By Ashok Malik
NOW THEY say it, now they don’t. Is Team Anna moving towards electoral politics or is it not? On 26 July, Anna Hazare told the media he envisaged the emergence of a “people’s party” before the 2014 election. “I will travel across the country,” he said, “tell people to come up with candidates and pick the best out of them. I will then campaign for the candidates… There’s nothing wrong with a new party being formed.” On 1 August, Arvind Kejriwal told the media there were no plans to form a party and “wrong rumours [were] being spread”.
It is possible both are right. It is possible Hazare was talking about somebody else — some unrelated grouping of good and virtuous folk — forming a new political party and Team Anna campaigning for it while maintaining an arm’s length. It is also possible, maybe probable, that Team Anna has simply lost the plot. Hazare and his friends are living in fantasy if they don’t recognise there is a vast contrast from the spontaneity and sympathy with which the public responded to them in April 2011, when the social activist from Maharashtra’s Ralegan Siddhi village began the first of his four Lokpal Bill-related fasts.
This is not to suggest the politicians are right and the Congress and the UPA government have acted exemplarily or suddenly turned virtuous. That is not true at all. When Hazare says — as indeed others not linked to him have also said — that the Central Bureau of Investigation needs institutionalised autonomy from the government in its day-to-day functioning, he is absolutely correct. Whether this necessarily translates into a complete and absolute affirmation of the India Against Corruption (IAC) version of the Lokpal Bill is another matter.
Frankly, the debate is no longer about the Lokpal law or even about an anti-corruption watchdog. To Team Anna’s detriment, its members have managed to convert it into a debate about themselves. They may deny it today and insist they have no political associations or ambitions, but they have flirted with politics and swung wildly on this issue over the past few months.
In 2011, the decision to campaign in Hisar, where the Congress was anyway expected to lose the bypoll (it did), but not in Khadakvasla, where it was expected to win (it didn’t), was indicative of Team Anna rushing to claim credit for achievements not for it to appropriate. That aside, in their language and rhetoric, in their hubristic formulations and sheer cussedness, some of the members of IAC have disheartened even loyal supporters. It is clear they have lost ground in the past few months. In essence, the Anna phenomenon is last year’s story and has not quite travelled well into 2012.
Those who live by the media can just as easily be felled by the media. It’s not rocket science
It is easy for Hazare and his adherents to blame the fickleness of public sentiment and the opportunism of the media. Both these descriptions are true, but they were as true in April 2011. These attributes benefited IAC then, they are going against IAC now. Those who live by the media can as easily be felled by the media. It’s not rocket science.
The response Hazare got in 2011 — particularly in August, when a petty and petulant government arrested him early in the morning, even before he could begin his fast — fuelled anger against the Congress. It added to exasperation with a lackadaisical administration, economic and policy drift and the perception of widespread corruption. The Congress has paid for this electorally and will perhaps continue paying for it right until the 2014 elections. This mood has contributed, at least partly, to setbacks for the Congress in a series of state and municipal elections, particularly in urban India.
It is worth asking if this is a validation of Anna Hazare’s protests or a contradiction. Many of these elections have seen good to high turnout of voters, indicating there is a message the public wants to send. The citizen sees the process of retribution and catharsis as ending in his or her vote — far more than in the agitprop model IAC seems to prefer. Becoming a one-issue, one-song entity — and a high-pitched, sometimes rude one at that — Team Anna is being decidedly unrealistic if it expects unremitting enthusiasm from all of India for all times to come.
The unfortunate bit is till he overreached himself in Mumbai in December 2011, Hazare represented a much-needed pressure point vis-à-vis the political class. It was not to last. Team Anna was all tactics, no strategy.
Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka.