I write this to you neither as a fawning cheerleader nor a cynical journalist, but a proud Indian like you. Let me applaud you at the very outset for having brought corruption to the national centre stage. You have worked tirelessly for more than two decades in exposing corruption in Maharashtra, but Ralegan Siddhi is a long way from Delhi, which is perhaps why television channels hadn’t featured your contribution prominently till now. An opinion poll we did just a month ago suggested that more people had heard of yoga guru Baba Ramdev than a tireless fakir-like crusader from a Western Maharashtra village.
All that has now changed. Your latest fast has made you a household name. You’ve brought a mighty Indian state to its knees. You’ve encouraged millions of anonymous Indians to come out on the streets and get a voice. You’ve exposed a political class, suffering from a grave moral crisis, to the wider world. You’ve empowered those who’ve felt lost in a new India where wealth is the sole presiding deity. You’ve become a symbol of change and hope at a time when a scam culture has assaulted the conscience of the nation.
You’ve even shown that the Marathas, a community that has failed to conquer Delhi since losing the third battle of Panipat in 1761, can indeed take the national capital by storm. But in every battle there must come a time when you must call a halt. That time may well be approaching.
Gandhi, the greatest Indian of them all, from whom you claim to derive inspiration, never went on a fast unto death by refusing medication. For Gandhi, the idea of fasting was a form of self-purification, a fast could not be undertaken as he said, “out of anger. Anger is a short-term madness.” Yes, there is anger in the streets today, an almost volcanic eruption of a lava that has been simmering for decades. Your genius lies in being able to channelise that popular anger against corruption into a well-defined goal of a strong anti-corruption law and, importantly, doing so in a peaceful manner. The real danger though now is that a peaceful, non-violent movement runs the risk of being overwhelmed by what Dr Ambedkar, the great constitutionalist described a fast unto death as, by the “grammar of anarchy.”
There have been some signs of this in the last 48 hours that are truly worrying. The gherao of the homes of members of Parliament may be visually appealing, but it encourages an anti-politician ‘sab neta chor hai’ rhetoric that could further destroy faith in parliamentary democracy. The increasingly strident language being used by certain members of Team Anna – a term which creates the regrettable impression of you being surrounded by a coterie – is to be best avoided at a time when a rational dialogue is called for.
Only two days ago, a colleague of mine was assaulted in the heart of the capital by a drunk biker gang waving the tricolor and chanting ‘I am Anna’ slogans. The frenzy being built up in the media by hyper-ventilating news channels and demagogic acolytes could easily transform a genuine peoples movement into a lumpen expression of mob fury. It’s a transformation that could end up destroying the hard-earned credibility of your struggle.
Ramlila is not Mumbai’s Azad Maidan nor is it the village square in Ralegan Siddhi. This is not some battle to stop the local thug from shutting his liquor shop. Here, there are multiple agendas that require dexterous negotiation and not mere sloganeering. The sight of gangster Abu Salem’s girlfriend Monica Bedi parading Mumbai’s streets with an Anna cap should convince you of the dangers of reducing the fight against corruption to a well-choreographed prime time tv spectacle.
It is true no fast can be called off till the primary goal has been achieved. If that goal is to have the Jan Lokpal Bill passed exactly as you desire then that is a maximalist position which is never easy to accommodate overnight. Gandhi himself often spoke of the ‘beauty’ of compromise. Without doubt the fact that you have forced an obdurate government to fast-forward the Lokpal Bill and accept most of your proposals is itself a major achievement. But to ram through a bill that has been hanging fire for decades within the space of a few days without a sustained and truly inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders would be self-defeating.
Yes, one recognises you have little trust in a discredited government that only 10 days ago, arrogantly and foolishly, first defamed, then arrested you and now salutes you. A flip-flop government sorely missing a strong political authority has taken refuge in parliamentary procedure when the simpler way out to atone for their sins would have been an unqualified apology for your arrest followed by a withdrawal of the government bill and a fresh start to the pre-legislation consultation. Yes, you are hurt, and rightly so, by the government’s attitude, but this is the moment to show your heart is much bigger than the petty minds who reside in official bungalows. It's time for practicality, not prestige. Why not, for example, get the government to commit to a special session of Parliament in six to eight weeks on an amended Lokpal Bill so that a new, well-considered law becomes a Diwali gift to the nation? Till then, call off the fast, continue the agitation.
Post-script: I have framed a picture of our meeting earlier this week. The caption reads: “When zero met hero!”. India is not Anna, nor is Anna India, but you are now an icon for millions. Please don’t allow a personality cult to shadow your ultimate gift of common sense.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor in chief, IBN 18. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.