While the Lokpal campaign led to one of the largest mass mobilisations in recent memory, some commentators have questioned its credibility given its supposedly middle-class support base. Implicit in this critique is the view that the middle-class supporters of the campaign are the direct beneficiaries of the growth in the Indian economy over the last two decades, as well as the very corruption that they are fighting against. Bangalore, the city which has become synonymous with the software industry and its nouveau riche, is perhaps a good test case to examine the nature of Anna Hazare's support base. At Freedom Park, the Bangalore venue of the campaign, though the middle-class element was prominent, one encountered people from all walks of life. These people view corruption through different vantage points in accordance with their own predicaments when faced with this all-pervasive evil. However, they came together to voice their anger and frustration, in a rare show of mass protest of the kind India has not seen in a long time.
At Freedom Park, 86 year old Bindu Madhava Rao was stunned when I asked him why he was present there on the tenth day of Hazare’s fast. Mr. Rao was in high school when India was gripped by the Quit India movement. The man who participated in a procession in 1942 told me almost apologetically that he did not go to jail then. Seven decades later, in support of the Lokpal campaign, Mr. Rao fasted for three days to “strengthen the movement”. He explained the differences between the Government’s Lokpal Bill and the Jan Lokpal Bill, shared his views with people who gathered to talk to him, and walked away. What he left me with was that incredulous first look on his face when I asked him why he chose to support the campaign.
At the protests, I also met students who had missed college, housewives who came out in support more than once, office teams and small traders, retired government employees and volunteers. Most of these people fall squarely outside the rising middle class who are beneficiaries of the post-1991 Bangalore boom. Many of them said they were there for Hazare, whose statements televised at the venue drew constant claps and cheers. They told me they wanted to end corruption, and better their lives. Though their simple answers might not pass muster in sophisticated circles, what matters is not the lack of polish they betrayed, but the reasons for protesting that they expressed. These ordinary Indians were so deeply disgusted with the corruption that routinely made daily living an obstacle course, that they overcame their complacency to join a public protest, perhaps for the first time in their lives. They held the Government accountable for the unprecedented plunder of public wealth, and demanded that change must come. Giving vent to their dissatisfaction about the current dismal state of affairs, people finally found a medium to declare that they do matter.
This overwhelming outpouring of public sentiment begs some hard questions. Why did the Lokpal campaign succeed in mobilising people across a cross-section of society in such large numbers? Can a mass campaign demand the passage of a bill by parliament? And crucially, what do these developments mean for our society and its future?
If one is uncharitable, one may perhaps attribute the mass mobilisation to the fact that not much was at stake for the participants themselves. It was not being demanded that they ask difficult questions about their own actions and lives, or suffer the consequences of taking uncomfortable stands. While there is some truth in this line of reasoning, it skirts the fact that India’s rotten polity and administrative machinery regularly victimises each one of us. When people came out and shouted slogans against corruption, it was not merely because this was an easy, undemanding line to take. It was because they come up against the roadblock of corruption in diverse aspects of their lives, and are left with no means to overcome it. Therefore, when a campaign which demanded a legislative mechanism to address this issue came along, with an inspiring leader who is seen to be genuine, it is no surprise that people responded wholeheartedly and effusively, as they did.
Legislation, however strong and wide in scope, cannot solve the systemic problem of corruption which plagues our polity and society. However, a strong Lokpal institution can provide a short-term fix for a political system that has embarked on a no-holds-barred loot of national wealth. Besides, to turn this question around, if the Lokpal Bill was indeed going to be so ineffective, why did the Government first propose one itself and then engage in endless machinations to subvert a tough bill's passage? When a political system exhausts all possibility of changing from within, people should apply their collective pressure to rectify and renew it. The campaign sent a resolute message to Parliament to act for the public good. In doing so, people exercised their democratic right to make their elected representatives accountable to them.
When I first visited Freedom Park, I was uncomfortable with the loudspeakers amplifying tuneful songs, young students posing for photographs, the large television screens, and merchandise like t-shirts available for sale. Having participated in dharnas of the Narmada Bachao Andolan in the past, my image of a protest was devoid of such fancy embellishments. However, did these features disqualify this protest from being a legitimate campaign? Should middle-class and lower-middle-class participation be justification for ‘radical’ people of different denominations to turn up their noses in disgust? Despite the many shortcomings and failings of the Indian middle class, the answer to these questions is an emphatic no. If nothing else, this campaign has revealed the deep class cleavage in our society between elite commentators who criticise, even ridicule the campaign, and the “unwashed masses” who have joined the middle classes in support.
While the focus has been on Ramlila Maidan, there is enough evidence that people from a wide cross-section of Indian society have identified themselves with the campaign. Around 1,200 dabbawalas struck work for the first time in Mumbai in support a few days after Hazare began his fast. Earlier, the dabbawalas had announced that they would go on a fast in support, but abandoned it as it would affect their business severely. Here, it is instructive to quote Raghunath Medge, president of the Mumbai Jeevan Dabbawala Association: “We support Anna Hazare and his cause, but after three days of holiday it is a little tough for us to join him … We are poor people and already the long holiday has caused us some financial losses … [The Lokpal campaign] is a good cause, but we can't join because of practical reasons." This is the reality for large numbers of the poor who cannot afford to participate in a campaign of this nature at the cost of their daily earnings. Also, beyond the support of the dabbawalas and taxi drivers in Mumbai, the campaign has resonated in villages and towns, with people expressing their support in unique ways.
At the time of writing this article, Hazare has broken his fast on its thirteenth day. The Government has failed to inspire any confidence throughout the campaign, from the time it arrested Hazare to the twists and turns it resorted to in the last few days. Enough water has now passed under the bridge that we may draw some lessons from the protests. People of different hues found a common cause in the fight against corruption. Despite the limitations of the campaign, it reaffirms that the Indian people can be nonviolently mobilised in large numbers for a genuine reason that strikes a chord within them. It demonstrates how the legacy of the freedom struggle which battled the British on the principle of ahimsa can be revived to address our current predicaments. Perhaps most importantly, it suggests that despite the many crises in our society today, its democratic temper is alive.