By Aditya Mukherjee, Posted: Thu Aug 25 2011, 01:13 hrs
The largely urban, middle-class agitation led by “Team Anna” Hazare for the acceptance of a particular version of the Lokpal bill in order to end corruption in India, has raised several questions regarding the scope, legitimacy, credibility and sustainability of such protests. It has also led to some rather hasty comparisons with powerful movements in the past — including, quite unbelievably, India’s freedom struggle, arguably the biggest mass movement in world history.
Even more far-fetched is to bring in the name of the Mahatma. If wearing khadi and a Gandhi topi, speaking of satyagraha and non-violence without accepting its content and collecting a crowd was all that was required to be compared to the Mahatma, then the world would soon begin to bristle with Mahatmas. Comparisons have also been made with state responses in the past to agitation on the streets.
Meanwhile, a large number of leaders of the BJP, the Hindu-communal party of the right — including its seniormost leader L.K. Advani — have repeatedly drawn parallels between the current situation and the JP movement and the declaration of Emergency in India. (The political heirs of those who murdered the Mahatma, however opportunistic they may be, would find it difficult to claim legitimacy from Gandhiji, or a freedom struggle of which they were never a part. The comparison with Gandhiji to my knowledge is not generally made by leaders of the RSS/ BJP combine.)
There are several reasons why these comparisons are not valid. However, there is indeed some comparability in certain respects, which have been by and large ignored, which I would like to briefly highlight.
The Anna agitation, a one-point agitation, is nowhere like the JP movement, leave alone the freedom struggle, in the scope of its stated objectives or the nature of its nationwide popular support. The politically decisive steps of Indira Gandhi, with all their faults, are again not comparable with the waffling which we are witnessing today. If it is a repetition of history then certainly, as the adage goes, it is being repeated as a farce.
The similarity with the JP movement, particularly as it evolved in the later stages, is however in the repeated bypassing of democratic institutions and resort to “popular support” in the streets, not electoral victories, to issue ultimatums to the government asking them to abdicate power. The “popular support” which was initially mobilised by the JP movement on the basis of genuine discontent about corruption, misgovernance and inflation, was, over time, hijacked by the then Jan Sangh and the RSS with the one-point agenda of overthrowing Indira Gandhi. Scholarly research has shown decisively the hand of the RSS behind the “popular support” to the JP movement in the later phases.
It would be foolish not to see the element of spontaneous popular support for Anna across classes, including the well-heeled, who have been rendered utterly helpless against corruption. But reports of RSS mobilisation behind it are ominous. The student wing of the Sangh combine, the ABVP, has already called for a nationwide bandh of schools and colleges. Advani has called for “concerted action” — such as, presumably, the Bharat bandh suggested by the NDA convenor — to end Congress-led rule, whose mandate they (if not the electorate) assert “has long since evaporated.” The demand and objectives have so quickly shifted from fighting corruption, a systemic disease involving all political parties, to getting rid of the Congress. Significantly, no opposition party, including the BJP, supports the Lokpal draft of Team Anna, but they all seek to use the disaffection he has given voice to for narrow political ends. Fortunately, the Left at least appears to be wary of joining the bandwagon.
Genuine popular discontent, if it is not contained within a well-organised movement with a clear ideological vision, faces the risk of being hijacked by well-organised political forces with clear-cut agendas. (Anna’s stated vision in this agitation does not go beyond fighting corruption — which he says creates inflation, and hence causes concern to our women!) Historically, the right has used periods of disorder and discontent to rise to power, destroying existing institutions on the pretext that they did not function properly, and promising to cleanse the system of corruption and disorder. The rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s and Nazism in Germany in the 1930s need to be closely studied in this context. The Indian right (Jawaharlal Nehru brilliantly anticipated that fascism in India would take the form of majority communalism) has learnt its lessons well, perhaps too well, from the European experience of fascism. Those who believe in the democratic system will, however, have to pay a very heavy cost if they do not learn lessons from history, and act unitedly in preventing any diminution of the very institutions which nurture our democracy.
Team Anna — the Bhushans, Bedi and Kejriwal — have themselves fallen short of respecting due process in a democratic system. They have decided that their version of the bill is the ultimate answer in the fight against corruption. They insist their version must be the one which the government brings to Parliament. If it does not, then it is “corrupt”. Persuading any other political party, or even an individual, to put up a private bill is not on the agenda, presumably because all politicians are suspect, and “civil society”, as defined by them, will determine what happens in Parliament. They are not willing to negotiate even with the original campaigners for the Lokpal, people like Aruna Roy, Shekhar Singh, Nikhil Dey, Justice Shah and other distinguished leaders and sympathisers of the NCPRI (National Campaign for People’s Right to Information) with whom they worked together till yesterday.
Nothing could be more un-Gandhian. Gandhi fully understood that the essence of democracy is debate, discussion, persuasion and not claiming sole ownership of the Truth. His concept of non-violence partly emanated from this notion that one has to respect those one disagrees with however firmly one might oppose them. The Gandhian satyagrahi therefore had to be humble, willing to learn and negotiate. His satyagrahis had to first ensure that they themselves were pure and practised values they fought for. Gandhi would not even dream of allowing anybody to be a satyagrahi if he was not secular and believed in Hindu-Muslim unity. A lesson forgotten by many of his supposed successors in their desire to collect crowds.
The writer is professor of contemporary history at JNU, Delhi, and co-author of ‘India Since Independence’