Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Anna and Democracy - an analysis of Anna movement

The Anna Hazare lead campaign against corruption in India has shaken us all from the comfort of our world view. Just when the final obituaries for the Gandhian thought and charisma are about to be read, someone comes along and changes the plot. The dynamic of the current movement from the start to the end can be summed up in the famous quote by Gandhi:


"First they ignore you,
then they laugh at you,
then they fight you,
then you win."

The start of the movement was characterized by cynicism. Thanks to the government and congress' monumental arrogance and a class contempt for the ordinary man, people started identifying more and more with the movement. Then it was time for the opponents to portray the movement as a non serious one. Series of revelations and CDs came out in the open and attacks were made on the demands of the agitation. The Anna team had done its homework well. Its members, which included a retired supreme court judge, two supreme court lawyers and an ex law minister, gave the intellectual weight and further credibility to the agitation. When the agitation refused to die down, the government started fighting back in the most shabby terms. It lost the day it arrested Anna Hazare.

Many people have been left baffled by the success of this movement. After all the same methods have been applied by Irom Sharmila and her fast unto death continues for more than 10 years. Why did this agitation succeed and not the others? Arundhati Roy often says that satyagrah needs a theater where a satyagrahi can perform and keep the public, the audience, enthralled [@]. The main plot of the act is a person imposing suffering on himself to awaken the public opinion to the obvious wrong done by the society or the government. As days pass by, the suffering of the satyagrahi increases and the plot quickens everyday, contrary to other means of agitation where the public interest slowly dies down as the days go by. Essential to this form of agitation is a theater to capture the imagination of the ordinary, the absence of ego when satyagrahi starts accumulating power, the constant willingness to negotiate to always project oneself as the non obdurate one, a very simple demand which the government / society has been overlooking for long, and finally and most importantly exhaustion of all other means to have that demand met. (Gandhi did not go on a fast unto death demanding freedom of India.)

The anti corruption agitation struck right when the iron was hot. The Lokpal bill had been introduced first in 1968 and it never became an act [@]. Even the fiercest critiques of Anna would agree that without the agitation the Lokpal bill would not have seen the light of the day. The leader of opposition as well the leader of the house in Lok Sabha acknowledged the failure of the political class to deliver in this matter [@][@][@]. The nation was boiling from the revelations of one scam after another of scale never heard before in the nation. One minister was responsible for wiping out revenue worth 4 percent of our GDP. Added to it was the shame experienced during the Commonwealth games. While just before the games, India was relishing the flattering comparisons to China, the Commonwealth games scam came as a wake up call to all. It broke the myth that no matter whatever may be the mess, we do get the job done at the end, even though it is just in time. This bubbling mix of anger, frustration and humiliation along with doses of inspiration from the middle east provided the base for a movement. We must be thankful to Anna and his team to have channelized this raw discontent into a disciplined movement. While the anti establishment and anti corruption agitations were just waiting to happen, it is to the credit of the organizers of India Against Corruption campaign to have channeled this into a non violent, disciplined movement with a clear agenda.

While the fuel to run the agitation has accumulated over the years, the igniting spark came from the euphoria of India winning the cricket world cup in April. The events would have been so much different if India had not won the world cup. While all the previous events had added to the anger and frustration of the citizens, they bogged down our confidence and made the problem of corruption look invincible, a evil we must accept to live with and make a part of our lives, the victory at the world cup brought back the spirit of overcoming odds and confidence in our selves back. The very next day Anna started his first fast unto death to ask the government to listen to their view. The engine of the agitation started purring and in four days the government was on its knees.

Victory came as a shock to many people and the unexpected success of the old Gandhian tactics, called the grammar of anarchy by Dr. Ambedkar, made many uncomfortable. Many others smelled the coffee and went rushing to the drawing board to formalize their ideas about the Lokpal [@]. Team Anna grabbed all the lime light and their ego started inflating but not more than the arrogance of the elite we know all ministers in the government. After every meeting with the government the team would denounce the government at traitors and betrayers. This pricked the ego of many well educated ministers in the government and it was unbearable for them to not be in the driving seat while delivering a big reform. Efforts were on to limit the scope of lokpal to the minimum, and make cosmetic changes in the functioning of the government of India. When Anna announced second satyagrah to demand for a strong lokpal bill, people were in two minds. The government had no credibility to begin with, but team Anna was also seen as arrogant and obdurate.

