The smiles and smirks are back on the faces of Congress netas and their camp followers. Team Anna‘s decision to call off their ongoing fast at Jantar Mantar and their acknowledgement that they have been compelled by force of circumstances into entering the political arena in order to advance their case for a strong anti-corruption agency has had Congress leaders and spokespersons grinning from ear to ear.
For over a year now, they had been challenging Team Anna, rather in the manner of a neighbourhood bully who dares you to ‘step outside’ to settle some unfinished business, to take to electoral politics and validate themselves. With Team Anna now rising to the bait, Congress leaders now believe they’ve drawn the alligator from the marshes, where it enjoys territorial advantage, into the high seas, where it now has to learn to swim with the political sharks.
On the other side of the political divide, Team Anna’s decision to consider entering politics has received some targeted and venomous criticism from right-wing commentators who fret that this development will end up splitting the anti-Congress vote – and allow the UPA to sneak back into power in 2014 (or whenever elections are held next).
Although the BJP itself has nominally welcomed Team Anna’s decision, the angst among its supporters is palpable. They see the BJP as perhaps being best placed today to harvest the electoral fruits of the widespread popular anger directed at the UPA government’s record in office, and particularly the corruption scandals.
And although the BJP itself has scored a succession of spectacular self-goals, the widespread perception is that, other things being equal, the BJP-led NDA is in with a chance. And to the extent that Team Anna disturbs that political equilibrium, they are seen as spoilers.
The irony is that until recently, some of these right-wing commentators were rejoicing in Team Anna’s selective targeting of the Congress on the issue of corruption. They perhaps reckoned that the BJP could ride on the coat-tails of the anti-corruption movement and storm to power; in fact, even the BJP had a mildly flirtatious relationship with the Anna Hazare-led movement, particularly after the latter demonstrated its ability last year to draw big crowds and become a lightning rod of the popular anger against corruption.
But since then, Team Anna appears to have overcome its initial ambivalence vis-a-vis the BJP; more recently, one of its members even dared to point to corruption in Gujarat under Narendra Modi – which is heresy for BJP supporters. Which is when the right-wing backlash against Team Anna became more pronounced.
These developments hold lessons for Team Anna as it now prepares to chart its strategy for the way ahead.
There are two dilemmas that Team Anna faces today. It has said that it favours not just regime change, but systemic change. In other words, its cause is not advanced by merely seeing the UPA voted out. If the alternative political formations play by the same set of perverted rules, that place a premium on money and muscle power, which in turn feeds political corruption, we’re no better off – even if the scale of corruption is diminished under an alternative political arrangement.
Even at the risk of being branded idealistic, the fight against corruption must always adopt a zero-tolerance approach. Once we go down the slippery slope of trotting out alibis for corruption, there’s no turning back. (It goes some way to explain why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh‘s alibi that he tolerated corruption only because of the pressures of coalition politics is unacceptable.) Even if it’s the case that Modi himself is personally honest and runs a clean ship in Gujarat, other experiences, most notably in Karnataka, point to a larger failing in the BJP too to tackle corruption in its ranks. To that extent, Team Anna is right to not let the BJP off the hook for its failure to actively support the Lokpal Bill and its efforts to whittle down the Lokayukta provision.
But the consideration that such a strategy would eat into the anti-Congress vote and allow the UPA to return to power by default is not without merit. If the UPA goes electorally unpunished despite the monstrous corruption scandals under its watch and the colossal misgovernance it has offered, it would be a bigger failure of the larger anti-corruption movement.
Which is why Team Anna must be both tactically savvy in the short term and strategically shrewd over the longer term.
Its focus in the next election should be on seeing the UPA government defeated, while simultaneously signalling to the alternative political formations that they have to change the rules of the game. That can be done only if Team Anna makes a resounding electoral impact in the next elections. How can it hope to do that?
It cannot hope to achieve this if it spreads itself too thin by contesting the elections at a national level. In any case, it doesn’t have the ‘money power’ resources to match the mainstream national parties.
It cannot hope to achieve this if it dilutes its focus by framing policies on everything from Kashmir to the WTO. For now, it should remain a single-issue party by focussing on the fight against corruption.
What Team Anna should then do is to identify, say, 50 urban constituencies, typically where one party or the other is strong, and typically targeting a high-profile candidate. It should then contest solely on the basis of its stand against corruption. In urban constituencies, where it enjoys greater resonance, that issue alone should give it enormous traction. And even here, it should not play by the perverted rules of the game: it should instead enlist its army of charged-up volunteers to undertake low-cost campaigning that highlights the subversion of the rules by all the other parties.
My bet is that it can, under certain circumstances, win a substantial number of these 50 or so seats and establish itself as a ‘giant killer’. If it does that, it will have validated itself as a movement that channels popular disgust with corruption, without playing a spoiler at the national level, and without compromising itself politically. And since it will be seen as part of a process that helped alter the electoral arithmetic, even if only in a small way, at the national level, it will become a political force to reckon with. Any alternative political formation that comes to power will find it hard to ignore this voice of the movement against corruption.
Politics, it’s been well said, is the art of the possible. Team Anna has the potential to bend the arc of history and change the way politics is played in India. But for that, it has to be savvy at both the tactical and the strategic levels. It may not always have scored on those counts, but it can. The alligator can learn to swim with the sharks, and prove itself to be no less menacing in the high seas than it is in the marshes.