*Anna Hazare’s Improbable Politics

Anna Hazare during his 2011 fast at the Ramlila Maiden in New Delhi.

Anna Hazare during his 2011 fast at the Ramlila Maiden in New Delhi.

Politics, it is often said, is the art of the possible.   If metaphysics addresses that which lies beyond the realm of ordinary experience, and by another reckoning is the underlying reality of social phenomena, politics has always appeared to concern itself with the here and the now.  It is partly for this reason that those, a distinct minority to begin with, who enter politics with the expectation of ‘doing good’ or acting with more than the customary rhetorical gestures in the direction of reform, are dubbed ‘idealistic’. The domain of politics is one where the operative ideas revolve around instrumentality, the advancement of self-interest, and negotiation.  However, with his declared intention of creating a new party to infuse Indian politics, and more generally the public sphere, with a moral sense of responsibility and some notion of accountability, Anna Hazare has opened a different if vaguely defined front in politics.  He may not quite have thrown a monkey wrench into normal politics, but he has given expression to an improbable politics.

Much less than two years ago, Anna Hazare burst onto the Indian political scene from a position of relative obscurity.  This will seem a considerable exaggeration to those who will point to Hazare’s many years of public service in Maharashtra, where he acquired something of a reputation for his efforts to expose corruption, prevent the government from enhancing the production of liquor from food grain, and facilitate the passage by the state of a Freedom of Information Act.  Nevertheless, there is no gainsaying the fact that Hazare only won a national following when, in early April 2011, he decided to initiate a satyagraha campaign in an effort to extract from the government a promise for the passage of what he and his followers deemed an iron-clad anti-corruption bill.  Hazare staged, at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, an oracular demonstration of how the body might be inserted into the body politic, declaring that ‘I will fast until [the] Jan Lokpal Bill is passed.’

Following countrywide expressions of support for Hazare, the government was moved to issue a notification in the Gazette of India announcing the formation of a joint committee, consisting of ‘five nominee ministers of the Government of India and five nominees of the civil society’, and charged with drafting a bill that would create a climate of opinion indestructibly opposed to corruption and thus conducive to the prosecution of government officials found guilty of trespassing upon their oath of selfless public service.  Thus, on the fifth day of his fast, on April 9th, Hazare relented to demands that he give up his fast.  Four months later, however, as the government appeared to renege on its pledge to secure a strong Jan Lokpal Bill, Hazare again raised the spectre of an indefinite fast.  In scenes highly reminiscent of the cat and mouse game between English suffragettes and the government in the early 20th century, Hazare was taken into custody a mere four hours before he was to begin his fast.  Though he would be given unconditional release within hours, Hazare refused to leave Tihar Jail and commenced a fast that he then took to Ramlila Grounds.  People poured into the Ramlila Grounds, and the show of solidarity appeared to have entirely unnerved the government’s principal functionaries and spokespersons; as an anxious nation watched, the Lok Sabha passed the Jan Lokpal Bill in an emergency sitting of the Indian Parliament.  On August 28th, thirteen days into his fast, Hazare could, as he must then have thought, declare victory.


Supporters of Anna Hazare celebrate the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill at India Gate in New Delhi. Photo: Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar/The Hindu

A year later, Anna Hazare has evidently arrived at a very different assessment of what, if anything, was achieved by his movement –– and what course of action might be followed if everything he stood for is not to come to naught.  In one widespread reading of Indian politics, governance has crumbled if not disappeared; scams follow one another in numbing succession; and the government totters from one fiasco to another.  Such doomsday scenarios –– a few readers might even recall Selig Harrison’s India:  The Most Dangerous Decades (1960), and in like fashion, many predictions about the break-up of India –– have never been far from the minds of commentators on Indian society and politics, but Hazare’s statement announcing the disbanding of Team Anna wisely eschews such pronouncements and dwells instead on the possibility of other alternatives that might rid Indian society of the malaise of corruption.  Writing on his blog in Hindi, Hazare admits:  ‘The government is not ready to enact Jan Lokpal bill.  How long can one keep on fasting time and again?  It’s time to stop fasting and give the nation an alternative.  This demand kept on mounting from the people.  I, too, have come to the awareness that this government is not committed to the eradication of corruption.’  As ‘Team Anna was formed to work for Jan Lokpal’, and relations with the government have been shown to be unproductive, Team Anna has, Hazare wrote, no cause to continue its existence.  Hazare presents the alternative that came to his mind almost as an epiphany:  if good people, possessed of ‘selflessness, moral fiber, [decent] profession, and patriotism’ could be found in numbers to contest elections, would it not be prudent to create a new political party?

