There is simmering discontent against the Anna camp among the civil society and people’s movements across India. Despite his August 16 threat, will his movement fizzle out?
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
Countdown: August 16. Is Anna Hazare going to defy the Indian Parliament, continue to be adamant on the Jan Lokpal bill, refuse to listen to any alternative discourse, and choose to go for an indefinite fast? Will he be able to sway the current mass opinion, yet again so strongly pitched against the corruption stalking high places in the Indian corporate and political establishment, or is it just vacillating middle-class angst, which might splinter, lose energy and perspective, and diffuse in its own steam? Has the Anna camp lost credibility, especially among grassroots political and social movements in India, with a strong cynical current gaining ground in the political unconscious?
Can live TV coverage compensate for hard, protracted struggles? How come innumerable, long-drawn struggles and long fasts like that of Irom Sharmila in Manipur (11 years of fast already against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act — AFSPA) have been ignored, even as Anna’s four-day fast has become a national landmark?
Is the Anna bubble bound to burst? Is he trapped in his own headlines?
It’s not out in the open, but consistent investigations by Hardnews since Anna’s fast in April, reveals a major paradigm shift in public opinion against Anna, still softly spoken, but strongly cynical and angry, simmering and spreading, and often, coming out in the open. And it’s not only the rift between what is called the “stubborn Anna camp with a self-styled mandate to represent the civil society” and a wide range of political groups, NGOs and social movements across the conflict zones in contemporary India. It is also the secular camp seething with anger at his praise of Modi and his ambivalent stance on communal fascism, as well as his historic silence and absolutely no role in the protracted movements against big dams, land acquisition, SEZs — from Nandigram to Jaitapur.
Who gave these five men the mandate to call themselves the civil society? This is one of the many questions doing the rounds across the national landscape. There is a silent upsurge of dissent brewing among social activists. Where was Anna when the long-drawn (and still ongoing) struggle against the Gujarat genocide was on? Where was he during and after the massacre? Has he ever visited the conflict zones of people’s movements against police repression in the Posco area, Kalinganagar, Niyamgiri, Nandigram, Singur, Kashipur, Raigarh, Plachimada, Narayanpatna and Lalgarh? Or the hunger and suicide zones of Vidarbha, earlier Anantapur and Rayalseema in Andhra Pradesh? Did he or did he not support Raj Thackeray when he was bashing up North Indian migrants in Mumbai? What was his position on the pogrom against Muslims in Mumbai (1992-93), in his own home state? Did Anna utter a single word on Operation Green Hunt or against Salwa Judum? Did he support any of the peace movements that opposed mass human rights violations? Did he whisper even once on freedom for Dr Binayak Sen, when the whole world campaigned for his release?
Is Lokpal going to solve all the burning issues of inequality and social injustice in this country? Is financial corruption the end-all of the entire systemic subversion of an inegalitarian and malnourished Indian democracy?
In April, 2011, with Bharat Mata in the backdrop, hundreds of people had gathered at Jantar Mantar in Delhi in support of Anna Hazare’s ‘non-political’ anti-corruption campaign for the Jan Lokpal bill. Main bhi Anna became the symbol. The composition of the Anna formation did confuse many. “There are people from such diverse backgrounds, you can’t really tell what their actual politics is,” said a top CPM leader, “The BJP believes Anna is a Congress guy, the Congress says he has been propped up by the Rightwing and RSS.”
“It was by and large the media which managed to clinch the numbers in Anna’s favour,” said a founder of India Against Corruption (IAC), the metro-centric, tech-savvy Jan Lokpal outfit. Also, Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar swung into action seeing the low turnout, asking their followers to fill the spaces at Jantar Mantar, confides an aide of Ramdev. “Even in an earlier meeting in January, it was Ramdev and Ravishankar’s supporters. Kejriwal and Anna do not have the people,” disclosed Bhupinder Singh Rawat, veteran activist, associated with the campaign in the early days (see interview, pg 11)
“It was Ramdev who started this campaign against corruption,” said a close associate of Ramdev. He narrated an uncanny story: “During a rally against the Commonwealth Games scam in Delhi, Anna walked up to Ramdev, touched his feet, and said, ‘I am a mere footsoldier, but you are the leader.’” At that time, Ramdev, backed by RSS, was calling the shots, his yoga shivirs doubling up as political platforms from where he ritualistically targeted the UPA government. “Anna used to be a backbencher then. He was in the second line of leadership,” said Rawat. Politically ambitious, Ramdev had floated the idea of his own party.
It is a fact that Ramdev’s big show in Delhi was meticulously planned by the Sangh Parivar, with full backing of RSS and the ABVP, BJP’s students’ wing. It took three years of planning, confessed a senior ABVP leader to Hardnews. “Prominent among those who were in the think-tank were former RSS ideologue KN Govindacharya and S Gurumurthy, close to the Sangh, former IB chief Ajit Doval, RSS and ABVP leaders,” she said. “We were sure that lakhs would participate at Ramlila grounds. All Sangh Parivar outfits were instructed to participate in full strength by the RSS leadership.”
