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I am not Anna Hazare

A government out of touch with India’s aspirations has let Team Anna hog the centrestage at the cost of other crucial issues. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Aug 20, 2011 11:53 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

Outside a Sufi shrine on a ramshackle south Mumbai street, a large poster above the main door flaps in the monsoon wind.

“The one who gives or takes bribe is liable for hell,” it says, quoting verse 786/92 from the Islamic scriptures called Hadees Sharieff. “Viva! Viva! Viva! A 101 gun salute to Young India,” goes an enthusiastic tweet from Lt Gen HS Panag, a former Indian Army commander, living in Chandigarh.

If there were questions about the affiliations of the anti-corruption movement started by Kisan Baburao Hazare, or “Anna (elder brother)” as we know him, they were overlooked by most doubters after his clumsy arrest.

To first vilify and then incarcerate, a few hours after Independence Day, a frail, peaceable 74-year-old anti-corruption crusader in Tihar, a jail that symbolises the end of the road for the corrupt leaders, the rapist and the terrorist is to be beyond foolish.

The latest avatar of Anna’s six-month-old movement transcends class, religion and profession, and it is purer than before, as Mumbai’s BJP chief Raj Purohit found on Tuesday when he and his cohorts, waving party flags, were heckled into leaving.

So, they gather, traders, mothers and clerks, lighting candles at India Gate in New Delhi, as their grandfathers and grandmothers did 64 years ago to watch their nation awake to light and freedom.

So, they gather at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan, where once millions gathered to push India towards that freedom, Hindu and Muslim shopkeepers and college youth in jeans and Gandhi topis that say in Marathi and English, “I am Anna Hazare”.

So they gather at Freedom Park in Bangalore, quickly stepping out during lunch breaks at their technology companies, to join what Hazare calls the “second freedom movement”. It is hard not be swept up in the euphoria of the democratic moment.

But let me tell you why I will not wear a Gandhi topi, light a candle, or join the “second freedom movement”. Let me tell you why I do not want be Anna Hazare.

First, I find it hard to associate with the extreme passions at the core of this movement, a Bill to create a powerful anti-corruption ombudsman.

Hazare’s edition of the proposed law, the Jan Lokpal Bill, the people’s version, has flaws and those who support it blindly must recognise them. There are contentious issues, too many to mention here, including fuzzy definitions, inadequate separation of judicial and police powers, and possible prosecution of bribe givers.

These can be resolved, but there cannot be an our-way-or-no-way approach to negotiations.

Second, while the government was idiotic in accusing Hazare of “being steeped in corruption from head to toe” and autocratic in its actions against peaceful protestors, there is nothing to suggest a new Emergency is at hand.

This is a protest, not a revolution. I sense a lack of emotional proportion and a troubling hypocrisy from a middle class that refuses to get as moved to action by graver things, such as the murder of female children, child labour in homes, hotels and factories, or poverty outside our car windows.

There is excitable talk now of the constitutional right to protest, but this is not something we like to give to Kashmiris, or bother too much when it is snatched from tribals or others on the margins of middle-India’s imagination.

Have we ever stood by Irom Sharmila Devi, the Manipuri woman who has been on a hospital bed for a decade, force fed through tubes because she is on a hunger strike to have a draconian security law removed?

Third, the lokpal could be a useful institution, but as Karnataka’s Lokayukta is demonstrating, existing institutions only need strengthening. In the brouhaha over Hazare, it has largely escaped national attention that former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa has now sought anticipatory bail after cases of corruption were registered against him.

A lokpal is no panacea for reforms and governance.

“Anna Hazare says bring back the black money. Do u know what will happen if (Rs) 1,456 lakh crore comes back?” asks one popular sms. India will “financially” be “number one”.

Each village, we are told, will get Rs 100 crore; there will be no need to pay electricity bills or taxes for the next 20 years; petrol will cost Rs 25, milk Rs 8; India’s borders “will become more stronger (sic) than the China Wall”; we can build 28,000 km of “rubber road (like in Paris)”; houses for 100 million people; 1,500 “Oxford-like universities”; 2,000 free hospitals.

It is a mistake to deride such dreams, as the Congress’ smug, condescending, vitriol-spewing functionaries have been doing. The email, text and other messages that have gone viral across large swathes of urban India represent a nation’s daily frustrations, unfulfilled aspirations, stalled reforms and shoddy governance.

They represent all the things that exhaust those of us who — unlike the Congress’s arrogant, loose-talking ministers and the power elite — cannot jump lines or buy our way out of: rising prices, woeful transport, education and health facilities. They represent all that India desperately wants — and wants now.

It is clear that India’s rise over the last 20 years has been despite the government, not because of it. Only now, after the reforms of 1991, are we seeing some urgency.

Awaiting a stalled Parliament are 35 pending bills, 32 new bills and discussions on blockbuster reforms, including the Goods and Services Tax, the Direct Tax Code, the Land Acquisition Bill, and yes, the Lokpal Bill. Anna will be free soon.

He will continue to focus attention on what he must, but India has much, much more to discuss.

First Published: Aug 17, 2011 21:32 IST