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Main Anna nahin hoon


NEW VOICE: Qadri's tone is dangerously anti-democratic;he has been asking for a revolution, not elections

Tahir-ul-Qadri may have been riding high on the disenchantment with the ruling class. But his motives and source of funds are circumspect.

Comparisons were inevitable. As Sufi cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri lit a fire under Pakistan's political class with an anti-corruption "Long March" to Islamabad, commentators and media, both here and across the border, rushed to make the Anna Hazare connection. Is Qadri Pakistan's Anna Hazare, screamed the headlines.

They were right and they were wrong. There are stunning similarities in tactics and demands, but while Anna blossomed into a middle class hero in the face of a tawdry smear campaign by the ruling elite, questions are mounting about Qadri, his motives and the source of his funding. Is he really the harbinger of change he promises to be? Or is he an agent of a politician-wary military establishment that hopes to ride the wave of popular discontent he has unleashed to scuttle the April elections in Pakistan? The answers will come in due course. But for the moment, Qadri, like Anna, seems to have succeeded in tapping into a widespread disenchantment with a system that has failed to deliver.

On the face of it, Anna and Qadri could well be chips off the same block. If Anna trained his guns at politicians, so has Qadri. "Siyasat nahin, riyasat bachao (save the state, not politics), " is his chief slogan. If Anna made the Jan Lokpal bill the cutting edge of his anti-corruption crusade, Qadri has demanded electoral reforms to cleanse Pakistan's Parliament of the corrupt and the tainted. And if Anna used deadlines and indefinite hunger strikes to arm twist a reluctant government into conceding his demands, Qadri too has resorted to similar tactics to put the Pakistan administration on the defensive. "I give you time until tomorrow to dissolve the national and all four provincial assemblies, otherwise the nation will dissolve them on their own, " he thundered as he and his supporters marched into Islamabad on Tuesday. He said they will not move till their demands are met.

The tone is dangerously anti-democratic. Qadri has been as dismissive of established norms of parliamentary democracy as Anna was. His vision of change too is as ambiguous and hazy. Like Anna, he talks of replacing a rotten system with one that is answerable to the people but is short on details about the brave new world he intends to create. And both have preferred to operate outside the party system even while attacking it. Ultimately, Anna condemned politics as "dirty" and returned to his native village of Ralegan-Siddhi after team members Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan broke away to form a political party. Qadri has dealt himself out of elections by virtue of becoming a Canadian citizen and is harnessing the power of faith to push his agenda, as it may be.

Interestingly, both have been beneficiaries of the multiplier effect of making their respective capital cities the epicenter of their agitations. For Anna, it was Delhi;for Qadri, it's Islamabad. The location guaranteed them unprecedented media hype, despite relatively small numbers, and boosted their national profile. It also sent shivers down the spine of the mainstream parties which have unequivocally rejected Qadri's demands. Anna's Jan Lokpal bill fell to political wiles and continues to hang fire.

There was a remarkable convergence in government reactions as well with the authorities seeking to muffle their voices. Here, the Manmohan Singh government clamped down on Anna, refusing him permission to hold his second hunger strike in Delhi and finally throwing him into Tihar Jail. Anna became a star overnight. In Islamabad, the authorities virtually shut down the city and piled shipping containers on the roads to prevent the marchers from reaching the government centre. It remains to be seen whether this kind of heavy-handed reaction from the government does the same for Qadri as it did for Anna.

And now comes the news that he has signed a deal with the Pakistani government. On the face of it, Qadri seems to be the one who has climbed down by giving up on his insistence that the army handpick a caretaker government that will oversee the April elections. Observers here believe that he had no choice as he could not maintain the tempo of his agitation in the face of dwindling public support.

Ironically, Anna too lost steam after his Mumbai hunger strike flopped. But he has ensured his place in history by shaking the political class out of its apathy. Time will judge whether Qadri is deserving of the comparison to Anna.

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