June 01, 2020
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Victimhood Of Corruption

A postmortem of the Jantar Mantar phenomenon

Victimhood Of Corruption

'Corruption' is an idea that creates a universal victimhood. It is important to understand this truism, if we need to make a fair sense of the frenzy that gripped the nation for days when Anna Hazare sat on a 'fast unto death' at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Many attribute the frenzy to the presence of television cameras and the small window of opportunity that existed for the protest between the cricket world cup finals and the beginning of the fourth edition of the IPL cricket tourney. These may be contributory factors, but not certainly the principal ones.

The principle reason, let me assert is the ubiquitous victimhood that the idea of corruption creates. It is not linked to the stringent drafting of a piece of legislation, in this case the Lokpal Bill, or the passing of it in Parliament. Although we have been a democracy for over six decades, I am not willing to believe that many people understand or are bothered about the nitty-gritty of legislating a Bill into Law. Clearly, Anna Hazare and his group of supporters have been riding over this overarching sentiment that the idea creates to push through their version of the Lokpal Bill and claim ownership of the struggle. Hence, strictly speaking, one can't exonerate the group of a demagogic practice.

Let me further explain the victimhood. There was a news item in the Bangalore edition of a national newspaper, on the day the fast was broken, in which a sex worker had asked if Anna Hazare could help her against corrupt policemen who not only exploited her, but demanded a cut in her earnings. Similarly, PTI reported, on the day before the fast was broken, that Karnataka chief minister B S Yeddyurappa had pledged his support for the anti-corruption movement. Nobody could miss the irony because the chief minister had been accused in one scam after the other in the past few months and he had also been unabashed about it. Once Yeddyurappa's support was made public, there were many SMS jokes doing the rounds and one of them said that 'Spectrum' Raja was also fasting in prison pledging his solidarity to the anti-corruption movement. One of the regional dailies that carried voices of citizens had a homemaker complaining that vegetable vendors and grocers in the neighbourhood had become corrupt and Anna should do something to reign them in as well. One of the English television channels whipping up support for the movement from ground zero said that even policemen on duty at the venue were 'gleefully' endorsing the tough stance of Anna. This may all appear like a mockery or trivialisation of a very important struggle, which some wish to call a 'revolution,' but in reality that is not so. It is only an indication of how the idea connects with people and means different things to different people.

The prostitute feels aggrieved by the policeman; the policeman feels aggrieved by the politician, whom he has to pay up for a 'good posting' and the politician feels aggrieved by the people, who he says won't give him their vote if they are not paid. There is no one enemy in the process, but there are only victims. Therefore, what was said by Yeddyurappa, the housewife, the policeman or the sex worker needn't be belittled, because they truly meant what they said. So a question at this point is: How does one call this a movement unifying the nation when such divergent connotations exist for the keyword in the minds of the people? This should partially explain why protest became a picnic at Jantar Mantar. The lineament of this frenzy was similar to the one we saw in the stands and the streets when India played Pakistan at Mohali in the semi-finals of the cricket world cup or when the crackers burst after the 'slaying' of the Lankans in the finals. In both the match and the protest, there were moments of anger and anguish and there were moments of triumph. Both the events had the cathartic quality of a Bollywood movie.

Since 'corruption' is such an abstract, amorphous term and could carry divergent concerns in its belly, the crowds were provoked to assemble and offer indignant sound bytes. On the other hand, if corruption were to be spoken of in specific terms, narrowing down on a particular incident or an act, like the 2G spectrum allocation case for instance, then a consensus of reaction will elude. The divide will happen in ways we can't imagine. The Dalits may not support because they may read an upper caste conspiracy; the corporates may be vary because their stables are not too clean either; the DMK members may cry hoarse; the bureaucrats may feel victimised etc. Imagine: What if Anna Hazare had told the Bollywood stars who had assembled there to create an independent movement, to which he'll lend his weight of course, to fight the use of black money and the influence of the underworld in their industry? Such specifics would have driven people away. Therefore, as long as one stuck to abstractions, there was an illusion of a revolution. There was a mirage of mass support because it gave everbody an opportunity to play victim.

