Anna Hazare and his team recently called off their indefinite fast after 10 days with an announcement that they intend to form a political party. Though their announcement was sudden, events of the last 6-8 months leads one to believe that it was part of a larger but misdirected strategy. Whatever it may be, it has evoked different sentiments from people around the country. As a person associated with the anti-corruption movement, I felt that this decision might need more analysis before one can draw conclusions.
The country has seen many a relevant social movement fizzle out once it turned political. In our own backyard in Karnataka, we had two extraordinary movements that gave a voice to thousands of marginalized people. Whether it is the Dalit movement or the Farmers’ movement, one saw an opportunity for change; change that mainstream society was not willing to consider or be interested in. Despite this, so much momentum was created and both these movements made space for themselves and became established as the voices of the people that they represented. Unfortunately what began as a ‘social response’ gradually got politicized and lost much of its sheen.
While the context of these movements may be different from the ‘anti-corruption’ one, we need to place in perspective the ground support that the anti-corruption movement got in its early days. A large number of average citizens, disillusioned with the system, jumped into the bandwagon with the expectations that Anna would wave his magic wand and change would happen. Many of them were impatient, young, urban-based, middle-class people with no understanding of social processes, expecting that the system would respond to the ‘visible’ pressure that they were creating. For a weary Nation looking for the ‘magic pill’, Anna provided the ideal stage for one to express ones frustrations and build hopes of a better tomorrow. Little did people realize that emotional campaigns are difficult to sustain and a ‘system’ enmeshed with the desire to maintain status-quo would not let go that easily. The movement also did not see the engagement of rural and poor communities who are the silent and voiceless victims of the corruption that is prevalent in India. The media’s engagement with the movement was directly proportional to the extent that their readers and viewers engaged with the struggle. With their constituents losing interest, the media too moved away from the 24 x 7 coverage that they gave to the struggle. It is a moot point to debate whether the media aroused the masses or the aroused masses gave a reason for the media to engage in this movement. The fact is the lowered visibility of the campaign removed fighting corruption from the mainstream thought.
The Government with its share of seasoned politicians responded exactly as predicted. Why would any sensible, self-centered politician willingly turn off his pipeline and commit political suicide? It is not that all politicians are corrupt; but almost all that I have interacted with concede that one cannot survive in electoral politics by playing straight. They were experienced men and women who knew that the best way to fight this movement was to wear the opponents down. They also played their part to the script – they understood that ‘politics’ was their home ground and they needed to draw Anna into familiar territory in order to defeat him. The last many months saw many of them from all political parties bait ‘Team Anna’ into jumping into the political bandwagon. Anna and his men have not disappointed them and they have taken the bait.
Team Anna must realize that it does not have the Machiavellian abilities to think and act like politicians right now. They do not even have the capability to manage the politics that has crept into the movement. Many a supporter has withdrawn and moved away from them. They need to build the skill sets that make an enduring politician in order to take this battle to the turf of much-seasoned campaigners. Social mobilization is a different ball game from politics. What is needed is the shrewdness to understand and capitalize on people’s aspirations, build a financial base to sustain a long and enduring campaign and be willing to compromise and accommodate. Team Anna may be able to do this in the long run, but their present assets are not clearly enough to ensure this. Our politicians know very well that Team Anna does not have the political resources or the abilities to match them. This not only gives the politicians an edge, but also provides the ideal platform to fight this battle on their own terms. They realize that they could easily work the situation to their advantage and electorally defeat Team Anna.
We need to understand that this defeat will not just be for this handful of brave people or for the hundreds of activists across the country, but for the entire Nation itself. Never again may such an opportunity present itself. Not only for this movement, but all other ‘Social Movements’ will now suffer. Governments and our politicians will be quick to grasp that they can safely ignore and wear out the activists instead of responding to their demands. This is indeed ominous to activists who have fought many a battle successfully. Once Team Anna faces electoral defeat, our politicians will be quick to spread their inference that the common man has no support for the cause of ‘anti-corruption’. The system is indeed so corrupted that most of the so-called ‘common people’ have also become an integral part of the electoral corruption that sees crores of rupees being spent on each election. The few that have opted out of this corrupt process see all politicians as corrupt and would be inclined to paint the members of Anna’s political party too with the same brush. While the intent of Anna may be genuine, the timing or methodology is not right for such a move.
The members of India Against Corruption needed to plan and strategize before they took this key decision. They would have better served the cause by engaging with activists and organizations across the country. Instead of spewing venom on all politicians and political parties, they should have tried to engage with the good people in the system and build a coalition that would have stood by them at a later date. Engaging with parliament does not necessarily mean ‘entering’ Parliament. Team Anna needs to be realistic – how can they be reasonably sure of gaining enough seats to make a difference in Parliament and pass a strong Lokpal Bill? A mere 2-3 seats will not only make them a laughing-stock but will also put the movement behind by several decades. What has been painstakingly built over the last many decades cannot be squandered away by selfish egos that are unwilling to look at the larger picture. It would have better served the cause if Anna and his team had individually or collectively traveled around the country, engaging with like-minded people and groups and arousing the passion and imagination of the common man. They could have built a strong citizens’ group to exert pressure on the political system that could have built a semblance of accountability and transparency in the 2014 elections. If the system had not responded then, it would have been the right time for Team Anna to join the political fray, building on the sentiments of a country and populace disillusioned with a political system that was given its chance. He would have then seen enormous support critical enough to drive change.
Team Anna should learn from its errors and focus on building this coalition of concerned citizenry without worrying about labels, brands or TV time. They should set aside personal differences and keep ‘fighting corruption’ as the work at the center. They should not shy away from trying to understand the perspective of the average politician and his daily pressures of survival. Only when we are able to see the larger picture and work with the reality that exists today can we bring about any change. Team Anna needs to understand that people can only take losses at a rate that they can absorb. They first need to build the requisite social capital before venturing into a world that they do not fully comprehend as of now. Otherwise they will have only themselves to blame for squandering away such a wonderful social opportunity that comes possibly once in a lifetime.