Why I support Anna Hazare (published in EPW)
April 16, 2011 Vol xlvI No 16 Economic & Political WeeklyLokpal Bill Campaign: Democratic and Constitutional
V Krishna Ananth
Historian Shahid Amin, in his seminalwork on Chauri Chaura, talks about the difficulties of recovering an event from its judicial and nationalist records. This is true as well of trying to make sense of a contemporary event such as the nationwide protests triggered by Anna Hazare’s fast unto death demanding a meaningful anti-graft law (the Jan Lokpal Bill).
Some have been critical of the spontaneity of the movement and its lack of direction. Anna Hazare and his core team claim that they did not expect the groundswell of support that emerged in New Delhi and elsewhere. From a handful of people, the crowd of campaigners became a few thousands on day two of the fast and in just a couple of days it became a movement that had sprouted in urban centres across the country. Nowhere did anyone plan the protests and it was important for the people involved that they gathered around spaces connected with Gandhi.
Arvind Kejariwal and Swami Agnivesh, two of the core team, were seen taking directions from the crowd, which had assembled at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, to reject the government’s offer every time they returned after talking to Union Minister Kapil Sibal and this gave an impression that the movement lacked direction. The demand that Hazare head the committee to draft the bill, endorsed by the crowd, was soon given up on instructions from Hazare himself. The fact that the members of the core team could convince the crowd about a change in the stand was a clear indication that the team was in control.
The critics have dismissed last week’s campaign as a middle class pass-timeand see it as no different from the shows that followed the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, which quickly disappeared. Such criticism is unfair. There were many others among the protestors and not just from the middle class. The urban middle class, the professionals in particular, joined the campaign in large numbers and their presence was conspicuous. This calls for a celebration and certainly not contemptuousdismissal. And those who joined the protest did agree to follow Hazare until the end. They did come with a sense of purpose: To stand up against corruption even if they had little clue about the details of the Jan Lokpal Bill that had been in the making for 43 years.‘Middle Class’ Campaign
That the campaign was marked by candle light vigils rather than conventional forms of protest such as industrial general strikes and stoppage of rail and road transport is held as evidence that what we witnessed last week was anything but a movement. The sceptics would argue that Anna Hazare, with hardly any organisation, could not have realised his immediate objectives if the government had not blinked. They also see the media, the TV channels in particular, as having sustained the campaign for the same reasons as they did in such instances as the Jessica Lal and the Aarushi cases.
There may be some truth in all this criticism. Candle light vigils were first seen in our nation’s history in the midst of the anti-Mandal protests way back in September 1990 and marked such other occasions when the middle class protested attempts at social transformation. It was only natural then that they adopted the same form this time around too. It is also true that a large section of the protestors, if not everyone, saw in this campaign another occasion to throw a stone at the political class. It is also significant that the political parties across the spectrum condemned the protestors. The contempt was couched in the argument that the campaign was a challenge to the constitutional scheme, under which legislation was to be left to Parliament and should not be done on the streets.
That the arguments against the Hazare campaign are similar, word for word, to the Indira Gandhi government’s reaction to Jayaprakash Narayan’s (JP) anti-corruption movement in Bihar in 1974-75 is obvious. There is a difference though. JP found the non-Congress opposition waiting to be taken along. This led eventually – towards the end of the Emergency – to the formation of the Janata Party and the defeat of the Congress in 1977. Even those who were initiated into the political world by JP are now attacking Anna Hazare and the Lokpal
Bill movement. The Samajwadi Party’s Mohan Singh, one of JP’s foot soldiers in 1974, and Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, a close aide of Lalu Prasad Yadav, were quick to criticise the anti-corruption campaign. Lalu Prasad, whom JP had chosen to lead his campaign and Mulayam Singh Yadav, who owes a lot to JP’s campaign, have since travelled a long way and are implicated in corruption scandals. This indeed could be the basis to argue on the need for campaigns such as those led by Anna Hazare and the need to have a strong institutional legal framework to contain corruption.
There certainly was an element of surprise in how the campaign spread across the country and grew in strength. The demand that New Delhi enact an anti-graft bill found an echo even in Srinagar. The people, or more particularly the middle classes, behaved in exactly the same way as they did some years ago when someone from somewhere spread the story that idols of Ganesha were drinking milk. However, this time they went out to join a protest and not just worship a deity. It is necessary to note here that the campaign drew images from Mahatma Gandhi’s era. Satyagraha as a weapon against the mighty was a metaphor that could not be missed. Role of the Media
A generation that has been fed with remembering Gandhi only in official functions marking Bapu’s birth anniversaries – “Governmental Gandhism” to invoke Rammanohar Lohia – found in Hazare the Gandhi of its own times. It is another matter and something to wonder about that neither Medha Patkar nor Irom Sharmila Chanu have evoked such responses as has Anna Hazare.
The campaign across the country picked up only a day after Hazare began his fast. It was on 6 April 1930, that Gandhi broke the salt law at Dandi. Indian nationals in the US commemorated the Dandi event this year and visuals of that occasion were captured by our own TV channels and shown as part of the campaign that Hazare had launched the day before. The visual media, which has highlighted stories of corruption in the past few months, chose to join the campaign and that made a difference.
Unless someone establishes that there was a motive for the media campaign, the adversarial role the media took was justified and such action is integral to democracy. The media could have chosen to ignore Hazare. That would have contributed immensely to further cynicism and delegitimised the democratic system. It is equally important to state that the political parties, who should have foregrounded the anti-corruption agenda had failed to do so. Cutting across the spectrum, they are guilty of not legislating for the establishment of a Lokpal. In the 43 years since Indira Gandhi declared her intention to create the institution in 1968, the bill has remained an idea. The only movement forward was the decision of the then Prime Minister I K Gujral, in 1998, to have the prime minister’s office in the ambit of the Lokpal.
