IN A SMALL, dimly lit room inside a flat in Delhi’s Mayur Vihar, a group of 20-somethings sat around a small television set, hurriedly taking notes as a smug Congress party held press meets as an open challenge to Round 2 of the State versus Anna Hazare duel. In their midst, flopped on a chair, in this modest, hometurned-war room, was Anna Hazare, and beside him, Arvind Kejriwal. Time for the muscle-flexing WWF-style political akhada. But even before D-day, it was amply clear that the theatre of war was going to open with Hazare’s arrest.
All of this was factored in by the A team and carefully planned. It’s what made former supercop and A-Team member Kiran Bedi compare it with Obama’s war-room that won him the presidential election. Whether you call this band of warriors fascists or freedom fighters, middle-class angst-ridden youth or misanthropes, one thing can’t be denied: they have displayed might and motivation. Enough to have hogged all the news space for over a week. Enough to shackle the government and bring it to its knees. Enough to make the story of how they got here, at the very least, fascinating to tell.
The most important member of the A-Team isn’t just Anna. It’s Arvind. A former IRS officer, Magsaysay Award winner and RTI activist, who last year watched the nth report on the bungling in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and decided that something had to be done. Ironically, his journey to the Jan Lokpal team began with co-travellers who have now clearly distanced themselves from him. Aruna Roy, Shekhar Singh and the National Commission for the People’s Right to Information. On 19 September 2010, this group had a meeting to collectively channelise the people’s growing angst against corruption and articulate a way out, to reverse the hungry tide of political and corporate gluttony, now belching forth in a scam a day. And so it was Aruna Roy who asked Kejriwal to draft a Whistleblowers’ Protection Bill and also work on an anti-corruption law.
“It was a challenge thrown open by the government to the people of this country — we are going to loot you, do what you like — that made one’s blood boil,” says Kejriwal. He met Bedi, and they went and met Hazare in October. Bedi brought on board popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev, as Kejriwal roped in the movement’s two other prominent gurus — Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Swami Agnivesh. Both Ramdev and Sri Sri had been making their own noises about corruption. But cynical outsiders argue that Kejriwal and Bedi weren’t blind to the numbers someone like Ramdev could pull in. Numbers, it was clear from the start, was everything.
It was decided the group would file a collective FIR with the police against cases of corruption in the Commonwealth Games. They knew the police was unlikely to file the report, so in a tactic that would soon become their hallmark, they anticipated the establishment’s response in advance, and showed it up to be ridiculous. “At that time we submitted a 370- page report on 18 corrupt Games contracts, but the police refused to register a case,” explains Kejriwal.
BY DECEMBER, the first draft of the Jan Lokpal Bill was ready for public scrutiny. Soon, the A-Team got wind of the government version of the Lokpal Bill that was being drafted and about to enter the political space with a whimper. The stage was slowly being set for a confrontation. Jan versus government.
Kejriwal had by now mobilised people who had worked with him on the RTI Bill, a team of young and motivated people from NGOs Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF) and Parivartan. For a movement of this scale, you would think the army of organisers would be a few hundred people to begin with. Think again. The motley crew to start with was no bigger than 20. But in January, even they had no idea of the power they had, partly by design, partly because of its perfect timing and in a large part, due to the predicable and increasing apathy and arrogance of the government they were up against.Their first test was an anti-corruption rally on 30 January, the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The protest was a test of many things. The ability of 20 people to mobilise thousands from all over the country. The ability to convince people that they had an alternative idea that could be sold as a panacea for the most visible ill: corruption. And the ability to structure the protest around a national symbol that would appeal to all. The choice of Gandhi’s death anniversary was deliberate, strategic and as it turned out, extremely effective. More than 15,000 people turned up at the Ramlila Maidan in support. The A-Team was by now christened India Against Corruption, had a logo, a Facebook page and an online following that took the protests to 60 Indian cities and four on foreign shores.
The credit for the net-savvy propaganda and organisation goes to Navbharat Times journalist Shivendra Singh Chauhan. The Geek. Who managed to take time off from his regular job, rachet up the online campaign, organise chapters all over the country and have a baby, all at the same time. Naturally, his wife is angry. Chauhan, 34, had started an online campaign against the Commonwealth Games corruption last year but that wasn’t a huge success. It did however get him interested in what Kejriwal was talking about. So he decided to join India Against Corruption. He has now been on leave without pay from his regular job for quite a while and is sustaining himself on loans taken from his family and friends.
