The cynics are wrong: Team Anna is far from finished

The obituary writers are sharpening their pencils, ready to declare the movement for a strong Lokpal dead. In the estimation of most of them, Team Anna is “in disarray”, “lost without Anna”, “groping for the way ahead” and, therefore, should just curl up and die.

With the same whimsical state of mind with which opinion makers venerate our cricketing heroes when they are on top of the world but lacerate them when they go through a rough patch, Team Anna, which was once put on a sky-high pedestal, is now being knocked off it.

The parallels between Team Anna and the Indian cricketing team may be closer than most people realise: Anna’s first fast, at Jantar Mantar, began right after India won the World Cup in 2011; but by year’s end, both Team Anna and the Indian cricketing team have been subjected to venomous criticism and are being written off as a bunch of losers.

The anti-corruption movement must prepare for inter-generational change. PTI

It is true, as even Arvind Kejriwal acknowledges, that Team Anna is in a reflective mood. Its high-decibel campaign over the past year, which channelled the widespread revulsion against corruption into a sharply focussed movement for a strong Lokpal, has lost a lot of its momentum.

While the movement succeeded in keeping up the pressure to bring a Lokpal Bill before parliament, it could not, beyond a point, influence the fine details of the bill once the law-making process entered the parliamentary domain, where it belongs.

Once there, political parties – across the spectrum – diluted the bill to the point of rendering it toothless, and pointedly ignored well-meaning suggestions to strengthen the investigative powers of the CBI and free it of political interference. Other regional parties, and even the BJP, raised the bogey of federalism to knock down the provision to set up Lokayuktas at the state level.

Even today, it’s possible that the Lokpal Bill will be passed in the budget session of parliament. It will almost certainly undergo further iterations that effectively weaken it even further. The anti-corruption agency that will likely emerge from it will be powerless to the point of irrelevance. Those who had opposed Team Anna all along will point to that enfeebled agency’s inability to fight corruption as validation of their claim that Team Anna was always on the wrong track.

If Team Anna is given to despair, there is of course much to be disheartened about. Yet, the obituaries that are being written about the broader ant-corruption movement today are wide of the mark. The campaign for a strong Lokpal must not – and will not – end here, but it must be carried forward in ways that avoids some of the mistakes of the past.

Team Anna’s current predicament – and the realisation that no party really wants a strong Lokpal in place – gives it cause to reflect on the road ahead, and what it can do to propel the movement without repeating the mistakes of the past.

Team Anna’s current decision – to be validated by Anna Hazare himself – not to campaign specifically against the Congress in the upcoming Assembly elections points to a return to sobriety. It made tactical sense in the early stage to focus on the Congress – after all, the Congress bears much of the blame over the years for the failure to enact a strong Lokpal Bill. But mere regime change was never the goal of the anti-corruption movement, nor does it do any good in itself: putting in place an anti-septic anti-corruption system that will be immune to any political interference remains the larger goal. To retain its credibility, that campaign should always remain non-partisan.

Simultaneously, along with its short-term objective of working the political system to strengthen the Lokpal, the movement should be taken to the grassroots level by working along with ordinary people, by invoking the provisions of the Right to Information and other levers (including the proposed Lokpal), to beat the corrupt system. That will generate political goodwill at the grassroots level – and allow the movement to show by example why the case for a strong Lokpal remains important.

Thirdly, although Team Anna benefited vastly from the media exposure over the past year, it must now go off the news radar – and avoid the mistaking of getting caught up in soundbyte sloganeering. Its leaders have made their point forcefully over the past year; now is the time for demonstrable action at the grassroots level.

Team Anna also has to learn to modulate its tone, which sometimes came across as too grating and high-pitched hectoring. It doesn’t have to respond to every motormouth outpouring of Digvijaya Singh or Manish Tiwari. There’s also a case to be made that Kiran Bedi’s stream-of-consciousness verbiage on Twitter is harming the larger cause, not helping it. Leave polemical slamfests to the political parties, which already stand discredited.

Lastly, Team Anna should work to expand the committee leadership to make it more representative of India’s geographical and cultural diversity and work to groom the next generation of leadership of the movement. Given the formidable odds that the campaign against corruption faces, meaningful change may only come incrementally. But, as the lesson of the past year taught it, setting short-term deadlines for passage of a strong bill only ends up backfiring on it, when the political establishment meets that deadline by bringing in a weak bill.

Wisdom lies in preparing for a long-haul battle, one whose credibility is not compromised by short-term political compromises even if they appear tactically shrewd. Like the Indian cricket team, the anti-corruption movement can – and will - re-energise itself from its current down-and-out sentiment and prove the cynics wrong.

The job of ensuring a strong anti-corruption agency is far from finished; so too is Team Anna far from finished, irrespective of what the obituary writers say.