Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Anna Hazare: Inspiring A Nation and Combating Naysayers.

I had been waiting to write this blog for a long time. I was waiting for the results of Tamil Nadu assembly elections. Now I am emboldened to flesh out a narrative given the verdict, that is nothing short of revolutionary, by the TN voter.

Like many Indians I had no idea of who Anna Hazare was until I saw Facebook postings and news items of a frail man with a Gandhi cap going on a fast unto death until corruption was rooted out of India. Corruption, with its many tentacles, is like an octopus stuck on the face of India. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can escape the venom of corruption that courses along the veins of India's body. Can we eat a fruit from a vendor without pondering if it was infected to hasten its fruition? Can we buy a bottle of water without pausing to think if it was tampered with? Passport office, RTO, Government secretariat, a traffic stop, a doctor's prescription, a medical laboratory reusing a slide used for examining stools, a college, a postman delivering a pensioners meager pension, banks, schools, scams running into numbers that the average man cannot even comprehend and much more.

Is any Indian naive enough to think that all would change with one fasting? Not in the least. Not the voters who have the maturity not to be lured by money and boot out the most corrupt regime in TN's history (surpassing Jaya's 91-96). Whatever Hazare achieved or did not he certainly achieved in unifying a wide array of critics across the political spectrum. Let's look at the critics first.

There is the well meaning intellectual who is horrified at an ultra-constitutional authority like the Jan Lokpal. Their concerns are very valid. Then comes the realist who reminds us that India is not corrupt for want of legal framework or legal avenues hence this is one more attempt that may very well scupper. So far I am with them. Another set of critics projected their own prejudices and pet causes as a template within which Hazare was judged as a hypocrite or liar or fundamentalist or plain buffoon.

Arundhathi Roy takes issue that Hazare is trying to root out corruption while not opposing the liberalization policies which in her mind are the fountain head of corruption. Opposing corruption while not opposing economic liberalization is a non-starter for her. Corruption did not start after 1991 when India launched privatization and unshackling the economy. Its government programs, especially social welfare programs, that are notoriously corrupt.

Gnani is angry that Irom Sharmila's fasting did not evoke the same level of public sympathy. In his eyes this is middle class hypocrisy. He upbraids the middle class, who constituted most of the sympathizers, as protesting against corruption only because it interferes in their 'comforts' or 'enjoying life'. Jeyamohan aptly criticized this as misplaced anger. Hazare touched an issue to which every Indian in every station of life could relate to. India is a subcontinent with diverse problems and each has its own intricacy. Divided by language and culture not many issues achieve a pan-Indian unity. As much as the northern India does not care for Tamil Nadu fisherman being slaughtered in the ocean the south India does not care much for India's brutal repression in parts of North India.

The media attention came in for lot of flak. Some commentators wryly noted that  in between World Cup and IPL this was a welcome TRP generating entertaining. After all the media, as enablers of corruption, was one of the key features of the despicable Radia tapes saga. Some alluded to extended jingoism coming out of a world cup victory. Even if we were to concede all that I am tempted to ask "so what?". Its not like the media was beaming jhatka-matkas to tick up viewership. Its not like people are clamoring for something dishonorable. Its not like a people rose up to say "release Barabbas".

Hazare's companions, the Bharat Matha depiction, praising Modi, Bhushan affairs were all fodder for criticism. Why hold Hazare responsible if Pappu Yadav offers support from within Tihar Jail? Hazare did not solicit Pappu Yadav. What is wrong with a Bharat Matha picture? Political correctness has run amuck when such objections are voiced. Swami Agnivesh is a respected social worker, just because he is a 'swami' its churlish to paint all of them as 'Hindutva'. Again none of them were agitating for anything ignoble or devious. They were all coming together to try to shake a nation to address a cancer that is eating into the body of the country. What is wrong with imagery of religiosity? Have we not seen the venality of so called atheists in Tamil Nadu? Atheism does not bestow any virtue as much religiosity by itself does not do so. EVR's pet project was erecting statues for himself while he was alive. Jayakanthan aptly observed that DK members are not atheists its just that their god is EVR.

Is undertaking a fast a blackmail? Is fasting to get one's nominees and oneself included in a panel 'Gandhian'? Yes, fasting is a sort of emotional blackmail if one chooses to call it as such. Was the fast as farcical as Jaya's fasting or MK's comical one? Not by a mile. More to the point Hazare was not putting his life on the line to gain electoral advantage or score brownie points. That Hazare wore a Gandhi cap and went on a fast prompted the label hungry media to call him a 'second Gandhi'. One could ignore that and move on.

Why did Hazare's fast yield results while others, most notably Potti Sriramulu's fast for Andhra, fail? Whether its the storming of Bastille or a guy setting himself aflame in Tunisia, revolutions and popular uprisings are characterized by an indefinable chemistry. Revolutions and momentous uprisings succeed or fail on a multiplicity of factors. When Gandhi announced his Dandi march nobody, not even Nehru and Patel, thought it was worthwhile. Irwin thought it was a joke. By the time Gandhi raised a fistful of salt he had shaken the foundations of an empire. Cable TV, social networking and above all the fact that every Indian has been singed by corruption personally made it possible for Hazare to succeed. The way many have asked "why did not the Indian government suppress this one like it habitually does?" kind of makes me wonder if they wished Hazare to silenced in some encounter. Again, very different dynamics operates here. Hazare is not a gun toting Maoist who is blowing  up schools and is plotting to overthrow the government. Also Manmohan Singh is not Indira Gandhi. Hazare is not JP either.