Significantly, ‘Team Anna’, kept a tacit silence on Ramdev’s RSS links, even during the protest against the police action on Ramlila ground. This has disconcerted secularists.
Anna sat on a four-day fast at Jantar Mantar in April. The crowds swelled. The public spectacle, or ‘media circus’ as critics put it, caught the fancy of middle-class India, Sangh Parivar outfits, political parties, students, film stars, and all kinds of floating mavericks. Even eminent activists like Medha Patkar, leaders from long-drawn people’s movements, Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of CPI(ML-Liberation), declared their support on the spot. “A crisis in the social movements is making them run blindly after anything. The leaders are now hungry for publicity,” said Ashok Choudhary.
As an unnerved UPA regime — it had earlier tried to play down the corruption issue, with the prime minister too seemingly ambivalent — watched helplessly, the cocky Anna camp upped the ante, often using highly provocative language. “Hang the corrupt,” Ramdev demanded from the stage, as he held forth for hours on live TV, with a pleased Anna watching with reverence. “These are fascist tendencies, this compulsive obsession with unilateral clean politics, and these slogans of hanging all those they condemn as corrupt,” said Tanweer Fazal, Assistant Professor, Jamia Millia Islamia.
From the beginning there have been uncanny, unexpressed undercurrents of discomfort with the politics of the Anna camp. This has only consolidated in the current scenario, with the ‘chosen five’ generally indulging in TV grandstanding. Even the term ‘Team Anna’ seemed to stink of market branding. The hazy political character of the Anna camp surprised hardened activists and the intelligentsia. “It reminded one of the anti-Mandal days. The middle classes see only merit and corruption as the main issues. In a sense, it is a very vicious movement,” said Rohit Negi, Assistant Professor, Ambedkar University. Others were reminded of the racist, casteist, anti-reservation campaign against the Mandal Commission, as well as the anti-Dalit Youth for Equality (YFE) campaign of upper-caste youth. Significantly, Arvind Kejriwal was allegedly a leading campaigner of the anti-reservation YFE campaign.
“These people want to alienate the middle class from the problems of the common people,” said veteran activist Ashok Choudhary. “Such things catch the imagination of the middle classes. This is the same constituency which wants to see India as a superpower,” said Anand Teltumbde, prominent Dalit academic based in Nagpur. “It is an urban elite kind of a campaign,” said GN Saibaba, Assistant Professor, Ramlal Anand College, Delhi University. “They are very much part of the system. These people basically want to score a few brownie points to better India’s position on the transparency front,” argued Anil Choudhary, social activist.
“This is the first time that people who have demanded the law have themselves become part of the drafting committee,” pointed out an angry Rawat. “Who gave these five people the mandate?” asked Ashok Choudhary. “There are no Dalits, no minorities in their campaign,” said Mohd Ayub, President, Peace Party. “How can these people say that they represent the entire spectrum,” asked an RTI activist. “How can you say that a multimillionaire like Ramdev with RSS links has no personal interest? And are rest of the people uncivil?” asked Fazal. “Actually this is a group of former civil servants,” said Ashok Choudhary.
Anna Hazare has a chequered record. Some point to his overt and covert Rightwing leanings. “This is quite predictable with certain old-style Gandhians,” said Shabnam Hashmi of Anhad. “He never came out against communalism or in support of any other movement like the struggle against Posco in Jagatsinghpur or Vedanta in Niyamgiri. He actually praised Raj Thackeray when he was spewing venom against migrants. And why is he using the slogans of the RSS,” asked Ashok Choudhary. “He is from that old feudal mould and operates like a feudal lord. In the villages he has worked, the norm is nobody disobeys his word,” said Anand Teltumbde. “It is clear that Anna is a pro-Hindutva person. Even in the area he works, he is implementing the saffron agenda. The Dalits and Muslims are completely marginalised,” said Saibaba. “The question of communalism is discomforting for them,” said Fazal.
Activists close to the Lokpal movement point out that initially it was Arvind Kejriwal who galvanised support and funds for the movement. “It was Arvind who approached Kiran Bedi, Anna Hazare and others,” said Rawat. Kejriwal, a former Indian Revenue Service (IRS) official, started his work on the Right to Information (RTI) Act in Delhi some years ago. His NGOs — Parivartan, Kabir and Public Cause Research Foundation — have been devising ways to make better use of RTI. Many activists, however, accuse him of glamorising the issue by holding annual RTI awards in five star hotels with the direct involvement of corporates and Bollywood stars like Aamir Khan. His NGO Kabir receives considerable funds from the Ford Foundation. “He can align with anybody,” goes the refrain. “And does he or the Anna camp have any qualms about how a billionaire like Aamir Khan betrayed the Plachimada struggle after promising support during Medha Patka’s strike in Delhi, and made hordes of money promoting Coke,” said an NBA activist. Aamir Khan, among other Bollywood figures, has come out openly in support of Anna recently.
