Last year, prior to his dramatic fast for his “jan Lokpal bill”, Anna Hazare had stage-managed the image of a lonely Gandhian taking on a brutal and corrupt behemoth of a State and a dynasty.
In less than a year, the same old Anna with an attempted Gandhi visage, is a lonely man again. This time, for a change, it’s not stage-managed.
Gone are the thousands of people who poured into the streets of Delhi and Ram Lila to be with him; gone are the TV channels and their hyper-excited reporters and all those Gandhi caps, “I am Anna” T-shirts and the works. Today, Team Anna is struggling to get at least a few hundred people to make a decent crowd around him.
Kiran Bedi is desperately tweeting and appealing on TV channels to get the middle class out of their homes to support him. Media reports said that on Thursday, the crusader against corruption had hardly 500 people in front him, that too mobilised from the rural areas of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
The “Anna magic” is on the wane, they said. The middle class has definitely moved on.
In contrast, the August 2011 spectacle, when Anna began his fast against corruption, was a watershed in Independent India that was perhaps second only to Jayaprakash Narayan’s total revolution. It looked as if the movement was snowballing into something that could seriously threaten the Congress government and politicians in general. But the story ended there.
It isn’t surprising that the Anna phenomenon couldn’t convert the spontaneous and unprecedented public discontent against corruption into a sustainable civil society movement because it was programmed to defuse itself. The cause was real, the response was genuine, but the people who tried to stoke it had inherent contradictions and were more noise than strategy.
The fundamental reason for the debacle is that Anna and Team Anna were apolitical or chose to be politically ignorant when politics is central to everything we do in a democracy. Slamming the entire class of politicians and the very process that runs our democracy was fundamentally flawed. One has to work with the system. Perhaps people understood that a flawed democracy is better than anarchy.
Strategically it also brought all the crafty politicians together and they plotted, covertly and overtly, to successfully deflate the phenomenon. It was reminiscent of the anti-Mandal agitation in 1990, which appeared to swell into something big, but fell in no time for the same reasons. Urban middle class support, adolescent enthusiasm and media hype were features of the failed Mandal agitaiton as well. It was apolitical and flawed.
Two, Team Anna was foolish in its agenda setting. The main reason for the initial success of the Anna movement was that they could capture public imagination and their intense indignation, in the wake of 2G, Adarsh and CWG scams, with a tangible legislation that appeared to be an all powerful anti-dote to corruption.
The middle class was outraged by the scale of the loots that seemed to ridicule their wretched lives and hence didn’t mind giving vent to their outrage in support to a solution.
Team Anna should have sensed that the support was for a limited purpose and hence stayed focussed on the Lokpal and fought to the finish within a timeframe.
Instead, they thought the volatile public support was a license to expand their agenda and badmouth politicians en masse. From Lokpal or Janlokpal, their focus shifted to a never ending slamming march against almost all the UPA ministers. Finally, with the campaign against the 15-ministers, that also included President Pranab Mukherjee, they practically killed their own plot.
The politicians on the other side, in fact, clearly gauged these limitations and played their game of deceit and procrastination.
When even courts are struggling to deal with the scale and complexities of just a handful of scam cases, a motley crowd that often spoke in multiple voices trying to achieve an overnight clean-up of our politics and public life was megalomaniacal. When Lokpal, that people came out for, went into the back-burner, they abandoned the movement and chose to stay indoors and watch their daily soaps.
Probably there is one more reason for the fall of Team Anna – a lack of distinctive character for their agitation. By their own admission, their movement was apolitical although apolitical meant absolute apathy to anything political, than being non-political. It was not a civil society movement or instant mass uprising either. Sustained civil society movements and mass uprisings have always brought changes in society. Of course, such successful movements have never been apolitical.
With the public support completely drained out and an agenda that is bigger than that of a national government (the latest to get in were land acquisition bill, minimum support price for wheat and rice, and electricity outages in rural areas), the Anna movement is a relic of the past.