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Does the Gandhi cap fit?

Communist Party of India (CPI) secretary D Raja lives in a single room quarter in Delhi’s VP House — the most modest accommodation a member of parliament can get. Varghese K George reports.

delhi Updated: Jun 18, 2011 22:51 IST
Varghese K George
Varghese K George
Hindustan Times

Communist Party of India (CPI) secretary D Raja lives in a single room quarter in Delhi’s VP House — the most modest accommodation a member of parliament can get. Much like Anna Hazare, who too lives in a single room, attached to the Yadavbaba temple at Ralegan Siddhi his village, 80 km from Pune.

Anna – elder brother in Marathi – spent the Rs20,000 he got on retirement from army in 1975 to renovate the temple. That was the first of a series of constructive deeds that would change the barren, despondent village, now of 2500 people, into green, prosperous and happy. (See timeline, below) Yadavbaba was a local saint. Today, Anna too is revered as a saint and his popularity is soaring — thanks to his campaign for constituting lokpal, an ombudsman that will investigate and punish the corrupt.

“me vit Mah whole group is vit u guys....lets bit d shit out of the corrupted polititions,” Jani Maulik, a 21-year-old Ahmedabad boy posted on the “Youngsters supporting Anna Hazare” page on Facebook, as Anna sat on fast at Jantar Mantar in Delhi demanding that the government adopt a draft legislation on lokpal prepared by his team.

The subject of the support, Hazare, declared in one of his speeches: “Politicians like D Raja are looting the country,” mistaking the CPI secretary for former telecom minister A Raja who is in jail facing corruption charges.

Sorting the good from the evil can be challenging. Thirteenth century inquisitor Arnaud Chatalan introduced a mechanism for separating the believers from the heretics: ‘Hang them all; God will save his people.’ Anna wants only the corrupt to be hanged. “We want a lokpal bill to get the corrupt hanged,” Anna told his supporters — around a 1000 of them — at Jantar Mantar on April 8.

Mistaking D Raja for A Raja, then, can be a matter of life and death. But, is it? “All are corrupt. Some are graduates, some are PhDs,” Anna has said. Poor D Raja!

Hazare as Anna
There are two versions about how and why Anna Hazare went to the army. Kishan Baburao Hazare lived a difficult childhood and studied up to class seven, helped by his childless aunt in Mumbai. He sold flowers on Mumbai’s streets and joined the army in 1963. Despite his inadequate physique, he was recruited given the high demand for soldiers.

There is a more romantic version. “Government of India had appealed to young Indians to join the Indian army. Being passionate about patriotism, he promptly responded to the appeal,” says a website authorised by him. During his 12 years as a truck driver, Hazare narrowly escaped death twice — once in action and once in an accident — and served on borders with Pakistan and China.

War broke and in September 1965, two Pakistani jets bombed Hazare’s convoy. Later, Hazare wriggled out of his mangled truck. He was the only one to come out alive, amid the numerous dead bodies strewed around. Hazare reportedly asked God. “You saved me, but why.” He resolved the existentialist question by deciding to quit the army and serve the people of his village. But then he decided to wait until he became eligible for pension.

Returning to Ralegaon Siddhi, Hazare became ‘Anna’ as he began to organise villagers for watershed development and to fight against alcoholism and untouchability. Anna’s volunteers beat up liquor vendors who refused to shut shop and those who were caught drunk. In one instance, three drunken men were tied to a pole and Anna flogged them with his army belt. The villagers mobilised money for a school and a boarding that houses students who are repeatedly failing. “So that they can improve,” says Jaisingh Mapori, panchayat president. Anna encouraged children to learn English and to join the army — there are more than 200 of them today.

Along with his reputation as a village reformer, Anna’s proximity to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) also grew. RSS pracharak DM Date became a close companion and took him to various functions of the Sangh around Pune. When he sat on fast, RSS leader Ram Madhav sat alongside him at Jantar Mantar briefly. Anna was impressed with Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray’s campaign against migrants in Maharashtra. “Outsiders trying to prove their dominance in the state is not at all acceptable,” he declared.

