Anna Hazare shone as the rising star in a corrupt country, but his sheen has dulled, and his crusade has made him The Biggest Loser Of 2011
I WAS AT my dapper debonair best, though behind that deceptive façade, I was nervous. A multinational bank honcho poured a penetrative look into my curriculum vitae. I expected a hard-hitting interview, for which I had adequately rehearsed with standard prescriptions to intractable global financial woes. “If you have a choice for dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?” asked a grumpy baritone. This one I was least prepared for. And yet the answer came instantaneously, Mahatma Gandhi. An extraordinary man whose moral authority could temper religious conflagrations, restore sanity amidst madness even as he inspired a non-violent civil disobedience movement against the British Empire. Gandhi was my poster-boy.
I would later claim to witness the celluloid version of the Father of the Nation at my alma-mater, Fergusson College, Pune, shooting for Sir Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film Gandhi. There would never be another Gandhi, I had always thought. But then at Jantar Mantar in April this year somebody said another was born. Incredulous! I stretched to see this alchemist. It was a man from Ralegan Siddhi, who goes by the name Anna Hazare, and was spearheading an agitation for an anti-corruption legislation. I could not smell jasmine, but Hazare’s bold call was music to my ears. That was alas, it seems now, almost too many moons ago.
Corruption is a universal factor. Easy to make it an issue; keep hammering it, make it into an anti-establishment outburst because it is easy to generate popular goodwill. Team Anna thus launched a well-orchestrated assault, perfectly timed, and scripted with an appropriate sound byte impact and unrelenting intensity. But tragically, what started as a social crusader’s battle for cleansing corruption soon assumed a diabolical political form. I wondered how our modern Gandhi fell into this game? Or was it a premeditated ploy?
It was the Ramlila that took the cake and the chocolate factory. Ramlila’s ridiculous demands have probably remained the least discussed aspect, when in fact it was an outstanding PR trick on an unsuspecting nation. The demand to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill (Team Anna’s version) within 10 days sans any deliberations, debate was outlandish and ludicrous. Lokpal Bill is a complex legislation of great importance with serious ramifications on our democratic structures and institutions. Yet, it formed the fulcrum for Team Anna’s future experiments. No sensible government could grant the Bill with a bullet-on-your-temple blackmail, worse an outrageous expectation. Every statement uttered at Ramlila was seismic cloaked in self-righteousness. But by December the veneer had cracked; at MMRDA recently. Even as parliament debated the Lokpal Bill, the crowd had become size zero.
UNDER NORMAL circumstances a forthright of constructive debate based on a common agenda for the nation would result in reconciliation, not progressive deterioration. The Lokpal debate got subsumed by complex spins and yarns resulting in public disillusionment, food for thought for those who believe in instant stardom based on an exaggerated notion of self-importance. The bjp, masters of gridlock, would use every tactic in the book to gerrymander and charm the rising middle class using Team Anna as their unofficial brand ambassador. Political opportunism was amplified in practically every move be it in the Hisar bypoll or repeated references to occupants of 10, Janpath. The Anti-corruption protest had turned into an anti-Congress campaign. By now, I was not the only one wearing a confounded expression. Hazare became strident, impertinent and often, nasty.
Eventually, Team Anna got tangled in their own verbal inconsistencies. The travel expense vouchers scam, discounted farmland acquisition from the UP government, delayed financial settlement with government employers, and controversial remarks on Kashmir. Confusion reigned. Sounds can bite, you see. Issues usually get camouflaged amidst obstreperous outbursts; FDI in retail being a classic case of a self-goal. Hazare snubbed Wal-Mart too. India is in love with noise and worse everyone is in love with their own voice. India is not listening to each other. And that is where the problems really begin. The downfall of the Anna movement was inevitable. When Hazare made a second appearance at Ramlila, Mahatma Gandhi had made a noticeable disappearing act replaced by political billboards. What one saw was a hip-hop, pop-culture mixed with political nonsense. The movement had become just a moment.
Corruption is an emotive issue, it has greatly demoralised Indians, but Team Anna’s efforts to turn it into a narrow-minded political movement using the middle-class as its forerunner (ironically the biggest beneficiaries of liberalisation) defied common sense. They remained stuck on a core ‘constituency’. Comparisons with Tahrir Square were made, but Team Anna forgot that India is aspiring towards political sophistication; it has overcome its teething troubles. Coalition politics, for all its negative connotations, is Indian democracy at its best.
Despite the resolute gloominess that passes through for considerable periods, India ends the year with hope of a turnaround, the much needed positive bustling optimism. We maybe a noisy democracy, but tranquility would finally emerge from within. 2012 is the year, the Mayan’s declared as the end of the world. But for India I suspect it is the beginning of a more aware, vibrant and involved nation. Falter and fail we still might, but our imperfections should never weaken our resolve. And as the experience of the Arab Spring showed, after the initial brawl and energetic clapping, shouting and dancing, what often follows is stunned disbelief at the emptiness. Team Anna rode a gigantic wave, followed by a humiliating crash.
By the end of the year, it was not just public disenchantment that robbed the transitory Gandhi of his façade, but sensing his own human vulnerabilities or pure inability to live up to demanding high standards. Hazare had drifted away from that cherished anti-corruption goal. In a sense, that defined the year’s most calamitous downfall. To earn the tag of Gandhi, by itself is an achievement deemed improbable, and to lose that within a course of a mere eight months, for Hazare that was an extraordinary failure. Several would anoint him with accolades for bringing corruption to the centrestage. Ironically, Anna Hazare is 2011’s biggest loser.
As we enter a new year, maybe that’s the biggest lesson for us all; fifteen minutes of fame maybe good for an individual, but not necessarily for a country. And yes, in a year of Bollywood sequels and remakes, Gandhi remained unique.
Sanjay Jha Executive Director Dale Carnegie Based in Mumbai.