‘Superheroes’ Anna and Baba can’t quick-fix our politics

In the 2001 film Nayak (remake of the Tamil film Mudhalvan), Anil Kapoor, playing the role of a television reporter, accepts a dare from a corrupt politician and improbably becomes Chief Minister for a day.

Over the space of 24 hours, he accomplishes so much, with 24x7 television cameras tracking  his every unconventional political move and quick-fix solution, that he goes on to be elected Chief Minister with a huge mandate.

In one defining scene from the film, a crippled young boy garlands Kapoor, who is hesitant to enter the murky world of politics, and tells him: “Our country has become lame, like me. I hope you will make it walk.”

In the 1996 film Hindustani (remake of the Tamil film Indian), an aged freedom fighter who is appalled at the rot in the political and social system takes it upon himself to become a one-man army battling corruption and venality in public life.

In one scene from the film, which highlights one of many injustices that the “common man” in India faces on an everyday basis, the protagonist Kamal Hassan appears at the scene of a petty crime — where a police inspector is harassing motorists at a traffic light in order to extract bribes. He then thrashes  the cop, cheered on by onlookers, and walks quietly away. When a couple of jubilant black men (I kid you not!) ask after the identity of the avenging superhero, he answers, with self-effacing humility: “I am an Indian.”

The idea of superheroes, with or without capes or masks, zooming in to offer quick-fixes to intractable problems in Indian politics and society has always been the stuff of cinematic utopia. That such a yearning exists in the real and decidedly grimy world we inhabit may account, in part, for why the anti-corruption campaigns launched by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev have found a resonance in so many of us.

Leaders like Anna  project the image of incorruptibility since they do not belong to “the system”; the endearing rusticity of their persona only enhances that image. With his demand that all the meetings of the Lokpal Bill drafting committee be telecast live – which was rejected by the government – Anna built on that image. After all, only the truly incorruptible will have nothing to fear from the presence of 24x7 television cameras when matters of state are being discussed, right?

Baba Ramdev, another “outsider” with an evangelical zeal to cleanse the rotten system, claims an even higher moral ground as a saffron-clad yogi who already commands a large following. The “moral force” that both leaders summon  serves as a platform for millions of Indians to give vent to their angst, even though it’s possible that many of these followers may themselves falter at the hurdle of public morality that the leaders expect.

When pitted against a political and social system that is seen, in unrefined black-and-white terms, as the embodiment of  everything that is wrong with our polity,  the Moral Brigade appears to win hands down.

If this were a Bollywood film, Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev would overnight be swept to power with massive mandates – and take turns to be Prime Ministers and “bring back all the black money” from overseas – and restore a rajya that will make the lame walk, so to speak.

“Parachute artists” like Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev have provided inspiration to a jaded generation of Indians. Reuters

But this isn’t a film, and the battle to establish good governance isn’t won at the end of two hours in a light-dimmed movie hall – or even at the end of a few days of high-visibility fasting in Lutyen’s Delhi. It is, rather, a journey of a thousand miles, where each step involves wading waist-deep into “the rotten system” and fighting a thousand battles over the minutiae of opaque policymaking.

“Parachute artists” like Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev have certainly provided inspiration to a jaded generation of Indians who had surrendered themselves to the inevitability of rot in the system. With the strength of their moral force as outsiders, they have clearly unnerved the political establishment that was feeding at the trough of limitless corruption.

Yet, there are limits to how much quick-fix change they can bring about as outsiders who hover in a higher moral orbit. The challenge they will face, sooner or later, is to wade into "the system", retain their image as a force for positive change, and beat the system from within.

That’s a tall order outside of Bollywood film sets.