[This was written around the time Anna broke his fast. Might appear a little stale now!]
Only the seeds of time will determine if Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption was a success or a failure. There have been numerous accounts of institutional non-/viability of Anna’s demands and the elite dimensions of the proposed Jan Lok Pal Bill. Here I focus specifically on some of the contradictions that this movement has come to embody over the course of last few days.
Anna Hazare’s figure has become a site on which India’s contemporary spatial contradictions are played out. Anna’s career-graph shows that his emergence into prominence rests on his ability to draw on Gandhian principle of village reconstruction. He initiated his first social movement in his own village, Ralegan Siddhi, in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. Anna’s movement that started in Jantar Mantar in Delhi and spread to other parts of the country is, contrarily, an urban middle-class simulation of the Egyptian Revolution. The rural and urban India has usually charted its own independent course since independence. So much so that the two most prominent political parties in India have appealed to this spatially fractured populace during elections. The urban India seems to be meeting its rural counterpart only substantially in the figure of the rural migrant as is explicated in the case of Armaan Ali in the film, Well Done Abba and Balram Halwai in Arvind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger. As Anna, the Gandhian crusader from rural India, takes centre-stage in urban imaginary, one cannot but wonder at the novelty of such an improbable pact.
Anna’s anti-corruption movement cobbled together an agglomeration of disparate individuals and ‘civil society’ groups whose very congregation was contradictory. In the first few days, we saw prominent religious leaders lending their support to the movement. The most bizarre of all was the support of right-wing and left-leaning political parties. The right-wing politicians’ abhorrence of Gandhi is well-known. So is the left-leaning politicians’ labeling of Gandhi as a reactionary bourgeois figure. Yet, in Gandhian Anna’s movement, they attempted to reconcile their irreconcilable ideologies. Besides the political parties, the urban upper-class, upper-caste youth carried banners of “Youth for Equality.” The film personalities sanctified the whole performance by their sporadic presence. One could argue that the presence of such asymmetrical groups augurs well for Indian civil society. Digging beneath the veneer of solidarity, it will not be impossible to find how most of these groups are bound by their distinct urban, middle-class interest.
What brought the urban middle-class out on the street is their supposed sense of entitlement in the governance of the land. As globalized capital makes inroads into Indian society and the middle-class learns the principles of putative accountability that accompanies such an economic system, they stake their claim to a transparent and professional form of governance. The demand for an increasing professionalization of the government is coterminous with a new sense of participatory citizenship. The new urban Indian citizen wants accountability for the tax money that she pays to the government. What the participants fail to notice is how the very corruption that they have been fighting against is a result of the professionalization of the governing system. The bidding process introduced for telecom operators was meant to replace the earlier system of license raj that was seen as an undesirable vestigial presence of an unprofessional socialist economy. If eradication of corruption is predicated on a supposed professionalization of governance in the liberalized economy, the civil society in India must take into account the contradictory corrupting impulses that such an economic system incubates. 2G scam is just one such example.
The same participants who appear to be appalled by the misuse of their tax money are completely silent (and even hostile) on other issues plaguing the nation. We are yet to witness a concerted nation-wide movement against casteism, communalism, violence against women, and grinding poverty. The urban middle-class has been by and large hostile to Binayak Sen’s putative sympathy for the adivasis who have been the victim of a corrupting nexus between politicians and corporate houses that continue to ravage the tribal ecology. Iram Sharmila, the civil rights activist from Manipur, has long been consigned to oblivion by the ‘mainland’ middle-class. As long as such persistent problems could be subsumed within the larger discourse of development, the urban, middle-class participants are happy to turn a blind eye to the sufferings of the majority. The bottom-line for the movement seems to be – we don’t care if the money we pay as tax is utilized for the betterment of our lives. Let the rest of India – especially the rural and vulnerable sections of society – find their own ways!
Anna’s movement gives the urban middle-class a platform for self-assertion. In a growing economy where inert consumption is the norm, the figure of Gandhi serves to assert the virtue of selfless action. Anna is merely an alibi for revisiting the Gandhian ideals by an increasingly guilt-ridden middle-class in India. As Indians saw riveting scenes of demonstrations at Tahrir Square, they, too, wanted to have their mini-revolution. After all, in our own times, the gains of a revolution could be equally measured in terms of a feel-good factor. It certainly feels good to be part of a demonstration especially when we hardly care for issues. The urban India didn’t mind rallying around a rural messiah as long as it felt good to be there.
The most contradictory factor is the involvement of electronic media. Some of the most prominent television news channels had recently been implicated in the very same corruption charges. Anna Hazare’s movement gave them an opportunity to redeem themselves by affirming their staunch anti-corruption stance. The current government, too, managed to salvage a flagging support base by conceding to Anna’s demands. The government, like the media houses, after all, managed to prove that it, too, cares!