On the 13th day of Anna’s fast, the Parliament agreed to a “sense of the house” resolution, endorsing in principle, all three demands of the Anna camp. Anna called off his fast, and announced that it was time for jashn. Newspapers too cheered. “People’s Democracy” proclaimed one headline; “Anna Wins It For the People”, declared another. The revolution, India’s “second freedom struggle” had crossed a successful milestone.
The numbers mobilized represent one of the largest mobilizations in recent Indian history, multiplied manifold by media coverage. The movement engaged the middle-class, hitherto apathetic; and made the political class squirm, thus far unconcerned. In this, some feel that democracy is being reclaimed. Others, in the mobilization’s ideological inchoateness coupled with Team Anna’s maximalist stance, demanding primacy of its views over that of other citizen groups, even Parliament, worry that democracy is being diminished.
In an interview, members of Team Anna were asked about the ranging comprehension and aspirations of the participating people, and the impossibility of meeting them through the Jan Lokpal Bill. They agreed and said that these disparate hopes placed a huge amount of responsibility upon them, Team Anna – and that they wouldn’t just rest after the Jan Lokpal Bill but would take up issues such as electoral reforms, land reforms, decentralized democracy etc.
This bears some contemplation. When asked who gave them the mandate to speak for “civil society”, the response has been that they speak as any other citizen, but their demand resonates with the people, thus raising the pitch. Two questions are relevant: first, which demand resonates with the people since the people have come with discrete and dissimilar demands. Corruption detracts from what people believe is their due – so in a protest against corruption, people come with aspirations for a better life. “Better life” can mean improved infrastructure, jobs, efficiency, equality, access to basic services, clean air, rule of law, the satisfaction of punitive action against the elite… Better life itself is an amorphous aspiration, contingent on individual perspective. These disparate aspirations are the sum and substance of politics itself – the ideological and governance issues of apportioning and disbursement of country’s resources for the benefit of different groups.
Team Anna understand the deficiency of the outcome to the aspiration, and hence the declaration that they will move on to other reforms after the Jan Lokpal Bill. This leads to the second question: does Team Anna intend to pursue these extensive reforms through street power, or will they seek institutionalized political power? How sustainable is pressure politics as a modus operandi for complex, extensive long-standing reforms? Moreover, people’s mobilization around an amorphous ideal cannot be harnessed for issues but will necessarily concentrate in individuals, here Anna and his team. Perhaps this concentration of political power in individuals is by design. A freedom struggle entails transfer of power, but who is the intended beneficiary of this particular uprising? Not the people since power can be equitably transferred to one billion plus people only through institutionalized means.
However Team Anna is not propounding any new process of participation – they are propounding outcomes. Direct democracy through referendums is a puerile idea – where options are necessarily multiple-choice and nuance is the casualty. Revolutions are disruptive and destructive – the Arab spring revolutions we have cheered intended not just to overthrow current regimes, but establish a new order of governance. This revolution intends not to change governance structures but delegitimize the entire political class – and provide a savior in one individual, Anna.
Yet many wonder if Anna is only a figurehead, with decisions and negotiations managed elsewhere. It’s not an unreasonable proposition. In interviews, Anna often does seem innocent not just of details of the Jan Lokpal Bill, but even the proceedings of the meetings. His comments sometimes almost changed in meaning with the statement, “what he means…”. In the thick of the vilification campaign against the Bhushans, Anna refused to vouch for their integrity, even though both were his nominees to the Joint Drafting Committee – explaining that their names for the Committee were suggested by other people. There is some speculation that Anna superseded Ramdev as a more suitable face of the campaign. Can an individual who’s apparently not self-piloted legitimately exercise moral authority and leadership? Moreover can popular moral authority be used to ride over ideological and issue-based differences? Blaming the government for the declining health of Anna and demanding acquiescence to arbitrary conditions is exactly that.
It is true that there aren’t any real platforms for people’s participation. Team Anna has tapped into the widespread frustration of the people and provided them an outlet to express their disaffection with the state. However the question of what entails genuine participation remains unanswered. Participation requires engagement with the details – protests and street power isolated from decentralized issue-based organization do not measure up.