Many who were severely critical of Hazare for undermining constitutional politics should, at least in principle, welcome his declared intention of entering into the mainstream of political life, albeit in the role of a senior statesman.  In the hurly-burly of politics, such magnanimity was not to be expected:  as some Congressmen remarked, Hazare’s interest in founding a party suggests that all along he, posing as a fakir (though not half-naked), was only interested in the exercise of power.  There are some who are asking if Hazare can lick the political system, and if there are precedents for such political interventions elsewhere in the world.   The principal political parties are so well entrenched, indeed even drenched in money, that a party comprised of a ragtag group of activists and their sentimental followers seems hardly poised to make even the slightest dent in the brutal landscape of Indian politics.  Party Anna, on this scenario, will merely have replaced Team Anna but will similarly sink into the gargantuan quicksand of Indian politics.  Some will point to the experience of the United States:  though Ralph Nader has contested several presidential elections, several of them as a Green Party candidate, on a platform resolutely critical of both the Republican and Democratic parties as agents of naked capitalism, wholly indebted to corporate honchos for their survival, he has been unable to disturb even remotely the general tenor of American political culture.  No one has been able to question Rader’s own political integrity, but, interestingly, in the only election where his presence might have made a difference to the outcome, an outcome where one would have chosen (as in every other American election) between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, it is the liberals who pounded him for having ‘stolen’ votes from Al Gore and handed the election over to Bush.  The Greens are commonly thought to have been more successful in several European countries, but it is clear that they still operate largely at the margins.  The closest parallel to Hazare is the former head of the Montreal police, Jacques Duchesneau, whose exposures of corruption in Quebec’s political culture catapulted him to public adulation and to a vaunted place in the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) as one of their star candidates.  This new party, however, has yet to contest an election.

The question, however, is not whether Hazare’s proposed political party is likely to succeed, even if success is to be measured not by the usual canons of politics but rather by the fulfillment of the objectives of the ‘India Against Corruption’ movement.  There is a more intriguing question:  how much of politics does Hazare understand at all?  Though many activists will never admit as much, they were angered and disturbed by the thought that a truck driver had been able to galvanize, with comparatively little effort and in lightening quick time, large crowds all prepared to launch India’s ‘Second War of Independence’.  That would seem to suggest that Hazare is not altogether a political novice.  Yet, in most respects, Hazare has shown himself unaware of what may justly be called politics.  In undertaking one fast after another, for example, Hazare betrayed his inability to take the measure of things. In the arts of negotiation, Hazare would certainly find much to learn from the book of Gandhi.  There is, behind all this, a deeper conundrum:  more so than in an autocratic state, genuine dissent is, in our times, impossibly difficult of attainment in a democracy.  Hazare’s fast at Jantar Mantar illustrated the difficulties of dissent in a democracy –– and such dissent is likely to become even more improbable, now that Hazare has signified his interest in moving closer to a conception of normal politics.  Little did Anna Hazare know that he would become the hunger artist.

(First published as “Improbable Politics”, Times of India, Crest Edition (11 August 2012).

*Fast, Counter-Fast, Anti-Fast

An epidemic of fasting has of late engulfed India.  Some months ago, the social reformer Anna Hazare, whose activities over the last three decades had been largely confined to his village Ralegan Siddhi or the area around it, or at most to his native Maharashtra, burst upon the national scene with a 5-day fast at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to highlight the problem of corruption.  Hazare again pressed his demand for a Jan Lokpal Bill with a spectacular show of force at the Ramlila Grounds in August, and much of India’s attention was riveted on the 74-year old man who, having put his body on the line with an indefinite fast, seemed to have stunned the government into submission.  Many decades ago, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, George Orwell, in an appreciative if critical assessment of his life, marveled at the fact that Gandhi would take a public decision to fast and, as it seemed to Orwell, the entire country would come to a standstill –– not once, or twice, but on a dozen or more occasions.  Not for nothing was Gandhi the Mahatma.  Some in our times have marveled at the fact that a former truck driver who has something of the appearance of a country bumpkin, and who seems to have little in his personal appearance, demeanor, oratorical skill, or worldview that might resonate with the middle classes, should be the one to revive memories of a time when Gandhian nonviolent resistance rewrote the rules governing dissent.


