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The Anna Conundrum

Omkar Goswami


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


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