I have been trying to follow the ant-corruption movement across India over the last few weeks and keep up with the latest developments. Going through the views expressed in the news, a few things are clear:
- The status quo is unacceptable. The movement has been portrayed as a middle-class movement, but informal surveys taken at the protests showed the support is much more widespread. There is significant representation from the poorer rural sections as well as minorities. The common theme among the protestors is not what they want, but rather what they don’t want – which is the current system of governance without transparency and accountability. The protestors represent those affected most by corruption – the middle and poorer classes who cannot afford to pay bribes. They do not want to see the current setup to continue.
- The protestors know what they don’t want but, don’t know what they want. There is general support for Anna Hazare’s version of the bill or rather, a bill that enforces accountability and penalizes crimes, but there are some disagreements on its provisions. This is in contrast to the unanimous opposition that the Government (Manmohan Singh’s) version the bill, which everyone agrees, is eyewash. The problem is most of those who have disagreements with the Hazare bill have not put forward their corrections (some like Aruna Roy have valid issues which are hopefully addressed, but instances like that are few). Only Anna Hazare and his team seem to have done their homework. That is not to say their version is perfect. I have not met Anna Hazare, but did have the opportunity to listen to Arvind Kejriwal a few years back. Based on my experience then, I can say that if there are genuine concerns and better suggestions, Arvind and his team will most certainly consider them.
- The political classes have been made irrelevant. I am not talking of just the political parties. The Congress, Left parties and their partners are terrified, now that they see the popular opinion. The disunity among the voters, they had worked hard to create, seems to be crumbling in a matter of weeks. I haven’t seen any reports on regional parties. One suspects BJP and its allies are somewhat pleased with the turn of events, but the protestors realize they are as much a problem.
The surprise has been how out of touch the political commentators and intellectuals (I include myself in this group) are with the average Indian. Media personalities, celebrity protestors, newspaper editors and TV talk show hosts have been sidelined completely. In a world dominated by IPL, Bollywood and the stock market, they positioned themselves as anti-establishment and in control of popular opinion, at least among their West oriented constituencies. It is quite clear now that much of India doesn’t think along those lines. The usage of religious symbols in a widespread people’s movement seems to be another sticking point among them. The symbols are not offensive; in fact the protestors have been accommodative of all faiths. To all of us that are told development happens only with the removal of religion from public space, its dominant role in vast sections of India – whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh or others – comes as a shock. That, more than anything else, shows how out of touch the commentators are with the poor and rural Indians. Among others, they have zeroed in on the fact that Anna Hazare has supported policies of the BJP, RSS and VHP in the past, something that doesn’t bother the average Indian.
- India hasn’t changed in the last 200 years. I recently had the opportunity to read Dharampal’s compilation on civil disobedience movements in British India. He had covered the rent-tax protests that occurred in 1811 in North India. The parallels between that and the current protest are many and remarkable. In both cases, the protests were against a larger issue; the 1811 protests were against the British administrative policies that were debilitating to the average citizen. The current protests are towards a government that has become unresponsive to the needs of common man or woman, often acting against the interest of its citizens and long-term health of her society. In both instances, protests were spontaneous, non-violent and widespread. Responses of the state/governing body were also remarkably similar. Both the office of the Governor General and the current prime minister were of the opinion that allowing the average citizen to question the decision of the state, let alone ask for a change, is a dangerous precedent; and that the government should not yield to this “blackmail”. In both instances, there were religious symbols along with secular and a sense of unity among all the protestors despite being from different backgrounds. Carrying this comparison forward, the current Congress government is no different from the 19th century British!
- There is a serious lack of discussion and decision-making process in India. India has been traditionally a society that discussed almost everything in the open. Today, after 64 years of Independence, we still lack in any mechanism that collects and discusses public opinion among all sections. The only mechanism currently available is the election that occur every five years and that is passive i.e. there is no way for the voter to say what he/she wants. Technology based discussion forums such as web-based, social network sites, even television etc. reach only a few.
Moreover, the average educated Indian seems to lack objective communication skills. Much of the participation and discussions have been at an emotional level and personality/ideology based. This does not bode well for the movement in the long run. There needs to be a better understanding of this movement in perspective, what is being presented by various groups and arguments/counter-arguments against each.
Where do we go from here? Anna Hazare, Arvind Kerjiwal and the entire team did an amazing job getting all of India to focus on a single relevant issue. There is unity in the ranks of protestors overcoming all divides. But it will be a few months (or even years) before there is a Lokpal bill acceptable for the majority. Then there is the matter of its implementation, which has traditionally been a weak point in modern India. It will be a challenge to keep the unity and momentum going and ensure everyone participates in the final decision-making. That, I think, is our responsibility.