlila every day. Maybe our India now has a chance to become the ‘golden bird’ it once was”. When I asked another Muslim bhaiya at Ramlila Maidan whether he was scared this was a Hindu movement and might turn into something like the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, he dismissed the idea: “Madam, that would be mixing up different issues. This is for the good for our country”. The Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari who appealed to Muslims to stay away from the Anna movement has drawn flak from other community leaders. The General Secretary of the All-India Ulema Council, Maulana Mehmood Daryabadi said that Bukhari’s personal view should not be taken as the view of the whole community. The Maharastra Urdu Writer’s Guild stated that slogans such as ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and ‘Vande Mataram’ are the ways of expressing love for the country and should be taken in the right context. Guild president Salam Bin Razzak stated that “Muslims may not worship the motherland but their love for it is second to none. Bukhari is needlessly communalizing the movement against corruption." My point is not that all Muslims feel this way. But at least some do and we must acknowledge it and encourage it, rather than discourage it on the basis of our own anxieties or assumptions.

Anna and ‘the masses’

Rejecting such arguments for not supporting the movement does not mean one is unaware of its possible dangers. Many criticisms of the phenomenon by the upper middle class that filled English news studios arose out of the awareness that mass movements are tricky, and are not easy to control. While their spontaneity can be beautiful, it can also cause great unease because there always lurks a possibility of it spiralling out of control. At its peak, a mass movement seems like an aneurysm on the verge of bursting. This is a legitimate apprehension. But should the fear of another Chauri Chaura prevent us from supporting a mass movement that is currently peaceful and aims to remain so? In other words, should the mere possibility of a danger prevent you from seizing an opportunity to change the status quo? Being aware of the danger of the possibility of a movement spinning out of control is important – it cautions one against any step that might lead to such an outcome. But to not participate in a movement for a good cause simply out of fear that it might spiral out of control is something that has prevented those who want to see a certain change stand in its very way.

The majority of the upper middle class intelligentsia that appeared on English news channels seemed to be petrified by the sight of masses being out on the streets. This utter distrust of all popular sentiment was akin to the reactions of the Moderates or ‘Liberals’ who feared Gandhi’s ‘radical’ methods of mass mobilisation and distanced themselves from it. If you were sceptical of the Anna movement because you feel that ‘mass hysteria can never achieve anything’ (as one friend said), you might want to rethink where you would have stood as a contemporary on Gandhi’s mass ‘national’ movements against British colonialism. If while reading about Gandhian mass movements in history class, you imagined yourself as part of the non-cooperation movement or the civil disobedience movement or the Quit India movement, you might want to think again. This is not a judgement (Gandhi wasn’t always right); it is merely a provocation to think about your own perception of your counterfactual self.

But the belief that nothing can be achieved by ‘mass hysteria’ is quite different from the worry that masses of people were participating in a movement which aimed to bring about a bill which the majority of people had not even read! Further, some correctly pointed out that many of those supporting the movement had in all probability themselves paid bribes at some point of time or the other. How can one be part of such hypocrisy? 

But the fact that this movement struck a chord with so many ‘hypocrites’ also reveals something about at least some of them: if they have paid bribes, they are not entirely happy about their own hypocrisy and they do not mind giving ethical conduct a shot if someone else does the dirty job of cleaning up the system for them first.

Anna and parliamentary democracy

Till now I have argued assuming that the movement was for a ‘good cause’. But was it? Some journalists, academics and intellectuals were vehemently against the movement, alleging that it was ‘anti-parliamentarian’. There were those who argued that Team Anna sought ‘regime change’, wanted to topple the government or wanted to replace parliamentary democracy with some kind of benign dictatorship. Rahul Bose on CNN-IBN was convinced that the motive of Team Anna was to subvert parliamentary democracy. This is quite different from the fear that in the hurry and determination to get this billed passed Team Anna was making proposals which might amount to subversion of the normal parliamentary procedure. The label ‘anti-parliament’ confuses these two issues.