It was Kejriwal who pitched for Kiran Bedi as Central Information Commissioner. One of his former colleagues has alleged that when on a study leave during his stint as an IRS officer, he was getting salary from an NGO, Centre for Equity Studies. These are unsubstantiated allegations. He was presumed to be eyeing a slot in the National Advisory Council (NAC), and does not really see eye-to-eye with NAC member Aruna Roy — considered far more superior in content and style, and a more eminent name in the social activists’ galaxy.
Known to be extremely sharp, a highly ambitious Kejriwal is actually seen as ‘Anna’s strategist’. He is forever whispering in his ears or snatching the mike (that is, if Kiran Bedi gives him a chance!). Sangh Parivar sources claimed that he was a regular at RSS-run coaching classes during his early NGO days, where he groomed civil services aspirants. “He is staunchly anti-reservation. He used to be a member of the YFE forum some years back,” said Udit Raj, President, Justice Party.
The anti-corruption movement, despite live TV coverage and middle-class support, has been haunted at the grassroots by difficult questions. “The very first day when we went there, we realised there was no place for us,” said Rawat. He narrated how the campaign was controlled by the IAC team and people from other social movements were kept at an arm’s length, barring Medha Patkar, RSS leaders, and of course, the two babas, Ramdev and Ravishankar. “We did not want to push our way to the podium,” said Rawat. “One should ask the Anna camp, where are the rest of the members of the original campaign? Where are those who played an important part in building this campaign?” said food security expert Devinder Sharma.
Also, the highly provocative language deterred many. “To me it looks like an RSS ploy to shift the gaze away from Hindutva terror,” Shabnam Hashmi told Hardnews in April. “Ramdev and Anna are both dolls in the hands of Hindutva forces,” said Saibaba. These doubts and suspicions became entrenched after Anna openly praised Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar. Modi wrote a long eulogy on Anna after this praise, promising wholehearted support to him. “Sharad Yadav, an opportunist rump socialist of the Janata Dal-U and a BJP ally, openly supported the campaign and that is why the praise for Nitish Kumar,” explained activists. Interestingly, Nitish has delegated the the Bihar Lokpal Bill to the IAC team.
Others in the civil society are miffed that any criticism of the Anna camp’s high-pitched rhetoric is branded as “siding with the corrupt UPA government”. “Being critical of their Lokpal draft doesn’t mean one is against eradicating corruption,” Aruna Roy said in a consultation held by the National Coalition for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) in Delhi. NCPRI and others have been seriously unhappy since the first day with the one-dimensional conduct of the Anna camp, the way IAC did not consult them and sidetracked their suggestions.
A high-level consultation in July in Delhi, attended by Prashant Bhushan, Aruna Roy, Prof Shekhar Singh and Medha Patkar, saw a diversity of opinions on the ‘unilateral’ Jan Lokpal draft. Said Roy, “I have a dislike for deadlines. If we want the system to work, we need to budget some time.” Argued Harsh Mander, NAC member, “We have reached a polarised discourse. They are just ‘a’ voice of the people, not ‘the’ voice. I feel Team Anna should have the humility to listen to other voices.”
Only Medha Patkar felt that there were fractures, and hence a need for a united response. “I too feel IAC should encourage a healthy debate. I think they are pursuing the anti-corruption movement in a deliberately non-specific way. They need to analyse the movement,” Nikhil Dey, convener, NCPRI, told Hardnews. Even at a recent public meeting in Delhi, Roy confronted Prashant Bhushan: “Will the corporates and babas still support and fund the movement if they were brought under the purview of Lokpal?” she asked. Prashant Bhusan evaded the question concerning the babas, while he aggressively countered the corporate question by saying that not all corporates are corrupt, and that they too want an honest business environment. His stance seemed rather contradictory. This argument has been widely refuted by activists who see the corporates as fountainheads of corruption in neoliberal India. Even Prashant Bhushan had written a strong critique of how neoliberalism, corporate loot and corruption form a nexus in recent times. “Middle-class silence on corruption in the corporate world is linked to their own links with them in one way or the other,” argued Anand Teltumbde.
Now that the government has made its position clear, there are doubts whether the demands of ‘Team Anna’ would find space in the final draft. “They are actually defending the indefensible,” said Dey. “Some of their demands are stupid. I don’t think they will be accepted,” said Praful Bidwai, columnist. “He refused to speak on Jaitapur. Why?”
“It’s a fight between two oligarchies. I don’t think the ruling oligarchy would allow a parallel oligarchy. This way the system would collapse,” explained Saibaba. “These are foolish demands. How can they tinker with the essence of the Constitution? Can any of them get elected through elections? Do they want to destabilise this system which runs on checks and balances?” asked Udit Raj.
With even the TV cameras shying away in recent times, there are doubts whether the August 16 fast will re-create the earlier frenzy. “It’s a miscalculated strategy,” said a CPM leader. “I told Anna that there is still a Parliament and a Constitution and the Lokpal bill should go through all the procedures,” said AB Bardhan, CPI general secretary. “I don’t think the middle class can sustain the movement for long. The real fight has to come from the people of this country,” argued Saibaba. As a senior CPM leader said, “They won’t be able to sustain it for long unless an organised force like RSS takes over.”