It was probably the shortest
political fast-unto-death in the history of India.
On 5 April 2011, Kisan Baburao (Anna) Hazare began
his fast to force the government of India to enact a
suitably powerful anti-corruption act through the
Lokpal Bill. The fast ended five days later on 9
April 2011, after the powers that be seemed to have
agreed to all his substantive demands and issued an
official notification to form a joint committee of
civil society and government representatives to
draft the Bill.
There are several lessons from this triumphant Anna
Hazare fast. After all, the small 71-year old man
had often fasted before to force political and
social outcomes. But never with this level of
success, and in such a short time. What changed?
The first is timing. Had the fast begun ten days
earlier, there would not have been such an
overwhelming line of sight across urban India. From
the quarter finals, India was riveted to the World
Cup. The story of a tiny man from Ralegaon Siddhi
fasting against corruption would have disappeared in
the collective jubilation of India beating Australia
and Pakistan, and finally claiming the crown against
Sri Lanka on the night of 2 April. The historic win
helped as well. If India could play as a disciplined
and focused team to win the World Cup and bring
pride to the nation, why couldn’t the country
display a bit of the same calibre in uprooting
corruption in high offices?
The second is location. It makes little sense to
have a high profile fast-unto-death in Ahmednagar,
Wardha, Nanded, Chandrapur or any small town in
interior India. To get immediate and overwhelming
media mileage, it has to be in a major metropolis.
What better place than Jantar Mantar in New Delhi —
a catapult’s throw from the Parliament where, in the
mind’s eye, sits so many corrupt politicians looting
the nation and wasting taxpayers’ money? Experts say
that only three things matter in successful
retailing: location, location and location. That
maxim is also true for political fasting. Anna and
his team couldn’t have chosen a better spot to
embarrass the government and force concessions.
The third is revulsion. The Commonwealth Games, the
2G outrage, the Adarsh housing society scam, fake
pilot licences, the mining scandals and signs of
enormous and largely ill-gotten wealth of some of
the country’s leading politicians has nauseated the
country. Any nation-wide poll will confirm the
popular belief that India is suffering from rampant
and monumental corruption. People are utterly
disgusted with our politicians. And there is a
fundamental shift from cynicism to the urgent need
to reveal, embarrass and punish as ways of
redressing grave wrongs.
The fourth is generation change and the energy that
it has brought. Anna’s fast immediately tapped into
the zeal, vigour and urgency of young India.
Twenty-five year old urban women or men are not
interested in the lame procrastinating excuses of
ancient politicos. They want to see change now. Say
what you will about their alleged immaturity; claim
that they haven’t read the Bill that they are
protesting about; it doesn’t matter. They want
change. They want a cleaner nation. And they aren’t
afraid to rally and speak.
The fifth is communication. I’ve written this
before. Anna’s fast showed how text messages,
Facebook, Twitter, internet and every other form of
electronic communication can be used at lightning
speed to mobilise political support. There is a
learning in this. By the time India faces its next
general election, some 65 per cent of the population
will be connected by mobile phones. That translates
to over 80 per cent of the voting population. You
can bet that the election will be fought through
text messages. It will create fundamental changes in
how voters are rallied, and how they vote.
The worry is hubris. Anna Hazare is a good man and
has got what he demanded. But there is a sense of
arrogance and foolhardiness. It ill behoves a
national icon to allegedly claim that the corrupt
ought to be executed, or that Indians vote for
anyone who gives them Rs.100, liquor or a sari.
Simplicity is a great communicating tool, often used
wrongly. I fear that, just as I fear the arrogance
of the ‘good’ and the ‘noble’. I also worry about
the sense of victory. The contest hasn’t yet begun,
let alone won. We need a sensible draft. It has to
be legislated. It must be in line with the
Constitution. It must be clearly seen to work. All
the way, some of wiliest politicians on earth will
do their damndest to dilute the Bill. It is time to
re-group and channel positive and creative energy.
Not to distribute sweets.
May the principle and praxis win. And may it be done
with creative sanity.
Published: Business World, April 2011