Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Anna Phenomenon Revisited

I had taken a favourable view of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement. Why? Firstly, no one was able to provide me any satisfactory argument against it. The secular-liberal dismissive labeling of it as a communal, 'right wing movement' could be countered by the argument that the Hindu right's affiliation with Anna's movement could have been purely instrumental on both sides; there was no clear evidence of an ideological affinity between the two yet. Moreover, I dismissed the cynicism and skepticism of some secular liberals regarding the use of national symbols by Anna and his supporters. They objected to the use of the Indian flag on the grounds that it may create fear among certain minorities because of its possible association with aggressive nationalism or majoritarianism. But, in my view, to be wary of carrying the national flag because it had been misused in the past by the aggressive nationalists would amount to succumbing to the fear that they thrive on and letting them appropriate a national, constitutional symbol. And in the present movement, I saw the flag as being used simply as a symbol of the hope of India's regeneration, and nothing else.
Further, I didn't share the anxieties that many among the upper middle class intelligentsia seemed to harbour about what they referred to as 'mass hysteria'.  And while I was conscious of the hypocrisy of many of Anna's supporters - who in all probability had paid bribes at some point of time or the other - I decided not to scoff at it. Instead, I saw this as revealing something noteworthy: if they had paid bribes, at least some of them were not entirely happy about it, and they did not mind giving ethical conduct a shot. For the first time, I had seen so many people publicly voice their discontentment with the 'this-is-just-how-India-works" attitude. While these 'hypocrites' were unwilling to devote their time to change the state of affairs, they would at least support and encourage those who were willing to do the dirty job of cleaning up the system. I appreciated Anna's movement for creating the opportunity for some of us ‘hypocrites’ to stop and self-reflect. 

I knew that Anna Hazare's comparison with Gandhi was absurd. He neither had Gandhi's moral vision nor was he a political thinker. Simply wearing a white topi did not make him Gandhian. He almost always made inconsistent, impulsive, hyperbolic statements, and recanted the next day. And maybe he was a pawn of 'Team Anna'. But while I had been skeptical of Anna Hazare - the person - from day 1,  I had known about the good work of Arvind Kejriwal's 'Parivartan', of Kiran Bedi's 'aapki kachehri' and her reform of Tihar Jail. This, along with, Prashant Bhushan's reputation as a lawyer, made me trust these leaders of Anna's movement a little more than other players in politics. 

I wanted to to give Team Anna a chance. Not only because of whatever little I'd known of the 'good work' of Kejriwal, Bedi and Bhushan but more importantly because for the first time in my life of 23 years, I had seen large sections of the urban middle class  - composed largely of privitised and atomised individuals -  being remotely 'public-spirited', politically active and deliberative. Those few days were a more than welcome change from the usual apathy, complacency, and resignation one saw daily, at least in Delhi.  I hoped that such mass support for the movement would force the political class to take note its crisis of legitimacy. Anna Hazare had gained legitimacy because state institutions and politicians had been delegitimized by their own corrupt, self-seeking actions. I saw Anna's controversial pressure tactics as presenting our political class with a unique opportunity to reinvent itself, if only out of a self-interested motive to survive. I wanted Indian parliamentary democracy to be reformed: to 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. And for the first time in my life, and because of Anna's movement, I was hearing so many people demand that publicly - as an entitlement! This was the primary reason for my enthusiasm for Anna's movement.

* * * 

But my support had never been unconditionalI have had many months to observe Team Anna's vision, their actions and - though I must admit that I have not followed them as closely as I should have - I often find myself asking the question: have all those cynics been proved right? And then I think: No, most of their arguments were not convincing at all. I will not withdraw my support from Anna's effort because it has been proved that it was a 'right wing movement', nor because I now agree that it was wrong to use national symbols, nor because it did not represent Muslims or dalits adequately. I remain unconvinced that Team Anna had been plotting to overthrow the parliament. However, I have, through sporadic moments of observation, questioning, reading, and reflection, come to realise certain things. 

That the words 'we - the voice of the people' during those few days at Ramlila was not just momentary tactic, used during heated populist rhetoric aimed at pressurising an arrogant political class; the repeated reiteration that Team Anna alone represents 'the voice of the people' has revealed Kiran Bedi's obstinate insularity as well as her complete ignorance of the dangerous precedent that such rhetoric can set, with any fanatical nationalist claiming to represent 'the will of the people'. 

That as their vision became clearer, I realised that I disagreed with it at a very basic level. I came to think that they were being naiive with regard to the functioning of democratic politics in a country like India. Their solution to the lack of transparency in our democracy was to set up internet kiosks in each village, so that referenda can be held on every issue - as if referenda was the essence of democracy. 

