To anyone but a die-hard supporter of Anna Hazare, it is now clear that his movement is in slow but inevitable self-destruct mode. A combination of hubris, poor tactical decisions and inner contradictions has created conditions that will see the withering away of what looked like a promising campaign that could have achieved real results.
Today, the so-called Team Anna is a bunch of ragtag elements kept in the news only by the media but otherwise irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. Every other day the leaders of this team — Prashant Bhushan, Arvind Kejriwal and Hazare himself — try and up the ante with sensationalist announcements that get a headline or two. The sudden finger-pointing at the prime minister for allegedly running a corrupt government was one such desperate effort. But these gimmicks will run out sooner rather than later. In the meantime, the original campaign against corruption in public life and the demand for a Jan Lokpal Bill have been forgotten.
How did this happen? Last August, Hazare had shaken the government, which looked as if it was caught in the headlights. The Congress’s strategists appeared flat-footed when they tried to deal with Baba Ramdev and by the time Hazare started his fast, the government was demoralised. At that time it seemed more than likely that the Lokpal Bill would be passed sooner rather than later. This was hardly the way to enact legislation, however worthy, but a besieged government saw no way out. It called for a truce and invited Hazare and his colleagues for negotiations.
This is when the team made its first tactical blunder. All negotiations begin with extreme positions, after which both sides gradually move towards a modus vivendi they can live with. A lokpal that satisfied the public mood and yet was not an all powerful body that overrode other institutions of the democratic structure would have been the best solution; instead, Hazare and his cohorts dug in, demanding that only their version be accepted. Simultaneously, they kept up a barrage of invective against politicians and especially against the Congress. The political class united (even if for a short time) and the Congress began seeing a conspiracy.
The open call in the Hisar by-elections to defeat the Congress seemed to confirm the party’s worst fears that Hazare was little more than a puppet of the BJP. At the same time, the petty charges of expense fudging against Kiran Bedi began eroding the public’s faith in the campaigners. Hazare’s somewhat unconventional methods in his village, too, alarmed liberal middle-class followers. Even then, the situation could have been salvaged, but the refusal of Hazare and his team to show any flexibility brought about an impasse; naturally this was fine with politicians. The unraveling had begun.
One more point needs to be noted: the tone and tenor of statements by every one of the Hazare team, from Anna himself to Bhushan, Kejriwal and Bedi and the sundry spokespersons on television have made them look sanctimonius and prickly. They are convinced they have righteousness on their side and that anyone with another point of view is somehow a government agent or a saboteur. This shows an intolerant attitude. At the same time, they have not been able to answer charges of being selective in their criticism and only picking on the Congress.
When the December fast in Mumbai collapsed because of low public interest, the team did not know how to deal with it. Hazare walked off when he was asked questions and by then it had become clear that the crusade was beginning to fizzle out.
Now the group looks demoralised and crestfallen and its attempts to attack the prime minister look like publicity stunts. They have a comment on every issue (Bhushan spoke on Kashmir!); apparently they cannot resist speaking into a microphone held in front of their face. Where was the need to make digs against Sharad Pawar when he was hit by a bystander?
The attempt to tie up with Baba Ramdev must be seen in that context. Ramdev himself is without much credibility, but he boasts of a large following that is loyal. As such he can bring organisation and personnel into any movement. He is also close to the BJP— party chiefs do not bend and touch the feet of any and every saffron-wearing sadhu. Hazare needs him more than he needs Team Anna, though he too could do with Hazare’s residual credibility. As for the BJP, it is ready to try out anything that will give it some space in the national political scene. It is a marriage of convenience for all.
In the coming weeks and months, as the general elections draw nearer, all anti-Congress groupings will go into high gear. At that time, even Hazare will find some space to be heard. But as an effective change-agent, the movement he tried to start is, for all practical purposes, dead.
Sidharth Bhatia is a Mumbai-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal