Irrespective of how one views the Anna Hazare movement, there is little doubt that the one feeling it invoked in the political class was fear: the fear of losing control over a system that they have presided over for decades. It is, therefore, no surprise that with the 74-year-old activist retired hurt for now, many politicians have recovered their poise. It's almost as if a safety valve has relieved politicians from the pressure-cooker atmosphere in which they found themselves through 2011. Elections provide the perfect outlet for politicians to express themselves in familiar terrain, but is it really business as usual?
As the campaign for the 2012 assembly elections takes off in the ultimate political battleground of Uttar Pradesh, there are straws in the wind to suggest the Hazare effect may well outlast its founder. Take the case of Mayawati. Over the last six months, the empress of Lucknow has sacked as many as 20 ministers on corruption charges. While Mayawati has never shied away from displaying an authoritarian streak, the manner in which she virtually cleaned out her cabinet suggests the BSP supremo is acutely conscious of the damage caused to her image by serious corruption charges. For years, a defiant Mayawati, confident of her Dalit votebank, did not care about accusations of ruling over a corrupt regime. Now, as elections approach, it seems even Mayawati can't afford to ignore the growing public revulsion against corrupt leaders.
Take also the case of Mayawati's great rival for power in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP). Last week, its new face Akhilesh Yadav did something his father, Mulayam Singh would probably never have done. He refused to admit DP Yadav, once seen as the unquestioned don of western UP, into the SP fold, even removing party spokesperson Mohan Singh from his post for endorsing the don's entry. A candid Akhilesh publicly claimed that the SP no longer had time or space for the mafia.
For a party tainted by the tag of criminality, Akhilesh's decision marks an important shift in strategy. In the Mulayam Singh-Amar Singh years, the SP was seen as a cash-and-carry party providing free entry to those with money and muscle power. Now, by keeping DP Yadav out, Akhilesh is hoping to send out a message that the SP is ready to break with the past.
What Akhilesh is attempting, Rahul Gandhi has been trying in Uttar Pradesh for sometime now. In all his campaign speeches, Rahul emphasised the need to break away from the web of caste, corruption and criminality that UP has been mired in for over two decades now. Caste is an inescapable reality, one which no party can ignore, but by taking a stand on not giving tickets to criminal candidates, Rahul is hoping to offset the organisational limitations confronting the Congress on the ground. The Congress's heir apparent realises that his party has only one chance in UP: if he can convince the voter that the Congress is the least corrupt political force in the state despite all the scandals at the Centre.
It's a claim that the BJP too was hoping to make till the Babu Singh Kushwaha episode saw it score a virtual self-goal. Such was the anger within and outside the party, that the BJP was eventually forced to go through the bizarre charade of getting Kushwaha to 'suspend' himself from party membership till he was cleared of corruption charges. Perhaps, a few years ago, the BJP might have been tempted to dig its heels in; now it can't afford to be seen as a party providing sanctuary to discredited political forces.
None of this is to suggest that there will be a dramatic change in the quality of elected representatives, especially in the absence of long-term electoral reforms. There will still be bahubalis ('musclemen') who will make it to the Vidhan Sabha, candidates with vast amounts of unaccounted cash will still win elections, and caste will still be the primary touchstone of political affiliation.
But politics is as much about perception as it is about reality. And this is where the Anna factor creeps in. A large swathe of UP's voters under 35, many of them first-time voters, are part of an 'aspirational' India hankering first time. This satellite television generation has been bombarded for the last 12 months with images of Team Anna launching a moral crusade against corruption. Even if they don't know the ABC of lokpal, they have been touched somewhere by a desire to see the corrupt neta being defeated. Even political parties who do not look beyond caste equations realise that they can't ignore this rising sentiment against corruption.
Even if Anna stays back in Ralegan Siddhi and doesn't campaign in the elections, his ghost will haunt the political class. Which is why the BJP was forced to change its chief minister in Uttarakhand six months before the elections, which is why the BJP-Akali combine in Punjab is facing a serious challenge and which is why every political party in UP is attempting an image makeover. In the end, the elections may still be decided by caste and community loyalties, but to believe it's business as usual would be a risky proposition in 2012.
Post-script: While money power and corruption undermines democracy, perhaps the bigger threat is posed by the near dominance of family raj across the poll-bound states. Politics, by all accounts, is still a closed shop. May be, we need another Anna-like revolution to open it up a little more.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 Network. The views expressed by the author are personal.