Never quite in control

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Anna Hazare’s long career betrays a naivete that makes him easy to manipulate. Rana Ayyub profiles the man who started the storm

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Those who have seen glimpses of 73-year-old Anna Hazare’s naivete in the past were apprehensive when he went on his recent fast. His integrity and resolve had always been beyond doubt. The most remarkable achievement of this villager born Kisan Bapat Bapurao — until now — has been his nurturing of Ralegan Siddhi from arid nothingness to a model of biodiversity.

Hazare had humble beginnings as a flower seller in his village while his father worked as a daily wager. By chance, he got recruited in the army as a driver. He quit in 1965 after the Indo- Pakistan war to go back to his village, ruined by the absence of irrigation and power. Subsidies given to the villages in this taluka of Ahmednagar were not reaching them, illicit liquor was leading to social problems. The village was also witness to perhaps the first bunch of farmer suicides in Maharashtra.

A crusader at heart, Hazare was perhaps the only villager with experience of the outside world. He volunteered to approach the government to lift the village out of distress. This was the beginning of the transformation of Bapat Baburao to Anna Hazare. While tackling agriculture, he also took on alcoholism. However, some incidents that took place around this time, and the excessive views that Hazare expressed, suggested even then that he could be irrational. For instance, he would tie villagers to a pole and hit them if their wives complained about their drinking habit.

Having said that, it was to Hazare’s credit that his campaign against corruption drew out subsidies from the government. It was Hazare who actively pushed the Maharashtra government to enact the Right to Information law, which later became the precursor to the Right to Information Act passed by Parliament in 2005. It was for this contribution that he was conferred the prestigious Magsaysay Award and later many other laurels from the state and the Centre.

Every battle Hazare fought has been surrounded by controversy, much like the one over the Lokpal Bill. In fact, for the past two decades, he has been known more as the man who loves taking Sharad Pawar head-on than Hazare’s campaign against corruption. Notwithstanding the fact that Pawar is embroiled in so many allegations of corruption, Hazare’s campaign many a times has appeared lopsided. He has been accused of launching campaigns on half-baked information. There are ample cases when Hazare dropped his agitations midway, realising there was not much substance in his tirade. So while his first indefinite hunger strike in 1994 for subsidy for the Alandi pilgrimage saw him withdrawing his agitation after getting an assurance from then chief minister Pawar (his aides met Pawar at the latter’s residence), this relationship turned acrimonious after he fasted to force the government into compliance.

Soon it began to seem as if Hazare’s campaigns were fuelled not by rage about corruption but by Pawar’s dismissive attitude and arrogance. So much so that while he drew attention to malpractices in the sugar co-operatives in western Maharashtra, he turned a blind eye to similar allegations made against Pawar’s arch-rival Vilasrao Deshmukh. The latter gauged Hazare’s gullibility and religiously gave him appointments, went to his residence and ate lunches with him. However, this cannot be misconstrued as Hazare’s siding with a politician for his own benefit.

Those close to Hazare know that he is an impressionable man who could be unwittingly manipulated by NGOs and political parties for their own benefit. In fact, it is his lack of political acumen that saw him falling in the hands of political parties in Maharashtra every time they were out of power. So while in 2003 his anti-corruption crusade saw some of the most powerful NCP ministers from the Congress-NCP government — Sureshdada Jain, Nawab Malik and Padamsingh Patil — resign from the government and the formation of the PB Sawant Committee to look into corruption allegations, it was known that the information given to Hazare came from an ex-NCP member (a politician who was left to fend for himself in the Telgi case by Pawar). Hazare did not say a word against this man, whose links with Telgi needed to be probed.

However, one of the ministers slapped a corruption case on Hazare’s trust — that of misappropriating funds. This later turned out to be just an administrative error in the running of the trust.

In fact, it has been Hazare’s anti-government posturing that has many a times backfired. Like his allegation against a senior minister in the Sena-BJP government, Baban Gholap, who, after getting his name cleared from a corruption case, filed a defamation case on Hazare, leading the state government to arrest him. However, the intervention of the then Chief Minister Manohar Joshi led to his release within a week, widely perceived as a compromise between Hazare and the Sena government. Here too Hazare’s men conceded that they did not have much against Gholap to attack him but were led to believe so by a Congress leader.

Soon it began to seem as if Anna’s campaigns were fuelled not by rage about corruption but by Sharad Pawar’s dismissive attitude and arrogance

It’s his shifting attitude and his eccentricities that ended up earning quite a few enemies for Hazare. Sena supremo Bal Thackeray called him a “Vaakda Tondacha Gandhian” (Gandhi with a crooked face) and a crackpot after Hazare’s campaign against Sena ministers in 1997. This happened at a juncture when Thackeray considered him a close friend. The bitterness dissipated after a closed-door meeting between Hazare and the Sena supremo’s aides to clear the air. Thackeray, though well aware of the crusader’s political neutrality, wanted to keep him in good humour to prevent him from falling for a rival’s gameplan — something Pawar could have done. Such was Pawar’s indifference to Hazare that at a meeting with this reporter at his residence once, he laughed off an off-the-record question on Hazare, asking, “What’s in his kitty against me now? Anything interesting?”

It is a bit of a mystery, therefore, why Pawar chose to resign from the group of ministers (GoM) after Hazare sat on his fast unto death. Aides close to Pawar maintain that this time the minister had decided not to let Hazare hold the government to ransom and wanted to take the sting out of his campaign by quietly bowing out. It could even be that Pawar himself was not keen on continuing in the GoM. So who’s the real Anna Hazare — a naive humanitarian, a media-obsessed ambitious NGOwala or a conman who blackmails his targets?

Is he himself a victim, a man conned by those who want to use him? Veteran journalist and political observer Kumar Ketkar says, “You can’t doubt his intention, he may be well-meaning but too naïve. In course of time, he became so ambitious that he would take up anything and anybody, not understanding its political and social significance.” It is no surprise then, that the same Hazare who praised Sonia Gandhi one day and Narendra Modi the next, would call all politicians corrupt on the third day. He gets carried away with the tide.

Perhaps it is this absence of sagacity, consistency and a vision to foresee the repercussions of the cause he is fighting for, that Hazare always ends up being used by those with hidden designs.

Rana Ayyub is an Assistant Editor, Mumbai with Tehelka.
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