Sunday, October 20, 2019

Blast from the Past: Anna Hazardous

Note: This was published on April 13, 2011 on my defunct blog, The Rediscovery of India. The occasion was the nationwide protests and human chains formed in most of our major cities to protest the pervasive corruption under the watch of the Congress-led UPA Government. That was the era of scam-a-day. Taken in total, the scams that the UPA Government perpetrated were in the order of a percentage of our GDP. Now it appears like ancient history given how astonishingly short public memory is.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a vague, quaint, obscure and aged “Gandhian” named Anna Hazare burst on the public stage and claimed to champion and launch an anti-corruption crusade against the ruling UPA dispensation. On April 5 2011, he sits on a fast-unto-death and the whole nation takes notice.

Back then and even now, I believe this was a charade meant to con and sell snake oil to as many citizens as possible. And it worked. The proof is Arvind Kejriwal, who conned and coughed his way to the Delhi Chief Minister’s chair. And looted more crudely than all previous Chief Ministers combined.

On popular demand, here is the full and unedited commentary that I wrote a week after Anna Hazare sat on his fast.

Happy reading!

The moment I read those mindless headlines in the papers and saw footage of hordes of clueless candle-kissers across major Indian cities flocking to show their solidarity for Anna Hazare, the plot was clear. The plot as well as the never-to-disappoint-phenomenon of the heedless support that Hazare got from even well-meaning folks like Swami Ramdev. And yet again, I lay comforted in my cynicism that no matter what we’re a nation populated by people content with petty desires and illusory victories.

Let me lay out my cynicism with a well-known episode in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

At the time, Caesar is a triumphant general who has become wildly popular in Rome after inflicting a crushing defeat on Pompey. In a public meeting attended by tens of thousands of Roman citizens, Mark Anthony offers Caesar the crown thrice. Caesar rejects the offer each time, then faints with emotion and finally, humbly bows down to the will of assembled populace who want him to wear the imperial crown.

Sounds familiar?

Let’s quickly recap some recent happenings.

One massive scam after the other erupts in rapid succession: I mean, before people can count the number of Zeros, another scam with a larger number of Zeros erupts and so on.

A singular feature of the general toxic atmosphere this time is the fact that nobody is above fault: the same media that reports these scams has a finger in more than one poisonous pie.

Outrage from truly honest people (yeah, they do exist) picks up steam but doesn’t have enough range to reach the entire nation.

Enter Baba Ramdev whose rally in November 2010 is hugely successful. The English media dutifully relegates it to Column 4, Page 5.

Enter Anna Hazare who on April 5 2011 begins a fast-unto-death-until-something-is-done-about-corruption “movement.” It picks up steam, is graced by various “civil society” eminences, and is generally declared a blockbuster.

On April 6 2011, newspapers gleefully announce that Anna Hazare “tasted his first victory on Wednesday, the second day of his fast unto death, when Maratha strongman and NCP chief Sharad Pawar quit the group of ministers (GoM) on the anti-corruption bill.” What a slap! The nation is delirious with joy.

On April 8 2011, the Queen graciously bows down to the wishes of this gentle Gandhian and on April 9 2011, the Government of India issues a Gazette of India notification to form a joint committee to draft the Lok Pal Bill.

Quiz: Spot the similarities between the aforementioned Caesar episode and this one.

Yes, yes, yes, I can already hear cries that I’m spinning a grave conspiracy theory. So let me clarify. For lack of information to the contrary, I do believe Anna Hazare to be a man of integrity whose commitment is genuine and has done good work in the past. But many things don’t quite add up and unless there are some convincing answers the nag of suspicion will persist.

Cut back to the Spectacular Socialist Seventies when Mrs. Gandhi had all of India in her iron fist. What that also means is that conditions were so horrid that corruption was just one of the grave issues: we were pretty much under an authoritarian regime where inconvenient people simply disappeared, Indira was India, and so on. What’s the record of Anna Hazare’s fight against corruption and these grave national issues back then?  To be sure, Hazare’s record of anti-corruption crusades was largely limited to Maharashtra where he scored some minor victories. His campaign prior to the 2011 “movement” was a crusade for Right to Information, which was limited to Maharashtra.

The one thing that I see amiss is not the nature of his fight—it’s noble etc—but the timing. Why now? Why not say, when Madhu Koda looted his state for what it was worth or during the Adarsh scam that happened in Hazare’s own state or against Kalmadi or against Raja as soon these scams erupted? Is there some gold standard of corruption that had to be met before he launched his movement? Now, there was a lull from April 2 to April 8. If you want me to spell that out here goes: April 2 was when India proudly lifted the cricket world cup. April 8 is when the first IPL match for 2011 was held. Now go back to the papers and news channels between April 5 thru April 8. Nonstop drumming about the “movement” on television and relentless front-page assault. Now read again. On which page does Anna Hazare’s news figure in the papers now?

We wonder what the selfsame media was doing when Baba Ramdev launched his protest. Or is it the fact that Ramdev didn’t go on a hunger strike? Or the fact that he didn’t have celebrity societal conscience-keepers like Agnivesh, Kiran Bedi, Arvind Kejriwal, and Jayaprakash Narayan who jumped on board the Anna Hazare ship barely before the anchor was dropped? Agnivesh is a Naxal-supporting pseudo Arya Samaji who deludes himself hoping people will actually think he’s today’s Swami Vivekananda. As for the rest, we really don’t know much about their nation-changing achievements except that the media doesn’t hate them and that the Congress party allows them to carry on their activism without seriously hurting the party.

