The Republic of India has a billion (and more) citizens who, at any given time, are involved in a thousand (and more) controversies. Knowing which controversy is the most significant is always hard, and often impossible, to judge. Even so, we can be fairly certain that 2011 will go down in Indian history as the year of the Great Lokpal Debate, just as 1962 was the year of the war with China, 1975 the year of the Emergency, 1991 the year the license-permit-quota-raj was first undermined, 1992 the year the Babri Masjid was demolished.
Vigorous arguments still rage on the causes and consequences of the China War, the Emergency, economic liberalization, and the Ramjanmabhoomi movement. How then does one judge the import of events as they are unfolding? The eight months since Anna Hazare’s fast in Jantar Mantar have, even by Indian standards, been very contentious indeed. This coming week, the debate on the Lokpal Bill in Parliament and the threatened ‘jail bharo andolan’ will complicate the picture further.
It may be decades before a proper historical judgement is passed on the principal characters and events in this controversy. Living through the tamasha myself, I have been successively and sometimes simultaneously bewildered, confused, and exasperated. The first two emotions cannot be explained, but I should perhaps say something about the third.
I have been exasperated by, among other things, the repeated invocation by ‘Team Anna’ and their television cheerleaders of the name and legacy of Mohandas K. Gandhi. The distance between Anna Hazare and the Mahatma in terms of moral courage and political understanding is roughly equivalent to the distance, in terms of cricketing ability and understanding, between this writer and Sachin Tendulkar. In fact, Hazare is not even a ‘Gandhian’. He has both preached and practiced violence, and has never seriously pursued such quintessentially Gandhian projects as the abolition of caste distinctions, women’s emancipation, and Hindu-Muslim harmony.
The distance between Anna Hazare and Mahatma Gandhi can be judged if one juxtaposes Mukul Sharma’s book Green and Saffron (the first serious study of the Ralegan Siddhi experiment) to Louis Fischer’s classic The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. The distance between Hazare and Gandhianism can be judged if one visits the co-operatives and banks run in Gujarat by the Self-Employed Women’s Association, whose founder, Ela Bhatt, has successfully nurtured ideals of caste and gender equality, and religious pluralism, among lakhs and lakhs of previously sectarian Indians.
I have also been exasperated by the attitude of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Through 2011, the BJP undermined the dignity of Parliament by regularly disrupting its proceedings. Comments by senior BJP leaders endorsing Hazare left it unclear whether the principal Opposition party believed that it was the Ramlila Maidan, rather than Parliament, which should decide how laws are to be framed and when they are to be passed. Meanwhile, the sister organization of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, aggressively supported Hazare’s movement. (One hopes it is only by oversight that, in his recent speech in Bangalore, Hazare did not speak of the by no means insubstantial corruption promoted by the BJP State Government.)
Finally, I have been exasperated by the behaviour of the ruling dispensation in New Delhi. A young journalist told me that ‘while Gandhi became a Mahatma through his own efforts, we in the media have made a village patriarch a Gandhi.’ In fact, the Government have done their bit in inflating Anna Hazare’s significance. After his first fast, five Cabinet Ministers met with five men nominated by Hazare in a ‘Joint Drafting Committee’. In sanctioning this move, the Prime Minister placed this unelected activist above the Leader of the Opposition.
On the eve of Anna Hazare’s second fast in New Delhi, the Government made the colossal error of sending him to Tihar Jail, and then, after a public outcry, releasing him. This elevated his status even further. When the fast eventually commenced, the media took over the job of reputation inflation, by repeatedly showing a split screen of Hazare on one side and the Prime Minister on the other.
This was a face-off with only one winner. For in the winter of 2010-11, the Prime Minister had stayed conspicuously silent while the Commonwealth Games and 2G scams broke. He had previously shielded corrupt Ministers; now, when a popular movement against corruption grew, he still would not do or say anything. This is a key reason behind Anna Hazare’s appeal, that while the septugenerian on the sarkari side would do anything to stick on in office, this old man was, as it were, willing to stake his life for the nation. It is a mark of how desperately disappointing Dr Manmohan Singh’s second term has been that it has allowed an authoritarian village reformer with little understanding of what Gandhi said, did, or meant to claim the mantle of the Mahatma.
When I expressed these serial disenchantments to the sociologist André Béteille, he remarked that while Anna Hazare had a right to be stupid, MP’s and Ministers did not. As an ordinary citizen, Hazare could say what he wanted. However, the Opposition parties had betrayed their mandate by their contempt for Parliament. The Congress had undermined Parliament too (by dealing directly with Team Anna). Cabinet Ministers had behaved like boors and, at times, like brutes. And through the action or, more often, inaction, of its current incumbent, the office of Prime Minister had been most diminished of all.
Here, then, is my interim judgement on 2011—that in the year now ending, Indian democracy has been debased by an opportunistic and malevolent Opposition on the one side and a corrupt and shockingly incompetent Government on the other. I wish readers of this column a less bewildering and less exasperating 2012.
A PLAGUE ON ALL OUR HOUSES
by Ramachandra Guha
(published in the Hindustan Times, 24th December 2011)