As the four-day revolution starts to wind down, the internal contradictions are coming to the fore. At its heart is the uncomfortable question that the phenomenon which has been variously termed as the second freedom struggle, a victory of and for the people has itself fallen short of democratic ideals. Political equality is at the heart of any democratic process. Political equality is vital because it is the only guarantee against a majoritarian takeover of the country’s direction and/or resources. Yet the underlying tenet of equality has been missing in concept, process, and outcome of this Jantar Mantar event.
The campaign channeled disaffection with the status quo into an adversarial (and simplistic) question of leadership. An email sent out by the “India Against Corruption” group in the run up to the fast claimed “we have been betrayed by those that are leading us” while projecting Anna Hazare as “a living Mahatma Gandhi” who’s repeatedly brought the corrupt State to its knees by “his fasts unto death on several occasions” – “[…] forced the Maharashtra government to dismiss the corrupt [and …] forced the Indian government not to amend RTI Act”. The demand for this particular fast was for 50% representation in the Joint Committee to draft the Lokpal Bill.
There are three main issues here: the projection of Anna Hazare as a superhero crusader against penury and injustice; the use of fasting as a political strategy; and third, the demand not for an idea or principle but to claim a self-selected group as representative of the entire country, as denoted by the expansive moniker, “India against corruption”. None of these three qualify on the principle of equality.
For a tool or method to pass muster as democratic, its effect should be the same regardless of who uses it. However the political fast despite its benevolent packaging by Gandhi as a form of personal suffering to win over the adversary is a purely coercive strategy – its efficacy in direct proportion to the importance of the fasting individual. This is why Anna Hazare was projected as the Mahatma savior with a litany of achievements. Moreover the purpose of the fast was not to engender solidarity in the Prime Minister but to tilt the power balance by mobilizing people on his side (evident from the use of words such as “ultimatum”, “forced”). Any reaction by the State is only because of the expected public upsurge; when the fasting individual is a nobody, the State remains indifferent. Irom Sharmila has been on a fast for ten years (!), during which time the only reaction from the State has been to shuttle her in and out of judicial custody but no move to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Finally, fasting is only ostensibly non-violent. The persuasive power of a fast comes from its ultimate consequence – that of death, which is violence against self. In fact fasting is not a persuasive but a bullying tactic where impending death expedites the timeline and obfuscates reason by emotionalizing the issue. The political fast is not just undemocratic but even as a strategy is viable only for a small subset of the population.
And to what end? To establish Anna Hazare and his group as a parallel Legislature? This demand presupposes a mandate that does not exist and is fundamentally violative of democracy. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, more than 417 million votes were cast for 543 seats thus averaging 700,000 votes for a single Parliamentary seat. In an interview with Karan Thapar, Arvind Kejriwal, one of the protagonists of “India Against Corruption” admitted that their campaign drew 50,000, at best 100,000 supporters across the country. So on what basis does this group of five claim to represent the entire country? Mobilizing public opinion is a legitimate action in a democracy when that mobilization is for an idea or a principle. However if the mobilization is around an individual, then the larger electoral mandate must be sought because then the issue becomes one of representation. Significant differences exist in the “civil society” even on the fundamental principles of the Lokpal Bill, yet the binary representation of “50% government and 50% civil society” suppresses these differences and claims a bigger mandate than what’s true.
The revolution veered away from democratic precepts in its processes as well. The nucleus support base was garnered by aligning with individuals like Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar with a mass right-wing following. RSS spokesperson, Ram Madhav too gave a speech. These are calculated alliances rooted not in naiveté but expediency – without this initial support, the pan India mobilization and rallies in 200 cities couldn’t have happened since the group only came together in December of last year. Yet these alliances can be made only by defining “corruption” in the narrowest economic terms while deliberately ignoring other more venal manifestations such as communalism. Moreover if democracy is about participation, then what is the extent of engagement before a movement can be called democratic? Can lighting a candle, tweeting on twitter and liking on Facebook be tantamount to standing up for one’s political rights? An editor of a leading English news channel claimed, “the word “public” has been re-inserted into the Republic [noting] seven lakh people expressed solidarity with Hazare by giving a missed call”. Last year, in a counter offensive to Shiv Sena’s attempts to force boycott of Shahrukh Khan’s movie, “My Name Is Khan”, news channels and papers spun the mere act of watching a movie into “taking a stand”. Aren’t campaigns that encourage passive participation damaging democracy? This question is especially important in the context of this campaign because “corruption” and its manifestations differ widely for the poor and the middle-class, which formed the bulk of this campaign’s support. The latter may feel harassed, even oppressed by corruption, but there’s an element of complicity, humorously evident in the website, ipaidabribe.com which aims “to uncover the market price of corruption”. Yet for the poor, both the issues and the battles are often of life and death. Of inability to access healthcare without a BPL card, ration from the PDS store, of challenging entrenched power structures. In Jharkhand, Niyamat was murdered for exposing corruption in NREGA works. In Rajasthan, it took workers one whole year of battle to get their legally mandated unemployment allowance. Last month in West Delhi, slums were illegally demolished without warning in the middle of children’s board exams. Yet “corruption” is being painted in broad strokes and the Jan Lokpal Bill touted as the single stop resolution. Anna Hazare has even claimed that 90% of corruption will be solved through this Bill; the other 10% through the right to recall elected candidates!
Now of course Anna Hazare’s demands have been met and the Joint Committee has been constituted. The civil society component of the Committee consists entirely of the original drafters of the legislation; the entire Committee has no women, no Dalits, none poor or from a rural background (except Hazare). Already the revolution is losing its luster. Aspersions on the composition of the Committee have been made, including by one of the original proponents, Baba Ramdev. The right wing sympathies of the group have manifested in the baffling recommendation of Narendra Modi as an exemplary leader, resulting in distancing of many notable supporters. It is no one submission that the core group has anything but the best intentions, however so intent was the group for the outcome – ostensibly, a strong anti-corruption body – that they seem to have forgotten that democracy is in the process, not the outcome. And having bypassed democratic processes, they have damaged democracy.
This speech – date, context and content – provide an interesting insight into the Lokpal agitation leadership and political strategy