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.
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).