Beyond Anna: Complacent, Complicit and Yet Hopeful
Incident #1: At Raipur station in September, I stood in a long line to buy a ticket to Bilaspur. The lines are always long there, but this was a particularly bad day because there had been several days of incessant rains. The roads were flooded and if you wanted to travel out of Raipur, as my friend and I did, your only option was the train.
When I got to the window and said "Bilaspur", the man at the counter mentioned that there was a superfast about to roll in. If I wanted, he said, he could sell me a ticket for it, at a significantly higher price than if I took the more plebeian mail train that was scheduled for a half-hour later.
"Only thing is," he said, "you'll have to board the train, then speak to the ticket collector to allot you a seat, and pay him."
That's fine, I said. I can do that. But I'll get a receipt, right?
"Receipt or no receipt," said the man, "is up to the TC."
Incident #2: A bachelor uncle lived for many years in a nondescript building on a nondescript street in one of Bombay's more desirable suburbs. At one point, he began noticing that he was getting inordinately high electricity bills, well over double what he was used to paying. He couldn't understand what was happening. He had bought no new electrical appliances for the house, and it wasn't as if he suddenly had his geyser on 24/7. Why the excess charges?
A few months of these puzzlingly high bills, with no explanation, were slowly driving my uncle round the bend. After many phone calls, a technician from the power company visited, and promptly found the problem. One of the other residents in the building had disconnected the wires from his own electrical meter and connected them to my uncle's meter. So my uncle had been paying for his consumption too.
Believe me, there are more incidents where those came from. What's more, I suspect that as you read them, you were reminded of others in your own experience.
Which is not such a wild guess. I don't know about other countries, but in this one, we all grow up and grow inured to stories like these. We all do the "small" cheating and bribing and underhand dealing that these two are examples of. We do it to the extent that sometimes it's not even clear there's something wrong -- in some sense -- going on.
Why mention this in an article that tries to look beyond Anna? Because for me, this is the context in which to consider the phenomenon of Anna Hazare. This is the soil in which his efforts take root, that has nurtured his pursuit of a Lokpal Bill. In the end, there's no getting away from context. In this case, what the context does is fill me with cynicism and pessimism about what will come of Hazare's effort.
Yes, we might give ourselves a new law, a new institution, to address corruption. But will that by itself rid us of corruption, as so many of us seem convinced it will?
But more about the "small" stuff later. For now, the thing about context is this: when you start thinking about it you find it spreading fingers, raising questions, in all kinds of directions.
One of the first of those questions is, or should be, just who is Anna Hazare? I wanted to ask this of the person who, when Hazare first went on a fast last April, wrote these ecstatic words to me: "A revolution is happening in front of my eyes. Grandparents r taking children to see the Gandhi of this generation. Here too they r calling it a second Satyagrah." (sms-style lingo in the original).
This, from someone who had not even heard of Hazare until days before she wrote that note. This, in a message that did not so much as mention what Hazare was fasting for. His cause was secondary to the rush to glorify this man, turn him into "the Gandhi of this generation". Really, nobody should be expected to fill boots that big. But because Hazare was willing to put his beliefs where his mouth was with his intent to fast, and without even doing him the courtesy of getting to know the man -- this man, plenty of us were immediately willing to put on a pedestal.
None of this is meant to suggest that Hazare is not a "good man" in some way, that he is instead insincere and shallow. Not at all. The point is that his worth as a human being is something that the cause enjoins each of his supporters to learn for themselves. Have I satisfied myself that the man leading this effort I support so wholeheartedly is able to lead, that he has a track record that makes him worthy of my respect? Or am I satisfied to take someone else's word for it, because I myself have never heard of Hazare?
Which of those questions speaks of a greater respect for Hazare and what he seeks to achieve?
For me, this point about context, and the worth of the man, is best made by a curious little tale that has roots in the mid-90s.
While Hazare may have been unknown to a lot of Indians before 2011, plenty of residents of his home state, Maharashtra, have heard about him for many years. His home village of Ralegan-Siddhi, of course, is now famous for the way he coaxed it into cleanliness and efficiency after his time in the Army. But apart from that, he has undertaken other protests and fasts -- the earliest I remember was in May 1994 -- in attempting to punish errant public officials. In 1996, he went on a fast to demand action against two members of the then BJP-Shiv Sena state government, Shashikant Sutar, minister for agriculture, and Mahadeo Shivankar, minister for irrigation. Two years later, he went on a fast to demand action against the same government's minister for social welfare, Babanrao Gholap.
Like Diwali rockets, these latter two fasts produced their own little trails of sparks before vanishing, as they have, into the mists of fading public memory.
