The provisions of the Jan Lokpal Bill threaten that constitutional democracy which holds the nation together. If Anna Hazare has to gain the ground he never had, he ought to start from where corruption really hurts: Village India.

As the year draws to a close, most articulate Indians would like to believe that the “political class” has received a bashing at the hands of “civil society”; that for once in the life of the Indian Republic, politicians have been reminded of what it means to take the nation for granted.

For the most part, this message will reverberate down the new year, principally on account of the way the media has shot and provided the voice-over for that conflict between the typologies it has created: The Political Class and Civil Society. The only problem is that both concepts are metaphorical; they belong to a discourse cooked up by a media that in turn reflects middle-class angst at the promise of power and, at the same time, the distance from that promise.

Moral outrage no basis

Without knowing it, the middle-class Indian, most vociferous on the i-pad and Internet about corruption and the fight against it, might just have become even more alienated from the campaign against it. When Anna Hazare and his “team” rant against the government, what they do is to alienate the masses that they supposedly represent even further from the frontlines of the battle.

They do this by their single-minded focus on the Lokpal Bill or, more specifically, on their version of it, at the cost of the larger campaign that any drive against corruption in public life should focus upon: A fight against an immoral way of life, a struggle against the terms of reference by which modern Indians would like to live or at least, aspire to live. What this would mean then, would be a return to the Gandhian Satyagraha: A struggle not just against the most visible forms of misconduct in political life but against the underlying principles of such behaviour in all walks of life.

“Team Anna's” campaign against anti-corruption, even at its most abstract level, is not premised on codes of morality in public life so much as on a middle class-fed moral outrage. It is the sense of rage at the scale of corruption in a few areas rather than its pervasiveness and deleterious effect on society and nature that infuses the campaign against the government. Fed by an inchoate anger of a middle-class deluded into believing that its own prosperity is not devastating nature or is morally upright, the anti-corruption campaign easily slips into a battle for political power.

At the outset itself, in May, it was evident that the mass movement was a movement in virtual reality. Wearing Gandhian caps, posing for television cameras with V-signs and bright smiles, candle-lit vigils and afternoon-break gatherings at public places in Mumbai may have given the sense of mass support for the anti-corruption drive, but what did they really amount to? What does it mean when the virtual world is abuzz with moral outrage and fierce words in support for Mr Hazare other than an indulgence in the metaphor of commitment to change rather than an engagement with alternative aspirations and modes of development?

Bereft of a moral base fed on outrage that is necessarily short-lived, Mr Hazare and his team may appear to represent that illusory world of “civil society” but, in fact, do not have even the semblance of participatory democracy.

Participatory or representative?

Alone among many democracies, India has the arguable distinction of evolving its democratic structure, however anarchic, largely through participatory rather than purely representative means. The Constitution was framed by representatives in the Constituent Assembly but only after some huge amounts of petitions from people across the nation-in-the-making from the Jewish Board to women and tribal organisations, all seeking a place and voice in the new formation.

Lacking that mass base, focused largely on New Delhi and its most apparent forms of the abuse of power, Mr Hazare's campaign has reduced what could have been a reassertion of a moral-based social contract to a fight over a legislation that increasingly seems like a perversion of participatory democracy.

The provisions of the Jan Lokpal Bill threaten that constitutional democracy which holds the nation together however tenuously; equally, the methods employed by Anna Hazare leave no room for dialogue. Fasting is a coercive means, but in Gandhi's case, it was used to arouse a moral consciousness both among Indians and the colonial power not to get the state to do one's bidding.

Politics is all

That is why Mr Hazare's campaign is centred around the capital. Reducing the drive against corruption to a piece of legislation turns it into jockeying for political power, and television helps.

For a while, it almost seemed the Anna Team had won the game of realpolitik when Opposition leaders joined them on stage for what appeared, in retrospect, a blundering photo-op.

Muted as their support was, neither the Left nor the Right could have imagined that the government was capable of the brilliance it showed when it tabled the Lokpal Bill in Parliament. Introducing the minority quota in the proposed Lokpal bench, insisting on state-wise Lokayuktas, among others, undid whatever solidarity the Opposition might have shown for Anna, with one party after another slamming the Bill, much to the satisfaction of the Congress.

While Anna ranted with furious, but media-pleasing, rhetoric, what the Congress has achieved is to get the judiciary also into a flap with experts like Soli Sorabjee questioning the constitutional basis of certain provisions contained in the Bill.

Regardless of the way Anna Hazare's next move pans out, it is clear that the campaign has lost much of its teeth. The Lokpal Bill and, more so, the version he and his team insist on Parliament passing, has less of a chance of seeing the light of day than at any other time. The Opposition has stumbled over its own feet; blinded by its opposition to the UPA, it almost shot itself on the foot and will now think twice before posing with Anna on the same stage. The campaign itself becomes more prone to ridicule as was evident when the High Court denied it exemption from fees for the Bandra-Kurla Complex grounds.

If Anna Hazare has to gain the ground he never had, he ought to start from where corruption really hurts: Village India.

(This article was published on December 27, 2011)
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