The many comparisons drawn over the last year - rightly or wrongly - between Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and Anna Hazare are now the stuff of cliché. JP's original call for 'Lokniti' (Polity of the People) over 'Rajniti' (Politics of Government) was seen by some to find resonance more than five
decades later in the Anna campaign's more contemporary and urbane battle cry against corruption. Romantics enraptured by the hyperbolic but utterly misplaced slogan of a "second freedom movement" even evoked the memory of JP's iconoclastic speech from Ramlila Maidan on the eve of the Emergency where - quoting from the inspirational poetry of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar - JP had thundered to a crowd of over one lakh people: "Singhashan khali karo, ki janata aati hai" (Vacate the throne; The people are coming).
Critics of Team Anna were dismayed by the parallels. To them, the stature of the two leaders was incomparable and the substance of both movements slanted on the weighing scales. Others like historian Ramachandra Guha beckoned us to see what he called the "less comforting" similarities in how the two campaigns evolved. Guha argued that much like JP's aide had warned him of the Jana Sangh's entry into a self-proclaimed apolitical platform - Anna too was confronted with the mobilisation of supporters at his agitations getting politicised, even if his agenda was anti-neta. And just as Anna was being accused of denigrating the parliamentary process, JP had faced the ire of his colleagues for seeking to conflate the energy of street opinion with the verdicts of free-and-fair elections.
Now, as Anna Hazare announces his decision to embrace the political process - urged in part by his own supporters and a host of prominent citizens to find a new direction for his movement - it is interesting to see both admirers and opponents of Anna looking back at history again. Once again, JP's own experience is being quoted as a lesson against the perils of plunging into politics. Grassroots activist Medha Patkar, who often shared the stage with Anna, warned him to "think a 100 times" before diving in to a quicksand that may entrap him forever. Former Cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian said that as a consistent supporter of Anna, he is devastated by a move that had taken the movement far away from its original intent. JP's experiment with creating the Janata Party - an anti-Congress platform that brought multiple parties within its fold and ousted Indira Gandhi's government in 1977 only to face elections in 1980 - is being cited as an instance of what can happen when you transit from being an 'Outsider' to an 'Insider'. The Janata Party may have shaken up the political system by becoming the first non-Congress party to govern India, but - as sociologist Ashish Nandy says - it "eventually became exactly what it sought to displace."
Interestingly, Anna himself still remains adamant about not contesting elections. He told me that he would be willing to back members of his team who wanted to fight an election - but only on a case-by-case basis. In other words, he said, being an associate of the Anna campaign would not guarantee you his support as a political candidate. It's not then fully clear what shape and form Team Anna's embrace of politics will take. But, even if it's a work in progress, the sharp criticism of their decision is in some cases intellectually inconsistent and in others, needlessly cynical.
The fiercest criticism of the Anna movement was that it was painting all politicians - and indeed the democratic process itself - with the broad stroke of negativity. They were told again and again that now that they had done their job as a potent pressure group, the Lokpal Bill was the property of Parliament. When they spoke of votes being brought and sold, they were accused of denigrating the commitment of the citizen to the political process. When they made the decision to campaign against the Congress in the Hisar byelection - a critical error - they were attacked for being partisan and told to stop flirting with politics and just get right into it. Now that they have, they are being told that this is a terrible idea. In other words, they're damned if they do and damned if they don't.
This critique seems unfair. It is far healthier for an ever-changing democracy to welcome new entrants into the political fold than to treat elections as the swamp that will muddy anyone who steps into it. In any case, no movement can be sustained on antithesis and antagonism alone. The Anna campaign - hit by the reality of diminishing returns this year - needed to reinvent itself to stand for something. It needed somewhere to go so as to not end up in a cul de sac. It's also important to understand that Anna's Team was an awkward combination of ideologues from the Left and the Right, united essentially by a single theme. Without a new hand to play, the team's own fault-lines would have torn it apart.
Hopefully, Team Anna begins its new innings with sobering lessons learnt from past mistakes - a key one being the sheer intolerance of declaring that anyone who found fault with them was either sympathetic to the Congress - or worse still - was tolerant of corruption. Now, the government must be warned to not make a similar mistake and assume that anyone critical of Anna's methods and style will be kinder to the UPA and more forgiving of the ineptitude displayed by it on multiple occasions. Nor will the hard light the campaign shone on corruption in high office be dimmed down. Public scrutiny continues to be intense as India's democracy navigates a flight through rocky weather. Anna Hazare may or may not succeed in politics, but the Congress would do well to remember that the voter never forgets.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal
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