Corruption in high places has only grown and none from the political establishment has been convicted. Recall the case from the early 1980s involving A R Antulay and the scandal involving allocation of cement, a commodity then in short supply. Antulay had resigned as chief minister of Maharashtra in January 1982 but the prosecution in the case began only in February 1984. The Congress leader managed to stall the launch of prosecution, resorting to the legal process until the Supreme Court clarified that prior sanction from the speaker of the Maharashtra state assembly was not necessary to prosecute him.
Notwithstanding the law, as clarified in that instance, Kerala CPI(M) chief Pinarayi Vijayan and his party are still stalling prosecution in the SNC Lavalin case. Or take the case of Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa who quarrelled with Governor H R Bhardwaj on the sanction for prosecution! Comparisons with the Past
If all this is history, the public perception, after the revelations in the 2G spectrum scandal, the Commonwealth Games loot and the Adarsh Housing Society scam, is that the culprits will in the end go scot-free. This is what helped the Anna Hazare campaign strike a chord with the people. The middle class has been in the forefront of similar mobilisations in the past: Gujarat in 1973-74, Bihar in 1974 and Bofors in 1988. It is important to note that Indulal Yagnik in Gujarat, JP in Bihar and V P Singh in the case of Bofors were seen as squeaky clean men and that they raised the issues out of their concern for the nation. The people rallied behind men whom they perceived as different from the run-of-the-mill politicians.Anna Hazare, many held, was not fighting this battle for himself but for all Indians and it was their moral responsibility to stand up and be counted. Hazare and his team were seen as renunciates rather than people bidding for a role for themselves in the power structure. This perhaps got thousands of young people and professionals out on to public spaces to hold a candle and rail against corruption.
It is hard to desist from comparing the movement with what is happening in the Arab world. Tahrir Square is fresh in the minds of the people who watch television and most of those who joined the protest do see television every day. They may have imagined themselves to be part of another historical event. The fact that a large number of people, mostly the urban middle class, which has otherwise been indifferent to agitations (and even contemptuous of mobilization on the streets) landed up to protest and even took the initiative through Facebook and Twitter, must be explained as a reaction to the arrogance that the leaders of the political parties displayed when Anna Hazare launched his fast unto death. It was a sight to see Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Congress spokesperson, dismissing the campaign as anti-constitutional and preaching that laws cannot be made on the streets and that this was the prerogative of Parliament. Well. Singhvi, like many others, was only distorting the campaign. The leaders of the movement were not under any illusion that it was possible to legislate the act, as they wanted it to be, from Jantar Mantar.
Anna Hazare and his team, which consisted of former police officers, bureaucrats and professional lawyers, were also clear that the standard forms of advocacy that the funded NGOs have been doing for long – holding public consultations where alternate legislative bills are written and then circulating them as part of advocacy campaigns – will not do. It is possible to imagine the course of things if the campaign had not taken place. The bill would have been moved at some point in Parliament, debated and put to vote. The Opposition would have raised objections and moved some amendments. We would have ended up with a toothless Lokpal in place which would have been listed as an achievement in the ruling party’s manifesto in 2014. The leaders of the campaign intended to prevent this and foregrounded the alternative.
The Hazare campaign then forced the government to a time frame: 30 June 2011 for the draft to be ready and the bill to be introduced in the Monsoon session of Parliament. Hopes have been raised and it remains to be seen if there is agreement in the joint committee on the contentious points. It will be naïve to expect the government to agree to all that the campaign’s representatives want.
Meanwhile, there are striking similarities between the anti-corruption movement and the Navnirman Andolan in Gujarat of 1974. The one difference is that the State clamped down heavily in Gujarat and has been a bystander now. The students and their middle class parent had in 1974 succeeded in ousting Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel who was perceived to have been extremely corrupt. They also inspired JP to launch a similar movement in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The Congress Party then (and a section of the historians even today) hold those movements as having been directionless, anarchist and even fascist. It is indeed a fact that the movement in the 1970s provided space for the RSS; Narendra Modi himself emerged out of that movement in Gujarat.
Political India has, however, travelled far since then. Those who rallied behind Anna Hazare last week were not innocent of their history and recent events. They knew of Yeddyurappa and the Reddy brothers as much as they knew about Suresh Kalmadi, Ashok Chavan and A Raja. In any case, the Left and the progressives among the political class will now blame themselves for having left the space vacant and created the possibility of a right wing takeover of that space and the movement. The Anna Hazare platform is steered by a mix of people: from Mallika Sarabhai to Baba Ramdev, but it also has stalwarts such as Arvind Kejariwal and Prashant Bhushan who are an integral part of the team.A Democratic Option
The protestors at Jantar Mantar did not let O P Chautala and Uma Bharti, both on the fringes of the party system, to join them. Leaders from the mainstream did not even attempt to be there. There may be a serious issue with building a campaign against the party system as such. But at a time when the political class as a whole has failed, a campaign that seeks to pass a law which would make some difference to the efforts to book the corrupt in high positions is indeed a democratic option and within the framework of the Constitution.
The course of events in this case has been different from that which made the Right to Information (RTI) Act a reality. The RTI campaign at some point of time was taken up by the Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council (NAC). And the idea became a law soon afterwards.
Anna Hazare could not afford to pursue the same course. The NAC is not as powerful
as it was during UPA-I (the dispute over the Food Security Bill being an example). The political class may not see the Jan Lokpal Bill as benign as it did in the case of the RTI. The Hazare campaign was indeed a specific response to a specific context. It was in that sense a democratic challenge from within the four corners of the Constitution. To wait for the parties in our system to legislate a meaningful law against corruption would have been like waiting for Godot.