The game changer was the arrest of Anna Hazare and his incarceration in Tihar jail. It was a blunder of monumental proportions on part of the government. It was so stupid that some congress MPs have written to Rahul Gandhi to order a probe into it and see if it was a deliberate attempt to help the agitation [@] . Anna and his team exploited the arrest to the fullest. Anna refused to come out of the jail until he is allowed to agitate unconditionally. The debate shifted from the lokpal to the rights of the citizens to protest. Nothing could have brought the people together than arresting an anti corruption crusader and making him share a roof with people accused of the biggest corruption scandals in our history. This all happened just a day after India celebrated its independence.  The symbolism of a Gandhian arrested by an autocratic government made sure that the battle is over, the government had lost.

The next few days were spent to create a political consensus around the demands of Anna team and to dress it up in a manner that is not against the spirit of the constitution. The question was not whether to accept the demands or not, the question was to do it in a manner that it does not become an unhealthy precedent in the democracy of India. The political parties which happily hid behind the government had to reluctantly agree to the demands of Anna Hazare. The government and Anna team showed remarkable maturity when it came to finding a solution. The hard negotiating positions of team Anna were soon dropped and a consensus was arrived at. The only card in the hand of the government was the deteriorating health of Anna. If anything were to happen, there were many people who were already accusing the team Anna of being indifferent to his health [@]. The government waited till it gave the government some leverage. The talks followed and a quick resolution was in sight.

The movement showed the ability of our democracy to give space to a million mutinies and large movements. It also shows how far along we have come and how ingrained our democracy is today, that undemocratic attitudes and ideas soon become unpopular. For any agitation to be successful, it must be within the space of ideas and methods defined by our constitution and the national movement. The agitation also displayed the amount of talent created by the political process in the country which can help organize a big protest in a peaceful manner and also help find resolutions acceptable to all sides. If it is true that whatever that does not kill you makes you stronger, India is a lot stronger nation because of these disruptive agitations which lead to political and administrative innovation.

This movement has pushed further the boundaries of our democracy. The goalposts of the lokpal bill have been set [@]. A citizens charter shall be in place in the lokpal bill. The states will follow the same template to have their own ombudsman. It would be politically hard for the government to stall the bill now. It is a lesson for the political class that if they dither too long on a reform, they may be compelled to have a reform far bigger in scope than they would like. The NAC has started looking into ways through which people can participate in the process of drafting legislation [@]. The movement has also thrown some open questions- should a representative of the people vote on a provision where the representative has a conflict of interest? Should an MP who also owns a mining company be voting on a law regulating the mining industry? Should MPs decide on legislating laws that seek to make them more accountable? While judges can recuse them selves in case of conflict of interest, can the representatives of the people do so? If not the MPs then whom?

The movement was often described of the middle class, by the middle class and for the middle class. It is true in some ways. A person belonging to the middle class had surrendered to the political class long ago. She rarely voted in an election and found ways and means to replace the government where ever possible. A multitude of private schools, colleges, hospitals and colonies, with private water and electricity supply and backups, have sprung up since then. Whenever she had to deal with the government she readily payed bribes to get her work done, though most of the bribes were harassment bribes [@]. The feeling of disgust towards the corrupt system was accompanied by the feeling of shame for being a part and promoter of it. This combined with the notion that only the saints have the right to question the wrongs in a society made corruption a part of life of the middle class. Anna Hazare came as a salvation. His rhetoric always focused on the government. His symbolism brought back the nostalgia of the days after independence, when the system was a lot cleaner and one dint have to give a bribe to get what they are entitled to. The middle class jumped into his fold to wash away all its sins and come out as a being rid of all its sins and wrong doings.

As with the movements before this one, this has given a fresh lease of life to the cherished ideals everyone wants to hold. Many people have started pushing against the harassment bribes to get what they are entitled to [@]. This time they are empowered with tools and rights to do so. Recently, a person conducted a sting operation to expose the middlemen who took bribe to ensure a person a seat in an engineering or medical college [@]. Right to Information (RTI) is being widely used to tackle corruption. An entrepreneur is already thinking of offering a service to fight harassment by the government through RTI [@]. The method of direct payments envisioned by the government will further reduce corruption[@]. Lokpal bill and the charter of rights of citizens will be a healthy addition to the arsenal of the common people to get their dues.