Gandhian guerrilla

’Twas in truth an hour
Of universal ferment; mildest men
Were agitated, and commotions, strife
Of passion and opinion, filled the walls
Of peaceful houses with unquiet sounds.
The soil of common life was, at that time,
Too hot to tread upon.
— William Wordsworth on the French Revolution

Last week, the common man in India experienced, perhaps, a bit of the excitement that must have gripped Parisians and provincials alike in revolutionary France as Anna Hazare

brought the Congress Party-led coalition government to its knees.Long used to the comforts of power in a system gilded by corruption it has helped entrench in the country and popularise among the political class, the Congress Party, its coalition partners and the Opposition all nervously hope the extant system somehow survives. But the Hazare protest gathered critical mass around the country as young and old, sensing the purity of his motive, mobilised behind the 73-year-old ex-Army havaldar. The initial dismissal of his fast by Kapil Sibal, Union HRD minister, and Abhishek Singhvi, Congress spokesperson, as yet another Jantar Mantar tamasha, turned in short order into abject acceptance of Mr Hazare’s terms — an adjustment in sync with the gathering, but entirely unanticipated storm.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi apparently weighed the political cost of obduracy against the uncertain outcome of the proposed Jan Lokpal Bill process and opted prudently for the latter. Mr Sibal believed the Hazare phenomenon was a hollow “media creation”, but nudged by law minister Veerappa Moily, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh fell in line. The government, however, expects that as co-chair of the joint civil society-government committee drafting the Lokpal Bill, the crafty Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee will cut a deal that will retain, for those so inclined among the politically privileged and the armies of facilitator bureaucrats, the “perks” of bribe-taking and thievery on the side. All the while, Dr Singh, who has seen at close quarters how the system has been milked by its minders, predictably sidestepped responsibility. Like Herod, he washed his hands off the mess — the umpteenth time he has done this — by mouthing banalities, such as: “(Corruption) is a scourge that confronts us all”.
By the end of the second day of the fast, it became clear that Mr Hazare was no Right-wing religious stooge as Mr Singhvi had implied and that his personalised fight against omniscient corruption had touched a raw nerve and was fast snowballing into an uncontrollably bad situation for the Congress. But critics questioned the legitimacy of Mr Hazare’s tactics, railing against the dangers of lawlessness and disorder inherent in seeking system and course correction outside Parliament. Behind the joyous, optimistic, resolute, but determinedly peaceful movement at Jantar Mantar, it was darkly hinted, hid Jacobin terrors. Such hyperbollicised commentaries missed the obvious.
Mr Hazare is a throwback to the genuine Gandhian, to an age when the Mahatma’s fasts brought British India to a screeching halt even as the colonial authority fretted impotently. Some 70 years later, the Indian government seems no better equipped to tackle such methods. Mr Hazare’s track record of persuading authorities to comply with demands for probity in public life, combined with a guerrilla sensibility — his insistence that all proceedings of the joint committee be videographed was a brilliant move to cut off all avenues of escape and dissimulation by the government — makes him a formidable political protagonist, but not a latter day Indian avatar of Maximillien Robespierre, who, as head of the dreaded Committee for Public Safety, unleashed the Jacobin “Reign of Terror” in France of 1792.
Gandhian methods are deeply unsettling to those presiding over the extant order as well as to outsiders who have learned to pull the strings in the main because of their unpredictable consequences. Mr Hazare admitted he had not foreseen the mass appeal of his fast unto death. But it has spawned unease. Liberal sceptics — in some ways the counterpart of the Girondists in the French Revolution — fear that system overhaul induced by pressures from the street would cause ruction and instability, undermine the “democratic” functioning of the state and put the country a step closer to mob rule. Their cry that if Mr Hazare wants change he should contest parliamentary elections, begs the question: How does a reformer get elected without being contaminated by the system and relying on money power and, in any case, as a collective can Parliament sever its moorings and pass laws to banish corrupt practices? The futile four-decade-long wait and that too for an Anti-Corruption Bill with more loopholes than restraints suggests otherwise.
The larger question is the one involving philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion that animated the likes of Robespierre of sovereignty resting with the “general will” of the people. Mature democracies have evolved to a point where elected legislatures do reflect such will. In India, once elected, representatives by and large join the ruling class of self-aggrandisers supported by an administrative and legal system that fans their worst instincts. To imagine that the remedies for grave social, economic and political ills afflicting the country will be generated by this lot is to expect too much.
In the event, Mr Hazare manifests the “general will” of the people and his promise of future agitations to shame politicians and compel the system to right itself, may be no bad thing. Indeed, his civil society campaign serves as precisely the check and balance that constitutionalists crave against the venality and “grab as grab can” mentality of many of our elected rulers and their minions in the bureaucracy. True, some of his civil society allies may have dubious antecedents, but they are nowhere as critical to realising his agenda as Mr Hazare himself. The enduring impact on the polity of his campaign will depend on how it conditions the attitude of the masses to the imperatives of good governance. At a minimum, the youthful activists will be able to recall in tones mirroring Wordsworth’s awe: “Bliss was it in the dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!”

Bharat Karnad is professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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