A hero by default

All democracies have a government and an Opposition. Some democracies have a Cabinet and a shadow Cabinet. India is unique. It has a National Advisory Council and, starting this past week, a shadow National Advisory Council. The confusion this will lead to can only be guessed.

So far there was a draft of the Lokpal Bill prepared by the government of India and an alternative draft — the Jan Lokpal Bill — designed by civil society activists who backed Anna Hazare’s fast at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. Now a joint committee, comprising some but not all factions of the pro-Hazare activists as well as members of the Union Cabinet, will produce a third, compromise draft. The “official” National Advisory Council (NAC) — the body headed by Sonia Gandhi, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson, and part of the Congress’ attempt to incorporate civil society groups into its political fold — will also draft its own version of the Lokpal Bill.
That aside, those activists left out of the drafting committee by Mr Hazare will no doubt quibble and insist on their own non-negotiable inclusions in any Lokpal Bill. In Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Left and numerous other parties will also present their changes to one or many of the several draft Lokpal Bills that will be presented to the nation sometime before August 15, 2011 (the deadline put forward by Mr Hazare).
Multiple voices and a degree of noise are a welcome part of democracy. When a law is proposed in Parliament, whether by the government or an individual legislator, ordinary people, lobby groups, non-governmental organisations, business associations and a variety of other segments have a right to object, propose changes and urge a second look. That is not in dispute here.
What is disquieting about the Lokpal Bill controversy is the manner in which self-appointed civil society regiments — all of which have a right to be heard — have arrogated upon themselves the role of being the sole and authentic representatives of public opinion. The standing of elected representatives of the people has been undermined. What the Congress began with its institutionalisation of the NAC in 2004 has now become a runaway fever.
This may sound harsh and unfair given the robust support for Mr Hazare, cutting across regions and cities. As the very symbol of the Little Man, the silent but frustrated common citizen taking on the might of an uncaring and insensitive state, Mr Hazare was a winner from day one. Yet it is important to understand why he got the traction he did, and what this represents and what it doesn’t.
Mr Hazare has been around for years. A former soldier who narrowly escaped being killed in the 1965 war, he returned to his native village in Maharashtra to focus on water conservation, small, localised irrigation mechanisms, rural uplift and prohibition. Combining the determination of an old soldier with the semiotics of Mahatma Gandhi, to his followers he is the very embodiment of the Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan sentiment.
One need not believe in everything Mr Hazare says: young people in Ralegan Siddhi, his village, have been known to complain that Mr Hazare’s rural idyll creates few modern job opportunities for them; prohibition has never worked in practice, leading to bootlegging and crime syndicates. Nevertheless, as the proverbial god’s good man, it is impossible to rail against Mr Hazare and not come out seeming churlish.
When this man was posited against the record of the UPA government over the past year — a succession of scandals and the perceived inability of the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues to take pre-emptive or even strong remedial action — the result was a foregone conclusion.
The middle classes who watched television for hours and hours and then came on the streets, whether in New Delhi or Bengaluru or Ahmedabad, were not so much concerned with the niceties of the Lokpal Bill. They were fed up with what they felt was a venal system and agitated at the shortcomings of the Manmohan Singh government. Disgust with the UPA ended up becoming support for Mr Hazare by default.
In hindsight, the UPA made one crucial mistake as the protesters gathered at Jantar Mantar. It completely underestimated the emotive appeal and impact of Mr Hazare adopting Gandhian tactics. When Mr Hazare began his fast — to the accompaniment of bhajans, and with a portrait of Bharat Mata in the background — the Congress’ managers did not sense he would evoke a response from the national media, the city middle classes, the business elite and the intelligentsia.
Indeed, the tone used by Congress politicians through the Jantar Mantar protests — the government will talk to the “other camp”; if the activists have “their chairperson”, the committee will not have “our ministers”; Mr Hazare is given to “whims” and “blackmail” — was cutting and condescending.
It is ironical that this is exactly how the Congress elites — in Bombay, Poona and Calcutta, for example — scorned Gandhi when he took to mass movements in the 1920s. The issue here is not to compare Mr Hazare to the Mahatma. It is to stress that when operating conditions are similar, and when popular anger with a supposedly discredited government has hit critical mass, even so-called “obsolete” (another word used to describe the Hazare-led activism) devices can work.
Consider the following extract: “I always strongly criticised (his) views and his methods such as fast for achieving his objectives… (He) could thrust his… fads on that Congress government by resorting to such a simple trick as threatening a fast… The Congress had to surrender its will to his and had to be content with playing the second fiddle to all his eccentricity, whimsicality, metaphysics and primitive vision… He alone was the judge of everyone and everything”.
This sounds remarkably like the rhetoric of Congress spokespersons in the past few days. It’s actually from Nathuram Godse’s November 1948 statement to the special court at the Red Fort, trying him for the murder of Mahatma Gandhi!

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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