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April 23, 2011

A Messiah And The Melodramatic Middle class: ‘Rethinking' The Anna Hazare Movement Against Corruption

[Published in Counter Currents. Can be accessed at http://www.countercurrents.org/samar220411.htm]


Reason is almost always the first and the biggest casualty of frenzy. This remains so even if the frenzy is built not by acts of violence or hatred, but by orchestrated protests around a righteous cause with all the paraphernalia in place, cheering middle classes (who till the other day were cheering India and sometimes abusing Pakistan and would be cheering different IPL teams/players nowadays), the celebrity members of civil society (does that mean all other are un/a-civil), a doting media covering a 98 hour event for more than 250 hours, facebook pages espousing people to join this cause and so on and so forth. And of course, there were saints of many hues adding religiosity to the self proclaimed righteousness of the cause. Add a Gandhi cap wearing diminutive figure as the leader and the recipe for a successful campaign is all complete. This was the Anna Hazare led movement against corruption in nutshell.

These are the times when you find foes and friends standing at the same side of the fence, making the same, tall and false claims of victory even in the middle of raising contradictory slogans. These are the times when the heart takes over head and the attempts to critically engage with the issue are fraught with the danger of being shouted down with all the contempt of the world. Clearly, investigating such an event can be arduous and very frustrating. But then, investigating such an event becomes a very important political task for the precise reason, remember the old man who exhorted his followers to doubt everything and to build understandings on the basis of concrete analysis of concrete situations!

So think about a movement, supposedly the largest after the JP movement of the 70s, that did not see actual participation of more than a few thousand at Jantar Mantar. Contrast it with the recently organized workers' rally protesting against price rise, inflation and violation of labour laws that drew more than 200000 workers to the same city. The same media that is calling Anna's movement Indian Peoples' League did not do as much as even taking notice of that rally. Interestingly, that rally was covered by international news agencies and channels like BBC, AFP and Reuters!

So what is it that makes Anna's movement such a success while condemning workers' protest to the margins of print and electronic media alike? It was lack of politics, nothing else. Remember that hating politics is one of the most favorite pastimes of the middle classes, at least the affluent sections of it, after watching cricket I concede. Remember that the very survival of its champions, the renowned members of civil society, is based on this hatred for political processes. Would they not be thrown out of business if the people themselves become stakeholders in the decision make process?

This is the actual fear that produces, shapes and defines the repugnance ‘Civil Society' has for the actual political process. It was not for nothing that George Konrad, one of the earliest exponents of actually existing civil society (not the concept but its materialization) has titled his article as ANTIPOLITICS while asserting that “Civil society is still only an idea; let us look at ourselves here in Budapest, as if from the island of Utopia”.

This hatred, however, does not get translated into hatred towards structures of power; quite on the contrary, civil society generally aligns itself with the state till it serves the interests. Civil society, more often than not, ends up working as another front of the state by usurping the sites of protests and thus diffusing any real anger towards the state, as prophetically identified by Gramsci in his times. In the war of positions, for him, civil society was nothing more than ‘trenches' and ‘permanent fortifications' for the state that was merely an ‘outer ditch'. (Of course, things have changed quite a lot since then, and we may find a very tiny section of civil society that stands by the oppressed and, consequently, finds itself on the wrong side of the state. One can readily think of Dr. Binayak Sen and Arundhati Ray as representing two absolutely different streams of such a section of civil society. However, the attitude of the state towards them does nothing more than strengthening the argument about the general character of the ‘civil society'!)

Why was this extension of the state on streets taking the state with all the might it could muster in the form of media coverage, if not the real people? Simply because the exigencies of the actual political process include a fierce struggle over agenda setting and because of that the governments cannot always afford to cater to the demands of civil society and its actual bosses. The governments, even in a quasi-democratic set up, have to face the people time and again and that demand of accountability, compels them to take some actions, even if very reluctantly, for the real people. A case in the point would be the enactment of the right to employment after a fierce struggle of the people across the country with several political mass organisations leading the battle from the front, in the middle of vicious opposition from the same corporations arguing that such an act would amount to criminal wastage of money and resources. (Interestingly, same corporations, led by t he Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) were extending full support to this movement.)

Corruption in the process of governance troubles these ‘captains of industry and business' like nothing else. Yet, the power that this democratic set up has conferred on the political elite makes them almost helpless to fight it on their own. The failures of the system in unearthing, probing, and then punishing those behind this corruption merely adds to their woes. Needless to say, then, is their desperation to fight against this, to make corruption in the process of governance ‘the issue'.

