In the early part of the 20th century, French colonial administrators in Hanoi introduced a scheme to combat the problem of rat infestation. To any man, woman or child that turned in a rat’s tail to the authorities – as proof of its extermination – they offered a ‘bounty’. The scheme was enormously successful: the natives turned in thousands of rat tails and collected their reward. Yet, the underlying vermin problem persisted.
Authorities then learnt that the enterprising native population had conjured up a scheme to breed rats in the thousands – so as to enrich themselves by turning in the rats’ tails. In other words, the intended ‘solution’ had become part of the ‘problem’.
The Hanoi administrators’ experience is often cited to illustrate the law of unintended consequences. As popularised by the American sociologist Robert Merton, the concept holds that purposeful actions often yield consequences other than the ones intended.
Many of these consequences may, and often are, negative; in some cases, they have precisely the opposite effect of what was intended. It’s what the writer Truman Capote meant when he said that “more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”
Yet, the law of unintended consequences may also work the other way, by yielding an unexpected, but positive, benefit – even if it only serendipitously.
Team Anna‘s decision to enter the political fray, which was formalised on Friday, has given rise to much angst, both among its supporters and among other mainstream parties that fear that Team Anna will eat into their vote share.
Some of Team Anna‘s supporters fret that by taking to electoral politics, which the core members had earlier criticised as corrupt, Team Anna has lost its earlier sharp focus on fighting corruption, and is entering into terrain where it would be hopelessly outmanoeuvred. Lacking the enormous resources that mainstream political parties marshall, Team Anna is setting itself up for failure, they warn. Team Anna, they worry, has walked into a trap set for it by the Congress.
On the other hand, supporters of the BJP are hyperventilating that Team Anna’s entry only muddies the political waters, and to the extent that it eats into the BJP’s urban vote share, will indirectly benefit the Congress and the UPA.
There is, of course, some merit in both these arguments. The first signs of the diffusion of Team Anna’s focus was manifest at Friday’s ‘break fast’ ritual at Jantar Mantar, where we saw Arvind Kejriwal articulate what looked like an expansive left-leaning political manifesto, complete with invocations of all the familiar ‘talking points’: “secularism”, “decentralisation of power”, “resisting globalisation” and so on.
In short, Team Anna is now promising Jayaprakash Narayan-style “Total Revolution”. To those who had over the past year gravitated towards Team Anna in the hope that it would be unwavering in its focus on the fight against corruption, this “big tent” political philosophy represents something of a let-down.
The agony of BJP supporters that Team Anna will play spoiler to their party’s hopes of capitalising on the UPA government’s failures, too, is entirely understandable.
Yet, there may be unintended positive consequences arising from Team Anna’s entry into politics, irrespective of whether it succeeds or fails in the electoral arena.
For one thing, going by what we’ve seen of Team Anna’s support base over the past year, it has the capacity to galvanise into political action a constituency of people who are otherwise jaded with the “same old” politics. Much of Team Anna’s support is derived from the politically apathetic middle class in urban areas, which has thus far considered it borderline fashionable to avoid any kind of association with politics. Not voting has become their form of self-defeating political protest action.
The reasons for much of that apathy are of course entirely valid. The mainstream national and regional parties have taken political populism and the scramble for ‘vote banks’ to perverse levels. And to the extent that most political parties have, as this Firstpost analysis noted, been neglecting urban citizens’ concerns, the middle class too has turned its backs on them. Both of the mainstream national parties, the Congress and the BJP, haven’t exactly distinguished themselves in this political space.
Team Anna’s pledge to change the political idiom also appeals to this constituency.
To the extent that Team Anna’s entry into the electoral arena brings this hitherto politically apathetic constituency into the frame and gets them to come out and vote, it will have already catalysed important political change.
Additionally, Team Anna’s entry into the fray is a wake-up call for both the Congress and the BJP to up their political game. The Congress-led UPA government has abysmally failed to offer good governance, and the BJP has at the national level failed as an effective Opposition (beyond reflexive expressions of periodic outrage).
Politics abhors a vacuum, and Team Anna has, at least at the emotional level, filled that vacuum, although the extent to which it owns that space remains to be tested in the real world. It may win or lose, and in fact it faces formidable odds that limit its scope of success. But with just its entry, there’s the hope that Team Anna can and should catalyse political change for the better, even if it’s only on the margins.