July 27, 2020
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At A Crossroads

To take to politics or not? That’s been decided, but questions remain.

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At A Crossroads
Sanjay Rawat
At A Crossroads

Last August, there was revolution in the air. This August, it’s evolution. There is talk of changing a corrupt, inept through the democratic process of fighting elections. Evidently, they have responded to jibes from politicians on having to prove their strength. Does that mean a party? We don’t know. But clearly for Team Anna, camping and fasting now at Jantar Mantar, politics is not a bad thing. [This piece went to press before the announcement by Team Anna of breaking their fast and providing a political alternative — Web Ed] Politicians perhaps are. What started off as a people’s movement organised by Anna Hazare and his lieutenants is morphing into a political movement with each passing day. But does an agitation led by social activists have it within itself to come to terms with power?

“Politics is very difficult. This is especially true if one wants to practise ethical politics. It’s really a long haul.”
Jayaprakash Narayan, Loksatta Party

At first glance, everything appears to the same—just like it was last year—at Jantar Mantar in the heart of Delhi, where the team is holding out even as this article goes to print. The cast of characters on the dais, representing the frustration of the masses, is the same. There is Anna Hazare and there are men pledging loyalty to him in ‘Main Bhi Anna’ caps. There’s Arvind Kejriwal, to whom goes the credit for mobilising people. Activist-advocate Prashant Bhushan is there too, and so are the men and women in white coats, attending to the smallest fluctuation in the pulse of those fasting on stage. The cops, like the last time, are tolerant of the crowd. The television cameras are there as faithful recorders of the moment; unlike last year, the coverage isn’t breathless. But attendance fluctuates from day to day, hour to hour.

Right from day one, when Kejriwal and his men announced an indefinite fast July 25 onwards, joined later by Anna, it became evident that the government would not engage with the movement against corruption. With Anna’s team virtually serving a chargesheet against the government, and the Salman Khurshid fiasco, there was no room for negotiation or dialogue. But more important, the movement is not seeking anything from the government this time: creating a Lokpal is a demand, but not the mainstay of the movement. In any case, there was no question of political parties coming out in support: with the demand for a special investigating team to probe charges against corrupt politicians across the political spectrum, non-UPA support too was ruled out.

“It is legitimate for a social movement to have political aspirations. But the transition can be difficult.”
Harsh Mander, Bureaucrat-turned-activist

Something clearly has changed. Gone is a government that withered under pressure. Gone too is the near-saturation coverage by the media. If the media, tarred by disclosures in the Radia tapes, felt compelled to clear its name last year by giving uncritical support to the movement, this time there was no compelling need to do so. Says Bhushan, “We thought the government would bow to public pressure. It now appears that it is business as usual for the government. We also understand that this is how the government will behave. With close to 15 corrupt ministers in power, only an independent agency can investigate the charges against them.” He says public response, not just in Delhi but also in neighbouring states like Haryana, shows that people are no longer content with having just a Lokpal bill passed—they want to see visible change.

But what shape this change can take will depend on several factors. How long will the protesters hold out? What will their plan be for 2014 when India faces general elections? What will the response of the state to their demands be? The more pressing question is, can the movement really engage with politics? Social activists who embraced power for greater engagement with governance have usually failed badly.

“Our fight is to change the nature of power, not merely to focus on those who happen to be wielding power.”
Prashant Bhushan, Anti-corruption crusader

Political analyst Yogendra Yadav, who has spoken openly about the Anna movement turning political as the next logical step, says: “The movement will have to take a call on what kind of alternative they wish to provide to the present political structures that exist. Do they want an alternative kind of politics which challenges the rules of the game? Or do they want to provide a political alternative following the same rules of the game? This is something they have to discuss and debate. Else, they must shun everything and say they want to have nothing to do with politics.” It’s a call the movement leaders will have to take in the coming days.

It was not surprising to see that much of Bhushan’s speeches on the opening and subsequent days focused on a pinpointed attack on the other side: he targeted home minister P. Chidambaram and 14 others from Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. As for Pranab Mukherjee, the newly anointed president of the country, his indecision on the many scams that rocked the UPA were called into question. It virtually seemed like a chargesheet against the government.

Something has changed. Gone is a government that withered under pressure. Gone too is the saturation media coverage.

So for the movement, engagement with politics is now indeed an option, since the avowed purpose is to restore power to the people. “The fight is to change the nature of power and not merely to focus on those who wield power,” clarifed Bhushan. The question of who will fight the elections and under what banner—given that independents have usually fared badly despite impeccable credentials—is not being seen as a deterrent. Says bureaucrat-turned-social-activist Jayaprakash Narayan of the Loksatta party, which contested elections in the last assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh, “Politics is a long haul and very difficult—especially if one wants to practise ethical politics.” He should know. Of the 240 candidates put up by Loksatta, he alone won. But, he says, social movements that want to be part of change need to be a collective—constructive and creative. “Anna’s movement is a collective movement, but falls short of constructively asserting its issue.”

Activists-turned-politicians have had a bad track record. But knowing that doesn’t seem to deter Anna’s team.

There are others like Medha Patkar who wonder whether the support the movement has garnered will translate into votes. Bureaucrat-turned-activist and former nac member Harsh Mander says, “Social movements are also political in nature, and the aspiration to become political is a legitimate one. Yet few people can make the transition.”

Come August 9, Baba Ramdev will take to the Ramlila grounds, again, under his own banner. Will he steal the thunder from Anna? The Baba doesn’t seem to have staying power, given the skeletons in his cupboard and his frequent hobnobbing with figures like Narendra Modi. But his power to attract crowds has never been in doubt. There will be some uneasiness in the Anna camp. But then who said politics is clean? Or easy?

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