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People's Movements and the Anna Upsurge

The absence of collaboration between the Anna Hazare campaign and people's movements fighting for democratic rights elsewhere in the country was stark and for that both the limited nature of the campaign as well as the short-sightedness of the various social movements are to be blamed.

COMMENTARY

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People’s Movements and the Anna Upsurge

Manoranjan Mohanty

The absence of collaboration between the Anna Hazare campaign and people’s movements fighting for democratic rights elsewhere in the country was stark and for that both the limited nature of the campaign as well as the shortsightedness of the various social movements are to be blamed.

Manoranjan Mohanty (drmohantys@gmail. com) is now with the Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

T
he nationwide upsurge under the leadership of Anna Hazare has put the issue of corruption – both in high places of government as well as in day-to-day life of common people – at the centre of public consciousness.

Yet, the distance that was very visible between the ongoing people’s movements in India and the Anna Hazare campaign remains a troubling issue challenging the latter and asking it to reflect upon it. They must ponder over the fact that all major streams of the dalit and adivasi movements in the country remained outside this campaign even though some nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) did bring some of these groups to take part in the agitations at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi. The minority groups and their leaders, by and large, were either critical or indifferent. Most conspicuously, the banners of most of the movements going on against

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mega-mining and industrial projects in Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and elsewhere were missing. The forest workers’ organisations who have been on the forefront of the campaign for the Forest Rights Act and are trying hard to secure its proper implementation were

not only absent but came out with sharp critiques of the Anna led campaign. And other movements of the workers especially in the unorganised sector did not feel e nthused to take active interest in the Anna campaign either.

The autonomy and self-determination movements in Kashmir or north-east could not relate this anti-corruption campaign to the issues they were fighting for. The civil liberties movement including the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties kept out of the Anna campaign. Even the symbolism of having a dalit and a Muslim girl to offer coconut water and honey to Anna to break his fast did not make up for the persisting gap that the campaign has with the people’s movements. In contrast, this entire range of people’s movements solidly identify with Irom Sharmila’s protest in Manipur. Sharmila has been force-fed in a hospital prison for over 10 years in

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d efence of the right to life and liberty of people of Manipur and has demanded the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

At the same time, these groups ought to examine whether they did the right thing by not recognising a clearly democratic element in the Anna upsurge, not considering the corruption issue as a part of their democratic rights campaign and thus missing an opportunity at this historical moment. That “democratic” element caught the imagination of a vast number of common people who not only were present in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan but also thronged solidarity rallies in big and small towns all over India. Were they led into a trap by Congress spokespersons who characterised (and later regretted the Act) the Anna campaign – as a move by “armchair fascists, over-ground Maoists and closet anarchists” – a refrain which some eminent personalities continued to maintain till the very end? Even when the government and the parties in the opposition had come around to respecting the democratic voice of the Anna campaign?

The presence of Medha Patkar, leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, in the core group of the Anna campaign did lend some credence to the participation of some social movements. Yet over the course of the campaign it was clear that while she was committed to the goals of the Anna campaign and some of her followers were with her in it, the nationwide network of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) was not mobilised in support of the Anna campaign.

A Middle Class Campaign?

One of the reactions to the Anna campaign from the left and social movement circles is that it is a middle class initiative having appeal primarily in urban areas. First, many democratic initiatives have started as middle class initiatives. The civil liberties movement in India in the wake of the Emergency was a middle class movement. Even the dalit liberation movement had origins in the educated middle class and literary circles and then gradually acquired wider popular base. Second, the Anna campaign may have started as an initiative by a group of middle class activists to pass an effective law on curbing

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corruption, but as soon as the government started rejecting their proposals, it incurred the wrath of the common people and the protest spread to wider sections of society. When Anna Hazare moved the l ocation for his fast to Ramlila Maidan, the crowd swelled everyday. It was no longer just a composite of middle class groups and NGOs and their constituents but also that of ordinary people – rickshaw pullers, vegetable vendors, auto rickshaw drivers, students and lower class families with all their members spent time in the maidan. Third, the issues that were seen as the final bone of contention between the government and the protests – including the lower bureaucracy under the jurisdiction of the Lokpal, a mechanism for grievance redressal and Lokayuktas in states were poor people’s issues as well. If indeed, some mechanisms are put in place and the delivery of government services improves eliminating the phenomenon of bribery, it would bring a great relief to the common people.