Gholap reacted to Hazare's 1998 fast by turning around and filing a defamation suit against Hazare. This case moved at what can only be called -- given the glacial pace of most court goings-on -- the speed of greased lightning. In less than a year, Hazare was found guilty of defaming Gholap and sentenced to three months in jail. Luckily, a sessions court later overturned this conviction. But more tellingly, another few months after that, the police named Gholap for receiving a Rs 40-lakh kickback in an embezzlement case. That case is, as far as I know, now dead in some legal backwater.
The 1996 fast, against Sutar and Shivankar, had an even more intriguing fallout, and then had echoes in 2011 too. Naturally, nothing happened to the two men then. But their government's self-appointed "remote control", Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, was "perturbed" enough by Hazare's fast to pronounce that Hazare should "clean his own backyard" of Ralegan Siddhi before going after Ministers in his government. In response to that, an "agitated Hazare was quick to demand the same against Thackeray, targeting his real estate investments." This prompted Thackeray's son, Uddhav, to speak up. "Let anybody investigate our assets," he said. "But then there should be an investigation into the assets of everyone making these allegations." (Quotes from Outlook, issue dated December 11 1996).
Also, Bal Thackeray "called the much-revered Magsaysay award winner 'mad'". (Outlook, issue dated December 25 1996).
And speaking of the mists of fading public memory … With this much as background, cue to August 2011. Hazare is on fast in Delhi, fighting corruption on a larger canvas than he had in the '90s. Bal Thackeray writes him a letter in which he "recalled that Anna Hazare met him at his Bandra residence on October 4 1996". At that meeting, said Thackeray, the two men "had discussed ways to combat corruption." After the meeting, said Thackeray, Hazare "told reporters that the Sena chief is the only ray of hope and only he can dare crush corruption." (Quotes from Economic Times, issue dated August 24 2011).
Fifteen years on, Hazare's demand for an investigation into Thackeray's assets, and Thackeray's use of the word "mad" for Hazare, have, in Thackeray's mind, morphed into Hazare saying Thackeray "is the only ray of hope and only he can dare crush corruption."
Why? Because nobody, least of all Thackeray, is above using the sudden rise to prominence of Anna Hazare and his cause to score a few political points.
Public memory? Of what? But context: it's everything.
The somewhat disturbing thing about writing this essay is that every time I've sat down to do so, there's been a burst of news involving one more of Hazare's close associates. Each time, I've said to myself, "best to wait till the dust settles", but each time one more dust storm has erupted. I am writing now while simultaneously holding my breath, wondering what will spring upon us next; wondering, too, how much of what I write here will be overwhelmed by fresher embarrassments by the time this sees print.
Quick recap since mid-October: First there was the attack on Prashant Bhushan, for his remarks on Kashmir. Then there was the news of Kiran Bedi's flight tickets. That was followed by Arvind Kejriwal's unpaid dues to the government. Most recently it's Hazare's blogger, the journalist Raju Parulekar, under fire for telling the world that all this uproar had persuaded Hazare to contemplate changes in his "core team". When Hazare questioned this claim, Parulekar not only produced Hazare's hand-written letter that said as much, he also lashed out at Bedi and Kejriwal, calling them "fascist". Meanwhile Kejriwal didn't approve of Bedi's deeds with the tickets, and Bedi didn't approve of Kejriwal's disapproval.
It's hard to know what to make of all this. Of course there are legitimate explanations for both Bedi's and Kejriwal's behaviour. Yet there's something to be said, when you're fighting such a thing as corruption, for being meticulously above board yourself. I deliberately use the word "meticulously" there, rather than, say, "scrupulously". That's because I believe few of us don't have skeletons in our cupboards that will, inevitably, tumble out when we take a public stand on something. Meaning, few of us can claim to have been scrupulously above board all through our lives -- a theme I will return to -- and starting now won't change that past. But meticulous we certainly can be, in cleaning up past messes. So I think that Bedi, for example, should certainly have aired and dealt with her particular skeleton of tickets before embarking on this Lokpal voyage. Better, always, to head off the questions than have them asked.
Still, the most disturbing episode among all these is what happened to Bhushan. That, not because of what he said. Not even because he was attacked. While it was brutal and alarming, it really is a product of a certain mindset that's taken firm root in India, and it goes like this. Don't like a certain opinion, especially one that's to do with Kashmir? No problem: go bash the man who expresses it.
There's not much of a price to pay in doing this. In an excess of perversity, such attackers get called patriots -- when instead we should call them what they are, garden-variety thugs -- and the man attacked is referred to as "anti-national". Oh yes, there'll be the usual "naam-ke-vaaste" platitudes on the lines of "we condemn all violence", but the notion that the thug is really a patriot remains entrenched.
That's the part that's disturbing. Because it rests on the assumption that there is a singular view on Kashmir that we must all subscribe to. If you differ, you're a traitor and you're liable to attack from a self-proclaimed patriot who apparently believes the singular view is so weak and shaky, it must be defended from contrarians, and he must defend it with his meaty fists.
