‘What do you make of Anna Hazare?’ It was meant as an innocent question but when I started to answer, it transformed into an unexpected challenge. There’s no doubt I admire the way he’s focused the nation’s attention on corruption and created a new commitment to fight it. But he’s also said some things and others have revealed forgotten details that cannot be brushed aside. Balancing between the two isn’t easy.
First, the Justice Sawant Commission of Inquiry report of 2005, which holds Hazare guilty of corruption. That’s not my interpretation but Justice Sawant’s. “I found him guilty of corruption”, he confirmed when I phoned.
The key issue is Hazare’s credibility as a crusader against corruption. Is it damaged if he has himself been found guilty of this crime? If you’re jumping to say yes, pause and reflect for a moment.
Hazare’s misdemeanour was to spend Rs. 2.2 lakh belonging to the Hind Swaraj Trust, which he heads, on a birthday party. Of course, it was wrong. But think of the number of companies who spend corporate funds felicitating their owners. That’s wrong too, but do we consider it a crime? In Hazare’s case, this was trust money and he betrayed a fiduciary responsibility. So it’s a little worse.
But does one lapse forever invalidate a man from taking up a cause? Are any of us so pure we’ve never erred? You couldn’t even have said that of Gandhi. Hazare is no saint but that doesn’t make him a fraud. And, no doubt, those who’ve sinned and admitted to their mistake are better fighters than those who pretend to be unblemished.
Second, Hazare’s view of Indian voters. Prima facie this is more troubling. He believes they’re swayed by money, alcohol and gifts of saris. As he put it: “The ordinary voter does not have awareness … they don’t understand the value of their vote.”
I won’t deny this sounds dismissive, even contemptuous. More importantly, after defeating Indira Gandhi in ’77, Rajiv Gandhi in ’89, PV Narasimha Rao in ’96 and Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2004, you can’t say the Indian voter doesn’t understand the value of his vote. The facts speak otherwise.
The worst part is such arguments are the staple of those who believe India should not be a democracy. They argue the average Indian is too immature to be a credible voter. Hazare seems to agree.
On the other hand, is Hazare lying? Aren’t votes bought, isn’t hooch offered, haven’t saris been gifted? Isn’t this what the Election Commission has been on the lookout for in Tamil Nadu? And doesn’t it happen at practically every election?
Hazare expressed a sad reality but he did it indiscreetly, even unthinkingly. With greater artifice, no one would have objected. It’s his simplicity and lack of guard that’s got him into trouble.
Third, Narendra Modi. Not for a moment do I believe praising Gujarat’s development is tantamount to condoning 2002 or exonerating Modi’s role. But what I do find strange is how the champion of a tough Lokpal can overlook the fact that Modi has refused to appoint a Lok Ayukta for six years.
But perhaps Hazare forgot? That’s not just the simplest explanation but possibly the correct one. Occasionally we all forget, even when it makes us look like hypocrites. Like the rest of us, Hazare will be embarrassed when reminded.
My conclusion: Hazare is a great man, but he’s also human. He remains a hero even if he’s not free of fault.
(The views expressed by the author are personal.)