Jan Lokpal is ultra-constitutional. No doubt. Jaya has formed a 33 member ministry, the largest so far in Tamil Nadu. She could not go higher because the Supreme Court has restricted the number of ministers a cabinet can have. Why should the Supreme Court interfere in the liberty of a CM? What can we do in a country where ministries where used to lure party hoppers. Kalyan Singh's jumbo ministry in UP, I think he had 100 ministers, is a shameful episode. Much of what the election commission did is unfair. That before election a state's entire law enforcement machinery was deemed unreliable gave them no other option but to seek measures that only had a fig leaf constitutionality. People love this only because politicians have been crooks.

In a country where the constitution was written in such a ham handed manner where prosecuting a sitting CM or PM is next to impossibility such measures are inevitable. Paula Jones was a nobody yet she could prosecute the sitting President of the USA. To prosecute Jaya, a sitting CM, Swamy needed the permission of Channa Reddy the then Governor. Reddy and Jaya's parties were in alliance.The Founding Father's of USA agonized over balance of power and how checks and balances were incorporated. India while throwing off the yoke of colonialism retained the colonial mindset of treating the rulers as a superset subject to different rules from the common man. It was funny listening to Veeramani shedding tears for respecting the constitution. This from a man whose organization and its progenitors took pride in burning the constitution when it did not suit them.

When a government servant, a gazetted officer, applies for passport the mandatory police verification is waived off. Other hapless lesser mortals have to be verified. This is constitutionally sanctified class stratification. Government rules stipulate that a pensioner has to present himself/herself physically to a government officer periodically to certify eligibility for pensioner. Imagine you live in a village on a meager pension and you can imagine the dictatorial power that a clerk can have over you for certifying that you are alive.

The constitution, the government rules are all breeding grounds for corruption rendering a population that is intrinsically corrupt to the extent that many have lost completely all sense of ethics. An education internet user from Australia wrote in comment section "buying a black ticket is not unethical or corrupt. The buyer is paying the seller a premium for 'services' rendered such as not having to stand in queue". There is more than a shade of truth in decrying middle class hypocrisy. However political corruption stands out for many reasons and should be considered the head of this venomous snake.

The black ticket seller and buyer would run at the sight of a cop or at least try to be more surreptitious. Whereas its only a politician who would smile and wave when arrested. When CBI raided the premises of Kalaignar TV Cho drily remarked "if CBI recovers any incriminating document the management should be arrested for sheer incompetency given that the raid was very well expected and took more than a year to happen". Jaya's cases still grind through the lower courts, 15 years after they were filed.

Before any reader smugly asks "is there no corruption in USA or UK?" let me say "Of course there is but not of this scale where everyday life is a torture". Even when it happens justice is swift and impartial. My brother recently wrote, "In Britain, The Daily Telegraph newspaper exposed the scandal of MPs' expenses claims a year or so ago. Following that the worst three offenders were charged and the case came to court withing a year and all three were sent to prison for sums that would be considered loose change by Indian politicians. Sadly such a justice system is light years away in India.". I could cite many such cases in USA. Tom De Lay and Charlie Rangel are famous examples. Bill Clinton suffered mightily for his indiscretions.

Last year as soon as I came back from India I had to take my vehicle for annual inspection to our local DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) in New Jersey. I looked up the DMV website for what papers I needed to take. Just basic stuff. I checked on the webcam online to see how the queue was. I went to the DMV, waited in queue for 5 mins, I was early. When my turn came I handed over the registration, gave my keys and stepped out. Within 5 minutes the inspection was completed, it was free of charge, I got my car and whizzed home. I told my cousin that I should blog that and draw the contrast with India. My cousin said 'People will think you are crazy'. Only those who have been through an RTO office with its scum bag touts will appreciate what I just narrated. 

That a state's CM was openly bigamous provided good fodder for jokes and innuendo. This was not a mere infraction. Rajathi was well aware that in the event of anything happening to MK she and Kanimozhi would be left hanging dry hence she let loose an avarice that set tongues wagging. Not only MK several of his cabinet ministers like Veerapandi Arumugam were openly bigamous (manaivi + Thunaivi -- Tamil words that rhyme for wife+concubine). Every house repeated the story. If one started analysing the ethical implications of a culture that shrugged of this one would open a can of worms that needs a separate blog by itself. 

Veeramani and his acolytes organized protest meetings to "unmask" Hazare. Remember this was the same guy who a few months back organized meetings to celebrate A.Raja. Suba.Vi, a suave talking professor, decided to discredit Hazare in broad strokes. Suba.Vi alleged Hazare was against social justice (euphemism for quota based reservation). There is no proof of that. Even if it be so, its a disconnected issue. Just because I don't like quotas should I not protest against bribery? Veeramani and Subavi then proceeded to deconstruct Hazare as a paper tiger, as a front man for vested interests, as the mask of Hindutva etc etc. 

V.P.Singh is a favorite idol for DK/DMK. When V.P.Singh took on Rajiv Gandhi he too was called a paper tiger. V.P.Singh was then derided as propped up by pseudo intellectuals in Express. Just as many DMK worker wished that 2G spectrum will not be an issue so too back then many wished Bofors would not be an issue. After all what does the common man care for corruption, what does the common man understand of Bofors or Fairfax or 2G. The common man has answered resoundingly. 

Hazare's campaign coming weeks before the election did have a salutary effect on many complacent voters. For having tapped into the higher yearnings of the common man and for inspiring a nation to reach for higher goals we owe Hazare a big thanks. Lets criticize his ideas or remedies. If he too has feet of clay let him fall. But mere vilification only shows the nature of the vilifier it does not diminish Hazare.

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