Remember what Bhushan said: "We should try to take the people of Kashmir with us. If even after that the people of Kashmir don't want to be with us, if they feel like they want to be separate, we should hold a plebiscite there and if they then choose to be separate, we should let that happen." (Translation of his words at a Lucknow event mine).
This is hardly the place to debate the emotional impact of such words on the psyches of purebred pseudo-patriots. Instead, let's remember what our first Prime Minister, a man who fought for Indian freedom all his life, said in a radio broadcast in early November 1947, not even three months after India won freedom:
"We have declared that the fate of Kashmir is ultimately to be decided by the people. That pledge we have given, and the Maharaja has supported it, not only to the people of Kashmir but to the world. We will not and cannot back out of it. We are prepared when peace and law and order have been established to have a referendum held under international auspices like the United Nations. We want it to be a fair and just reference to the people and we shall accept their verdict. I can imagine no fairer and juster offer."
Caveats: It is worth remembering that the promise of a referendum in Kashmir, as eventually spelled out by the United Nations, was predicated on preconditions that had to be met, that have not been met in over 60 years. (First among them being the withdrawal of Pakistani forces). Besides, it is now an easy thing to spit on the memory and legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru.
But none of that diminishes the spirit and substance of the pledge India made in 1947, in the voice of a man who had earned his patriotism -- unlike garden-variety thugs who have to claim it -- by fighting for a free India. Let's be clear and honest about it: "Ultimately", we promised in the year of our freedom, "the people of Kashmir" will decide their fate and "we shall accept their verdict."
In what way are Nehru's words, and that Indian pledge, different from what Bhushan said?
Yet after Bhushan was attacked, Anna Hazare himself refused to stand by him. He "didn't like" Bhushan's statement, said Hazare. "The points [Bhushan] has made are not good."
What's "not good"? For let's ask again, in what way are Bhushan's words different from Nehru's words? Is it that Hazare "didn't like" what Nehru said, too?
Let's ask as well: does such reaction not simply fuel more thugs to undertake more violence in the name of pseudo-patriotism?
This episode gets to the heart of my concern about a movement that focuses on one issue -- even as substantial an issue as corruption -- and therefore attracts widespread support. Inevitably, its protagonists will have views on other issues. Inevitably, these views will see the light of day, because that's the nature of being in the public eye. Inevitably, some of us will find it hard to agree with some of these views. What happens then?
Is it feasible, or reasonable, that a movement against corruption remains disengaged from other problems that this country faces? Is it reasonable that Anna Hazare chooses to shut off debate about a question that is rooted in our earliest days as a free nation, that touches at the very heart of being Indian?
But with all that said, there remains another set of rocks on which I worry that Hazare's movement will founder. It's true we have lost substantial faith in the institutions we have set up to administer our laws and dispense justice. But is that dilemma solved by setting up yet another institution? After all, from where will we find people to staff a Lokpal, this national ombudsman authority if you will, if not from among the same pool of fellow-citizens that have been unable to prevent every other Indian institution from crumbling away? What's to prevent it from becoming, as an American friend warned the day before I started this essay, another J Edgar Hoover-run FBI, a Big Brother, a law unto itself and almost impossible to halt in its sinister tracks?
For the real implication of that loss of faith I mentioned is, again, context. Corruption is not the exclusive preserve of men we elect to rule us, or men they appoint to police us. If it was that way, if the rest of us were honest lily-white souls in every aspect of our lives, it would be easy to rid ourselves of corruption: fling out the corrupt at the next election and put in place men of strength and integrity.
Yet of course it is not, and has never been, that easy.
To me, it's not easy because corruption is not something that happens only with our MPs, but something each of us do every day.
Do I greet the cop who pulls me over for running through a red light by putting out a hand that holds a hundred rupee note? Do I run through the red light anyway, if I don't see a cop nearby? Do I choose to pay my doctor his bill in cash, without asking for a bill? Do I fill his prescription at the pharmacy without insisting on a bill? Do I buy Euros for my trip to Finland at the "official" rate my nearby foreign exchange dealer quotes, or at the "unofficial" rate -- about a rupee less per Euro -- he also quotes? Do I ever pay any attention to the "No Entry" sign at the entrance to the lane where I live?
You get the drift. I could go on. I could come up with more examples like those, as could you. If they seem familiar, that's the context I have been harping on. If your nose wrinkles at the piffling nature of such "offences", if you wonder what they have to do with Hazare's campaign and thus why they appear in this essay, that too is the context I keep harping on.
To me, the real achievement of this struggle for a Lokpal Bill is not the Bill itself, if and when it is born. Instead, it is the mirror it holds up to us all. Because it's when we look in that mirror, openly and without denial, that we will start defeating corruption in this country.
Is that some kind of tiresome moral prescription? I don't know. But I do know that ridding ourselves of corruption is an exercise that extends far beyond Anna Hazare.
Beyond, meaning all the way to where you and I stand: complacent, complicit, yet somehow hopeful.