To start with, Chauhan had to deal with the fact that the Hazare team was a ragtag army that didn’t have either a clear structure or a set way of going about things. His online movement had helped him create a network of friends and netizens. Calls were made to each individual, explaining the brass tacks of the movement, the Jan Lokpal Bill and the people, who in turn, had small networks of their own were asked to leverage those to increase the online footfall.
It was tireless, relentless and in Chauhan’s case, literally back-breaking work. Nearly 20 hours a day of networking, phone calls and posting interestingly packaged content about the Bill on Facebook was paying off. But it landed Chauhan in hospital with a lumbar injury. “I couldn’t afford to stay in hospital, so after three days, I asked the doctor to discharge me… he did on the condition that I needed absolute bed rest, but I didn’t pay attention. After two days, I started working. Because I could not sit, I put my laptop on the wall unit and kept working.” The result was spectacular. By April, says Chauhan, the India Against Corruption Facebook page had four times more user interactions than the one on IPL or Pepsi’s business page.
India Against Corruption’s motley crew to start with was no bigger than 20 people. In January, they had no idea of the power they had
Chauhan was also responsible for designing the team’s logo, inspired from a design he saw at Ramdev’s anti-corruption campaign. And speaking of gurus, the term ‘Jan’ was added to the Lokpal by Chauhan’s friend who works with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation.
While the groundwork for the movement was being prepared by Kejriwal & Co, it wasn’t as if Hazare was being led and piloted blindly into it at all. Everyone in the A-Team testifies to the fact that the activist has a mind that is stubbornly and steadfastedly his own. A mind that knows how to act on popular and populist forces, fasting when necessary to drive the establishment to a crisis,until his terms are met. Hazare was on amaun vrat during the January protests. But in mid-February, when he broke his silence, he announced his decision to use his most potent weapon to back the A-Team: Fasting.
Between February and April, when Hazare first took the nation by storm with his fast, the team had to learn and perform at lightning speed. On the day the team decided to burn the government’s draft Bill, Kejriwal called his team’s Mr Fixit, Ram Kumar Jha, at 10 am, assigning him the task of setting up the tent, sound system, provision for the press, permission for the venue from the police all to be ready in exactly two hours. With a team of dedicated volunteers, the job was done on time.
Jha, 26, from a village in Madhepura, Bihar, is the team’s logistics manager. He worked in Parivartan for three years and was close to Kejriwal. In the run-up to the April fast, Jha’s first task was to tell everyone about India Against Corruption and the Jan Lokpal Bill. He visited every taxi stand in Delhi, explaining the campaign to drivers and asking them to put stickers about the 5 April fast on their cabs. College campuses were also an obvious target. As were passengers on buses and the Delhi Metro. Another team fanned out to villages in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. And the vast and teeming slums of the National Capital Region. On an average day, Jha switches seamlessly between negotiating with the Joint Commissioner of Police to allow the next water tanker to be allowed into the protest venue, organising food for the 1,000-odd volunteers, diesel for the generators that power the venue, cables for the TV cameras to plug in their OB vans and catch some shut-eye in between.
BETWEEN APRIL and August, some of the nuts and bolts of the movement got tighter. There was now a core committee that met to re-draft the Bill. This was the think tank and ideological base of the movement. It’s most visible face is Prashant Bhushan. Apart from the big five — Kejriwal, Bhushan, his father Shanti, former Karnataka Lokayukta Santosh Hegde and Bedi — there are gurus such as Agnivesh, Sri Sri and Ramdev and activists such as Medha Patkar and Akhil Gogoi.
Once the A-Team was brought onto the Joint Drafting Committee, it is this group that decided on a rollout of the draft Jan Lokpal Bill to people across the country. Public hearings and referendums were held. The feedback was processed and the draft Bill was tinkered and modified.
Money was a huge problem at the start. Abhinandan Sekhri, a trustee in the PCRF, who is also a media professional, sums up the situation with an anecdote from the early days. There was no clarity on 4 April if there’d be money to pay for the overhead tent on the next day at Hazare’s fast venue — Jantar Mantar. Once the fast was underway, however, donations poured in from the strangest of quarters. And the team collected enough money to last them until Round 2. By August, the money had dried up, explains Kejriwal. And the loyal tentwallah was requested to set up at the Ramlila Maidan without being paid an advance. Once the fast began, it rained money. In the thick of the monsoon, people and money poured out from everywhere.
