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Push comes to shove

In democracies there is always some space for the politics of desperation. In the matter of corruption, we have reached that stage, writes Ashis Nandy.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2011 02:25 IST
Ashis Nandy

Anna Hazare is not Mohandas Gandhi or Jayaprakash Narayan. No one wants to seriously hear his diagnosis of the ills of the Indian political system or his vision of a future India and, so, it is pointless to find fault with either. He is not even a Gandhian satyagrahi looking for self-purification or waiting to listen to his inner voice. He has used his fasts to unashamedly pressure a corrupt, overloaded State and has defied arrogant power holders claiming to be the conscience-keepers of the country.

This part of the story is important. For law-making presumes that not only Parliament has its legitimacy and charisma, but that legislators too have some moral stature, at least collectively. That stature has suffered immense damage in the last few decades. Hazare, in his new incarnation, can be compared with the likes of Bobby Sands, the Irish nationalist, who used fasting as a way of confronting an oppressive, insensitive State and died for his ideals. For those who think that Gandhian fasts were radically different from Anna’s, well, they were so for Gandhi, not for the British colonial regime, which always read his fasts as pressure tactics.

It’s safer to read Anna Hazare as Anna Hazare. But even that is not easy, for he is primarily a product of our mind and our fantasies. We impute to him qualities according to our inner needs. Many of us have been waiting for a person like him, someone who will come riding a white horse, sword shining and a hard smile on his lips; others have been as fearful of the arrival of a charismatic figure who might mess up our institutions and bring back into politics categories and ideas which we thought we had interred when we tearfully cremated Gandhi at Rajghat 63 years ago.

Both sides will be disappointed. For Hazare has not modelled himself on his proclaimed gurus but has instinctively struck the posture of an elderly neighbour next door. When he talks, it becomes obvious within the first few minutes that he is neither an unrecognised, village philosopher nor a putative political star. He is rather the familiar, unassuming, perhaps slightly dumb, neighbourhood elder who takes our support for granted, for he believes he talks commonsense and emphasises the obvious.

The fear of Anna, in this respect, is partly a fear of everyday life and the ordinary citizen. It is ingenuous to explain away the support he has received as only a middle-class reaction. It has already breached the borders of class. Also, being a middle class movement is no longer a term of abuse. This class is not what it was 60 years ago. It is five times its earlier size and slightly more than 50% of it now comes from communities earlier at the bottom and the peripheries of Indian society. In any case, the middle-class is now a fourth of the Indian people and can no longer be dismissed as even electorally irrelevant.

More important is the suspicion of the political class that has pushed the supporters of Anna towards the frenzy they have displayed and the uncompromising rigidity with which they have faced any criticism of their draft Lokpal Bill. That suspicion is not feigned and anyone who has not lived a protected life can guess wherefrom that bitterness comes. It is true that a democracy needs a political class but it is also true that while the legitimacy of the democratic system is high in India, the legitimacy of the politicians is almost zero. In virtually every serious opinion poll conducted during the last 15-odd years, the politicians, along with the police and the bureaucracy, are ranked near the bottom. Indians choose their representatives, I guess, the way President Harry S Truman chose his allies from among Latin America’s despotic rulers: “I know he is a bastard,” he once reportedly said, “but he is our bastard.”

This is an enormous void at the heart of India’s democratic system. If the people do not trust their politicians, it is unlikely that they will trust their version of the Lokpal Bill, their arguments about why the Bill cannot be passed quickly, and their diatribes against Anna and his tribe. They will also suspect that all the objections of the regime to the Jan Lokpal Bill are designed to protect the corrupt. Nor are they likely to trust the politicians when the latter hold forth on the beauties of parliamentary proceedings and constitutional proprieties. The parliamentarians themselves have not cared much for these proceedings and proprieties. During the last few years, a sizeable section of parliamentarians have tried very hard to turn Parliament into a circus. Above all, corruption has been a major issue for years and succeeding regimes have been in no hurry to bring in a Lokpal Bill; they had other, more interesting things to do in Parliament.

It is true that the civil society groups supporting Hazare are not elected and are, mostly, unelectable. But that is neither here nor there. Mass movements all over the world flout the rules of the game and constitutional provisions, however immaculate and revered they might be. I have never heard anyone claiming the movements to be illegitimate for that reason, except in despotic regimes. When our Constitution granted freedom of speech and organisation, it did not specify that all speeches and efforts to organise would have to conform to the tenets of the Constitution. A number of new states, including Andhra Pradesh and Punjab, have been carved out in response to mass movements that included fasting unto death. No one claims that India is worse off because of them.

Actually, in all functioning democracies there is always some space for the politics of desperation. In the matter of corruption, we have reached that stage. Many feel that everything and everyone is on sale. The ethical frame of our public life has come apart and there is a numbing sense of helplessness about it. We know we are one of the world’s most corrupt societies and we are happy if someone changes the topic and wants to discuss our growth rate or performance in cricket. This desperation is now trying to find political expression in forms of protest that, despite being peaceful, have a touch of vigilantism. It could not have been otherwise.

The pathetic debates going on in our media on whether Hazare and his associates should be granted the political recognition that has been casually granted to so many movements that have gone against the basic tenets of our Constitution-from parties preaching revolution or Hindu Rashtra to parties trying to decide on streets the boundaries of constitutionally defined entities such as states-is certainly not edifying. Our Constitution, I have always believed, has place for extra-constitutional demands even when they are not backed by civility and sometimes verge on lunacy. Are we facing a narrowing of our political culture around a strictly defined idea of the permissible? Or is this regime, run mainly by technocrats, trying to abridge our idea of the political? Or are we all unhappy that Hazare has not allowed us to make an Irom Sharmila out of him?
Ashis Nandy, Fellow, Centre for the Study
of Developing Societies, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal