Death by a thousand cuts for Anna Hazare's movement
The government strategy is to slow-bleed the movement. It may well succeed if 'supporter fatigue' persists.
What a difference two months make! When Anna Hazare launched his “fast-unto-death” at the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in April to exert pressure on the government to bring forward long-delayed anti-corruption legislation, he captured the imagination of an entire nation that was boiling with rage at the extent of monumental corruption in public life.
The popular and spontaneous upsurge of public support for his campaign was likened to a “second freedom struggle”, and virtually everyone from top corporate executives to hundreds of thousands of anonymous folks hit the streets in visible expression of solidarity.
Even those who had never before participated in any political movement of any sort, came, bearing “Main bhi Anna” (I too am Anna) accessories.
And except for some snarky media commentaries about Anna, much of the media, sensing the mood of the middle class, were supportive of his campaign. And when the government yielded to the demand for including “civil society” representatives on the committee to draft the Lokpal Bill, it was widely celebrated as a victory of a disempowered David over a Goliath government.
But today, barely two months later, the Anna Hazare movement is being slow-bled to death by the government, and already the tide of popular sentiment is beginning to turn against him.
The government and the civil society representatives are evidently locked in a stalemate about the ambit of the Lokpal Bill, and since the differences are so wide that they defeat the purpose for which Anna Hazare launched his campaign, he has given voice to his frustration – and threatened to “return to Jantar Mantar.”
But the chatter of the commentariat this time is less than sympathetic: why can’t he find a way to work the system from within, it asks. It’s not as if he’s the only incorruptible man on the planet, so why can’t he trust the parliamentary institutions instead of exercising the Samson option – by bringing the whole edifice down?
But the point is this: Anna Hazare’s crusade hit the sweet spot with millions of folks only because it was widely felt that for all the failsafe mechanisms built into “the system”, the whole damned system was rotten to the core.
Corrupt politicians and bureaucrats have gamed the system to their advantage, and even the few incorruptible ones can no longer fight them from within. And since there are termites within all the pillars of our democracy – the executive, the legislature – and yes, even the judiciary and the media – the only one to inspire any faith was an “outsider" to "the system”.
It isn’t a happy state of affairs when the entire democratic edifice is seen as suspect, but that’s what it had come down to. There is of course a downside risk to personalising an issue that speaks of a systemic problem, but there’s a compelling reason why a rustic villager who resembles a Teletubby was seen as a “superhero” in a Gandhi topi .
The government’s strategy in all this is blindingly clear. Its immediate need in April was to defuse the mass upsurge, and so it bought time by appearing to accede to Anna Hazare’s demands. Since then, it’s been working to administer death by a thousand cuts to the movement by chipping and chiselling away at the Lokpal Bill in a way that will render it benign.
Governments, like vultures, are endowed with infinite patience. They can outwait and enfeeble a popular movement such as this, particularly one for which popular support, once strong, appears to be waning. They can weave bureaucratic circles around it by invoking, say Section 3, Clause (56) or some such provision, and bamboozle them with the jargon of red tape.
Perhaps the government calculates that if ever Anna Hazare takes his show back on the road in Delhi, the midsummer heat will inhibit a similar show of support. Perhaps it reckons that passions have peaked and 'support fatigue' is creeping in.
After all, we are a nation that gets fatigued even about an overlong IPL series.