Hunger Striker Gives Indian Democracy a Workout: Choudhury

There was jubilation and relief across India on Aug. 28, when a septuagenarian finally accepted an offer of honey and coconut water from two children after the 12th day of what had probably been the most prominent and widely supported hunger fast since Independence.

Anna Hazare, the anti-graft crusader who on Aug. 16 embarked on the protest to pressure the government to table a strong anti-corruption measure, the Jan Lokpal Bill, and the millions of Indians who came out in his support, claimed a victory as the government appeared to give in to their demands. Hazare had been persistent: it was his second fast of the year, following one in April.

"The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." This old saw was proclaimed last week in different versions and different languages on streets, stages and television studios all around the country. It certainly was the main theme on the grounds of New Delhi's Ramlila Maidan, where thousands of people gathered all week to get a glimpse of Hazare and to hear the speeches of prominent members of his team, interspersed with songs, skits, and prayers. In a year of street protests worldwide, this one -- although dismissed by its critics as a subversion of democracy and hostile to the political class as a whole -- felt like a mass democratic re-education movement, aiming to restore the balance of power between India's disaffected citizens and its supine Parliament, which has far too often in recent times projected a sense of a private club that feasts on power and entitlement. A prominent force in the campaign was the mass media, which strongly supported Hazare and carried his message.

The government capitulated after taking a battering in Parliament from the opposition and outside it from citizens and prominent figures in Indian public life, including social activists, swamis (godmen), and film stars. Among the controversial steps taken by authorities was the arrest of Hazare on the first day of his fast and his confinement for three days in New Delhi's Tihar Jail,  a measure completely out of proportion to the potential threat posed by his non-violent protest. As the agitation grew in size and strength, the government was forced to discard the advice of the two prominent lawyers in its ranks, Home Minister P.Chidambaram and Minister of Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal, who had taken a hard line in the negotiations. Instead, officials turned to less belligerent figures, such as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Minister of Science and Technology Vilasrao Deshmukh.

On the evening of Aug. 27, Deshmukh, who was newly appointed by the government to negotiate with Hazare and his colleagues, delivered to the group a letter from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that informed him that both houses of Parliament had, in a special session, agreed to the three contentious demands. Parliament would pass on to the Parliamentary Standing Committee appointed to scrutinize various drafts of the bill this "sense of the House." After this, Hazare agreed to call off his fast, even though he noted: "This victory of Jan Lokpal bill is a partial victory. A full victory is yet to be achieved."

But did the government concede anything concrete to the protestors? The weekly magazine Tehelka asked "Was Anna Hazare given a placebo?" and its correspondent Iftikhar Gilani wrote:

In a deft political stroke, it seems that government has steered clear of committing itself or Parliament to implement three final demands of crusader Anna Hazare.

[...] Except for virtually putting on hold Parliament for two weeks and forcing it to hold a special Saturday sitting discussing the issues that caught its fancy, Team Anna has gained nothing from 12 days of Hazare's fast as its Jan Lokpal Bill would have been even considered by Parliament's Standing Committee while scrutinising the [alternative draft of the] Lokpal Bill brought before the Lok Sabha by the Government.

It might be said that Hazare's victory was more general than specific, significant less for what it managed to wrest in the realm of policy than for what it achieved in terms of mass mobilization against corruption and an upsurge of political consciousness, particularly among the Indian middle classes, which have long been derided for their political apathy. Writing in the Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta observed:

A democracy, by its nature, only gives partial victories. Anna Hazare’s movement can claim that it brought unprecedented pressure to bear upon Parliament. Parliament can claim that it responded to the pressure. But it artfully kept the door open to resisting it.

[...] Grant the movement its due. It catalysed a new self-consciousness about corruption. Anna Hazare managed to project an unvarnished idealism, unsullied by any attribution of vested interest.

[...] The movement...was an organisational triumph. It tapped into new idioms and aesthetics. There was occasional rhetorical disfigurement. But the fact that there was a platform where thousands could peacefully coalesce around the symbolism of Anna Hazare is not a mean achievement. These signal new forms of mobilisation in future: the combination of the media, urban India, middle-class support is a potent force. All social mobilisations tap into a sense, however temporarily, of empowering citizens. This sense only grows with success.

