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Gandhi cap’s too big

india Updated: Oct 22, 2011 14:31 IST
Rajdeep Sardesai
Rajdeep Sardesai
Hindustan Times
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‘Do you know how elections are run in this country? Liquor for the father, cloth for the mother and food for the baby.’

“What is not corrupt in this country? India’s central vice is corruption; the centrality of corruption is election corruption; and the centrality of election corruption is the business houses.”

The above quotations certainly sound like Anna Hazare, the new apostle from Ralegan Siddhi, only they’re from an earlier generation when another anti-corruption crusader, a certain TN Seshan was being feted across the country as the great middle class hope.

Remember Seshan? The garrulous chief election commissioner (CEC) whose ‘war’ against corruption inspired fear among politicians and awe among the middle classes in the mid-1990s. Seshan’s efforts did see a reduction in overt election expenses, but within a few months of retiring as CEC, he attempted to beat the netas by joining them.

In 1997, he lost the presidential elections as a Shiv Sena candidate while in 1999, he lost by over 1.8 lakh votes as the Congress-backed candidate against LK Advani in Gandhinagar. Twice hurt, Seshan eventually retired to a quieter life in Chennai, embraced by Rotary clubs, but forgotten by the vast multitude of citizens.

Will Hazare end up as the Seshan of our generation — celebrated today, gone tomorrow? There are important differences between Seshan and Hazare. The former earned his authority from the office he held: as CEC, Seshan was able to revive a dormant institutional post, give it a bite that it had lacked for decades.

Hazare, by contrast, holds no official position but is a bit of a travelling fakir, who can move easily from one issue to another with his disparate bandwagon of activists.

Driven by ego, Seshan forgot that once he stepped down from his office, the power too would go. Hazare has no such fears. Indeed, he derives his stature from being outside the political system, from being seen as a freelance Gandhian, always ready to inject a certain moral outrage towards a corrupted state machinery through personal example.

Seshan had, after all, been a civil servant for much of his life, he was in that sense a representative of the State. Hazare is the army driver who turned village sevak, someone who has always been completely outside the charmed power elite.

Both Seshan and Hazare have derived their legitimacy from the cheering middle classes, but with one big difference. In the 90s, the Indian middle class appeared to be completely impotent in the face of political venality. Today, it’s found a new weapon in round the clock television news. Hazare’s ‘revolution’ fired the imagination of the middle classes because the TV cameras brought it instantaneously into the homes of millions of Indians.

When Seshan was taking on the netas, there wasn’t a single private TV news channel in the country. Now, when Hazare decided to go on a fast unto death at Jantar Mantar, it became a ‘made-for-TV’ moment, artfully choreographed between the World Cup and Indian Premier League so as to gain maximum eyeballs.

In a country with over a 100 million cable and satellite homes, Hazare became an instant national figure in a manner that Seshan took years to achieve.

And yet, there are worrying similarities too. Like Seshan, Hazare is also a bit of an authoritarian figure who believes that Gandhian values must be combined with a certain Shivaji-like aggression. Hazare’s ‘model village’ in Ralegan Siddhi is based on a rejection of any dissent, or alternative viewpoints, and a certain element of coercion, with alcoholics, for example, being publicly flogged.

The anti-democratic streak has also seen many of his close aides even part company with him over the years.

Hazare hasn’t always been discriminatory about the people around him, some of whom have tried to manipulate his simple-mindedness. He almost paid a heavy price for this in 2005 when the Justice Sawant commission report concluded: “The expenditure of Rs 2.20 lakh from the funds of the Hind Swaraj Trust for the birthday celebrations of Shri Hazare was clearly illegal and amounted to a corrupt practice.” That he still managed to survive the indictment is a testimony to the credibility he had earned from decades of working for a better society.

There are obvious dangers when the hopes of an entire movement are reposed in an individual, someone who admits to being no Mahatma. Unfortunately, middle-class activism hasn’t matured enough to develop the momentum and self-belief to go beyond searching for demi-gods who will slay the political demons of our time.

In the Seshan era there were anti-corruption signature campaigns and seminars. Today we have candlelight marches and social media networks that attempt to compensate for a more meaningful engagement with public life. The rage may be real, the desire for change may be well-intentioned, but can it really transform society unless it goes beyond the clever soundbite, or the ‘mera neta chor hai’ slogan?

The real success of a ‘peoples movement’ in the war against corruption will come when it doesn’t stop with a Lokpal or an Anna Hazare. The challenge is to throw up Hazare-like figures and collective groups like Bangalore’s Janagraha in every mohalla in this country. We need organised local communities who will hold their elected representatives accountable at all levels, from the Gram Sabha to Parliament.

Rather than deify Hazare, let’s imbibe the spirit of sacrifice and voluntary service that is the mark of his work. The message must matter more than the individual if Hazare is not to end up as just another transient middle-class icon.

(Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network. The views expressed by the author are personal)