Debating Anna Hazare
On the 27th of August, the Telegraph newspaper published an article on Anna Hazare by Ramachandra Guha under the title A PATRIARCH FOR THE NATION?. The article sparked a debate between the author and the social worker Lalit Uniyal. The debate is reproduced below, for several reasons. The dialogue is without artifice; it grew naturally. Marxists might perceive an instance of the dialectic in operation, thesis to synthesis. Younger scholars might discover a model of courtesy in debate. And, hopefully, someone in Anna’s entourage might notice it!
First, here is the original article itself:
About 20 years ago, I found myself in the same room as Anna Hazare, at a meeting organized by the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi. Mr Hazare was becoming known in environmental circles for the work he had done in his native village, Ralegan Siddhi. His successful programmes of watershed conservation and afforestation stood in stark contrast to the efforts of the state forest department, which had handed over vast tracts of virgin forests to industry. Moreover, whereas the forest department was hostile to community participation, identifying villagers as ‘enemies of the forest’, Hazare had energized peasants to care for and renew their natural environment. When Anna Hazare came into that Delhi meeting room of the early 1990s he wore the same dress as he does now. He exuded the same simplicity. But, as I recall, he spoke softly, even with some diffidence. He was not entirely at home in a hall filled with urban folks whose cultural, albeit not moral, capital, was far greater than his.
It is said that power and wealth make men younger. So, apparently, does the attention of television. As we become older, the rest of us grow less alert, less energetic, less combative. This law of biology Hazare seems now to have defied. For the man I now see on my screen is not the man I once saw in a seminar room in New Delhi. He challenges and taunts the government and its ministers, wagging his finger at the cameras. Once, Hazare was the voice and conscience of the village of Ralegan Siddhi; now he demands that he be seen as the saviour of the nation itself.
Some television channels claim that Anna Hazare represents the overwhelming bulk of Indians. Print, cyberspace and soundings on the street suggest a more complicated picture. Liberals worry about the dangers to policy reform contained in street agitations led by men whose perfervid rhetoric undermines constitutional democracy. Dalits and backward castes see this as a reprise of the anti-Mandal agitation, led and directed by savarna activists.
To these political reservations may be added the caution of the empirical sociologist. The population of the Delhi metropolitan area is in excess of 10 million; yet at their height, the crowds in the Ramlila Maidan have never exceeded 50,000. In May 1998, 400,000 residents of Calcutta marched in protest against the Pokhran blasts. No one then said that ‘India stands against Nuclear Bombs’. Now, however, as television cameras endlessly show the same scenes at the same place, we are told that ‘India is for Anna’.
This said, it would be unwise to dismiss the resonance or social impact of the campaign led by Anna Hazare. It comes on the back of a series of scandals promoted by the present United Progressive Alliance government — Commonwealth Games, 2G, Adarsh, et al. The media coverage of these scandals, over the past year and more, has led to a sense of disgust against this government in particular, and (what is more worrying) against the idea of government in general. It is this moment, this mood, this anger and this sense of betrayal, that Anna Hazare has ridden on. Hence the transformation of a previously obscure man from rural Maharashtra into a figure of — even if fleetingly — national importance.
The success of Anna Hazare is explained in large part by the character of those he opposes. He appears to be everything the prime minister and his ministers are not — courageous, independent-minded, willing to stake his life for a principle. In an otherwise sceptical piece — which, among other things, calls Anna Hazare a “moral tyrant” presiding over a “comical anti-corruption opera”— the columnist C.P. Surendran writes that “a party that can’t argue its case against a retired army truck driver whose only strength really is a kind of stolid integrity and a talent for skipping meals doesn’t deserve to be in power”. These two strengths — honesty and the willingness to eschew food, and by extension, the material life altogether — shine in comparison with the dishonest and grasping men on the other side.
Large swathes of the middle class have thus embraced Anna Hazare out of disgust with Manmohan Singh’s government. That said, one must caution against an excessive identification with Anna Hazare. Hazare is a good man, perhaps even a saintly man. But his understanding remains that of a village patriarch.
The strengths and limitations of Anna Hazare are identified in Green and Saffron, a book by Mukul Sharma that shall appear later this year. Sharma is an admired environmental journalist, who did extensive fieldwork in Ralegan Siddhi. He was greatly impressed by much of what he saw. Careful management of water had improved crop yields, increased incomes, and reduced indebtedness. On the other hand, he found the approach of Anna Hazare “deeply brahmanical”. Liquor, tobacco, even cable TV were forbidden. Dalit families were compelled to adopt a vegetarian diet. Those who violated these rules — or orders — were tied to a post and flogged.
Sharma found that on Hazare’s instructions, no panchayat elections had been held in the village for the past two decades. During state and national elections, no campaigning was allowed in Ralegan Siddhi. The reporter concluded that “crucial to this genuine reform experiment is the absolute removal from within its precincts of many of the defining ideals of modern democracy”.
The sound-bites spontaneously offered by Anna Hazare in recent weeks do not inspire confidence. Emblematic here was his dismissal of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and of the government’s pointman in its handling of the anti-corruption movement, Kapil Sibal. Hazare said that Dr Singh and Mr Sibal did not understand India because they had taken degrees at foreign universities.
As it happens,worthier men have had foreign degrees; among them, the two greatest social reformers of modern India, M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar.
Hazare claims that the last 64 years of political freedom have been utterly wasted (“chausutt saal mein humko sahi azaadi nahin mili hai”). The fact is that had it not been for the groundwork laid by the Constitution, and by visionaries like Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and others, Dalits and women would not have equal rights under the law, nor would elections based on universal franchise be regularly and freely held.
