Anna’s hyperboles may yet produce a strong Lokpal

Although the Manmohan Singh government has been battered and bruised by its inept handling of civil society activists, the latter’s claim of being harbingers of a second independence movement has also begun to wear thin.

The terms to which Anna Hazare agreed while negotiating with the government while in Tihar Jail – that he will not undertake a fast-unto-death and that his hunger-strike will be medically monitored – represent a climb-down. It is too early to say whether a conditional fast will affect his reputation. But there is little doubt that some of the hype associated with his movement will be deflated.

Not only that. After an initial spell of enthusiasm – the gathering of thousands in various cities, the candlelight processions – contrary voices are gradually being heard. It isn’t the politicians alone who have voiced their disquiet over the denigration of parliament, with Lalu Prasad making the point most emphatically. There are a number of others, too, who can also be regarded as members of civil society and are speaking out against Anna Hazare’s holier-than-thou attitude even if they endorse his anti-corruption plank.

Again, it is too early to say how all this will pan out if only because India has never seen this kind of popular upsurge earlier. The only comparison can be with Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement in 1975, but since it was quickly crushed by the Emergency, there was no knowing how much of a success it would have been.

At the same time, its indirect achievement in ensuring the Congress’s defeat in 1977, and especially those of Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi personally, the two prime movers of the Emergency, was evidence enough of its mass base. But Indira’s and Sanjay’s return to power in 1980 suggested that the people might have overreacted three years earlier.

The JP story, therefore, was an incomplete one. Whether the Anna Hazare story will be the same or turn out to be different cannot be said for certain. However, two things are clear. For one, the Congress is different today from what it was in the 1970s. Hence its willingness to admit that it made a mistake in treating the activists rather roughly.

For another, India today is also different. Four decades ago, the snail-paced, two-to-three percent ‘Hindu rate of growth’ made the country a dull and depressing place. The middle class was a silent, minuscule group, which was largely apathetic politically. Presumed by the rest of the world as virtually a Soviet satellite and with the economy in doldrums, the country lacked prestige externally and a sense of direction internally.

Now, the scene is totally different. The middle class – who have enjoyed the fruits of the path-breaking reforms initiated by Manmohan Singh in 1991 as finance minister under then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao – is a large, vibrant section comprising 300 million and is hugely active politically as the vociferous support for Anna Hazare by many of its members shows. It is also eager for change because it feels that the government’s corrupt image is undermining its external prestige. Since Indian passport holders are now treated far more deferentially abroad than before, the middle class has become conscious of upholding and burnishing the country’s reputation.

The third point is somewhat tricky. Although both the Congress and the country have changed from their earlier avatars, the same cannot be said about the images of JP and Anna Hazare. The two reflect one another in their impractical otherworldliness. Just as JP favoured partyless democracy – a phrase which is a contradiction in terms in the context of modern functioning democracies – Hazare, too, does not seem to have much time for elections, the lifeblood of a democracy.

Besides, he is openly contemptuous of them, describing the voters as bikaau or purchasable, who can be bought over with liquor and saris by the MPs and MLAs. This disdain for democracy perhaps explains why the Jan Lokpal of his dreams is a gargantuan institution virtually above parliament, government and judiciary since it will have the authority to investigate and punish all and sundry, from a peon to the prime minister.

Arguably, for all these laudable intentions, Anna has overreached himself and, thereby, given the government an opportunity to trip him up. The reticence of the opposition MPs on Hazare’s version of the ombudsman even as they pilloried the government’s “draconian” handling of the activists was a noteworthy feature of the parliamentary debate.

However, Hazare’s hyperboles may still have their uses, for they are bound to make the government firm up its own Lokpal bill, now before a parliamentary standing committee. This is the salutary outcome of the current tussle since it is likely to produce an effective ombudsman – something which the political class has avoided doing since a Lokpal bill was first introduced in 1968. By Amulya Ganguli

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