For instance, a village in Haryana collected Rs 2 lakh. A bunch of schoolkids arrived with their pocket money. Finally, on Day 8 of Hazare’s fast, the A-Team was flush with funds. More than Rs 50 lakh and counting. Kejriwal soon announced that no more donations would be collected.
It was the task of Amit Kumar Misra from Bihar and a team of volunteers to keep track of the money that came their way and also to parcel it out to team members for running the campaign. Misra, 28, was part of the core team at PCRF, helping Kejriwal run the RTI campaign. Like Jha, his induction into the A-Team was a lateral shift. Misra speaks of the days when there was no provision or money for water. Or printing the lakhs of pamphlets that needed to be distributed. But by August, the tide had clearly shifted. His days became so busy that he’d arrive at the site of protest at 10 am, wind up at 11 pm, return back to the office to tabulate and enter the day’s accounts right until 5 am. He says the cause picked up so much momentum that by August, funds were no longer an issue. A girl came up to the donation centre with Rs 500. As she was leaving, she realised she had emptied the last rupee in her wallet, and came back asking for 30 for her auto fare. “With such genuine people backing us, why will we run short of money?” asks a beaming Misra.
There’s another hydra-headed monster the team had to learn to deal with carefully and efficiently. The media. In April, it fell on the mild-mannered and polite shoulders of Aswathi Muralidharan to book slots on TV channels for Kejriwal, Prashant and Bedi. On any given day, that amounted to a slugfest with those who got left out. By August, however, the 27-yearold had learnt to deal with the sharks. So a week before Hazare began his fast, she had already contacted TV channels and asked them to book slots for the next week in advance, anticipating, of course, that the fast this time, was likely to drag on.
The front end of the media campaign is the by now familiar face of Manish Sisodia, 38. The former Zee TV journalist-turned- RTI activist. It’s the collective concern for RTI and the need for a law to protect whistleblowers that brought him directly in touch with Kejriwal. By the time India Against Corruption was set up, Sisodia became Kejriwal’s right-hand man — straddling both worlds — the thinking and ideating in the core team, and managing activities on stage and liaisoning with Hazare and the rest of the team.
Perhaps the most meticulously planned part of the protest in August was the plan on Day 1, when the A-Team was certain that Hazare and all the other visible faces of the movement would be arrested. Jha explains how he accounted for this in advance. “We knew that Anna would be arrested as soon as he gets out the house and heads for Rajghat. I decided we should not let the momentum of the movement die out,” he says.
A carefully orchestrated plan was in place to ensure that. Flags and pamphlets were organised to motivate crowds. The group was split into three vehicles. One was stationed in Mayur Vihar, where Hazare was staying. As soon as he was arrested, flags were distributed among the swelling crowd. A second car headed with a team of organisers to Delhi University. It made rounds of the campuses, informing the youth about the arrest. When the team discovered that Hazare was being moved to Tihar Jail, two cars that had been rigged with promotional material and a sound system was sent there. Volunteers were strategically placed at various gates at Tihar Jail to guide crowds of enthusiastic supporters.
A meeting of the core team a day before had already sorted out the gameplan. Four stand-by underground teams were primed and prepared to keep the movement’s momentum going and avoid being arrested at all costs.
That the plan worked is now amply clear from the outpouring on Day 1 that only swelled even as the police put Hazare, Kejriwal, Sisodia and other key members of the A-Team under preventive detention. A waffly and unplanned government had faced off with a movement that was prepared and had anticipated all the obvious foibles.
Once Hazare was released, the ground had to be quickly readied at Ramlila Maidan, for which the A-Team had almost no lead time to prepare. Swati Maliwal, a 27-year-old wiry activist and tough taskmaster was pressed into action to coordinate volunteer teams. To make sure someone managed the crowds at all times. That water and food got to the ground. That information centres and donation counters set up overnight on site were efficiently managed. It meant that people like Maliwal and Jha had to make the Ramlila Maidan their home, camping on damp mattresses, soggy with sweat and the day’s rain that always filtered through the makeshift tents.
“Please don’t photograph me,” Maliwal pleads, “or it will seem like I want to be the centre of everything and it will become difficult to manage people after that.” That being firmly established, she went back to shutting the rest of the volunteers up and steering the morning meeting.
A slap-dash structure was put together that kept changing each day. Kejriwal and Sisodia made sure that the main organisers and shifting group of volunteers started the day at Ramlila Maidan with a 6.30 am meeting.
