There was a time, at the height of Anna Hazare’s fast at the Ramlila Maidan, when he could do no wrong. Countless people from various stations in life, in cities and towns across India — and overseas — responded spontaneously and enthusiastically to his campaign to press for a strong Lokpal Bill. Thousands camped at the Ramlila Maidan and joined in his hunger strike. Those who merely dropped by to listen to the speeches and soak in the atmosphere (or followed the proceedings from other cities), were also in large measure in solidarity with his message, even if they didn’t fully understand the nuances of the Lokpal Bill. His larger pitch — of the need for an independent agency to combat corruption — resonated with them.
Fast forward to today. Team Anna is in disarray and has been forced on the defensive by allegations of impropriety among some of its core members. Kiran Bedi has tied herself up in knots with her defence of her somewhat unorthodox travel billing procedures. Arvind Kejriwal’s tactical decision to campaign against the Congress in Hisar appears to have backfired: at least two other members of the core team have scampered away, claiming that there wasn’t room in Team Anna for “good people”. Prashant Bhushan’s comments on the wisdom of a plebiscite in Kashmir met with some muscular opposition from hooligans and forced Anna to open his mouth – and put his foot squarely in it. The single-minded focus of Team Anna – the need for a strong Lokpal Bill – has been lost in the ambient noise of a campaign that has gone off the rails.
Even among a section of the diehard supporters of Team Anna, a measure of self-doubt is discernible today. Where once they came out in spirited – even borderline-irrational – defence of Anna, the sense of solidarity has diminished marginally. Like cricket fanatics who put their stars on a sky-high pedestal when they’re on a winning streak, but trash them mercilessly when they fail, Team Anna’s erstwhile supporters are low on verve – and in some cases are even turning against him.
So much so that when Anna indicated yesterday (in a letter to Manmohan Singh) that he would be compelled to go on another fast if the Lokpal Bill wasn’t passed in the coming parliamentary session, the response, even among informed commentators who once said they would stand up and be counted on his side, is: “Not again!”
It’s true of course that the law of diminishing returns will dictate that another fast may not offer big dividends. And in any case the Congress — which has thus far been working to water down the provisions of the Lokpal Bill on specious grounds and sow the seeds of disarray in Team Anna — can turn on its propaganda and disinformation machine and inflict death by a thousand cuts on the movement.
A new idiom
What Anna and his team need now is to go beyond the tired idiom of the hunger strike: sure, it makes for a great spectacle, but the appetite for a rerun may not be as high.
What Team Anna needs to do is to reboot its campaign by finding other ways to sustain the momentum of the movement and simultaneously break new ground in a way that keeps up the pressure for a strong Lokpal Bill.
Here’s how it can be done.
At its core, the Lokpal Bill is about combating corruption in high places. But Anna and his team have indicated they want the entire government machinery and bureaucrats — at the central and state levels — brought under the purview of the Lokpal.
The Congress and a few other parties have opposed it.
But instead of stomping its feet, and throwing a tantrum, Team Anna, which is made up of legal luminaries and RTI activists who know how to work the levers of the government machinery, can go directly to the grassroots and launch a pincer attack to help people who face corruption in everyday situations. This is particularly true of people in non-urban areas who are inadequately informed about their rights and entitlements, and who end up getting gypped by corrupt clerks and middlemen who milk them.
How can this be done?
First, it needs Team Anna to set up an NGO. Let’s call it Helping Hands.
Helping Hands’ mission will be to offer free service — using existing, legitimate tools — to anyone who faces an impediment in securing a service from a public institution without paying a bribe.
Let’s say Ramesh Babu in Warangal applies for a passport. His application is held up for weeks, and when he approaches the passport office, a middle man informs him that it can be speeded up for a fee. Or else, he can wait a few months.
Ramesh Babu doesn’t want to pay a bribe, but he doesn’t know how to break through the system. He isn’t aware of his rights and is utterly helpless.
Enter Helping Hands. A volunteer who is familiar with the procedures and with RTI mechanics and other rights and entitlements will help Ramesh Babu cut through the red tape (details in the video below) and help him secure the passport without paying any bribe.
The bribe-busting business
A fantasy, you say? Not at all. It can be done, as Shaffi Mather, a serial social entrepreneur, has demonstrably proved. In a TEDTalk in 2009, Mather outlined his plans to make “bribe-busting” a for-profit business franchise.
Mather claimed that he and his team successfully undertook 42 such pilot cases — where bribes had been demanded — and accomplished the mission without paying any bribe. And although his team did face layers of resistance, they were able to overcome them using legitimate tools. The graft-busting business is, he says, a virgin market and a scaleable model.
Watch the video below and be inspired. (Mather’s reference to the ‘bribe-busting business’ begins only at around the 5:15 minute mark, but it’s worth watching in full and getting to know Mather: he also launched the 1298 for Ambulance service, which works on a sustainable cross-subsidy model, and was the first medical response team on 26/11.)
This is the model that Team Anna can adopt for Helping Hands.
What Mather plans to run as a business, Team Anna can do for free, offering pro-bono services of RTI activists and volunteers, of whom it has in large numbers. Sure, it won’t be able to cover every village in every state rightaway, but it can start small and scale up.
In this way, Anna’s All-Star team – a firebrand RTI activist (Kejriwal), legal eagles (Bhushans) and a police officer (Kiran Bedi) who in her time distinguished herself for standing up to authority — can burnish its reputation as grassroots-level bribe-busters who have something to show for themselves.
The goodwill that such a campaign will generate for Team Anna will also fill a vacuum in its support base, which has up until now been concentrated in the urban areas, among the middle class. And instead of going on another hunger strike that may offer limited value, Anna can travel around India-that-is-Bharat and raise awareness about the Lokpal bill — and simultaneously promote his Helping Hands project.
It’s the kind of story even a jaded Indian media can’t look away from…