And in a cover story in Tehelka called "The Troopers Who Triggered The Storm," the journalist Revati Laul supplied a fascinating account of how the Hazare campaign had gathered force since its principal figures first came together late last year. Laul drew attention to the campaign's backroom staff, which bore the burden of its organizational and financial requirements and prepared a public-relations campaign that, channeling media from street posters to text messages and Twitter, knocked out the government apparatus. One such person was a man in his twenties, Ram Kumar Jha:

Jha, 26, from a village in Madhepura, Bihar, is the team’s logistics manager. [...] In the run-up to the April fast, Jha’s first task was to tell everyone about India Against Corruption and the Jan Lokpal Bill. He visited every taxi stand in Delhi, explaining the campaign to drivers and asking them to put stickers about the 5 April fast on their cabs. College campuses were also an obvious target. As were passengers on buses and the Delhi Metro. Another team fanned out to villages in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. And the vast and teeming slums of the National Capital Region. On an average day, Jha switches seamlessly between negotiating with the Joint Commissioner of Police to allow the next water tanker to be allowed into the protest venue, organising food for the 1,000-odd volunteers, diesel for the generators that power the venue, cables for the TV cameras to plug in their OB vans and catch some shut-eye in between.

Among the sidelights of the drama was a rare and widely watched speech in Parliament by Rahul Gandhi, the son of the Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi and the leader of the Youth Congress, who is widely assumed to be the prime-minister-in-waiting. Gandhi's oration was a piece of political theatre designed to showcase the speaker more than the issue at hand. He suggested that the Lokpal be made a constitutional body, and later unwisely said he had come up with "a game-changing idea." Gandhi is thought to be, and indeed is presented by his supporters as the politician who will lead both the Congress Party and India's youth boldly into the future. But his current disconnect from the pulse of public opinion, rivaling that of the Congress Party, was analyzed by the journalist Ashok Malik in an essay called "Stumped?":

The preponderance of young people who came out on the streets was ominous. “This is India’s youth bulge,” said a senior minister, who feels he has been marginalised by Manmohan and the prevailing regime, “it’s as restive and impatient as, say, the Arab youth bulge. There is an anti-incumbency sentiment built into it.”

The demographic reality of a very young Indian population in the coming decades will pose a political risk. “These energies will need to be channelled,” felt a minister, “and Rahul [Gandhi] is our best bet. But so far he has practised the politics of grievance. Perhaps he needs to temper it with the politics of aspiration.”

Malik also laid out the reasons for the Congress Party's decline, and compared the movement to other pan-Indian agitations of decades past:

[...] The Congress's all-India architecture did not crumble overnight and will not be rebuilt overnight. Its pan-Indian middle class appeal, on the other hand, has slipped rather rapidly. Anna Hazare and his associates have been cleverer in using public holidays — the Independence Day weekend, the Janamashtmi weekend and the promised 30-31 August push, which will coincide with the Id-ul-Fitr break — as well as social media tools such as Twitter and YouTube and, of course, in tailoring television frenzy to their advantage.

“In a sense, this is bigger than the JP movement or the Bofors agitation or the Mandal-Mandir years,” says a BJP [the main opposition party in Parliament] veteran with experience of all those mass mobilisations, “there was no 24/7 television then, no media revolution. And the Congress is clueless coming to terms with that.”

In a piece titled "Lokpal Bill: What Next?" the Times of India suggested that it was unlikely that the measure would be presented to Parliament before the winter session, which means the government has bought itself a breather. The moot question is whether it is genuinely open to the multiple drafts of the bill and the mass of suggestions from different quarters that will now be considered by the Standing Committee before it sends a revised bill back to Parliament. A trenchant overview of the drawn-out crisis was supplied by the Hindu, which said in an editorial:

In appraising what has happened over the past fortnight, a red herring needs to be got out of the way — the idea of the "supremacy of Parliament" versus everyone who comes up against it. Parliamentarians who assert this need to learn their Constitution. In India, unlike Britain, Parliament is not supreme; the Constitution is. Nor is law-making “the sole prerogative” of Parliament. The significant victory of the anti-corruption campaigners gives political India a rare opportunity to translate fine anti-corruption sentiments into a potent law that can be a game-changer. The challenge before the people of India is to ensure, by keeping up the pressure, that in the tricky business of law making in committee and on the floor of the Houses of Parliament a potentially powerful instrument is not blunted.

All things considered, this was an excellent workout for Indian democracy, both in the specific sense of democratic procedure and law-making and the general sense of citizenship and robust debate in the public sphere.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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