When Hazare went on a fast, so did 65 other men and women at Azad Maidan in Mumbai.  Seventeen of them persisted to the end, breaking their fast on the thirteenth day alongside Hazare.  One other who followed in Hazare’s wake has now come into the limelight:  Anna Hazare and Narendra Modi, the detractors of both say, are joined at the hip. They have openly expressed admiration for each other, though Hazare has stated that his advocacy of Modi does not extend beyond the Chief Minister’s apparent skills in shepherding Gujarat to the model ‘development state’ in India.  Two weeks ago, Modi commenced his ‘Sadbhavana’ mission, and his letter to the public, issued as a full-page advertisement in newspapers across India and featured on his slick website, which is available in five languages, described his 72-hour fast as ‘a prayer for togetherness’.


The twenty first century, wrote Modi, ‘did not begin well for Gujarat.  In 2001, the devastating earthquake on our Republic day, took a very heavy toll.  In the subsequent year, Gujarat became the victim of communal violence.  We lost innocent lives, suffered devastation of property and endured lot of pain.’  Many see this statement as the first expression of atonement by Modi in the nearly ten years since the pogrom against Muslims, in which Modi and many senior officials in his government are believed to be implicated, took over 2,000 lives and rendered tens of thousands more homeless.  ‘I am grateful to all those’, Modi adds, ‘who pointed out my genuine mistakes during [the] last 10 years.’  Modi does not, of course, admit that it was largely the Muslims who were the victims; indeed, like any good officer of the law, he is careful not to mention any community by name.  It is Gujarat that became ‘the victim of communal violence’:  the passive construction encourages the reader to believe that there was no agency in the killings; no responsibility can be assigned for the crimes that occurred.


Every action, Modi had infamously said when the killings were taking place, leads to a reaction, ‘Kriya pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai’; as Donald Rumsfeld put it, apropos of the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad and other atrocities following the American invasion of Iraq, ‘Stuff happens.’  When the Supreme Court ruled that it would send the case against Modi back to the High Court, Modi and his friends swiftly interpreted the gesture as a vindication of the Chief Minister.  ‘God is great’, Modi had tweeted, but his public letter on the eve of his fast does not even remotely advert to this background.  His letter concludes with the rationale for his fast:  Modi will ‘continue to pray to the Almighty’ so that he develops the strength that prevents him from harbouring ‘any ill-feeling or bitterness’ towards those who defamed the state of Gujarat and maligned him personally.


No sooner had Modi announced his fast than he began to be taken to task.  The Congress, not surprisingly, described it as a ‘gimmick’, and it was soon characterized as a ‘five-star’ fast and public ‘spectacle’ when it surfaced that Modi would hold the fast in Gujarat University’s Convention Hall amidst 2,000 policemen, elaborate media arrangements, LCD screens, ten counters to receive bouquets and gifts, and teams of medical specialists.  Meanwhile, Shankersinh Vaghela, a one-time BJP leader who is now one of the more prominent faces of the Congress in Gujarat, announced that he would counter Modi with his fast at Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Ashram.   The Sabarmati Ashram is a hugely symbolic site, but not only for the obvious reason that it was here that Gandhi established a foothold upon his return from South India or that it is from the ashram that Gandhi launched his march to Dandi.  Sabarmati Ashram, in a shocking repudiation of everything that Gandhi stood for, shuts it doors to Muslims seeking refuge from marauding bands of killers in 2002.  Even if Gandhi’s legacy has been mercilessly dumped in his home state, even if at every turn middle class Gujaratis have rejected him as the very antithesis of what a modern, developed, and respected nation-state ought to look like, Modi and Vaghela have not been slow to understand that Gandhi’s name still carries immense cultural capital.


Hazare, Modi, Vaghela:  these are only the more visible faces among countless numbers who in India have taken to fasting, and in their midst are the likes of Irom Sharmila, a 38-year old woman from Manipur who has been fasting since 2000 in her quest to have the state repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a draconian piece of legislation that activists describe as the death-knell of democracy.  Gandhi never had to suffer the indignity of being force-fed; Irom Sharmila, by contrast, has often been force-fed, released, and then re-arrested on her resumption of fasting.  Her long struggle is more reminiscent of the ‘cat and mouse’ game waged between English suffragettes, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, and the British government which led to the imposition of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act in 1913, popularly dubbed the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.  Nevertheless, in India the comparison with Gandhi is almost always unavoidable.