Dalits and women were less-than-equal citizens in the raj of the British, and in the raj of Anna Hazare’s much admired Shivaji Maharaj as well. Those other regimes did not have, either, constitutional guarantees for the freedom of movement, combination and expression. To be sure, there remains a large slippage between precept and practice. I have elsewhere called India a “fifty-fifty democracy”. The jurist, Nani Palkhivala, once said the same thing somewhat differently: India, he suggested, is a second-class democracy with a first-class Constitution.
In the years since Palkhivala first made this remark, India may have become a third-class democracy. But the ideal remains, to match which one needs patient, hard work on a variety of fronts. Anna Hazare claims that the creation of a single lok pal will end 60 per cent to 65 per cent of corruption. That remark confuses a village with a nation. A benign (and occasionally brutal) patriarch can bring about improvements in a small community. But a nation’s problems cannot be solved by a Super-Cop or Super-Sarpanch, even (or perhaps especially) if he be assisted (as the legislation envisages) by thousands of busybody and themselves corruptible inspectors.
Improving the quality and functioning of democratic institutions will require far more than a lok pal, whether jan or sarkari. We have to work for, among other things, changes in the law to make funding of elections more transparent, and to completely debar criminals from contesting elections; the Reform of political parties to make them less dependent on family and kin; the use of technology to make the delivery of social services less arbitrary and more efficient; the insulation of the bureaucracy and the police from political interference; the lateral entry of professionals into public service, and more. In striving for these changes one must draw upon the experience, and expertise, of the very many Indians who share Hazare’s idealism without being limited by his parochialism.
Next, here is Lalit Uniyal’s response:
Dear Ram Bhai,
Thank you for sending your piece.
Of course you always write so well and persuasively, but I think I’ll react to what you have to say via my reaction to Anna’s ‘victory’.
To have taken on the full might of the government and brought it to its knees, to have established the supremacy of the people over the state, and to have generated a national resolve to combat corruption – these are extraordinary achievements. There is also something deeply moving about Anna’s readiness to lay down his life for his beliefs. These things make him a great man and a true hero in the eyes of the people. His movement is highly popular and has reached kasbas (small townships) and even villages.
But it does sometimes seem that he and his aides are driven by hatred of politicians rather than plain, simple love of the people of India. It does seem that he has his own notions – a perfect Lokpal bill, right to reject and right to recall representatives, etc. – which in one case may be unrealistic, and not necessarily all to the good in the other. We must realise that there are no perfect institutions. Similarly, our reformed electoral system should not lead to instability. We want electoral reforms so that good people can get elected; our aim ought not to be to find ways to harm the bad ones who still manage to get in. And so on in all other matters. We need to be constructive. This movement must seek to be wholly constructive. Therefore our criticism of it ought to be constructive too. The movement has its pitfalls but it also provides us a great opportunity for national regeneration. Let us highlight its pitfalls by all means, but let us also utilise its opportunities. The movement needs to be led more intelligently, with greater sobriety – with passion, yes, but passion tempered by reason.
Anna has his limitations. Every individual has his limitations. These limitations can be overcome in one way only – by involving larger numbers, by involving intellectuals of all shades, by the movement itself seeking to build a consensus or near consensus on vital national issues. Instead of Anna shooting off his specific programme of electoral reforms, it would be wiser for him to take up the issue of electoral reforms at the conceptual level first – have it debated, involve even the Election Commission, then arrive at a specific set of proposals and use the power of the movement to get the proposals passed by Parliament.
Surely there must be a way to make Anna and his aides understand that leading a mass movement is a huge responsibility. It must not be construed as an occasion for getting on one’s hobby horse. If it is to be a people’s movement, more and more people must be involved in its decision-making processes. Anna and his aides should neither feel alone nor wish to be alone, especially with such enthusiastic support for him. He can add the entire country to his list of aides.
I believe that if the movement takes this path, it will become truly a national movement and will help us not indeed to become a great power (which is an absurd aim anyway) but to become a happier people, at peace with ourselves and our surroundings.
Therefore, in response to your piece, this is my central point – that it is written in too critical a vein; it would benefit if it were re-written with a more constructive end in view.
Finally, Guha’s response to the criticisms above:
Dear Lalit bhai,
Thank you for your mail – it is not only I who writes well and persuasively! Your criticisms are gently yet beautifully put. Two scholars whom I respect had similar reservations to yours. I quote them below:
1. ‘Very nice piece, though personally I think a non-violent protest against a satanically corrupt state should have got a little more support in the essay from someone with your moral authority and stature in the public domain. Hazare’s not the Mahatma, but he’s asking for some basic concrete steps in the larger fight to eliminate corruption, and in return getting only vague assurances that will yield nothing concrete. If the state is forced to yield some ground to him, it will have yielded only because of his movement, not Aruna Roy and Co., whom they would have fobbed off for another fifteen years.’
2. ‘I agree with what you say in your piece, as always written beautifully. Of course, Anna Hazare has his flaws – I am told that all young people have left Ralegan Siddhi thanks to his way of doing things. At the same time, he has managed to push politicos to move and hopefully soon create an institutional mechanism for tackling corruption. If he hadn’t fasted, this would not have happened.’
I see that three of the people whose judgement I value most highly had similar reservations; all thought I was perhaps excessively sceptical and a little lofty. I stand chastened! I suppose the democrat in me was reacting to the excessive deification of a single person, and wanted thus to provide some context. I do hope that Anna’s advisers act along the lines you suggest. Where however I would disagree with you is that I do not think a television driven movement can provide ‘national regeneration’. There is a marked megalomaniac tendency among some of Anna’s closest advisers, stoked by television – and I do not believe he is immune from it himself. If the movement stays away from the media for the next few weeks and months and concentrates on precisely the outreach you recommend, it could have a lasting impact. Otherwise not.