If Anna is not JP, Manmohan Singh's not Indira Gandhi either

The mystery of the Anna phenomenon and why it baffles our intelligentsia and political class


Ajay Singh | December 27, 2011

Social movements defy description. If a section of academics or political leaders are at their wits’ end to find an apt expression to describe the Anna phenomenon, it reflects their cognitive deficiency to grasp this complex process of social change. Any attempt to draw parallels from the past ends up wrapping this movement in a mystery.

This is the precise reason why the Anna phenomenon is full of mysteries which are yet to be unraveled. For instance, in political corridors of New Delhi one can hear a question couched in a supercilious argument: Is Anna a new JP? Of course, not. Jayaprakash Narayan was educated in the US and did his political internship under Mahatma Gandhi. Anna, on the other hand, had a humble beginning as an army havildar and slowly transformed himself as a social activist. JP was well versed in the idioms of the social elites of his times. Anna sounds like a typical village elder rooted in values and traditions of a social order which occasionally betrays a streak of authoritarianism.

Yet, his rustic idioms are finding resonance with an audience which is not only emerging economically but much more attuned libertarian values and globalised economy than JP’s time.

Is this not a great mystery?

Well, this is just a beginning of a series of mysteries that shrouds Anna’s movement. Consider another contrast: In an India which is expected to gain hugely from the demographic advantage (a euphemism for a preponderance of the younger generation), how is it possible for a septuagenarian to mobilise the youth for a social protest? By any stretch of imagination, Anna does not have any ingredients of being a youth icon which he has eventually become.

If the Indian youth has a penchant for taking elderly as role model, BJP veteran LK Advani stands a fairer chance than Anna in emerging as the leader. Advani took out a nationwide journey this year and spoke against corruption in a more sophisticated and nuanced language than Anna. He was backed by a well-oiled machinery of the party organisation and various constituents of the Sangh Parivar. Advani also tried to strike a chord with the younger generation as song against corruption, composed like a pop song, played at his rallies. Yet his 38-day political odyssey could not even prove to be a blip on the national radar compared with Anna’s fasts. Why is it so?

Take another inexplicable paradox. Anna’s movement is fueled by an effective use of the social media, but his own acquaintance with this technology may not be even elementary. Here is another paradox: those surrounding him may not claim to have unimpeachable credentials individually, but as members of Team Anna they are readily accepted. A questionable deed here or there for one or two of them did not turn out to be a handicap for the movement.  Kiran Bedi is an example to prove this thesis right.

The mysteries and paradoxes make at least one thing clear: Perhaps those comparing Anna with JP are doing injustice to both. JP’s personality needs to be understood in a context where he played a crucial role against the British in colonial India. Though he was one of the brightest disciples of Gandhi, he stayed away from politics post independence and led a Spartan life. His banner of revolt against an authoritarian Indira Gandhi rekindled the spirit of the freedom struggle in a generation which had maintained a link with the independence movement. JP had sufficient political training and legitimacy to take the lead to overthrow the Indira regime. In people’s eyes, JP crafted an alternative political grammar with the help of stalwarts like Morarji Desai, Chaudhary Charan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial conduct always stood in a sharp contrast to the humility expected of the political class.

However, the Anna phenomenon emerges from people’s revulsion for the conduct of a political class that many have come to compare with the Mafiosi. The prime minister owes his position not to his unquestionable leadership but to his unflinching loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family that has dominated the country’s oldest political party. Similarly the country’s main opposition, the BJP, has virtually outsourced its leadership to the RSS apparatchik who are not accountable to people. In a curious convergence of political destiny, both the top national parties have put up mere faces instead of actual leaders to escape accountability. This has led to a serious erosion of credibility in both parties.

Even powerful regional satraps like Sharad Pawar, Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati found themselves on the wrong side of the popular mood whenever they opposed Anna. Lalu’s rustic idioms are now perceived as uncouth and repulsive while Anna’s comment on slap to Pawar was welcomed by people who thought it was his rustic innocence at work. His ordain to flog drunkards after tying them to a pole has hardly diminished his standing even among the urban middle class.

Perhaps the Gandhi-topi-clad old man from Ralegan Sidhi has been appealing to a deep seated desire among us to see our leaders as strong, honest and forthright. Anna is seen as an answer to people’s yearning, as political leaders have failed them.

Of course, Anna is not JP. But then Manmohan Singh is not Indira Gandhi either.



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