It is true that several secular and democratic forces were put off by the arrival of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres and the followers of “yoga guru” Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in the rallies all over the country. People r ecalled how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as a strong force as a result of the J P Narayan led movement in the mid-1970s. But that was yet another historical occasion when many progressive forces critical of JP left the space for the RSS to fill in.

The crowd in the Anna campaign cut across many classes. It soon became clear that the BJP followers were not the main group of people responding to Anna’s call. In fact, the BJP had remained ambivalent about several issues in the Jan Lokpal Bill till the very end. Therefore to describe the Anna campaign as a Right-wing campaign launched by Hindu reactionaries is to i gnore the realities on the ground. Fortunately, that criticism died down as the campaign proceeded to achieving its first success.

That some NGOs provided the backbone for the campaign may be true. That some technologically adept young activists and enterprising NGO leaders arranged the b asic resources to set up the infrastructure for the rallies and carry on the campaign

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may also be true. That is a part of the contemporary reality of the neo-liberal economic process in Indian society. During the past two decades, all governments at the centre and the states have associated with NGOs in policymaking and delivery of services. The United Progressive Alliance regime’s National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi formalised this trend integrating the NGO sector within the state process – a phenomenon promoted by the forces of globalisation and liberalisation. In this case while some NGOs r emained critical of the campaign others helped the anti-corruption drive. The presence of non-resident Indians made it seem even more elitist as did the solidarity demonstrations abroad – inviting grateful acknowledgement from the Anna campaign activist Arvind Kejriwal in his thanksgiving speech. It should be pointed out that while the NGOs took care of the logistics, there were many humble contributions from individuals and small groups of volunteers from all over the country.

But the campaign faulted in not doing enough to change its middle class image. Its original approach was to negotiate with the government just as the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) did and achieved the passing of the Right to Information Act. Only when Anna Hazare turned it into a mass campaign by going on a fast and when the government’s unwise and most deplorable decision to arrest Anna created a massive groundswell of support, the dynamics of a mass upsurge began to unfold. Thereafter, the organisers were so preoccupied with the negotiation process with the government that they did not see the need to seek allies among people’s movement groups. There was a great opportunity to spell out how an anti-corruption campaign can d eliver justice to the rural and urban poor and the common people in general. They could have formed support groups with dalit, adivasi, minorities’ and workers’ movements. For example, they could have convinced them that the land rights movements going on in massive scale in many parts of the country may actually be strengthened by the anti-corruption measures being proposed by the campaign. The anti-state perspective of the people’s movements could have provided further

COMMENTARY

ammunition to the Anna campaign’s effort to expose the hollowness of the official Lokpal Bill. On the other hand, the electronic media emerged as the Anna campaign’s major ally. The TV anchors had a sumptuous menu to serve – an avatar of Gandhi with incredible moral appeal, the photogenic, topi-headed youth declaring “I am Anna”, minute-by-minute dramatic developments, the government’s flip-flops adding midnight melodrama with the uninterrupted sermons and sentimental jibes along expected lines from familiar faces on the TV screen. It is no surprise that in the Anna’s list of thanks the media figured next only to people in the maidan who came first.

Can a Law End Corruption?

The Anna campaign has been accused of reducing the fight against corruption to enacting a law that envisaged establishing a gigantic, powerful, independent ombudsman to investigate and punish the corrupt, as if that would eradicate the scourge of corruption at all levels.

On the face of it, it is a valid criticism. The whole debate has focused on alternate bills, the Lokpal Bill of the Government of India and the Anna campaign’s Jan Lokpal Bill. Other drafts also came up for comparison. One was the draft of the NCpRI of Aruna Roy, another by the Lok Satta Party leader from Andhra Pradesh, Jayaprakash Narayan and yet another by the former chief election commissioner, T N Sheshan. The media drew so much attention to the comparative provisions of the various drafts that the larger causes of corruption in contemporary India got little space.