Gandhi was the modern master of the fast; and, yet, he did not just stumble upon fasting, nor was he the first to come to an awareness of how the body could be inserted into the body politic and create waves.  In one of his lesser-known plays, “The King’s Threshold”, William Butler Yeats wrote about a practice long extant in Ireland (and, though Yeats was not entirely aware of this, in India).  When a creditor was unable to collect an outstanding loan from a debtor, and found himself unable to call upon the forces of the state to help in the redressal of his grievance, he would come and sit outside the debtor’s door and refuse to move –– and thus refuse to eat.  To sit dharna in India similarly means to render oneself into an obstacle; and this act of ‘door-sitting’, as more than one Indian medieval text in India informs us, has fasting as its necessary concomitant.  India even had its own form of the medieval duel.  It was not unknown for the debtor to commence fasting when the creditor refused to partake of food at his doorstep.  We speak today of surrogate mothers and fathers, but India had long pioneered the idea of surrogate hunger strikers.  If, as was often the case, the creditor was a moneylender, he occasionally hired a Brahmin to sit and fast in his place.  Whoever prevailed could claim justice on his side.


There can scarcely be as dramatic a text for insights into traditions of political fasting in India as Kalhana’s 12th century ‘Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir’ known as the Rajatarangini.  This book by a Kashmiri Brahmin furnishes incontrovertible evidence of the widespread recourse to fasting.  King Chandrapida himself fasted as a form of penance, in atonement for his inability to bring to justice the murderer of a man whose widow sought death by starvation unless punishment were inflicted on the guilty man (IV:82-99).  The remedy of fasting, however, appears generally to have been available only to Brahmins, and Kalhana was not averse to passing sharp remarks on the ease with which members of his community would, singly or collectively, stage a hunger strike to safeguard their interests.  As an illustration, Kalhana describes the events that transpired in the year 1143, in the reign of Jayasimha.  Enraged by a plot to overthrow the king, in which they suspected the hand of the ministers Trillaka and Jayaraja, ‘and anxious to safeguard the country’, the Brahmins commenced a hunger strike ‘directed against’, notes Kalhana, ‘the king’ –– the king because he had, through his weakness and inaction, permitted the kingdom to fall into ruins.  Kalhana suggests that the Brahmins may at first have been moved by noble intentions; but, ‘intoxicated with their own knavery’, they ‘obstinately persisted in their perfidious course’ until they had prevailed upon the king to dismiss his honest minister Alamkara and promise them that he would ‘uproot Trillaka after he had disposed of the pretenders to the crown’ (VIII:2737).    Elsewhere Kalhana describes the contagion of fasting:  in 1211 AD, when the Brahmins at Aksosuva ‘held a solemn fast directed against the king’ to protest against the pillage of their monastery, the Brahmins ‘in the capital’ followed suit, and were in turn emulated by ‘the members of the Temple Purohit Association’ (VIII:898-900).  Hunger strikes had become so common, if Kalhana is to be believed, that officials were appointed to be especially ‘in charge of hunger-strikes’ (VI:14).


Though there is nothing to suggest that Gandhi was aware of the Rajatarangini, there is but no question that he had some familiarity with Indian traditions of hunger striking.  He termed most hunger strikes, which he distinguished from fasts, as a form of ­duragraha –– a distinction that today is upheld in the contrast between anshan and upvasa.  Gandhi would have been the first to recognize that there may never be anything like a pure fast, entirely free of coercion –– certainly not if one’s fast is in the public domain, or likely to have political consequences.  Many of the principles of fasting to which he adhered are now common knowledge, and everyone recognizes, for example, Gandhi’s insistence on listening to one’s inner voice, or his idea that fasting is a form of communion between oneself and one’s own God.  Rather than trying to resolve whether Hazare, Modi, Vaghela, and others meet the standards that Gandhi set for himself when he embarked on a fast, we might try to aim at a different comprehension of the Gandhian universe itself.  Gandhi’s many fasts, his enemas, his weekly day of silence, and much more:  all this was a way of emptying himself, reducing himself to zero, silencing the noise within, rejuvenating his tired limbs and mind –– all the more so that he could lead life to the fullest.  How does one begin to comprehend the enormity of a life where one’s own body becomes the site of ecological homage to mother Earth?

First published in The Times of India, The Crest Edition (1 October 2011), p. 10.