The concern about the subversion of parliamentary procedures is a legitimate one. Determination to eradicate corruption should not lead to diversion from the standard parliamentary procedures, and should not lead to the passage of the bill which might, because of the hurried nature in which it was passed, lead to the rise of a super-state body that might ultimately subvert parliamentary democracy. However, articulating this legitimate worry is quite different from attributing motives to Team Anna purely on the basis of speculation. Accusing them of wanting to subvert the democratic process and establish their own autocratic coterie is quite different from accusing them of being politically naive, even though the latter might turn out to have as dangerous a consequence.

So was Team Anna conspiring? Who are the key members of ‘Team Anna’? Prashant Bhushan is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court, Arvind Kejriwal was an officer in the Indian Revenue Service, Kiran Bedi is a retired IPS officer.  Members of Team Anna consists not of ‘twitterati’ but of persons who have tried their hand at the system, have tried to work within it, have tried to bring about reform from within it.  In an article in ‘The Caravan’, Mehboob Jeelani describes how Kejriwal did not fit in easily with his colleagues in the IRS due to ‘...his discomfort with what he has described as a culture of corruption. He began to realise nothing got done in his office without bribes and kickbacks, and by 2000, his frustration had reached a boiling point. Kejriwal started exhorting unhappy citizens who had been poorly served by his corrupt co-workers to file petitions against them in court’. As an IRS officer he ‘helped people obtain their old-age pensions without paying bribes, and filed complaints against income tax officers who colluded with tax evaders’.  If one puts oneself in the shoes of Kejriwal and other members of Team Anna, it is not hard to imagine their frustration and anger with the system, something that showed when they spoke of MPs and politicians in their Ramlila speeches.

Were their comments about MPs during their Ramlila speeches a reflection of their desire to mobilise public opinion against democracy? Or had they just got a bit carried away in the heat of the moment? While many friends suspected the former, it turned out to be the latter.  Since none of us knew Team Anna personally how could one have predicted this? Gauging the intention of someone is an intuitive skill. An observation of their past and present actions would obviously help.

Before Ramlila, had Team Anna resorted to any undemocratic methods? Was there anything undemocratic about protesting outside Jantar Mantar, negotiating with the government, carrying out their ‘referendums’? Wasn’t this evidence of them still working within the system? Some said, ‘but even Hitler initially came to power through democratic means’. Still, while the worry is appreciated, why doubt the ingenuity of Kejriwal when he came out in the end to clarify that he respects the constitution and the parliament? Why doubt Kiran Bedi, despite her controversial remarks and her ‘ghunghat’ act, when she reiterates that she does not want to be ‘put in a box’ by ever joining any political party? Was there anything in their past that gave us reason to? It is important to look for those reasons, but when nothing significant is found, it might be worthy to lower those anxieties.

There were many among the educated upper middle class strata/intelligentsia who were criticising or questioning the movement. Arundati Roy, Tavleen Singh, Seema Chishti, Javed Akhtar, Rahul Bose are some of the prominent names that come to mind. They raised important questions: what is their background? Are they being driven by some other organisation? Is there an underlying motive? Who funds these guys? What are the implications of this bill? Is it democratic and constitutional? But some of them not only raised important questions but also had ready and uninformed answers to their own questions! Scepticism is healthy and raising concerns about the unintended consequences of a movement is an important component of democracy. But keeping your eyes and ears open is quite different from assuming and attributing a malicious motive to the movement. Nevertheless, such scepticism and criticism is healthy in a democracy and might have helped to keep a check on the direction that the movement might have been taking.

Team Anna’s present actions also provided some hints as to its intent. The fact that the fast ended as promised when their 3 conditions had been met by the government, that Team Anna is not hogging the limelight but continues to work on behalf of ‘civil society’, and has left it up to the standing committee to discuss the various bills is surely enough reassurance that Team Anna had never intended to topple the government and still has faith in the institution of the parliament.

Why I supported Anna

But even if one concludes that Team Anna had no intention of undoing democracy, it could still consist of people who were well-intentioned but politically naive. The thought of a bunch of good-hearted, well-meaning people, in their hurry and determination to eradicate corruption, getting a law enacted that ultimately leads to the emergence of a super-state, ‘big brother’-like Lokpal is as frightening.  If it is true that this was a possibility with the Jan Lokpal Bill, it is a great relief that all the four Lokpal bills are going to be discussed by the standing committee, as should be done in any case. It is a relief that Team Anna is accepting, as it should, a clause-by-clause discussion of the various bills. Perhaps this is reassurance that Team Anna is responsive to concerns being raised and does believe in deliberative democracy. If at any point Team Anna goes against this, one must object strongly.

