What started as a legitimate fight to check, curb and legislate against corruption has now taken on a direction which even Anna Hazare and his team of civil society activists could perhaps not have contemplated. Because of their inherent nature, it is always difficult to predict the direction any movement takes, but it would be hard to accept that Team Hazare expected the kind of mass appeal and emotional support they have managed to generate. Kudos to Team Hazare for having timed a crusade when the country was reeling from an overdose of corruption scams. Anna Hazare has ignited the passion amongst my countrymen that one always knew existed, but had not found a cause to emerge for. It’s admirable that despite the large turn-out, every rally in support of Hazare has been peaceful and till date no signs of violence have been reported. It’s also quite heartening to see that while a large number of Hazare supporters are youth, middle class or lower income, Anna has also managed to touch a chord across various strata’s- socio-economic or professional.
Unfortunately, despite all the positives, there is something equally frightening about this so called mass movement. Public sentiment seems to be divided – if you’re not supporting Team Hazare then you are pro-corruption, pro-government, anti-India! It’s become a ‘my way or highway situation’. Equally chilling was the call of the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid asking the Muslim community, a large number of who stay within walking distance from the Ram Lila Maidan, not to participate in the movement since shouting slogans of ‘vande mataram’ and ‘bharat mata ki jai’ are supposedly opposed to the tenets of Islam. Contrastingly, spiritual gurus, including Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasdev, have openly come out in support of Anna Hazare and are also trying to enlist their followers to support Hazare’s fight. Do we really want to divide people on religious lines in their support for a fight against corruption? Its one thing to hold rallies, protests or have people come to the venue of the fast to demonstrate their support. But calls for picketing homes of MPs may boomerang in the face of Team Hazare in a dangerous way. Such protests have all the makings of turning unruly- something that Anna has publicly stated he does not desire. Such protests will also force the government to clamp down on the picketers at first sign of even a minor violence. Is that what the leaders of this movement want? Do they want to provoke the government to react in the name of law and order, so they may turn the political heat on them even further?
Some things about this movement are now well established. One, this is undoubtedly a political battle being fought by undemocratic means and outside the normal political process. When Aruna Roy, a social activist with established credentials and the force behind the right to information (RTI) act, states that the issue of the Lokpal was being examined by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, before Arvind Kejriwal broke away to set up India Against Corruption, one has to stop, think and take note. More details on what actually transpired will come to light in due course, but for now let’s just keep this at the back of our minds- that if true, what could have been the agenda for Team Hazare to break away rather than persist collectively for a common cause? Did they have no faith in the body examining the bill, that they were a part of- the very same people with whom they are asking to negotiate now- that they decided to break away?
Secondly, the government’s response to the movement and handling of the situation has left a lot to be desired. Starting with the impulsiveness with which the government tried to silence the protests earlier this year by agreeing to constitute a joint drafting committee to consist of government nominees and other nominees from civil society to be nominated only by Anna Hazare. Even at that time, they were other individuals who wanted to be a part of the drafting process, but since their voices weren’t loud enough, they seem to have been ignored. Moving along, the conditions imposed by the Delhi Police for Hazare’s proposed agitation on August 16th made it quite clear that the government was trying to use all powers at its disposal to quell the movement. But this only made it grow larger. And then came the final blow by arresting Anna Hazare even before he began his journey for the venue of his protest. Almost like playing a game of snakes and ladders, this action helped members of Team Hazare reach out for public support by claiming that people’s freedom and right to protest were being taken away. Team Hazare garnered the mileage they were looking from this.
Post his arrest, the government’s flip-flop was evident by first taking Hazare to Tihar Jail, then denying him the right to hold a mass protest, then agreeing to release him by attempting to restrict the number of days he could protest and finally releasing him with the permission to hold a rally, at which point Hazare preferred remaining a state guest and refused to leave prison. How paradoxical that unlike his inmates at Tihar who are fighting for their right to personal liberty to be released on bail, Anna, who had been released, refused to leave. And if having Anna lodged in the same jail where those accused in multi-crore scams against which Anna is fighting are currently residing wasn’t bad enough, what really seems to have fuelled the movement, led to large public outcry and admittedly back-fired was the counter attack launched against Anna Hazare personally, or by suspecting that there was a “foreign” hand behind Hazare’s movement.
But can all the blame be attributed to government alone? Notably, something needs to be done to check rampant corruption and successive governments have not done enough. Even if one assumes that the present situation is of the current government’s own doing, there is no denying that the government is now caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand they are being blackmailed and held to ransom by a group of individuals, who have touched a chord with a certain select, albeit large, group of supporters. And on the other hand they have to weigh the demands of this group with the constitutionally prescribed process of law making and uphold the supremacy of the Parliament to legislate. And to add to the woes, there is now another draft of a Lok Pal Bill, prepared by Aruna Roy that tries to balance the government’s version with the draft presented by Hazare. Will Team Hazare accept this new draft and act slightly more conciliatory, is anybody’s guess. But given their thus far offensive approach, it would hardly be surprising if they personally attack Aruna Roy, as a member of the national advisory council (NAC), for trying to interject at the behest of the government or trying to diffuse their mass movement as a representative of the NAC. God forbid that happens, it would be a shame.
At the time this article went to press, prime minister Manmohan Singh had written a letter to Anna Hazare urging him to call off his hunger strike and to recognise that while there may be a difference in the paths and methodologies of the government and his team, the government is committed to passing legislation to check mounting corruption. The reality is that it is because of the forces like Anna Hazare that most progress on the Lok Pal legislation has been made, and it is the current government that has taken these steps. And while we can doubt the entire political class and intentions of the current elected representatives forming the government, little is achieved by such suspicions. To overcome this impasse, someone will have to give in and compromise and it appears that Team Hazare will have to match the spirit of flexibility the government is demonstrating. The government must indeed adhere to the will of the people it governs, but no steps can be taken which will in any manner erode the credibility of the institution of government or give the impression that this institution gives into to blackmail tactics. If for some reason, Team Hazare does not back down from threats and ultimatums and refuses to reach a consensus on matters of opposing views, and democracies are all about opposing views, they will actually be undermining the parliamentary process of our constitutional democracy and may end up taking the teeth out of the government. Let’s note that this isn’t about the UPA or the BJP. Individual parties will come and go. The fight is against corruption in our institutions and system. The institution is the government of India. The intention must be to correct and not break this institution and at no cost should the institution, that is the government of India, be compromised far beyond trying to regulate its individual member’s practices. Team Hazare knows better than to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If the mass consciousness, which has been stirred in the country by this movement, undermines the institutional functioning, it could even lead to a political situation where the institution of the government of India falls. Like in a game of snakes and ladders, now is the time that the virtues and vices need to be weighed against one another. After all, no one can deny, we need to preserve our democratic institutions and India needs a strong government to run the country.
First Published in GOVERNANCE NOW on 24 August 2011
Author previously wrote on the Anna Hazare movement titled “The Fight Has Begun” and “Fight Against Corruption Continues” also carried by Governance Now –