“The Congress should take a lesson and now pass the Jan Lokpal Bill,” said Arvind Kejriwal, declaring victory in Hisar. But as most analyses show, the real message of the elections is that the Congress party is in trouble — irrespective of outside intervention — thanks to a series of corruption scandals, runaway inflation and inept handling of the Hazare protests. There has been no good news for the ruling party over the past year, and the bye-election results show it.
For the anti-corruption movement, however, this is an empty win of dubious value which will require some serious soul-searching on their part. Whether in politics or in life, it is always good to remember who you are and whence you came from.
The first protests in Jantar Mantar were unique for a number of reasons. One, it had no political backing from any party and relied entirely on its ability to inspire ordinary Indians with its moral demand for integrity. Two, while Anna was its most recognizable face, it was a movement led by committee. Most news reports referred to it at the time as “the anti-corruption campaign.” And three, it offered no broader ideological goals or agenda other than the creation of a Lokpal. There was no talk about the ills of development or importance of traditional values.
In August, the movement’s unique character mobilised tens of lakhs of citizens — from farmers to middle class housewives — across the nation to bring the UPA-ruled government to its knees. But the disarray in the leadership over the past week signals serious underlying problems that threaten the very strengths that fueled their success, and may doom the movement in the long run.
Who’s the boss?
The first sign of trouble reared its head in Ram Lila, emblazoned across banners, t-shirts and topis, all bearing the same message: I am Anna. Over the course of less than a week, the anti-corruption movement became a one-man crusade. The rest of the leadership now relegated to a catch-call moniker, Team Anna. In a rush of popular fervour and media attention, Hazare was elevated to Gandhian heights, an overpowering symbol that soon began to dwarf the cause.
Over the past month, Anna shows every sign of having bought the hype. Like a lead singer who thinks he is bigger than the band, he’s decided to declare himself boss. “I will convey what has to be done henceforth the steps that we need to take and the direction this revolution will head towards,” he said in the first entry of the blog — created to speak freely and without reference to other members of his team.
In an interview to the New York Times, he compared Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan to Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal, implying they were being obstructive and unhelpful. “I need to change them. I will change them,” he said. More recently, he promised to tell his colleagues not to exceed their brief and speak on each and every issue.
But herein lies the problem. This is a movement-by-committee: they meet, vote, and decide on a common plan of action. And this group identity is a vital ingredient of its success. Each member is a seasoned veteran in his or her field, who brings specific strengths to the table, and offsets the others’ weaknesses. These are not Hazare acolytes, handpicked by the great man himself to execute his vision.
Anna is not India. He is not even the anti-corruption movement, but its most popular face. Forgetting that little fact will be disastrous for the movement’s future. Personal popularity is necessary but in no way sufficient. Not when it requires single-handedly directing a diverse, loosely aligned movement through a political minefield and intense media scrutiny in order to push through a complex piece of legislation.
No one, however, seems inclined to remind Anna of this inconvenient fact.
Shrinking the big tent
The great allure of the anti-corruption protests is that it symbolizes the promise of unity in a nation polarized by caste, community, party loyalties, and ideology. The promise is built into the very DNA of its leadership which united a Medha Patkar with an Anna Hazare, Kiran Bedi with a Prashant Bhushan. And it translated into that moment in the Ram Lila grounds when, on both the dais and in the crowds, people set aside their differences to come together for a singular cause.
Yet for the past week, Anna has been busy shoving people out of the movement. First he threw Prashant Bhushan under the wheels for his views on Kashmir – views that were well-known when Hazare joined the India Against Corruption team. Then he shrilly distanced himself from the RSS, accusing them of “smearing” his movement by claiming a close association. In both cases, Hazare could have politely stated his disagreement with their ideology, while underlining the diversity of those who support the cause.
Kejriwal’s anti-Congress vitriol is equally unhelpful. It may appeal to the die-hard BJP supporters but it divides the supporters along party lines, and confuses all those who joined the movement to fight the system not any specific party.
To introduce an ideological litmus test is dangerous and self-defeating. Democracy is a numbers game: The bigger your tent, greater the impact. Besides, it is difficult to claim to speak for the Indian people when you’re busy alienating any Indian who doesn’t share your views, be it on Kashmir, the RSS or the Congress Party.
Beware of doublespeak
During the Ram Lila protests, the ruling party was undone by its penchant for speaking out of both sides of its mouth. The Prime Minister would make a heart-felt speech or gesture of conciliation, and be promptly contradicted by a hyper-aggressive sound-byte from the likes of a Digvijaya Singh. It made Manmohan Singh look weak and ineffectual and raised questions about the government’s sincerity.
Team Anna is showing unsettling signs of mimicking their failed strategy. In Hisar, Kejriwal claimed that voting for the Congress party is nothing short of “desh droh.” But in Raleghan Siddhi, Hazare put together a team to meet with Rahul Gandhi (which resulted in an embarrassing rebuff today). Kejriwal is in Uttar Pradesh laying the groundwork for an anti-Congress agitation in anticipation of their bad faith. This after Anna declared that he will take no action against the party until after the winter session. He even promised to campaign on behalf of the Congress if the UPA passed the Jan Lokpal bill.
Anna has now taken to deleting his blog posts and denying his own quotes – attributing them to enemies of the movement — each time he changes his position. No wonder he’s taken a vow of silence — though he broke even that pledge on his blog to take credit for the Hisar outcome, and revert to a hardline stance on the Congress.
The uncertainty created by Anna’s yo-yoing rhetoric is aggravated by Kejriwal who increasingly sounds like a politician. Sure, he is going to Uttar Pradesh not to target the UPA but to “educate” the voters. The delegation meeting Rahul Gandhi is merely about rural development not building bridges with the Congress. Prashant Bhushan’s beating had nothing to do with his views on Kashmir, but was part of a “conspiracy” by conveniently unnamed forces. And the very act of claiming credit for the predetermined Hisar result was an act of opportunism befitting a neta.
Creator Jon Hein describes “jumping the shark” as a “moment. A defining moment when you know from now on … it’s all downhill … it will never be the same.” The point when a brand, personality, or even a political campaign loses beyond recovery the very qualities that made it successful.
Well, the Congress party has already taken that big jump. The anti-corruption leadership, however, is dangerously close to following their cue.