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Revolution is not about anger alone
It takes more than candle light vigils, Facebook activism, and middle class outrage to effect meaningful change in our system, argues Arati R Jerath.
It is unfortunate that the Lokpal bill debate has taken a sordid turn with allegations flying fast and thick in an attempt to discredit the main actors. In the my-corruption-versus-your-corruption paradigm, the casualty can only be the bill itself as attention shifts from issues to personalities to subvert a timely campaign, launched on the back of a series of scams, for a strong and effective ombudsman to check corruption in high places.
It is important to put the Anna Hazare phenomenon in perspective to understand its limitations. Today, it's in grave danger of dissipating under a ferocious backlash from the system it is seeking to change because Hazare and his band of activists failed to comprehend the weaknesses inherent in their strategy. A blaze of middle class anger on television and Facebook cannot sustain a movement that has pitted itself against established interests. It grabs eyeballs in the corridors of power but the ruling elite in a democracy is acutely conscious of the strength of numbers.
Any movement for radical change has to draw in a larger mass of people, cutting across classes, castes, communities and the urban-rural divide, to build pressure on the system. While the issue of corruption touches everyone who has been at the receiving end of greedy policemen, tehsildars and petty babus, Hazare and his supporters failed to put in the homework necessary to reach out beyond a select bandwidth in the metros.
The limitations of new media as a tool for change were severely exposed in pre-Tahrir Square Egypt. In 2008, the same youths who so successfully ousted Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-old repressive regime this year botched up a similar bid because of naive dependence on online support. These tech-savvy youths had sent out appeals on Facebook to support a mill workers' strike on April 6 that year to build momentum for a movement against Mubarak. They quickly acquired 70, 000 followers and believed they were on the road to revolution.
The strike collapsed in a hail of police bullets in which several people were killed. The incident served as lesson for the leaders who realised that while it's easy to get support online, it's much more difficult to call bloggers out on the streets for sustained battle. They had to regroup, change tactics, and work with real people for three years before they learnt the art of revolution.
The issues here are quite different, of course. India is a democracy and the movement to put in place an anti-corruption ombudsman after 42 years of failed attempts is not a call to overthrow the system. Yet, the confrontationist manner in which Hazare and Co. threw down the Lokpal gauntlet to the political class was bound to raise hackles. At the very least, it was a tactical mistake to antagonise those people whose support was vital to have the bill passed. Hazare's quirky comments about politicians and the electoral system suggested a disdain that all parties have been quick to criticise even as they paid lip service to his cause.
His open contempt for the political process probably earned him brownie points with a middle class disillusioned with netas. But it is increasingly obvious that he has ended up harming his campaign. If only Hazare and his supporters had looked at the history of modern India. They would have seen that no idea for radical change has succeeded in becoming law without the help of at least a section of the political class.
Hazare seems to have belatedly realised the shortcomings of his tactics. He has now taken to appealing to Sonia Gandhi. Unfortunately, she has her limitations. She neither has the stature of her grandfather-in-law, Jawaharlal Nehru, nor the audacious gambler's instinct of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, to fight the political class singlehandedly like they did in their times. Nehru, for instance, took on his own party, including the then president, Rajendra Prasad, to push for the Hindu code bills that introduced sweeping reforms in the Hindu personal law. It was a fierce battle and claimed the head of his law minister, B R Ambedkar, who resigned because he failed to get the bill passed by Parliament when it was first introduced. It took almost a decade and Nehru had to make significant compromises on several clauses before the bills became law.
Indira Gandhi took on strong vested interests in Parliament when she introduced the bill to abolish privy purses. The bill was defeated by one vote in a dramatic moment that saw her opponents lock an MP in the bathroom of Parliament House to prevent him from voting. Undeterred, Indira Gandhi dissolved the Lok Sabha and called a snap poll on the issue. She swept the 1971 polls and then got the bill passed.
Sonia is also handicapped by the fact that the Congress is part of a coalition government and does not have the numbers to swing any bill in Parliament on its own. Her inability to get the contentious Women's Reservation Bill past entrenched male interests is a case in point. Despite committing herself to it innumerable times, she has baulked at introducing it in the Lok Sabha after the unseemly violence it sparked off in the Rajya Sabha where she literally forced the Manmohan Singh government to get it passed by hook or by crook in 2010. Her success with the Right to Information Act is largely due to unstinting support from the Left Parties, which had 61 MPs in Parliament at the point when the bill was introduced.
Hazare and Co. seem to have been swept away by the myth created around them by the electronic media, notorious for its fickleness. They would have been less vulnerable to the nasty counter-attack from the political class if their campaign had been grounded in reality.
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