But reducing democracy to the mere formal procedure of direct voting may not be ideal, and could even be dangerous. Was the Team aware that those who criticise referenda often adduce the reason that Hitler and Mussolini had used it to disguise oppressive policies as populism? Anna's Team did not address the possibility that a referendum can be driven by whims or propaganda and can be extremely detrimental to careful deliberation - a crucial aspect of democracy. Further, it could be used to impose the will of the majority, and may be  problematic when it came to minority rights. Team Anna seemed to have only one conception of democracy: formal, procedural. But what of substantive democracy? And while internet kiosks might ensure access to voting, they do not ensure the capability of informed thinking

Sometimes, even being educated is not enough. The most brilliant example, I realised, had been myself. I am pretty "well-educated", and I had - unlike many others at Ramlila - gone through the trouble of reading the Lokpal Bill. In my excitement at seeing so many people being deliberative and politically engaged, and in the hope that some positive outcome may come out of this movement, I forgot that I am not at all qualified to comment on whether it is a 'constitutional' Bill (though i had tried to get in touch with Brinda Grover to seek her legal opinion on the issue!). I tried to make sense of it myself: words like 'checks and balances', 'transparency', 'judicial review', 'accountability of the Lokpal' peppered the Bill and made it sound democratic and constitutional. But the truth was that neither did I have no clue  as to whether the it would be effective nor could I know by reading it whether the Bill could potentially be used to turn the Lokpal into a supra-state body! If I - a 'well-educated' citizen - can make this mistake, then surely a referendum on whether we should or should not adopt the Lokpal Bill would be bound to be full of such mistaken decisions. Team Anna's simplistic, idealised referendum ignored this. 

Often, Team Anna replied to criticisms raised against the idea of referendum-based democracy, by exclaiming, "So is the present system any better?!". But did it make sense to to put in so much time, energy and effort in a Bill that would create a system that promised to be only as bad as the current system? And to that, i am afraid, Team Anna has provided no satisfactory answer. 

Though Anna is no Gandhi, they both had one thing in common: they both led popular mass movements with an aim to pressurise the government.  I had tried to understand the 2011 mass movement through whatever I knew about the Gandhian mass movements of 1921 and 1930-31. Anna's movement reminded me of how Gandhi's contemporaries had struggled to understand him: while the right-leaning supporters of Gandhi disliked his closeness with Nehru - whose socialism they loathed and feared, the latter felt great despair as he tried to understand why, if Gandhi claimed to be the champion of the underdog, he constantly aligned himself with landlords and capitalists who exploited the underdog? I tried to empathise with Anna: was he facing the same problem that Gandhi had -  the difficulty of bringing together a broad alliance of diverse social forces with divergent, often contradictory interests? While people like Tavleen Singh dismissed the movement as being "full of lefties", many on the left had criticised it as being "right-wing"! Perhaps, like Gandhi's contemporaries, these people were unable to grasp or sit comfortably with the mass aspect of a mass movement - for the masses are precisely a heterogenous cluster of people with divergent interests! Gandhi too had been accused of using his fast to blackmail (or 'whitemail' as a not-so-funny politician at the time called it) the British Government. Even Nehru thought Gandhi often resorted to "moral coercion". It was interesting to see the very same arguments being brought up by those who opposed Anna's methods. 

One thing Anna's movement helped in revealing is how utterly arrogant the Congress party really is. More importantly, it made me realise just how difficult it really is to take  a 'right' stand in the heat of a popular mass movement (at least in country like India). At that point, when one is deciding which position to occupy, most simply lack necessary information about  leaders, their backgrounds and their intentions. Most judgements are based on momentary observations, guesses and intuitions. And so one tends to lack the perspicaciousness that comes with prior engagement with/analysis of the issues and personalities involved or sagaciousness that comes with the benefit of hindsight

What implication does this have for my thought experiment of imagining myself as being Gandhi's contemporary? From trying to understand Anna's movement using my knowledge of Gandhian movements, I have moved to trying to judge the latter using my experience of the former. If I was to go back to 1921 with my memory and experience of Anna's movement, would I have joined Gandhi's non-cooperation movement (as I had imagined when I read about it in school)? Or would I have objected from the beginning like Tagore?  

Or would I be like Nehru - who had joined in enthusiastically, but afterward, upon reflection and consistent attempts at gaining a clearer understanding of Gandhi's character and vision, developed serious disagreements and got disillusioned with some of his ideas and methods? 


Pamela Philipose said...

Dear Vanya,
Thank you so much for alerting me to your new blog -- always delighted to follow your progress. Caught up presently in an unending editing project and could not respond to it in any detailed manner, except to say that your capacity to reformulate earlier positions is exemplary and honest. It indicates the high seriousness with which you write.


Kamal Mitra Chenoy said...

Dear Vanya,
Liked your blog. The real problem with Anna and co. is that they have no set of concrete Bills to put forward. There are also not adequately educating the masses about clean democratic, egalitarian ways of politics and mobilisation. So flaky people like Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi are often making badly thought out statements which do not help the cause.
Like you I had hope of Anna etc. But they will completely fail in their main goals if they do not make radical changes.
Thanks again for the blog,

Vanya said...

Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Yeah agree with that. Also, they just stooped to that level - the same juvenile political discourse, the same blame-game, taking on a hostile stance vis-a-vis all (Congress) politicians, populism. Disappointing.

Vanya said...

Anyway, I'm glad that a senior academic and JNU professor like you had hope like me. Maybe we were naiive together! Or maybe its good that we're still not cynical, despite everything!


i solely agree to your we were discussing the same in our office and the post reflected the mirror image of our conversation..):):)

Vanya said...

Thanks for commenting! And glad to know people are still engaged with the issue!