The great Lokpal movement is no more. The announcement was not made in a press conference or TV interview, but a blog post penned by its leader. Team Anna is dead, long live Party Kejriwal — with the blessings of the original godfather, for now.
While the news blindsided at least one prominent member of his team, Kiran Bedi, it was received by the rest with the equanimity reserved for foregone conclusions. Most of us saw it coming, the omens easily read in the dwindling attendance and declining media coverage. Most of us have also long ceased to be surprised by the failure of idealism. We secretly believe nothing will ever change, not really, not in ways that matter. We can build malls, gated communities, hugely successful companies, even score an Olympic medal, but that’s about how “new” our India gets. The rest remains stubbornly, wilfully old.
The summer of 2011 gave us a respite of momentary hope, a rare and precious feeling that perhaps after 20 years of liberalisation, we could indeed truly change, put that outdated, corrupt, oligarchical India behind us. And here we are…
Team Anna aimed too high, goes the criticism in some corners. Did they really think the country could be transformed by starvation, a series of public fasts whose purpose grew increasingly hazy? And there are many who now question the naiveté of the decision to enter politics — and it’s not just the usual anti-Hazare critics, as Indian Express notes:
In Maharashtra, which is the only state where there is a strong organisation thanks to Hazare’s NGO Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Andolan Nyas, there is extreme scepticism about the political option. “We at BVJAN are opposed to this idea of a political party, they will lose their deposits. Even if Anna himself contests it would be difficult, I know because I live in his constituency Ahmednagar (South),” said Ashok Sabban, vice president and trustee of the NGO.
“The only thing that is possible is to support candidates – like last time we ensured victory for the BJP candidate because Anna wanted us to. This is hardly a good time to enter politics, in 2000, when our stocks were high, we had urged him then and he had refused. It is not a good time now. In 340 talukas of Maharashtra we have an organisation but what about the other states? Our best bet would be to get the 50 per cent who do not vote out of their homes but how?” asked Sabban.
But what will create that much-vaunted “revolution”? If not a national agitation or creating a political party, does the answer lie in going back to small grassroots initiatives of the past?
Arvind Kejriwal‘s own experience certainly doesn’t indicate so.
Take, for instance, Kejriwal’s jan andolan in the East Delhi shanty of Sundar Nagri — the very same that won him a Magasaysay Award in 2006. At the time, his NGO Parivartan was an innovative experiment in grassroots activism, using the Right to Information Act to empower citizens to create, well, parivartan. The project kicked off a public forum dedicated to finding solutions to local grievances, and its participants included Justice PB Sawant, Harsh Mander, Arundhati Roy, Aruna Roy and Shekhar Singh.
BBC covered the effort in glowing terms in 2006, noting how after two decades without sewers, an RTI filed by a local businessman, Noshe Ali, forced the chief minister to authorise a budget for a public sanitation effort. “This place used to be really dirty. There were lots of mosquitoes and many people caught disease. Now things are quite different,” Ali triumphantly tells the BBC.
In 2010, the Business Standard held up Kejriwal and Parivartan as a stellar example of activism, noting, “Kejriwal’s small experiments in local self governance are already pointing towards amazingly practical answers as also the rot in the system.”
Yet come 2012, most of those initiatives have run aground, especially in the neighborhood that was Kejriwal’s claim to initial fame, Sundar Nagri. In an Outlook column, one of Parivartan’s founder members, Panini Anand notes, “Sundar Nagri today—ten years on—bears no sign of the change the idealistic group’s efforts should have borne. If it were the test case for Kejriwal, the failure shows. Choked drains, overflowing sewers, no proper water supply, a PDS system as unreliable as ever, long queues outside the welfare department office—nothing has changed.”
Some of its residents claim that the situation is worse than ever, now that the local municipal authorities have learned how to circumvent RTI applications. More damningly, they have been left stranded by Parivartan which is now MIA, it’s nominal presence marked by a small office manned by two employees. Kejriwal himself drops in once or twice a year, his efforts and resources now focused on his other NGOs, India Against Corruption and Kabir (whose wealthy corporate donors have drawn critical scrutiny).
Noshe Ali, however, is still around, nursing his disillusionment with Kejriwal: “If he can’t bring change to a small area, I wonder how he’s going to change this nation?”
We can read this as a story about Kejriwal’s fickle ambitions. And that may well be a valid interpretation. But the story here is bigger than him. What we read over and again is a sorry tale of failure to reform, efforts to change that run inevitably aground, be they large or small. Surely, all these failures cannot be put on any one person’s door, be they Anna, Aruna, or Arvind.
There is something rotten in the state of our nation that resists all reform. It’s embedded in the very DNA of our political culture. Laws are instituted, projects are launched, budgets allocated, and yet nothing really changes. We name this virus that infects our best efforts “corruption,” yet it is the symptom not the cause of our disease. What truly ails us is inequality so entrenched that creates hugely lopsided relationships of power that allow the few to control the fates of the very many.
All this sound and fury over inclusive growth, NREGAs, subsidies, reservations belies the reality that most of us do not have any ability to define the quality of our lives, except the very powerful. Corruption is merely the exercise of that disproportionate power. Even the supposedly privileged middle class thrives only if it remains within its carefully drawn lines. Go to the mall, buy that new car, push for a raise, take care of your kids, and keep your head down. That illusion of privilege can evaporate in an instant, all it takes is a wrong turn into a riot, an encounter with the police, the refusal to pay a bribe.
Kejriwal is right to use the word “revolution” — however unlikely his political party is to effect one. It will indeed take a “revolution” of some sort to cure the malaise. It will not magically disappear, as free marketeers hope, erased by the natural course of liberalisation, modernisation, development etc. It’s not going to be delivered by a rising tide of subalterns, however much the likes of Arundhati Roy may insist. And no one leader, however strong or charismatic, be it Narendra Modi or Anna Hazare, can effect a miracle.
I most certainly don’t have the answer. But I suspect it’s an answer we must seek together not apart. All the answers we’ve come up with so far don’t work precisely because they inevitably divide — the rich versus the poor, muslim versus hindu, dalit versus upper caste — appealing to our most parochial instincts. The mela in Ramlila Maidan last August marked a rare moment of coming together, autowalas, farmers, imams, housewives, activists, actors and school kids. The last time we saw such unanimity was in the hey days of the freedom movement — or more likely in movies about it. Whether reality or mirage, in that brief glimpse lies a vision of what can be, what may be, and if we try hard enough, what will be.