The shine is gone, the scabs are showing. Revati Laul on the ugly infighting that dissolved an anti-corruption movement
AS ANNA Hazare walked to the podium at Delhi’s Constitution Club to announce the split, journalists and photographers jostled and wrestled for toe-room, not wanting to miss any of the spleen that the angry old man was about to vent.
“I have made it very clear that I do not want to be a part of any political party or formation. I’d vowed against this at a young age. I’ve said I will not have my name used as publicity for any party propaganda.”
One month after the India Against Corruption movement’s leader Arvind Kejriwal announced that they were going to form a political party, they had just lost their chief mascot. Anna Hazare had now publicly pulled out.
In his anguish, Anna likened the split to an “India-Pakistan like divide.” But he was cut mid-sentence by one of Arvind’s faithful flock: “We have statistics. Seventy six percent of the people we polled say they want a political party”. The flock wasn’t expecting a public retort from the podium but there it was. Anna threatened, “If these deliberate disruptions of those who want a party continue, I will not turn up at the meeting they have called tomorrow.” He then likened party politics to mudslinging and questioned how those who wished to form a party would guarantee a clean set of candidates. “Even the JP movement did not foresee that its benefactors would include Lalu Prasad,” Anna added, in anger.
Anna Hazare’s public dissent was more than just that. His words cut up the movement. On one side was Arvind, the politician. On the other, Anna the public figure and political activist. One-and-a-half years of dissent against the UPA had sharpened the dissent group’s differences until the divisive tactics landed on their own head.
Later that night, Anna returned from his solo show to his guesthouse, while outside the door, a team of Arvind’s supporters turned up with more taunting slogans – “76 percent…76 percent.” In a room downstairs, Anna’s supporters tore into the statistics as manufactured consent amounting to lies.
It is as if in the very act of seeking to dislodge one power centre, the snare of power had caught Arvind Kejriwal unawares
First, they displayed the survey form that Arvind’s team was circulating. It begins with: ‘Anna Hazare would like to know what you think…’ — the first lie, since ‘Anna ji’ had made it clear he does not want his name put on any political material. Then the questions themselves were all liberally using Anna’s name as the brand to sell. ‘Should Team Anna form a political party?’ the survey asks, bearing a second lie. If there is no longer a Team Anna, why is it in the question? The core team was disbanded publicly at the end of the August fast. Anna’s supporters point out the third, and a much larger lie around the 76 percent consent. 32 year-old Saurabh Upadhyaya — an Anna team volunteer from Lucknow — says the survey was thoroughly illogical. “In a poll, you need to factor in whether those whose opinion is likely to be NO will bother to fill out this form, or be a part of an SMS poll at all. How is their dissent being counted?”
In unravelling Arvind’s survey, he was making a larger point. Once Arvind is convinced of an idea, he builds evidence, however shaky, around it. The people’s verdict is often really a cover for pushing his own convictions through.
It’s as if in the very act of seeking to dislodge one power centre, the snare of power had caught Arvind unawares. Challenging a hostile government made it impossible for him to factor in dissent. To combat the absolute hostility of the UPA required Arvind to be absolutist about his position. Therefore, no resistance, not even from Anna, was allowed.
One of the chief dissenters — Shivendra Singh Chauhan — was once Arvind’s blue-eyed boy who helped make the India Against Corruption movement go viral and he also created and ran its Facebook page. In some sense, Chauhan was responsible for lending the movement its Arab-spring like popularity through its online campaigns in the early days. Then came the fall-out with Arvind over the control of the online page. The spat became public in May this year when an internal note of dissent by Chauhan found its way to The Indian Express.
This week, Chauhan surfaced as the man in the opposite camp — controlling Anna’s PR at his first solo press conference in Delhi. The second dissenter, Sharmistha, was part of Arvind’s PR and press team in August last year. After complaining of being sidelined by an autocratic core group, she is now part of the new Anna team.
Chauhan and Sharmistha are now the disgruntled other half that has chosen Anna over Arvind, who they now regard as “arrogant” and someone who imposed his will on the rest.
It’s Arvind’s fabled arrogance versus Anna’s fabled stubborn will that has finally pulled the campaign into two separate entities — a movement and a party.
For at least the last six months, it has been an open secret that Arvind wanted the movement to turn into a full-fledged political party. His failure to impose his will on Anna is what drove the two in different directions. Last month, Arvind announced the end of a nine-day fast with the formation of a political party. Almost immediately, Anna said he wanted no part of that. In the month that followed, Arvind told the world, his followers, and the press another lie. “Anna is with us in spirit. He is heading one wing… we have so many wings within the movement.” Meanwhile, in Anna’s hometown in Maharashtra, Ralegaon Siddhi, two separate worlds were quickly taking shape. The first step came almost immediately after the political party declaration. Anna disbanded his team. Or what was really Arvind’s team. They continued to work, however, ratcheting support for a political party in Anna’s name. Until he decided he could be mascot no more.
In Anna’s view, politics equals death for an activist and for the movement he stood for. His face had empowered Arvind’s cause. But its main calling card all along has been Anna’s unique brand — sacrifice and sewa. A party would strip Anna immediately of his source of power, even if it strengthens Arvind’s. Being the symbol of Arvind’s party would eat into his Gandhian image and his core support base in his hometown.
His support group echoes this view. Saurabh Upadhyaya reasons that a party without a firm grassroots base would most likely be sucked into the same system it has been critical of. Or even play right into the hands of the present government. “What the UPA needs to swing an election is to launch a third party that will affect the middle class vote by 1 or 2 percent. That amounts to many lakh voters. Unwittingly, we will be an instrument in creating a UPA 3 government, which would be a disaster,” says Saurabh. His colleague Mohammad Arif from Varanasi adds: “I left an ICICI Prudential job for this and I can’t see the movement die.”
It is Arvind’s fabled arrogance versus Anna’s stubborn will that has pulled the campaign into two separate entities
On the other side, volunteers supporting Kejriwal paint equal do-or-die scenarios. “I’ve given up my job and living on my savings. I can’t do that forever. The movement has to yield results,” says one. Another supporter, not wanting to be named, reasons, “You can’t just give people ammunition and then send them to a blank wall.”
The next day, Arvind came to escort Anna to a patch-up meeting that the latter had threatened not to attend. It went on for nine hours. Outside the venue’s locked glass doors, Arvind’s visual metaphors were complete. Arvind the politician sat behind closed doors while VIP security was instructed to keep the press at bay.
Inside, Arvind and friends — including political scientist Yogendra Yadav and journalist Madhu Trehan — were hard at work, trying to hear both sides. The day ended with Anna repeating his lines from the day before: “Those who want to form a party can do as they please, and we who believe in the movement will do as we please.” No one had budged. Arvind was silent. When TEHELKA ventured a question, Arvind, sensing perhaps more dissent than a day could withstand, walked away and wound up the press briefing. Arvind the politician walked one way, to one car. Anna the activist, the simpleton but also the angry old man, had made his point. He walked to his car.
On a tense September evening in Delhi, the UPA 2 was in a huddle, looking for suitable allies after Mamata Banerjee’s exit. The same day, their challengers, in mirror image, had also fallen apart.
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.