The loneliness of being Anna Hazare or: What has gone wrong

Anna Hazare has been virtually dumped by those who cheered him in 2011. However, his own puritanism makes it difficult to see a practical sense in his methods. 

Anna Who?

A teenager may be forgiven for asking that in India this year. Only seven years ago, when today's teenager may have been in middle or primary school, Anna Hazare (http://www.annahazare.org/biography.html) was a media-induced demigod in India as an anti-corruption crusader, setting the ground for a political upheaval that shook the then Congress-led UPA government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and helping Narendra Modi and his BJP take that big seat. Time Magazine had described the 2011 movement among the top 10 world news stories of the year. 

This week, the crowds are sparse as he sits at the Ramlila Ground, a few kilometres from his original protest site, Jantar Mantar. He is on a fresh, indefinite hunger strike. The cause has not changed. The 80-year-old former army soldier who first revolutionised environmental conservation and social life in his home base, the village of Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra, is still demanding a Lokpal - a Jan Lokpal, to be precise - a people's ombudsman who can freely, independent of possible political pressures, investigate charges of corruption in high places. He is also pressuring the government to implement the recommendations of the MS Swaminathan-led National Commission on Farmers to address the agrarian crisis in the country.

UPA has given way to the NDA led by the BJP, and the 2G scandal in which Dr Singh's coalition came in for allegations of political corruption has been replaced by suggestions of irregularities in the purchase of Rafale jets by the NDA. But there is no Lokpal in sight.

More important, those urban denizens who stood beside him in 2011, raised slogans in his support and on his behalf and led a grandiose movement called India Against Corruption seem to have vanished. Or found new places. Nice places. General VK Singh is now a minister in the Modi cabinet. Kiran Bedi is the Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry. And, of course, Arvind Kejriwal has since launched the Aam Aadmi Party, with a broom as its symbol, and has become the feisty Chief Minister of Delhi.

Also swept away by this broom, it seems, are the passions that demanded a Lokpal. 

Anna Hazare has reason to sulk. The veteran Padmashri-winning activist says he has written 43 letters to Modi government, with no reply. Some ministers have made low-key visits to his protests, but he does not quite trust them.

It must be lonely being Anna Hazare. Those who rode with him turn out to be people riding on his clean, rustically respectable Gandhian image to a political gravy train.

On the other hand, those who left for political offices may well be forgiven because Hazare himself says he does not want politicians on his stage. This is where we see the other side of his loneliness: his own naive methods that look down on anything political. It is one thing to hold accountable those politicos who rode his name and then did nothing about it. It is quite another to criticise Hazare for adopting methods that can have failure written all over it.

Here is the catch: India is a vibrant democracy in which politics is a legitimate, even desirable activity. To run down politicians as a tribe is fundamentally flawed. We can bat for cleaner politics and clean politicians, but just raising slogans with a "people" tag has not much meaning unless it results in a consummation that looks probable.

Hazare's avuncular style comes close to imperiousness. Those who see in his personality some shades of a Gandhi, a Jayaprakash Narayan or a Vinoba Bhave may be correct in their own way, but they miss a point: India is a much more materialistic society now, and there is limited value in the moral pressures of an austere old man.

It is heartening to note that more than 5,000 villagers turned up to support Hazare as he launched his latest protest. But the sad fact is that this is not the same India where a JP or Gandhi or Vinoba could command a big surge.

The protests of 2011 were aided by media hype and a general sense of frustration with the state of governance in this country. Modi and Kejriwal have given it some shape, and will face the consequences of what they did or did not do for those who voted them in. In that sense, Hazare's purpose has lost its momentum, even though he may be justified in sitting on a new hunger strike. 

It speaks of the cynical state of urban social culture in India that Anna Hazare has been virtually dumped by those who cheered him in 2011. However, it is equally true that his own puritanism makes it difficult for those who still like his mission to see a practical sense in his methods. 

There is, however, always a space vacant for non-political activists who command respect to put moral pressure on rulers of the day. In that sense, Anna Hazare can never be a failure, as his ideas would creep into conversations in small-town chai shops, metropolitan living rooms and village chaupals.

When yet another political god is clearly found to be walking with feet of clay, new crowds shall surge in, new flags will be raised - and like always, hope will flicker in the eyes of those who want positive change. Like the villagers who have shown up to support Anna Hazare this month. For now, the spirit of 2011 is clearly on a low ebb.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)

 

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