I personally have no great love for Anna Hazare. I admire his belief in non-violence and his hatred for corruption. But if he praises any leader alleged to have been involved in communal riots, it would worry me. If people are flogged in his village for drinking, I oppose it. If he, like Gandhi- at least till the late 1930s, believes that each caste has the duty to follow only a particular occupation, I am against this. I disagree with his hyperbolic statement of ‘Hang all corrupt politicians’ and was relieved when he withdrew it.   

But Anna Hazare has captured the imagination of people neither because of his view of Modi nor because of his belief in prohibition. He is not admired because of his views on caste. Not even because he is considered almost like a second Gandhi. He is admired by the aam aadmi because he has attached himself to an issue that affects every ordinary person at some level or the other. Many Indians, even if they have sometimes found them personally beneficial or convenient, have also found the state institutions frustratingly inefficient, ineffective and extortionist.   

Whether or not the Jan Lokpal bill is flawed, Anna’s movement was successful in tapping on the discontentment among ordinary people about the status quo ‘kaam chalaoo’ attitude that is so institutionalised in India. Its success lies most in getting us ‘hypocrites’ to think and change our stance from ‘this is just how India works, and it benefits me sometimes so why go through the trouble of changing it?’ to ‘though it benefits me at times, I am not entirely comfortable with corruption. I am not willing to devote my time to change this state of affairs, but if these guys are, I will support them. I am willing to give the alternative and more ethical way a chance’. To make so many people rethink their own mentality is an extremely significant development. This is the reason I chose to support the movement. This, and the hope that the political class will take note of the crisis of legitimacy that it suffers from. People crave a political leadership that they can look up to and institutions which they can trust. Anna Hazare, through his fast– the controversial threat tactic that many have deemed as blackmail and bullying– created a ‘crisis’ for the government, but also presented it with a brilliant opportunity to reinvent itself.

If one fears that an Anna cult might be emerging, one should also look into the reasons why this would be possible. The persona of Anna, the virtuous anti-corruption crusader, has been made possible by the crisis of legitimacy that not only the Indian political class suffers from but also the police, the administrative bureaucracy, even the courts.

I do not want a benign dictatorship. I want Indian parliamentary democracy to be reformed and function without a cash-for-votes scam, without illegal mining, without vote bank politics, without the juvenile political discourse which hampers level-headed discussion on important issues. Anna Hazare has legitimacy because state institutions and politicians have been delegitimized by their own actions. And those who would ‘rather not be Anna’ and think that he is regressive or medieval, have a special responsibility to push for reform and proper functioning of Indian parliamentary democracy so that our political class and institutions can regain their lost legitimacy. A personality cult cannot easily emerge in a country where citizens trust their political system. If India was such a country, Anna Hazare would be irrelevant. So if you fear Anna or are against him, why not seize this opportunity and make him irrelevant?


Rajeev Bhargava said...

I think this is a great piece, Vanya. Balanced, well-argued, reasonable, empathetic towards all, conceptual, sociological and political.

Pamela Philipose said...

Vow, Vanya, that was a thoughtful, serious and nuanced grappling with an issue of contemporary concern. Wonder if you have read Nivi on Anna
on Kafila. If not, you may find it interesting to do so. Waiting to catch up with you soon and chat about this and other issues, lots of love, pamela

Nivedita Menon said...

Very nice, Vanya, couldn't agree with you more, as you know!

Manav Bhushan said...

Hey this is really good!! Hopefully it should answer many of the questions that critics have..

Genevieve Wastie said...

wowza, well done. Seriously, you should send this into Isis or a paper or something. So nice to read something that is well considered and self-aware on the whole thing, thank you!

Arati Jerath said...

laA very good piece, Vanya. Well laid out arguments and convincing. Also, My feelings exactly! Hope to catch more blogs by you.