It's the week of the two As. LK Advani is on a yatra and Team Anna is campaigning in Hissar. Advani, the veteran yatri and the creator of India's political right-wing, has set off on his Jan Chetna Yatra from Sitabdiara in Bihar. Meanwhile, the indomitable anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare and his team are openly asking voters to defeat the Congress, creating a fresh debate about Anna's political neutrality.
Let's compare Advani and Hazare, both men with a mission. Advani is pushing at the limits of formal politics and opting for what many have called "extra-constitutional" means to further a political agenda. Hazare is pushing at the limits of the "apolitical" and willy-nilly becoming an unelected politician. Both aim to be national symbols of the fight against corruption. Both are senior citizens making a determined bid to capture the hearts and minds of the youth and both are the faces of anti-Congress forces. The 83-year-old Advani fills a leadership vacuum in his own party. At 74 years, Hazare fills a leadership vacuum in public life.
Advani was clearly galvanised to launch his anti-corruption yatra by the stupendous success of Hazare's movement. The 24x7 media coverage, buzz in the middle class and the outpouring of protests in cities must have been the object of some envy for the BJP, whose trademark has also been high-pitched media campaigns and urban mobilisation on the street. With RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat declaring that Sangh cadres had turned out in strength to support Anna, the BJP was feeling upstaged and needed its own anti-corruption event.
So is Advani in danger of looking like a 'wannabe Hazare' or a 'copycat Hazare'? Will the public, which gravitated towards an apolitical Gandhian, respond with equal enthusiasm to a career politician? Can the same arrow of the rath yatra be fired twice?
Advani's Somnath to Ayodhya yatra of 1990 has been called the most divisive event in the history of independent India, undertaken as a cry of Hindu "rage" against "minority appeasement" of the Congress. Yet, this was the yatra that made the BJP a serious contender for political power.
Today the democratic political process, which Advani forced the BJP into, has, to an extent, moderated Advani and the BJP. Representative democracy contains within it an inexorable drive towards the Centre. Extreme positions are inevitably chiselled away. To get the largest number of votes, divisive ideologies have to be rejected. The same LK Advani who led the rath of Hindu rage now finds that a Ram Janmabhoomi movement mark 2 will simply not cut the mustard and he must focus on the more inclusive agenda of anti-corruption. To be electable in the 21st century, ideological extremism has to take a backseat. The inclusive Nitish Kumar flagged off the yatra this time; good governance is the aim, not Hindu pride.
Indeed, ideological protests have limited shelf life in a democracy constantly in the throes of elections. Regular polls channelise protests and render them marginal after a while. Which is why Anna Hazare and Team Anna must cease to attack democratic politics as dirty and politicians as hateful, and wholeheartedly join democratic politics. Team Anna should either form a party or a coalition with other parties, and openly and honestly contest elections. Corruption in Hissar won't end the instant either Om Prakash Chautala's son or Bhajan Lal's son comes to power. To ask voters not to vote for the Congress and not offer an alternative is a short cut.
Today, it is not politics itself which is degraded, it is the kind of politics we have which has become venal. Most citizens want deliverance from the politics of criminality, politics of dynasty, politics as a private enterprise or politics as big business. As the wise Jayaprakash Narayan, founder of the Lok Satta always says, the way to change bad politics is through good politics, not by running away from politics or scorning it.
Why, then, is it so unthinkable for an Arvind Kejriwal to contest from Hissar or a Kiran Bedi to contest from Delhi? Many idealists like Narayan's Lok Satta and former IAS officer Arun Bhatia's Peoples Guardian Party of India have tried to set up political parties, but they have lacked the national heft and media coverage. For the first time, a non-dynastic, non-criminal, non-caste based force has high visibility, funds, a leader and even a manifesto. Anna says he is a Gandhian and Gandhi was a politician in the noblest ideal of the term. So were Ambedkar and Sardar Patel.
But today the best and brightest have shunned politics, leaving the space open for criminals, family members and carpetbaggers. Whether the anti-corruption plank in itself is sufficient to create a party and whether Team Anna is capable of building a nation-wide organisation remains to be seen, especially without a change in election laws that still place a premium on money power. For the moment, Team Anna agitates outside politicians' homes and plans to campaign against the Congress in UP rather like a team of swimmers eager to plunge into a pool but for some reason only dipping their toes in the water. Team Anna's entry into politics could be just the electric shock that the system needs.
Advani's yatra may be an afterthought inspired by Hazare, but he and his party will ultimately be tested on the touchstone of democratic politics. Why should Team Anna not take this test too and, perhaps, pave the way for a radical new political culture? After all, what if the original Jayaprakash Narayan had rejected the opportunity of forming the Janata Party as an anti-Emergency force in the 1977 elections?
Sagarika Ghose is deputy editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.