Monday, August 29, 2011

TAKING SIDES - Another reason to turn away from the jan lok pal crusade Mukul Kesavan

- Another reason to turn away from the jan lok pal crusade

Last Sunday, I visited Ramlila Maidan because it seemed a bit inert to be watching Anna Hazare making history on television when he was doing it in real life in my neighbourhood. We got there around noon, my wife, my daughter and I, and the Maidan was so oppressively humid that I felt guilty about having been sceptical about his movement: anyone who was willing to live through this heat day after day without eating, deserved the benefit of the doubt. In the hour that we were there everything was orderly and good natured: people queued patiently to get into the park, while volunteers handed out little pouches of water and free bread pakoras. We took the water but refused the food, and felt obscurely virtuous.

There were lots of women about and the men didn't look feral — good signs, both, given the nature of some crowds in Delhi. Anna was sitting up on the high pukka platform. He wasn't wearing his signature Gandhi topi and he looked endearing in a round, close-cropped way. A speaker introduced himself: "I'm an ex-serviceman," he said. "You know that when a soldier retires, he takes off his uniform but he remains a soldier. He continues to serve." A grinning boy in an Anna cap, asked my daughter to take a picture of him. She did. A passing knot of young men chanted: "Sonia jiski mummy haiWoh sarkar nikammi hai!" Given the general air of happy comradeship and the knowledge that Sonia Gandhi was seriously ill, this seemed unnecessarily rude, but it was just one false note in an otherwise benign gathering.

We took the Metro home feeling better disposed towards Anna's anti-corruption campaign. My early doubts about the movement had centred on Team Anna's willingness to fraternize with political babas like Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and to share the jan lok pal platform with scary Hindutvavadis like Sadhvi Ritambhara and the RSS spokesman, Ram Madhav. On the other hand, the never-ending secular struggle to find certifiably kosher comrades began to seem exhausting and hectoring and, in this instance, besides the point. Any single-issue campaign like Anna's was bound to assemble a broad coalition of people and the fact that veterans of the liberal Left like Swami Agnivesh, Medha Patkar and Prashant Bhushan were part of its vanguard seemed to offset the presence of the Hindu Right.

What with one thing or another, I began to line myself up with robust radicals who had begun to argue that Left/secularist purism was depriving progressives of a great opportunity, the opportunity to shape a great popular movement which had tapped into an authentic reservoir of anger and frustration. They argued plausibly that privileged lefties and liberals ought not to rubbish the anti-corruption upsurge by stigmatizing it as upper-caste and unrepresentative of minorities. The fear of missing the boat, the intellectual anxiety about being caught on the wrong side of history, prodded some progressives into determinedly supporting the movement.

In justification of their choice they pointed to the Anna Hazare movement's ability to learn from its mistakes. The Indian map wrapped round a very Hindu-looking Mother India was no longer the backdrop to their agitation in the Ramlila Maidan as it had been during its Jantar Mantar phase in April. Now there was an unexceptionable giant portrait of Gandhi. From Mehboob Jilani's fine profile of Arvind Kejriwal in Caravan magazine, I learnt that Kejriwal, while he had opportunistically drafted Ramdev into the movement on account of the drawing power of his celebrity, the moment he realized that Hazare was pulling in people on his own, he sidelined Ramdev because Ramdev's intimacy with the RSS's Ram Madhav was bringing into question the fledgling movement's secular credentials. Even if this was PR and not secular conviction, it seemed a safe distance from the public bigotry of a movement suborned by the sangh parivar.

Also, there was something utterly satisfying about the way in which Hazare and Kejriwal had wrong-footed the UPA Leviathan and won the right to protest on its own terms. To see Kapil Sibal's and P. Chidambaram's brusque attempt to suppress the right to assemble and protest rebound on them and discredit their counsel utterly, was to witness a long overdue comeuppance. But perhaps the largest reason to take the movement seriously, to 'engage' with it, was, quite simply, the scale of the movement. To ignore a pan-Indian mobilization of this size and diversity seemed daft; to try to diminish it by dismissing it as middle-class or 'Hindu' sounded remarkably like a comrade meeting the masses and deciding that he didn't like their smell.

Most of the reasons advanced for shunning Anna's movement were drawn from the Book of Significant Omissions and Damning Absences (SODA). Where were the Dalits? The Muslims? The OBC's (apart from Hazare that is)? Where, for example, in the midst of this hysteria about monitoring the State, was the demand that the lok pal investigate corporate corruption? Nowhere. Ergo, Hazare's movement was a corporate conspiracy. This is a bit like denouncing a denunciation of fascism as hypocritical because it isn't twinned with a denunciation of Stalinism. For most people, the corruption of the State and the menace of fascism is quite enough to be going on with.

I tried hard, therefore, to empathize with Team Anna. But it didn't last. N. Ram of The Hindu, in the course of a televized discussion, urged critics of the jan lok pal bill to ignore the angularities and eccentricities of individuals in Team Anna the better to appreciate the social significance of the movement. This is easier said than done because it's harder to read social forces than it is to react to human faces.

So when Anna pointed to the scar on his forehead (which he attributed to hostile Pakistani fire) and declared that he was now engaged in fighting home-grown thieves and then called them traitors for good measure, I was appalled in a shabby-genteel way by the crassness of his rhetoric. But Anna, at least, had an excuse: the Congress's minions had called him names too. To watch the likes of Arindam Chaudhuri and Om Puri bluster and splutter their way through diatribes about the political class, was to learn that this movement was without intelligence or discrimination.

The clincher, though, was a performance by Kiran Bedi, a member, along with Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan, of Anna's core group. Arvind Kejriwal is the political strategist, Prashant Bhushan is the in-house legal mind; it isn't clear to the outsider what Kiran Bedi brings to the inner circle. Annoyed by Parliament's failure to begin a debate on the lok pal bill on Friday, she began to slag off Parliament in particular and members of parliament in general. They were lazy, callous and unworthy of respect. Even as she was speaking, she spotted an MP in Ramlila Maidan and began heckling him publicly.

In the end, it wasn't what she said as much as the way she said it that torpedoed the reluctant admiration I had built up for Team Anna's campaign. Kiran Bedi, pioneering policewoman, pranced around the stage trying to parody the uselessness of MPs. The wisdom of doing this aside, it was the grotesqueness of the performance that was striking. She borrowed a scarf, draped it like dupatta over her own head and launched herself into a little skit, looking for all the world like a talentless schoolgirl bidding for attention. In the end, I turned against the jan lok pal crusade not on ideological grounds, but aesthetic ones. Anna was a star, but his repertory company, it turned out, was full of amateurs and bit players auditioning for lead roles, small people dwarfed by a giant stage.

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