I am not suggesting that corruption is not a REAL problem. It definitely is. Especially in the wake of the plethora of scams involving unprecedented amounts of money, it has shaken the very conscience of the people of this country. But then, the question is whether corruption is ‘the problem' or merely a manifestation of something far more deeper, far more malicious than this.

After all, these same people, especially the corporations, do not think twice before engaging in corrupt practices to usurp the land belonging to poor people for establishing their special economic zones. These same corporations employ all the dirty tricks to subvert the law of the land to evict people from their own lands for profit. These same corporations actually manage to use the government for ‘acquiring' lands for their private profit. They even benefit from the corruption for earning everything from contracts to spectrum.

Is the corruption real issue then? It certainly is not. Had corruption been the real issue, the proposed Janlokpal Bill would not have kept both the Corporations and other Non Governmental Organisations out of its ambit. It would not have, in that case, targeted the political class alone.

The real agenda is usurping the political process and appropriating the sites of protest for privileging their own agenda over others', read the silent majority.

A quick glance over some glaring facts may explain this further. As per government's own admission more than 46 percent of the children of this country are malnourished, under 5 mortality rate is still as high as 74.6 per thousand live births, comparable with highly undeveloped counties and 51 percent of households have no access to sanitation even today! ( http://asiapacific.endpoverty2015.org/pdf/MDGGOIreport.pdf ) Issues like these, especially those of hunger, housing, sanitation, health care and education are the most pressing issues for the silent majority of India and none of them emanate out of corruption.

They are the products of highly skewed distribution of resources in the society along the lines of pre modern structures of caste and kinship and cannot, therefore, be resolved without bringing in fundamental changes in the patterns of distribution. Corruption, actually, emanates out of this and not the otherwise. Just think of the fact that a Dalit will have to bribe everyone from the village chief to the block development officer to get actual benefit under any welfare scheme, but would s/he have needed it in the first place if s/he was not a landless labour in a village where all the land belongs to a few ‘upper caste' families!

The success of Anna Hazare led movement, therefore, is the success of the tiny, actually almost miniscule in numerical terms, middle classes to masquerade their agenda as that of the nation. Here is a quick fact check again. Noted economist Nancy Birdsall, in the World Bank publication titled Equity in a Globalising World defines the middle class in developing world as that section of population with an income above $10 day, but excluding the top 5% of that country as this is the only segment of society that has a ‘degree of economic security' which allows it to ‘uphold rule of law', invest and desire ‘stability'.( http://www.growthcommission.org/storage/cgdev/
documents/volume_equity/ch7equity.pdf ) Despite the fact that $10 a day means nothing more than 450 INR a day or 13,500 rupees a month, India has no section of society earning that much outside the top 5 per cent of Indian population! Does one need to say anything more?

Interestingly, civil society does not represent even these 5% but reflects the desires of a miniscule sections sitting at the top of this section (Not for nothing we have those with assets more than 100 Crores representing the middle classes!)

This brings me to the last question. How could such a motley crowd of vested interests succeed in forging an almost impossible coalition of convenience? Think of the intriguing fact that it was a movement where CPI-ML liberation was seen standing together with Bhartiya Janta Party and FICCI! And then think of the old man who had asserted that the world is divided between the oppressors and the oppressed classes, and not only the interests of these respective classes are different but they are antagonistic! Then ponder over if by any stretch of imagination the class interests of Liberation and FICCI can be similar? Add Narendra Modi to this motley crowd and the picture becomes even murkier!

Had people on the left supporting this movement suspended their critical faculties for a while? Were they swept off their feet by the presence of a few thousand to the extent of ignoring the dangerous imagery of Hindu Rashtra that was omnipresent at the protest site and was betraying the real character of the movement despite all pretensions?

Had they forgotten that secularism essentially means relegating religion to the private sphere at least, and not letting them come in public domain and intervene and influence secular processes of democratic decision making?

Or, were they genuinely impressed by this Gandhian Messiah demanding death sentence to the ‘corrupt leaders' who did never demand any punishment for any other category of corrupt people? Did they even bother to check the track record of this Gandhian messiah who supports Maharashtra NavNirman Sena, warns outsiders in Bombay to live in their limits, and has enforced a labour division based on Varnashram system in his village complete to the detail of having poles to tie and beat down the violators?

Had they forgotten that the Sarkari Sant (a saint on government duty) tradition is not new to this country? Did the memories of Vinoba Bhave ending up in supporting Indira Gandhi imposed internal emergency not haunt them? I do not know how and why history would judge Anna Hazare, but it would ask very uncomfortable questions to those self acclaimed champions of the working classes standing by this struggle of the hegemonic class. It would ask them why they bartered their torches with the colourful candles offered to them and they would have to answer.

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