"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." So said Karl Marx in his celebrated The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. How about a history of holy pretensions repeated for the umpteenth time in a country that fascinated Marx as much as 19th-century France?
India is currently witnessing the latest in a long series of avowedly anti-corruption movements of ironic content and consequences. Starting as so-hyped people's revolts against "politicians" and parliaments that empowered them", every one of these past movements for "probity in public life" ended up as a pursuit of power. The Anna Hazare movement, a.k.a. "the second freedom struggle", is showing signs of proving no exception.
Sticking to the tragedy-farce template, the Anna crusade is an attempted repeat of Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) movement of the seventies, also known as the Total Revolution. The movement then started with a call for "partyless democracy" and carried it forward to a campaign that included a 'gherao' (encirclement) of individual legislators, intimidated into resigning from elected assemblies in some States. What the nation got at the end of it all was a government under a newly formed Janata Party, formed by the merger of major parties with the far-right Jan Sangh. A tragic end, indeed, to what many saw as a great endeavour.
Anna Hazare is, of course, no JP.The latter had been a long-time leader of, shall we say, the first freedom struggle. He was a luminary of the Congress Socialist Party, whom many a would-be Communist expected then to work revolutionary wonders. Renouncing his leftism subsequently, he still retained a place in national headlines as an associate of Acharya Vinoba Bhave in the Bhoodan (Land Donation) movement.
Baburao Hazare acquired the title of Anna (Elder Brother) after his work as a "rural development" activist in the Ralegan Siddhi village in his home-State of Maharashtra. He was little-known outside the region until he was thrust into all-India limelight just around a month ago. It has, however, taken far less time than for JP to declare a punitive offensive against Parliament and to call upon his new-found supporters in New Delhi to “gherao” members of Parliament and the Prime Minister.
The multiplying tribe of Anna's acolytes compare him, not with JP, but with none less than Mahatma Gandhi. Anna has been on a public fast and that, in the eyes of his admirers, makes him a successor to the Father of the Nation, who pressed his demands with similar exercises in self-denial.
But Anna can hardly be more unlike Gandhi. The man who presided over floggings of alcoholics in Ralegan and calls for capital punishment for the corrupt, is obviously, no advocate of non-violence. Anna cannot be compared to the Mahatma, who died a martyr to the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity, after his unsolicited testimonial to Narendra Modi, even if he took it back under pressure from his present associates.
True, he has won support from some progressive Muslims, like Shabana Azmi, who think perhaps that the minority should not keep away from a campaign for a secular demand like "a strong Lokpal" (ombudsman). Ultra conservative Muslim leaders like Shahi Imam Syed Ahmad Bukhari of Delhi's Jama Masjid have done Anna a service by denouncing him only for some slogans (associated with the ultra right even if innocuous-sounding) raised at his rallies.
The fact, as noted before, is that the political front of the far right is always among the primary beneficiaries of personality-centred campaigns for probity, purity and the like. Few seasoned observers can fail to see that the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) is fairly salivating at the prospect of political returns for it from the Anna affair. As a participant in India's first non-Congress government during 1977-80 and the primary ruling party in three regimes from 1996 to 2004, the BJP did more than its bit to stall an effective law on the Lokpal from entering the statute book.
This has not prevented the party from waxing indignant against the Manmohan Singh government's approach to the Anna agitation. Even while professing to disagree with Team Anna on the powers and procedures of parliament, the party has allowed some of its leaders to voice unreserved support for the movement, thus keeping a door open for an expedient, election-eve dialogue with it.
We don't know for certain how many votes the "war on graft" can garner. But Anna's real constituency is invisible at the moment. We have only a faint glimmer of the larger forces behind the rallies we see non-stop, nearly 24x7, which must need considerable resources in addition to anti-corruption wrath.
The saddest thing about it all is that only a tiny part of the tomes written and sound bytes squandered over the Anna phenomenon asks the most relevant questions about corruption. Is it not a symptom of a systemic disease and distortion? Can corruption be combated without making any effort to curb the growth of inequalities? Can a Lokpal of any description abolish corruption in a land which boasts of 55 "dollar billionairs", accounting for 4.5 per cent of the global total, while 46 per cent of its children under three years in a miserable state of malnutrition.
J. Sri Raman is a freelance journalist and a peace activist, based in Chennai, India. He writes regularly for US web journal Truthout. He also contributes to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Chicago, US and the Japanese newspaper Chugoku Shimbun, Hiroshima. He likes to think of himself as an India-Pakistan journalist. He contributes a fortnightly column to the Daily Times, Lahore, Pakistan. He also writes for the Tribune, Chandigarh, The Hindu, Chennai and The Hindustan Times, Delhi, India. He is also author of the book Flashpoint published by Common Courage Press, USA. He is the convener of the Journalists Against Nuclear Weapons and the Movement Against Nuclear Weapons, Chennai. He is a member of the National Coordination Committee of India’s Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.