India's Anti-Corruption Movement Aims for Parliament

India Against Corruption, a powerful if flawed mass movement that put the government under considerable pressure last August with its demand that a long-delayed anti-corruption bill be passed, made two widely watched moves last week. They also happened to be moves in opposite directions.

First, the group's talisman and moral anchor, the septuagenarian social activist Anna Hazare, went on a fast with several other figures from the movement (often called "Team Anna") to protest the government's continued inaction on the bill. Hazare had done the same thing to tremendous effect last August. This time, however, the response from the public, the media and the government was more muted. It seemed as if the movement's strategists -- notably the activist Arvind Kejriwal and the lawyer Shanti Bhushan and his son Prashant Bhushan -- had reached a dead end. On Aug. 3, Hazare announced that he was calling off his fast and disbanding the movement.

Three days later, on Aug. 6, Team Anna announced that it had decided to switch tracks, and instead of trying to pressure an unresponsive system from without, it would try to reform it from within by forming a political party and contesting elections. In a TV show, the retired police officer Kiran Bedi, one of the most prominent faces of the movement, said, "We have done what destiny has taken us towards." This also was the line taken by Kejriwal, who said that the movement had been guided in its decisions by a signed petition from 23 public figures:

We call upon Shri Anna Hazare and all his associates, who have been on an indefinite fast, to give up on their expectations from this establishment. Instead, we call upon them to focus their energies on creating an alternative political force that is democratic, accountable, ethical and non-violent and capable of leading an electoral revolution to democratize and decentralize power and make the power structures of the country more accountable to the people.

Great expectations indeed -- and a heavy burden for any new party entering the rough and tumble of electoral politics for the first time. Some skeptics thought that the movement had given up its core strength, that of sustained and powerful agitation on a single issue, and thereby worked itself into insignificance. After all, electoral politics aren't just about replacing the bad apples of professional politics with good ones picked from civil society, as the movement envisages, but also about ideological positions on a range of issues.

There was a touching naivete about Kiran Bedi's claim that the agenda for the new political party wouldn't be decided "in an air-conditioned room" but rather by consensus "after going to the people." Citizens perhaps spoke, to Bedi's ear, with one voice on the issue of corruption in Indian politics -- though even here there was much disagreement on the exact form the proposed anti-corruption bill would take -- but they have a much wider range of opinions on matters of economics and social policy. It's more realistic to assume that the new party would have a pronounced left-wing stance, of the kind advanced by Kejriwal in his recent book "Swaraj" (Freedom).

At the same time, a widening of the range of political options currently available to Indian voters is certainly to be welcomed, particularly since the two major national parties, the Congress and the BJP, demonstrate a slavish dependence on dynastic politics and a troubling narrow-mindedness and chauvinism respectively. Welcome, too, is the attitude that politics should be a necessary engagement for all and not just the preserve of the professional politician -- a route already taken by several new political startups in India, such as the Lok Satta Party in the south.

And political systems sunk deep in a morass of cynicism and corruption almost inevitably breed the kind of challenger who promises not just another alternative in politics but an alternative politics altogether -- think Garry Kasparov in Russia or Imran Khan in Pakistan. Indeed, India has seen this kind of anti-corruption movement metamorphose into a political party once before, in the agitation of the Indian intellectual Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s. An editorial in the Indian Express, a paper that was sharply critical last year of what it saw as the movement's arrogance, said:

This is a moment, therefore, of a falling away of hypocrisies. It is also a moment of possibilities. Time and again, India’s politics has reinvented itself by resetting the stage and extending it to accommodate new actors, aspirations and concerns. From the elites that took on the responsibility of giving a government to a newly independent nation, the baton has been handed to a changing cast of players who rode on the backs of popular movements and agitations, be it in the wake of the Emergency or after the Mandir and Mandal mobilisations. By stepping out of its self-styled role as the system’s holy outsider, and in accepting the imperative of electoral politics and the sovereignty of Parliament, Team Anna could potentially open up this field further.

Now that they are openly in politics, it will also be easier to talk to Team Anna and to ask them questions about themselves and where they are coming from. There is much that is still cloaked or unclear. The idea of a party that completely takes the shape of the people’s aspirations is a very old democratic ideal, or fiction. The onus will be on Team Anna to show how it can give this old ambition a new meaning, while tackling the pains of transition from a free-flowing agitation to a bounded party. It will have to give this party a name and a manifesto and position it ideologically in a crowded field.

And in Tehelka, Revati Laul wrote:

Some observers say that for Team Anna to enter the mainstream political space is exactly what the UPA government and also other political parties want. They are the bigger sharks. They may just end up swallowing Team Anna whole in a game they have played for over 60 years and have mastered. But those are the cynics. Team Anna says coming up with a revolutionary ideal is both essential and brave.

And what of Anna Hazare himself? Even as his movement made an advance toward actual participation in politics, he spoke the language of the renunciate. In a blog post, Hazare wrote, "I have proposed an alternative of sending good people to Parliament. But I am not going to be part of any party nor will I contest elections."

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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