Anna crosses the line

Why do we force Anna's ilk to mind a line that is only in our heads?


BV Rao | October 19, 2011

People should not think of the anti-corruption movement as a political movement. But I’m afraid they’ve already begun to speak of it in those terms.
– Justice Santosh Hegde (Outlook).

God, what blasphemy! This  brush with politics is enough to sound the death knell for Anna’s “popular movement”.

Call it popular naiveté or call it popular denial, but millions of us think just like justice Hegde.

Most of us are worried, many of us are uncomfortable and yet others are actually hoping that now that Anna’s movement has been “tainted” by politics in Hisar, the end is nigh.

Extremely popular as it has been, Anna’s movement was always completely political. If we didn’t see it that way all this while, it is because of this popular misconception about popular movements. Because these are generally not led by a politician these are assumed to be apolitical, or not political or even anti-politics.

Popular rubbish.

No movement—popular like Anna’s or not so popular like Medha Patkar’s NBA—whose ultimate aim is change in the political systems that govern us, can ever be anything but political. The country did not align itself behind Anna because he wanted this hard-of-hearing government and India’s august parliament to settle his domestic disputes—of which there is little likelihood anyway because he doesn’t have much of a family.

Let me push the argument further. Take the other big movement running concurrently. The latest wave of the Telangana movement was also conceived in an “immoral blackmail” just like Anna’s—a fast unto death. If this movement for a separate state was led by, say, an Osmania university professor instead of K Chandrashekhar Rao of the TRS, would it become a social movement?

Absurd argument, I concede. But by the same token, isn’t it absurd to paint Anna’s as a non-political movement just because he is not a politician and then restrict it to space outside of politics?

Anna wanted a new, stringent law to punish the corrupt. He could write the bill, warts and all, but he couldn’t pass it. He needed politicians to deliver that change. Politicians heed and recognise only one weapon of change: popular will, the might of numbers. Just because he could fire the imagination of the people, Anna was able to wipe that grin off every politician who believed that corruption was so rampant that it did not matter in electoral politics anymore.
You just can’t change the political discourse in the country like Anna has done without doing politics. Of course, Anna is doing politics. Where is the shame in admitting it? 

While the Telangana movement could have been led by a politician, the anti-corruption movement did not have any politician because it could not. In fact, the movement drew its legitimacy from the absence of politicians in Anna’s ranks. Politicians naturally eliminated themselves from it, their reputations being what they are. Just days after he successfully negotiated a truce with Anna on behalf of the government in August, Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit was caught carrying '10 lakh cash on a train journey. He said he was carrying it for a friend!

And yet, even after the trashing the Congress candidate has received in the Hisar by-election for standing on the wrong side of popular mood, it is Anna’s movement that is at the crossroads today. At the receiving end of his popular movement, the politicians of the Congress party, editors and intellectuals have been haranguing Anna to win elections if he wants to drive change. But at the source end, there is the danger that the bottom might fall out of his support base because of the romantic idea that popular movements should remain pristine, unspoiled and untouched by politics.

It is in this context that Anna’s Hisar experiment is unique. Politicians dare Anna to electoral duel arrogant in the knowledge that they write the rules there. Anna will be mincemeat. So Anna has done the next best thing. He has the moral force to influence an election, but he has no vehicle to fight an election himself. It’s something like having a nuclear weapon, but not having the mechanism to deliver it. 

In Hisar, Anna may have discovered the delivery mechanism to nuke an election. He (via video) and his team prevailed upon the voters to shun the Congress because its candidate did not come out in open support of the Jan Lokpal bill. This is no mean achievement. It is generally believed that Mayawati is the only leader who has the ability to “transfer” her vote bank. At the risk of saying too much too early, Anna, it might seem, is only the second such leader and he knows it from the warning he has delivered to the Congress. He said if the Lokpal bill is not passed in the winter session, as the prime minister perhaps hinted (yeah, like always only a vague hint, no commitment), he would personally campaign against the Congress in all the assembly elections next year.

No matter what analysts say or how politicians reject the Anna effect in Hisar (even the winning candidate has called Anna’s campaign “negative” because he pointed out who not to vote for rather than who to vote for!), the fact remains that the message has been delivered. That is perhaps why Rahul Gandhi, who dismissed Anna’s movement in parliament with the body language of a boxer at a pre-fight press conference, is now making an attempt at amends. And even Mayawati is trying to don the hat of a corruption crusader, sacking minsters at will.

The Hisar weapon, however, is double edged because of the sociology of popular movements and the psychology of the Indian mind that believes popular movements should not become political, notwithstanding the fact that every movement, by its very nature of assembly and demands, is political. Or that all social movements have to ultimately channel change only through politics. That is why Anna has to bend over backwards to convince us that he has no personal or political agenda and the Congress party makes desperate attempts to paint his movement as a BJP-RSS ploy.

