New Delhi: Anna Hazare began his speech at Jantar Mantar. “Now he will talk about him not getting married,” said a fellow scribe, predicting what he would say next.
“Then he will tell us that he does not know the names of his nephews…and then he will advise us not to have more than two kids,” he said taking a dig at the social activist. He turned out to be right with every prediction. Almost every reporter tracking the Lokpal movement now knows Hazare’s speech, word for word and unfortunately for Team Anna, so do most of the people who are now missing from the venue of their hunger strike.
On the afternoon of second day of the agitation, PTI estimated the crowd at around 1,000 people, up from 600 in the morning. Even on the first day of the fast, a crowd of around 2,500 greeted Hazare and his team, said PTI.
The thin attendance at the venue is reminiscent of the initial days of Hazare’s maiden protest in the national capital. Hazare, a familiar face in Maharashtra, was new to Delhi. On 4 April 2011, when he arrived on the stage, overshadowing all other agitations at the site, most of the crowd was made up of volunteers and those who knew his work in Maharashtra. The situation persisted for the first two days and it was only on the weekend that the crowd swelled and the media began comparing his protest to JP movement of the 1970s.
The current agitation is perhaps a study in contrast and as one of the participants at the venue said, Jantar Mantar has become Mumbai’s MMRDA ground, the venue of Anna Hazare's hunger strike in 2011 which had to be called off abruptly after the social activist had to be taken to hospital.
So what has kept the crowds away at Jantar Mantar?
When India Against Corruption launched the movement with Hazare as its face on 4 April 2011, he became the mascot of the masses or at least was projected as one. He became a savior of sorts who arrived at a time when the middle class felt victimised due to inflation and numerous multi-crore scams. Akin to Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man character, but a little older in age, the masses expected he would fight the system on their behalf and become their hero.
He became the medium which the aam aadmi used to vent his angst against an unresponsive system. The crowds never abandoned Hazare and his cause. Middle class families, couples, school children, college students, retired government employees, housewives and corporate professionals took pride in spending time at the fast venue in solidarity with the movement. Many of them, especially the youth, witnessed a people's movement of this nature for the first time in their lives. Thousands of them swarmed New Delhi's roads when the social activist was released from Tihar jail.
More than a year later, not much has changed as far as the standoff between Team Anna and the government is concerned. However, since then, Delhi knows Hazare and his demands. While Hazare is once again fasting, the government has chosen not to budge. Yes, there has been discussion on the Lokpal Bill in the Lok Sabha, but technically, the government has not delivered as much as the movement wanted it to. Given the standoff, the only people who keep coming back to the fast venue are Team Anna’s volunteers, members of associations supporting the cause and people from neighboring villages who can afford sending at least one family member to the venue. The middle class this time can be expected to contribute to the crowd only on weekends, unlike previous occasions where people took leave from office to attend the fast.
It doesn't help that this time Team Anna has introduced a new demand: Setting up a special investigation team to probe charges of corruption against 14 union ministers and President Pranab Mukherjee. The ministers, 'charge-sheeted' by Team Anna, are all from ruling UPA.
Unfortunately this has far more potential to do more damage to the movement than good.
Many argue that Team Anna wants us to believe that only UPA has corrupt ministers. The counter-argument, often presented by Arvind Kejriwal, is that since the UPA government is in power, it only makes sense to target its ministers. Nonetheless, this aspect gives an anti-UPA colour to the agitation which could have targeted corruption across political parties.
Also the protest has ceased to be ‘thin’, as political scientist Yogendra Yadav said. Last August, when the movement was at its peak, Yadav attributed its success to the fact that it was thinner and more anti-politics. When asked by Tehelka what he meant by 'thinness', he said, “I mean that the particular issue about which people are protesting is not understood in depth. What is the source of corruption? What is the solution for corruption? What is the source of displacement? There is a structural logic for this but there is a refusal to link up movements with their deeper structural causes. And, curiously, chances of these movements succeeding are higher when they are not connected with the base.”
According to Yadav, not talking about corporate corruption or communalism or the big mining deals, worked in Hazare’s favour. “He talks about corrupt politicians, which is the easiest thing to talk about. If he had actually raised everything else, chances are, he’d be much less of a success. The overall situation is such that it encourages you and actually rewards you for being thin," he said.
The lack of 'thinness' is evident in the Jantar Mantar fast when Team Anna members Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan list the charges of corruption against various ministers covering issues ranging from SEBI, the 2010 Commonwealth Games, 2G spectrum sale scam, submarines and mines.
For most in the crowd SEBI’s functions and spectrum, are just not the same as battling a single demon of corruption.
Regular news of one of the Team Anna members leaving the movement due to ideological differences or differences over strategy has also corroded the movement's support. Recently, national dailies reported that Team Anna member Prashant Bhushan sent a legal notice to Gaurav Bakshi, who was earlier handling the movement's presence on Facebook, accusing him of discrediting the movement on social media.
While it is not possible to quantify the number of people who have distanced themselves from the movement seeing the rift in Team Anna, none of these developments have worked in favour of what has been hailed as 'people’s movement'. Disgruntled members of the movement leaving has perhaps resulted in many being turned away. But as always the trump card for the protest remains Anna Hazare and him going on a hunger strike. Always an emotive issue, when he goes on a hunger strike this weekend, the presence or absence of the crowds will perhaps be the best indicator of the how much longer the movement will last.