Venky Vembu Aug 16, 2011
By a curious alignment of planets, Anna Hazare has captured the imagination of an India that is crying out for fundamental change. Gurinder Osan/AP
The events of recent weeks, culminating in Anna Hazare’s detention this morning, mark in many ways a defining moment in India’s evolution as a democracy. The upsurge of popular sentiment in cities across India this morning in solidarity with Team Anna’s detention is stunning. And the readiness with which people who normally go to elaborate lengths to avoid engagement with “dirty” politics are now courting arrest or are otherwise organising public protests – or even just quietly observing a day’s fast at home — to give expression to their sense of disgust with the UPA government’s handling of the Lokpal Bill exercise is quite unprecedented in independent India.
I know of professionals who have taken leave from their investment banking jobs abroad, where they earn six-figure dollar salaries and bonuses, just to be in India today to be part of this movement. One of them has even prepared his young wife for the inevitability of his arrest – which in his family would normally be considered a shame and a scandal – and has been organising protests in Mumbai for the past few days.
At NRI gatherings of Indians Against Corruption, the energy of young Indians sharing ideas to make India corruption-free has been palpable. The extent to which they are ready to step outside of their 9-to-5 grind and donate time and money for the biggest public cause that confronts India is a surprise – even to them. They say they used to think of themselves as apathetic to politics. But now, they’ve found a cause they believe in.
Watch images from the protests
This is the second time in the past few months that Anna Hazare has convincingly demonstrated the popular, mass-based nature of the support that his campaign enjoys, across class, caste and religious distinctions that normally divide us. We first saw it in April, when he launched his fast at Jantar Mantar, and electrified India. Since that time, he and his team have had the entire political establishment — and, to be honest, a cross-section of media commentators – clueless about how a man with little or no financial resources can command so large a following with only rustic simplicity and the power of a message that has great resonance with millions of people.
So, the fact that Anna Hazare and his team enjoys enormous goodwill with a large-enough constituency of people who are sick of corruption and jaded with politics as usual and who have completely lost faith in the political establishment in its entirety is blindingly obvious.
The question then arises: how can Team Anna now leverage this goodwill? Should it continue to remain the “outsider” calling the political establishment to account? What are the odds that it can succeed? How can it channel the deep-seated distrust of the political establishment and bring about demonstrable change.
To address that, it helps to assess the extent of “success” that Team Anna’s campaign has had. It’s beyond dispute that Team Anna’s one major success has been in giving voice to and amplifying the popular disgust with the top-down, 360-degree corruption that pervades our public life — and in showing up starkly that for all the power games that go on with the various political parties, they are pretty much united in their opposition to a strong Lokpal institution.
Yet, while Team Anna gets full marks for elevating the issue of corruption to the top of the agenda and for creating mass awareness, its attempts beyond that have only met with limited success. For instance, the Lokpal Bill that’s now before Parliament is a mere shadow of the strong anti-corruption agency it envisaged. And even those who are willing to stand up and be counted along with Anna aren’t fully convinced that Team Anna’s Jan Lokpal is the answer to corruption. If you can’t convince even those who support you, what chances do you stand against those who oppose you?
It is in that context that Team Anna needs to formulate a forward-looking political strategy.
Since it’s the current UPA government that is now doing its damnedest to water down the Lokpal Bill, it’s fair to say that it will pay a big political price when general elections are due next in 2014. By default, an alternative political formation could then come to power. But even in the event of, say, a BJP-led grouping coming to power, there’s nothing to suggest that it will work to change the system because it’s now too entrenched in the wily ways of electoral game-playing (as was demonstrated most strikingly in its handling of affairs in Karnataka). The BJP has thus far adopted only a wishy-washy stand on the Lokpal Bill, which validates the suspicion that it doesn’t want to alter the rules of the political game too drastically.
Enter the political arena
In any case, why should Team Anna do all the grunge work only to see another status quo-ist party ride on its back and come to power? Why not bite the bullet and enter the “dirty” political fray yourself?
It’s true that Anna Hazare has a disdain for electoral politics as it is practised now, where – in his words – people sell their vote for a bottle of liquor. He also considers himself “unelectable”, given the reality of the political arena. Yet, the biggest criticism that cripples the movement today is that since it is not elected – “or electable” – it has no right to influence the discourse on the Lokpal Bill, now that it is before Parliament.
It’s not just Congress lackeys who make that criticism. Even non-Congress politicians andinsightful commentators make that point.
On that count, Team Anna’s best days as an agent of change from the “outside” may be already over. From here on, it only risks elevating its politics of confrontation, which could erode the political goodwill it now enjoys. It’s perhaps time for Team Anna to enter the political arena and work for change from within.
Even if it does that, it doesn’t have to become just another political party. With the goodwill that it now enjoys and the energy it has infused in its supporters, it can change the way politics is played in India. What it lacks in money power, it can make up for with a bottom-up movement that, as has been already demonstrated, enjoys great resonance. In any case, as we saw with the routing of the DMK in Tamil Nadu, money power stands no chance when a people are set on throwing out a corrupt regime.
The challenges to becoming a mainstream political party are formidable, particularly when you’re (for now) only a one-issue party. But that issue – corruption — is one that is right at the top of people’s consciousness. And as the only political force that today enjoys a nationwide profile, is untainted by corruption, has a vision for changing the system – and a volunteer force that can more than compensate for the money power of its opponents with boots-on-the-ground campaign, Team Anna has enormous strengths in this battle.
Moments such as this come only once in a generation. By a curious alignment of planets, Anna Hazare has captured the imagination of an India that is crying out for fundamental change. It is time for it to seize the moment, stop being an outsider that has exhausted its influence as a change agent, enter electoral politics, and recreate an India in its own image.