Managing the crowd was no mean task. The media was constantly trying to surreptitiously jump over barricades to get a behind-the-scenes look at conversations the core team was having every day in the makeshift meeting room — a cloth and canvas scaffolding behind Hazare’s stage. An allied NGO, Jai Hind, has been put in charge of stage management and crowd security. They were known as the ‘Haryana boys’ — where the cliché of machismo and ego seemed to fit and, as the team will testify, went a long way in ensuring that the crowd, already excited into a frenzy by Hazare’s speeches, did not turn violent.
Money was a huge problem at the start. Once the fast began, it rained money. In the thick of the monsoon, people and money poured from everywhere
But in all these details, it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture. As Kejriwal says, this was designed to be a movement. Everyone who is part of it can and has owned it. So it’s always been a touch-and-go situation. What’s made it stick is not just the organising. It’s the galvanising of the army of volunteers and team members around a powerful idea. “I learned over time that content is king,” says Chauhan. That and tedious, constant following up with people who showed even an iota of enthusiasm is what it took to make the numbers swell.
THE A TEAM always had its eye on that ball. Numbers. In July, for instance, when the Joint Drafting Committee was disbanded, Chauhan says he sensed a lull in the movement. Organisers in different cities had virtually gone to sleep. So he suggested to Kejriwal that if they want to see numbers on 16 August, then they must start small-scale street marches, organise activities across different cities to keep the momentum alive.
Chauhan also figured out that the Internet could also be used to multiply the movement’s visibility on TV. From where a quantum leap in its followers was effected. Details and updates on the venues of the street protests organised in the run-up to the 16 August fast were pasted on the India Against Corruption Twitter handle. From here, he anticipated correctly, TV channels copy-pasted the information onto their moving ticker band on the bottom of their screens. Taking the movement directly to lakhs of viewers, who read the tickers and arrived at the sites of protest.
Come early August, the government’s refusal to grant the A-Team permission to protest and a venue for Hazare to fast helped greatly to kick up the storm once again.
And in that firmament of ideas, laws and structures, Hazare has been guided largely by Kejriwal, Prashant and to some extent Bedi. While his decision to fast — both in April and August — was his own, the reason and articulation of the movement around the fast, has been the brainchild of Kejriwal and Prashant. It’s the simple-mindedness of Hazare, his constant need to know in black and white — will this kill corruption? — that has made the movement pull in such large crowds. It’s also part of the reason why the discourse has had almost no shades of grey. Where it’s turned into an “either you are with us or against us” space and the room for anyone to manoeuvre has been increasingly difficult.
As the numbers swelled, the A-Team’s stance hardened. “We want the Jan Lokpal Bill to be introduced in Parliament in this session directly, not via the Standing Committee, and we want a written assurance from the government that the Congress party will support this Bill,” said Kejriwal to TEHELKA on Day 9 of Hazare’s fast.
Buoyed by the crowds and their hysterical, unquestioned support for Hazare and all that he stands for, this team has become less and less tolerant of dissent. You cannot ask questions like — what about the right of Parliamentarians who represent the country, to choose whether they want this version of the Bill or not? How can a government possibly write to a group, based purely on the fact that it’s backed by large numbers, that they endorse every bit of what they ask for?
And further, to the people that decided not to turn up at Ramlila Maidan, who have many questions on their plate, and no clear answers, is the right to say “No, we disagree”, no longer available?
And then there is the overwhelming question stemming from Hazare’s fast: if no political party is willing to support the Jan Lokpal Bill outright, does that mean the Parliament must be cast aside and forced to accept the wishes of a crowd whose main reason for exuberance and support is that a 74-year-old man has put his life on the line for it?
These are tricky spaces, and for now, even if you are not at Ramlila Maidan, you ARE in it. For better or for worse, everyone in this country is now witness to and will be affected by its short and long-term consequences, none of which are immediately clear. Except that for now, it throws up a series of possibilities, all of which threaten the fabric of our democracy in various ways. The most obvious threat is the government’s. And its refusal to listen to the groundswell of protest the India Against Corruption has managed to rachet up. But equally disquieting is the presumption of the movement that rests confidently on the fact that it has managed to pull big numbers, so Parliament and the rest of India be damned.
If a good piece of legislation is the eventual result, these worrying signs may get absorbed into the great and confusing space of the Indian democratic fabric. If not, then this rising will indeed have unleashed a beast whose shape and form even the millions who now throng Ramlila Maidan could disown.
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.