Much discussion and thinking has gone on in India and globally on corruption. One of the high points of this discussion was during the JP Movement in 1974. JP gave the call for “total revolution” to bring about structural changes to achieve a just, egalitarian and a clean democratic society. There were attempts to formulate proposals on electoral reforms to tackle one of the major sources of corrupt practices for getting votes. But after the onset of economic reforms in 1991 the operation of the liberalised economy has vastly expanded the arena of discretion of the executive – both political and bureaucratic causing an exponential rise in the number and scale of malpractices. This was evident in the 2G scam, the Commonwealth Games scam, the mining scams in Karnataka and Orissa and the light thrown on the politician-corporate-media nexus in the Nira Radia tapes, to mention a few. Thus, the magnitude of corruption has increased vastly during the reform era. Incidentally, the same is true in case of China where the magnitude is many times more than in India because of the size of the economy and corresponding business deals.

To put it in a nutshell, corruption has to be tackled by a three-pronged approach: at the political economy level, at the legal apparatus level and through moral values. The political economy of poverty and destitution puts the poor at the mercy of the lower bureaucracy and local politicians whose corrupt practices harass the poor on a day-to-day basis. At the same time the liberalisation of the national economy has facilitated big scams. Structural measures have to be taken to address poverty and provide democratic rights to the common people and policies have to change at the political economy level. The elimination of the discretion of civil servants and ministers, laying down transparent procedures of decision-making and delivery of services are essential together with policy changes. And that is not likely in an unequal society. Next, effective laws and institutions are extremely significant to prevent corrupt practices and to punish the corrupt.

Political parties have so manipulated these institutions to protect their own interests, favour corporate houses and harass their political opponents using institutions of state that we needed a campaign like Anna’s to bring focus on these. In addition to these two dimensions, inculcation of moral values is as central to this endeavour as legal measures. If on one hand we encourage an acquisitive, consumerist, commercial culture that tempts every person to make more money to satisfy his/her desires and internalise a money-making culture, and on the other hand ask them to be non-corrupt there would be a contradiction. If a parent has to pay Rs 10 lakh as capitation fee for the admission of his/her child to a professional school the child is groomed to make additional money to compensate for that investment. The Mahatma Gandhi tradition as also the socialist tradition to treat public property as more sacrosant than private property and account for every paisa that is earned and spent in both public and private transactions is pretty much a dead letter today.

This is where common school education, public universities and colleges with a clear commitment to values of integrity

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and service to society become relevant. Unfortunately, the Anna campaign narrowed down the anti-corruption discourse to a Jan Lokpal Bill, however, strong and effective it may be and did not touch wider political, economic and moral issues even to put the the law campaign in perspective. Particularly noteworthy was the near silence on corporate dimensions of corruption. Kejriwal administered a pledge, at the time of ending of Anna’s fast, asking people not to give or take bribe. But value i nculcation involves more than that form of symbolism or tokenism.

The Anna-led campaign may have a reason for focusing on a law. Rather than broad talk on the subject which has failed to enact a Lokpal law despite eight attempts over the last 43 years during which corruption has risen to unbearable proportions at every level, it may be worthwhile to zero in on an effective bill and pursue with determination a non-violent mass protest. The Anna-led campaign was a satyagraha in the classic Gandhian mode though it did not use the term for some reason to get a strong law enacted. Anna Hazare, a crusader with mass appeal emerged in the public arena to carry it forward with a carefully worked out strategy. And in a liberal democracy, when the governing parties refuse to formulate an effective law, any citizen, any group has a right to mobilise public

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opinion and try to put its proposal before government or an appropriate committee to place it before Parliament. It is a pity that the people’s movements and many pro gressive forces failed to appreciate this as did the political parties until they saw a massive popular will backing the initiative.

Hopefully, the Anna campaign will grow into an even more effective mobilisation for achieving the actual Lokpal law in the course of which there will be greater understanding between the people’s movements and the anti-corruption campaign and it will become a part of the process of systemic transformation of Indian society.

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september 17, 2011 vol xlvI no 38

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