As Anna keeps saying, electoral politics is beyond him because of the way it is structured now. But even if our electoral democracy were not so loaded against the man without money and means, Anna would worry about entering electoral fray because it is immediately derived that he was motivated by power after all. That is perhaps why we revere Gandhiji more than any other politician who embraced power, though Gandhiji himself was the greatest politician we have had.

Anna has shown repeatedly in the last few months that he has the wherewithal to force change. In Hisar he has proved that he can influence politics without touching it or wade through electoral politics without getting wet or soiling his kurta. He has said he is ready to do so again in the upcoming elections. So the future of his movement is not in his hands as much as it is in the hands of his followers.

It now depends on how much elbow room they want to give Anna to manoeuvre in the political arena. It depends on each one of them finding their own answers to a few questions. Should popular movements forever be condemned to operate one level below politics? Is there no life for them in the open political space? Should they singe popular movements the moment they touch politics? Should they allow electoral democracy to be the kiss of death for these movements?

Ninety-nine percent or more of India’s 1.21 billion are not politicians. But we all do politics. When we stand behind Anna, we do politics. When we turn away from Anna, we do politics. When we cast our vote, we do politics. Even not casting our vote, mostly vexed by the poor choices on offer, is also doing politics of a kind. Doing politics is not such a bad thing. We do politics all the time because the human being is a political animal. Our problem then is politicians, not politics.

Many voters in Hisar were aware Anna was crossing the Rubicon but didn’t seem to mind, some even welcomed it (see story next page). So, why should justice Hegde and many like him be afraid? Why should we burden Anna with minding a line that exists only in our imagination?

Intelspeak on Anna's Hisar experiment and the future for his movement

Brave but half-hearted stance
Jagdeep S Chhokar
A founder of Association for Democratic Reforms

For Team Anna to enter electoral politics is a brave thing to do. They are taking a very big risk. If one starts playing the competitive electoral politics game according to the rules that exist in reality, and not in theory, that is the end of the story. If it plays the game under a new set of rules – (a) a free and fair internal democracy in parties that extends to choosing electoral candidates and not merely the office-bearers and (b) complete financial transparency in the dealings of the parties – then the bravery continues. And if it can succeed, Team Anna will have made a tremendous contribution to the nation’s polity. If it fails, the situation becomes complex. The parties will then take delight in pointing out that it didn’t work and it will give a perverse legitimacy to the bad ways of politics.
It is less difficult to change the system from outside. Once you join a system, your ability is compromised.
By opposing the Congress candidate in the Hisar by-poll, Team Anna indirectly supported the opposition. It said “don’t vote for the Congress”. It did not say “vote for Chautala or Bishnoi”. But by implication, by asking people not to vote for the Congress, the only interpretation of its stand, in the eyes of the voters, is to indirectly ask for a vote for Chautala or Bishnoi who are no paragons of virtue. And this would not, by any stretch of imagination, be acceptable to those supporting Team Anna. What choices then do the voters have (if you ignore the minor players in fray)?
The stand of Team Anna is brave but half-hearted, though it may well have been chosen as a conscious and deliberate strategy. I wish them success but I doubt if half-hearted stands achieve the objectives. 

We are going step by step
Medha Patkar
Narmada Bachao Andolan leader and part of Anna’s movement

We are going step by step. The future course would be discussed and decided. Right now, the Jan Lokpal phase is still continuing.
Electoral politics has lost space in terms of influencing people’s mindsets, lives and decisions. Why people are ‘for’ politics is not just for the sake of it. It is for a purpose. When that purpose is not served, people look at non-electoral ways for basic changes – in policy, laws and also power equations.
Intervention in electoral politics is necessary. We intervene but we also strengthen non-electoral politics or what we call ‘people’s politics’. Those of us saying that we are not contesting elections are saying just this: we are not afraid of it or it is not untouchable but that the electoral politics is not everything.
I have seen those who have entered assembly or parliament with a clear and firm commitment. They either compromise or prove ineffective – not because they didn’t have popular support but because of the lack of ability to deal with wrong ways and means of other politicians.

Difficult to predict
Nivedita Menon
Professor, JNU

Firstly, I don’t think they (Team Anna) are joining electoral politics. They are putting pressure on the government to pass the Lokpal bill. Since the Congress is in power, they focused on its candidate in Hisar.
As for the future of Anna’s movement, they have a specific agenda, a very issue-based agenda, of getting the Lokpal bill passed, which is a constitutional demand. After it is passed I don’t know where it will go or what issues will be taken up next. It is difficult to predict.

Even failure will be big success
Anand Kumar
Professor, JNU

Politics of social movements and politics of parliamentary elections are two different games of the same larger framework of democracy and to be competent in both has been rare. Therefore, I don’t criticise Anna and his supporters for getting engaged in the parliamentary arena to strengthen their cause of Jan Lokpal.
But I want to advise them to hasten with caution. Will it work? Well, even his failure will be a big success.

Read more in our upcoming issue (November 1-15).



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