Their winter of discontent

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Rethink There is a growing clamour to stop campaigning in poll-bound states
Rethink: There is a growing clamour to stop campaigning in poll-bound states, Photos: Reuters

EVEN AS Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal movement lies like a patient etherised upon a table, it has told us throughout 2011 that our democracy is alive and well. Its chief architects Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan and Kiran Bedi may be in a huddle in a quiet corridor, trying to make sense of the aborted campaign. And of what to do next. But the ebb of the movement in December throws as much light on its overall shape and form as its loud, blistering success in August and April last year.

“We have to think about whether to — and how we want to — campaign in the Assembly polls,” says Kejriwal. It’s the biggest question he faces this year. If they decide to campaign against the UPA government, the movement may lose even more steadfast supporters who will say why target only the UPA or the Congress, when almost every political party has been two-faced about supporting the Lokpal Bill, saying one thing in Parliament and another outside? If they choose not to campaign, after having declared and announced and threatened to, will they be seen as losing more ground and more negotiating space? It’s a tough call.

Even tougher and more crucial perhaps to answer are questions looming large about how to put pressure on a stubbornly steadfast government without using the one weapon in their arsenal: Anna’s fasting. It’s no secret that there have been dissenting voices around the question of Anna fasting and the voices have grown shriller between August and December.

Winter chill The December fast venue was virtually empty
Winter chill The December fast venue was virtually empty

Anna’s fasting in August “may not have been such a success if Anna had not been taken to jail”, says Darshak Hathi, a core team member, who represents Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation. He concedes that after 11 days, Anna had more or less decided to end the fast and was just looking for an appropriate exit strategy. That was what became known as the ‘sense of the House’ note in Parliament.

But what was it really, in terms of getting a strong Lokpal? Only a note summing up what MPs broadly felt as the August session wound up. It was not a clear promise of a delivery date on the Bill. Or even a clear commitment on what kind of Bill the government would introduce in the Winter Session. But there was such a large, expectant crowd and the pitch of the movement had been racheted up so much that the ‘sense of the House’ was projected as a victory in August so that Anna’s fast could end. And the same ‘sense of the House’ was used in October to hold up a mirror to the government and to the Parliament Standing Committee, as sign of things said but not done and to galvanise the nation into another phase of frenetic activity.

In this frenzy, an important reality had perhaps been ignored or glossed over. That the ‘fast’ strategy had already run its course. “You can’t agitate every two months,” says Hathi, stating his own opinion and also that of his guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Who Hathi says has been cautioning Team Anna against going into fast mode yet again.

By December, there were other more cynical views within Team Anna. People who said the same team that is the voice of dissent for the nation is becoming less and less tolerant of dissenting voices within. It’s perhaps the classic irony within any movement that by the close of 2011 was playing itself out in Team Anna. Can a movement that is actually engaged in strengthening India’s democracy also afford to be completely undemocratic in its own functioning?

MEMBERS HAD begun to use words like ‘us and them’, many feeling like virtual outsiders when it came to deciding on the next course of action, and realising that the insiders were really only the big five: Hazare, Kejriwal, Bhushan, Kiran Bedi and, to some extent, Manish Sisodia. “It had become a highly exclusive movement,” says one bitter insider. Another observer points out how the kind of crowds that thronged the Anna campaigns and what they came for had also changed over time — from being a mix of the intellectual class and the great Indian middle class, to a larger, wider middle and then finally, a younger, more mob-like throng, for whom the ‘entertainment’ of it all was often more important than the movement itself.

Team Anna’s faultlines include the need to take sides politically in order to increase the pressure on the UPA

Dissenters within Team Anna began to raise their voices against the idea of yet another fast or even a black flag movement, but the core team prevailed. And so the December movement that read the public mood all wrong, and had Anna playing to a virtually empty gallery. A few thousand listless onlookers at Mumbai’s MMRDA grounds and the energy of April and August entirely missing. Those voices are now saying it may not be a good idea to campaign in the election-bound states. They are hoping this time the big five will listen.

However, both dissenters and the big five are too close to the ground to be able to see what political observers like Yogendra Yadav — who’s in the business of mapping the ebb and flow of many a political movement — can see. The Anna movement is a “victim if its own success”, says Yadav. It has given in to the temptation of securing something real and tangible, whereas movements usually score symbolic victories. And in so doing, he says, Team Anna overplayed its hand. It was guilty of the fetishisation of the law, or more simply put, making it seem like the answer to India’s social and political problems is in the writing of a law. Instead of recognising that a law is at best, an enabling device.

This, says Yadav, led them to blunder No. 2: becoming too Machiavellian by drawing up an impossibly long wish list, which they later crunched into three pressing points, and in so doing, corrected this fault to a great extent. The last big faultline in the Anna timeline, Yadav feels, is their impatience with needing the Bill passed now, and their need to take sides politically in order to tighten the pressure on the UPA government. Where an anti-establishment posture became more and more an anti-Congress one and therefore began being seen by some as taking sides politically. Sides that leaned more towards the BJP.

At the start of 2011, the movement represented something new. Political pressure in a new bottle, equidistant from all political parties. At the start of 2012, they would perhaps do well, says Yadav, to remember why they exist in the popular imagination in the first place. As game-changers. Not players of the old, wily and tired politics wound up in polls and caste arithmetic. Going down that chute is to be the devil they are trying to fight. Taking them straight to the political emergency room.

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
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