The Anna in every Indian, and how to keep it in check

What did Kisan Baburao Hazare mean when he challenged a journalist who had probing questions with this counter-question: "Why can't you too be an Anna?"

delhi Updated: Nov 05, 2011 21:00 IST
Varghese K George
Varghese K George
Hindustan Times

What did Kisan Baburao Hazare mean when he challenged a journalist who had probing questions with this counter-question: "Why can't you too be an Anna?"

The clue lies in Hazare's self-perception, made evident through statements such as, "Shoot me if you can. I am willing to die for the country", "My life has only been one of sacrifice and struggle" and "The entire nation is behind Anna", always delivered with his index finger pointed outward.

Naturally, his fan following overlaps more with Sunny Deol's than Mahatma Gandhi's. Anna constantly challenges others to live by the moral standards that he sets. But is it an irrepressible urge to 'sacrifice for the nation' that has been driving all those wearing the 'I am Anna' caps in recent months? Not really.

The Anna movement is comparable with the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Arab Spring and the London riots, in that they all occurred in an environment of economic hardship and weakened political leadership. But there are some factors that distinguish the Anna movement, and not ironically, making it the least progressive - and perhaps also the most dangerous - of all.

Unlike the other movements, which have no leaders and are hazy about their agendas, Hazare's movement has a supreme leader and a definite agenda. Like the God who dwells in everyone, "there is an Anna in every Indian". The problem is "corruption", the solution is the Jan Lokpal Bill. The Anna movement has all the ingredients of a Messianic uprising - memories of a promise and a past icon, a current crisis, the promise of instant salvation. Such extreme moral certitudes can be dangerous.

What is the crisis that feeds Anna? The masses that throng the Anna marches are not those unlinked to the market, but those who are linked to it inequitably. A good number of them are recent migrants, struggling for a foothold in a new economy and a new city, squeezed by rising prices. In a comparable context, Olivier Roy, a scholar on Muslim societies, describes such a group as those who have abandoned their "old country, its customs and practices," but are unable to connect with the "new country." This demographic makes up the core of the Anna movement.

But public perception of the leaders, the movement and Anna's own personality has changed over the past few months. The team's internal contradictions have been laid bare by Prashant Bhushan's support for a plebiscite in Kashmir, which stands opposed to the patriotic fervour that the campaign sought to fan, and by the various allegations of impropriety that have dogged key members Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal. The group's foray into electoral politics has added another strain - and for the movement to sustain itself from now on, it will have to align with political parties. Consequently, its impact will be limited to causing some electoral setbacks to the Congress.

What the Anna camp has going in its favour, however, is the fact that there is no change imminent in either of the two variables that made Anna possible - weak political leadership and economic volatility.

Meanwhile, it has been interesting to watch Anna's own personality come up for closer scrutiny. As various factions probed beyond the cultivated image of selflessness and sacrifice, we saw new facets of this messiah - the militarist willing to do "whatever it takes to keep Kashmir"; the xenophobe who thinks "corruption is a worse enemy than Pakistan"; the megalomaniac who constantly refers to himself in the third person; the vigilante who wants to hang the corrupt; the man with enough contempt for the rule of law to say "Kasab is living off us, so hang him from a lamppost".

Yes, there is an Anna in every Indian, and it emerges in times of hardship. The challenge is to keep it under control.

First Published: Nov 05, 2011 20:49 IST