A fast is not enough

The best of victories are those in which neither of the combatants suffers defeat or a loss of face. Anna Hazare as well as the government can claim some credit –- the former for pushing  the government to the backfoot, and the later for refusing to yield ground on the essentials.

While Anna Hazare’s movement has placed corruption high on the national agenda, it  will be for  the government to decide how best to tackle it. Also, it will be in Parliament that laws will be enacted, not at Ramlila ground or Jantar Mantar Road.

India’s democracy was indeed under stress during the last three weeks, but it has come out fairly unbruised, thanks to the resilience inherent in its very nature and the democratic values that have gone deep into Indian psyche.

The movement and Anna’s fast did bring out the pent up anger over corruption and at times challenged the legitimacy of Parliament, the executive and the judiciary, but could not force Parliament to enact the Jana Lok Pal Bill drafted by a handful of self-appointed people.

What helped Anna Hazare was certainly his gut feeling that the people were now fed up with the way  corruption was affecting everyone’s life and the government was  unwilling  to do much about it.

As often happens,  the naïve  tend to oversimplify the problem and come to believe that what they prescribe is the only solution.  This prescriptive psychology, is natural to evangelists, but it can arouse passions that often a leader cannot control later.

It goes to the credit of Anna Hazare that despite passions, no violence took place at Ramlila Ground or elsewhere in the country.

This was mainly because of the nature of Gandhian approach Anna Hazare adopted to press his demands, as also the readiness of the government to engage him in talks to find a way out. Anna’s arrest and his transportation to Tihar was a blunder which helped him more than anything else  attract greater crowds than he might have thought earlier.

For his colleagues to claim that this was a second freedom struggle or it was a movement of the kind Jayaprakash Narayan led  in 1970’s was sheer hyperbole. Anna Hazare is neither a  Mahatma Gandhi nor a JP.

His lieutenants strangely equated what they called civil society with the entire country although large sections of  Adivasis, Dalits,  OBCs and the minorities kept out, even if corruption was hitting them with equal vehemence. The movement was essentially an urban middle class phenomenon, meant to voice the concerns of the city-bred.

Adivasis, Dalits, OBCs and the minorities developed fears that the Anna movement’s  attack on parliamentary democracy was aimed at undoing the guarantees given to them under the Constitution. These fears have not been allayed by breaking fast, with nariyal pani given to Anna by a Dalit child and another from Turkman Gate.

When Anna Hazare and his men jacked up their demands fixing  deadlines to pass the Jana Lokpal Bill, many in the intelligentsia felt that forcing deadlines on Parliament to pass it  was undemocratic and a danger to Parliament’s supremacy in framing legislation for the country.  Also how could laws be forced down on an elected Parliament by a handful of an unelected set of people who  could be having motives other than fighting corruption.

It is not that the people should not put pressure on the government for reforms, but dictating laws to Parliament amounted to acquiring extra-constitutional authority which no reasonable citizen can accept. It was a sheer case of over-reach.

Seeing crowds at Ramlila ground was making the organizers around Anna Hazare somewhat intolerant of opinions not in agreement with theirs. An atmosphere of arrogance was developing which certainly was not Gandhian. At times, the dissenters were being described as traitors from the platform.

In itself, Anna Hazare’s fast became a serious constraint on the government’s strategy; so were the huge crowds that were pouring into Ramlila Ground and some other cities.

The Government could not but go in for negotiations as a strategy. Its problems became  complicated because  of the attitude and inexperience of some of union  ministers. Anna Hazare’s arrest showed lack of imagination and sensitivity.

The politicians as a class and the political system were under attack. So were the institutions, particularly Parliament which had allowed Lok Pal Bills to lapse repeatedly during the last four decades.

The deadlines and the demand that Parliament must pass the Jana Lok Pal Bill before August 30 made the MPs of all parties come to believe that the authority of Parliament itself was under threat, as was the Constitution.  The over-bearing attitude of Anna’s colleagues helped the MPs of varied dispensations to come together.

The final resolution that  emerged was the result of negotiations between the Congress and the Opposition parties and was meant to help Anna Hazare end his fast. At the other end, Anna also became aware of the limit beyond which  the movement could not be stretched.  There was also the risk that the movement could also go out of hand, or be captured by the wrong kind of elements.

There are lessons Anna’s agitation has thrown up for the country:

One, to remove corruption, it is necessary to bring about major reforms in the working of political and judicial systems to make them more responsive to the people; and

Two, that more can be achieved by evolving a consensus among political parties in Parliament and outside than by confrontational politics.

At least, a consensus on political reforms and the working of the vital institutions, as well as, on issues like national security, terrorism, foreign policy, and pluralism, can be worked out if the leaders of varied dispensations show the same kind of wisdom as they did in both Houses ouses during the debate  last Saturday.

– Hindustan Times, August 31st, 2011