Anna doesn’t think this needs to be explained. His close associate, Delhi-based RTI activist and Magsaysay award winner Arvind Kejriwal, agreed to set up an interview with him and demanded a written questionnaire. After reviewing the questions that included his support for Thackeray and his association with the RSS, the interview was called off.

Anna as Gandhi?
These days, in the same way that a lot of Facebook users are discovering him, Hazare, too, is discovering new facets about his self. “I am willing to go to jail and face the bullet but I will not backtrack until the government meets all my demands,” he said on Thursday. “The public support I get is so tremendous that wherever I go, people mob me and seek my autograph,” he said. Winning an election is no indication of public support, he had earlier clarified.

His first national foray came in late 2009, when Kejriwal anointed Hazare as the face of a campaign to appoint ex-IPS officer Kiran Bedi as Central Information Commissioner.

The government ignored it. After lawyer Prashant Bhushan became the champion of public interest litigations on scams related to 2G-spectrum allocation and Commonwealth Games, by the end of 2010, Kejriwal mobilised Anna for a larger campaign against corruption.

SD Sharma, an 85-year-old Gandhian and some comrades began a relay hunger strike at Jantar Mantar early this year and planned go on an indefinite fast from January 30. As activists in the National Advisory Council were drafting a Lok Pal bill, Sharma was persuaded to defer his fast. Kejriwal’s group announced Hazare would go on a fast unto death from March 16 and postponed it to April 5, so that their spectacle did not compete with World Cup cricket for airspace. After the government and activists agreed to a form a joint panel to draft the Lok Pal, the fast was withdrawn.

He is trying to live up to role ascribed to him by the media and his associates led by Kejriwal. So far, Anna’s life revolved around the village where his diktat could be enforced with a belt. Suddenly thrown into the world where constitution, parliament, federalism and precedence matter, Anna retorts to every question with the stock reply: “people are the masters. Ministers are servants.” He, being one of the ‘people,’ is the master.

Anna rarely opens his mouth in meetings of the committee for Lok Pal and when he does, it is to utter homilies. “We must send out a strong signal that we are against corruption,” he said in the last. As the discussion meanders into finer points of law, Anna swings his head incessantly and let his companions – Bhushan and Kejriwal – do the talking. “He is a well-meaning, good soul. And nothing more,” says a union minister who has been interacting with him.

The role ascribed to Anna, that of a new-age Gandhi, is not easy for the 74-year-old. At some times, like Natha in Peepli Live, he is trying to act the role; at others, he comes across as a caricature of Sunny Deol in Ma Tujhe Salam: ‘I am willing to face bullets for the nation.’

“I am a Gandhian,” Hazare has said, always emphasising his “sacrifices.” Anna must have been a bad reader, if he indeed has read Gandhi, as his official site claims.

Gandhi wrote: “Reform is one-legged, and so proceeds haltingly. Anyone who loses patience can never become a pure Satyagrahi…. The thing is that a reformer should be free from egotism. Why should we assume responsibility for ending all evils? ….to think “I do this, I do that” is ignorance.”

“Gandhi coined the word ‘Duragraha’ as opposed to Satyagraha,” says Aloke Bajpai, fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi and an expert on Gandhi. “Duragraha movements concentrate on romanticised, extremist notions, without attention to ‘constructive democratic politics,’ Gandhi had analysed,” adds Bajpai.

Anna is cocksure about the causes that he espouses, something Gandhi wasn’t. “I am essentially a man of compromise because I am never sure that I am right,” Gandhi had said.

It is not that Anna does not change his opinion. Days after he certified Gujarat CM Narendra Modi as a model for rural development, he derided him. He initially declared his intent to fast with Baba Ramdev and then disowned him. Truth is relative, Gandhi had said.

Gandhi had said truth is never absolute. However, on provisions of lokpal bill, Anna seems to have found the absolute truth.

(With Nagendar Sharma, Chetan Chauhan and Neeraj Jha)

First Published: Jun 18, 2011 22:47 IST