Let me offer a reverse analogy. What if Anna Hazare had asked people to assemble at Jantar Mantar on a social justice plank, would he have met with success? Why does consensus elude the Bill to reserve parliamentary seats for women; or seats for OBCs in institutions of higher learning; or reservations in private sector enterprises; or for that matter even the food security Bill? The issues here are specific and the outcomes will demand sacrifice of one section of the people and hence, there will never be a consensus. There was a protest organised in Bangalore on 14 April by the Lohia Forum. This largely went unreported in the media although they made an interesting and a specific point. Some seventy odd protestors assembled near Gandhiji's statue and expressed solidarity for Anna's movement, but pointed out that the civil society panel constituted to draft the Bill did not reflect the diversity we are as a people. They said it did not have an expert from among women, Dalits, backwards or minorities. Anna Hazare's movement that drew its consensus from an abstract projection of the corruption idea, will from now on have to battle the specifics. Queries will be irksome but will nevertheless have to be answered.

If Anna Hazare's movement were a Gandhian movement it would have addressed the specifics. It wouldn't have rushed to hasty decisions and hasty conclusions on the support it had managed. It would have prepared ground and given enough notice and not betrayed an unstated urgency. To say the least, the protest was not exactly happening on the shores of a moral swell. As a Gandhian scholar-friend pointed out, the protest and the negotiations with the government began almost simultaneously. Even before the protest had begun the window to end it had been opened. As Anna Hazare started entertaining the crowds, his pointsperson reached Kapil Sibal's house to negotiate. This is not what a Gandhian 'Satyagraha' is made of. If Anna was confident of his 'agraha' then he should have waited for the government to reach his tent at Jantar Mantar and not send his negotiators, who kept whispering constantly into his ears. There was a clear erosion of moral authority in this whole hush-hush process of making demands, shifting goalposts and compromises. Even as Anna sounded firm, the interlocutor for all seasons, Swami Agnivesh, kept saying that the main demand had been met and what remained were only procedural hitches. He was confident from the word go that it would all end very soon. Now that the Anna Hazare group has demanded the presence of video cameras to record the draft panel proceedings, all in the name of transparency, one wonders why they did not take cameras while negotiating with Sibal. Also, one wonders why they didn't seek time for consultation before nominating people to sit on the draft panel? In both cases there is diffidence and urgency that does not augur well for a 'Satyagrahi' who is suppose to be 'fearless'.

By the way, Gandhiji never advocated 'Satyagraha' as an instrument to fulfill demands. It becomes nothing short of 'blackmail' if it used for such an end. For Gandhiji, what was preliminary to the process of 'Satyagraha' was self-purification. For him 'Satyagraha' was to 'convert' the opponent not to 'coerce.' He makes an important distinction between 'Satyagraha' and 'Duragraha.' By the latter he meant a process more to 'harass' rather than 'enlighten' an opponent. There is also a distinction he makes between 'passive resistance' and 'Satyagraha' in his autobiography. To revisit this passage will help us assign a nuanced nomenclature to Anna Hazare's movement. Gandhiji says in the chapter 'The Birth of Satyagraha': "The principle called Satyagraha came into being before that name was invented. Indeed when it was born, I myself could not say what it was. In Gujarati also we used the English phrase 'passive resistance' to describe it. When in a meeting of Europeans I found that the term 'passive resistance' was too narrowly construed, that it was supposed to be a weapon of the weak, that it could be characterized by hatred, and that it could finally manifest itself as violence, I had to demur to all these statements and explain the real nature of the Indian movement. It was clear that a new word must be coined by the Indians to designate their struggle."

Even as it is important to dispute the Gandhian claims of the Anna Hazare movement, it is necessary to also ask if making such a claim is itself not charged by nostalgia. By implication then rendering the very method of protest anachronistic. The compulsions of the present can't be handled with a Gandhi 'topi' (cap), but we may be served well by Gandhi's keenness to innovate. Merely using fluorescent colors to replace the raw khaki white of the 'topi,' as protestors in Bangalore did, will not suffice.

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