‘‘ ‘Twas in truth an hour Of universal ferment; mildest men”, wrote William Wordsworth in his moving poem on the French Revolution, “Were agitated; and Commotions, strife, Of passions and opinion fill’d the walls Of peaceful houses with unquiet sounds The soil of common life was at that time Too hot to tread upon.”
Last week, the common man in India experienced, perhaps, a bit of the excitement that must have gripped Parisiennes 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 to popularize among the political class, the Congress party, its coalition partners, 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, mobilized behind the 72 year old ex-Army Havaldar. The initial dismissal of his fast by Kapil Sibal and Abhishek Singhvi, as yet another Jantar Mantar tamasha, turned in short order into abject acceptance of Hazare’s terms – an adjustment in sync with the gathering, but entirely unanticipated, storm.
The Congress Party 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. 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 Pranab Mukherji 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 insincere 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 Hazare was no religious rightwing religious stooge as Singhvi had implied, and that his personalized fight against omniscient corruption had touched a raw public nerve and was fast snowballing into an uncontrollably bad situation for the Congress party. But critics questioned the legitimacy of 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.
Anna 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. The Indian government some seventy years later seems no better equipped to tackle such methods. 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. 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 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 the 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-aggrandizers 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, 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 realizing his agenda as 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!”
[Published in ‘The Asian Age’ & ‘The Deccan Chronicle’, April 14, 2011, at www.asianage.com/columnists/gandhian-guerilla-540 ]