In light of so many coincidences, inconsistencies and gaping holes, a singular conclusion emerges: we’ve been had by the Congress party. Yet again. In one masterly usage of the trick that never fails: you pretend to hit me and I’ll pretend to weep.

More questions follow.

Had Anna Hazare undertaken a Subash Bose kind of “movement” instead of the Gandhian garden variety, what’s your bet how the government would’ve reacted? He and his supporters would’ve been arrested, lathi-charges galore would’ve ensued and the rest. The worst? Not one candle-kisser would’ve turned up because the occasion would’ve evinced not kissing candles but getting middle-class-asses kicked and lathi-charged. The same media would’ve hollered self-righteously about the utter depravity of violent protests in a democracy, unconstitutional, etc. But look what it wrote now: “Anna has govt for breakfast.” How’s that for a spankin’ headline! See, Gandhi always works! Even a guy like Ramachandra Guha knows it.

What’s important is the fact that not one person in that motley protest-crew has been hurt by the government when we have seen what happened during the Amarnath protests for example. What’s even more important is the speed at which the Italian Queen’s conscience was shaken by the might of Anna’s moral power and agreed to all his demands. Now this one is truly puzzling: from time immemorial, governments in power always tend to crush any opposition—it doesn’t matter whether such opposition and protest is just and/or popular: what matters is that giving in to such opposition is seen—rightly so in many cases—as a challenge to the power, authority, and legitimacy of the government. And so we repeat: why did the Queen agree to all demands of Anna Hazare, and so soon?

Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare

Now that brings us to Baba Ramdev. His frontal attack on the Congress party elicited an impotent roar from the perpetually-writhing-in-perversion Digvijay Singh, not to mention the furious stirrings of revenge from the hurt groin of the Grand Old Party. Poor Baba Ramdev. He’s been had in numerous ways. First in the form of the said threat from the Noxious King, Diggy Singh. Given his popularity and appeal, this threat is relatively mild. The most important thing is the manner in which he has thrown the boulder on his own feet by voluntarily lending his voice in support of Anna Hazare. This will likely cost him dearly. His support logically means that he’s on the same side as the bunch of Bollywood bohemians like Farah Khan, Bipasha Basu, Neha-whatever, Kareena Kapoor and Sushmita Sen and musician-actor-director-producer-writer-poseurs like Shabana Azmi, A.R. Rahman, Anupam Kher, and that arch-pervert M F Hussain. Where was this bunch of wealthy and pampered-rotten jokers when Baba Ramdev took out his rally? By thoughtlessly supporting Hazare, he has sabotaged his own drive against corruption: it simply means that he directly or indirectly supports the newly-constituted Committee of Known Cabalists headed by Pranab Mukherjee and whatever jerk-headed “recommendations” they’re likely to come up with.

It’s not just Baba Ramdev. Everybody has been had. The BJP, RSS, ABVP…everybody. The blogger Offstumped explains how the BJP walked into this trap. What is with these guys who simply can’t resist the impulse to be “in” with the latest tomfoolery? But the biggest suckers of all have been you and me: the professionally-educated, aspiring, upwardly mobile, globally-travelled, entrepreneurial and risk-taking Middle Class. Within a generation, the Congress party has succeeded in capturing what’s called the mindshare (sic) of the Indian urban youth in the 18-30 age range. While the 90s belonged to the BJP, which cornered the previous generation by tapping into their religious and cultural sensibilities, the 2000s Congress party is succeeding in doing the same with the next generation by making pop activism a fashion statement. As a result, we have a large mass of youth that thinks that watching TV “debates” starring chic anchors and sending SMSes to these channels somehow means participating in democracy.

Developments after the Hazare Fast Circus ended only point to the fact that the Congress party has more than a sinister hand in the whole affair. This news item reports that Anna has asked Kapil Sibal to quit the newly-formed Panel of Pushers. Here’s a rescued-from-obscurity Gandhian who has suddenly “found” widespread fame, now dictating terms to a government elected by the people of India, all nice and Constitutional. Apart from the token opposition from Sibal, the Congress party hasn’t said or done anything serious to His Exalted Morality. On the contrary, here’s a delicious piece of news:

Alleging that Uttar Pradesh is the most corrupt of all states, the Congress today asked social activist Anna Hazare to start a movement from the state if he wanted to start a state-based campaign.

Draw your own conclusions. I think that Anna Hazare is a well-meaning and committed individual but that he’s just being used. Is there someone who’s feeling threatened by Baba Ramdev’s growing and massive popularity and the fact that he’s promised to reveal ugly secrets of a certain party? Certain business houses are well-versed in the art of letting an “accidental” fire break out on their premises thanks to a short circuit or whatever and then claim hefty insurance money.

Anyway, the circus has pretty much ended and the tents have been packed. The middle class has again deluded itself, which is how it should be because it deserves the illusion of power that the government is letting it have from time to time because it’s still not time for the middle class to realize the brutal truth that candle-kissing and assembling in parks doesn’t hurt the middle class and that lasting change is not achieved without cuts and bruises and broken bones.

For now, the middle class can go back to watching the IPL.

Writer, author, and translator. Author of the bestselling "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." English translator of Dr. S L Bhyrappa's blockbuster Kannada novel, "Aavarana".

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