( In 2011 India momentarily forgot the Father of the Nation. As Anna Hazare fumbled, floundered and failed, it was evident that it is a mammoth task to be a Gandhian; forget being the modern Mahatma Gandhi ).
By Sanjay Jha
I was at my dapper debonair best, albeit behind that deceptive façade, a bag of awful nerves. A multinational bank head honcho poured a penetrative look into my curriculum vitae. I expected a hard-hitting complex interview, and was adequately rehearsed with standard prescriptions to intractable global financial woes. “ If you have a choice for dinner with anyone , living or dead, who would it be??” asked a gruff baritone. This was one I was least prepared for. And yet the answer came instantaneously, Mahatma Gandhi. An extraordinary man whose moral authority could temper religious conflagrations, restore sanity amidst madness even as he inspired a non-violent civil disobedience movement for India’s freedom against the formidable might of the British empire. Gandhi was my poster-boy hero.
I would later claim to seeing the celluloid version of the Father of the Nation at my own Fergusson College, Pune shooting for Sir Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film Gandhi. There will never be another Gandhi, I had always thought. But then at Jantar Mantar in April this year somebody said another was born. Incredulous, but I stretched to see this alchemist. It was a man from Ralegan Siddhi called Anna Hazare, who was spearheading an agitation for an anti-corruption legislation. I could not smell jasmine, but Hazare’s intrepid call was music to my ears. That was alas , it seems now, almost too many moons ago.
Corruption is an ecumenical factor; easy to make it a leitmotif, keep hammering it in, make it into an anti-establishment tirade because it is easy to generate popular goodwill. Team Anna thus launched into a well-orchestrated assault, perfectly timed, and scripted with appropriate sound byte impact and unrelenting intensity. But tragically, what started as a social crusader’s battle for cleansing corruption soon assumed a diabolical political form. I wondered how our modern Gandhi fell into this stratagem or was it a premeditated ploy??
It was the Ram Lila that took the cake and the chocolate factory. Ram Lila’s preposterous demands have probably remained the least discussed aspect, when in fact it was an outstanding gargantuan PR ruse on an unsuspecting nation As is now obvious, the demand to pass the Jan Lok Pal Bill in Team Anna’s own self-styled version within 10 days sans any deliberations, debate was outlandish, ludicrous. Lok Pal bill is a complex legislation of great import with serious ramifications on our democratic structures and institutions. Yet, it formed the fulcrum for Team Anna’s future experimentations. No sensible government could vouchsafe the bill with a bullet-on-your-temple blackmail , worse an outrageous expectation. Every statement uttered at Ram Lila was seismic cloaked in self-righteousness. Bollywood , spiritual gurus, Page 3 drop-outs and failed Bollywood stars coalesced to create a massive frenzy. 120 crore people are with us , someone roared , in desperate rodomontade, but fooling no one. The protestors operating model was based on a simple premise; the common man of India is easily beguiled by sustained propaganda, especially of the chest-beating sanctimonious variety. And in any case, no one reads the bill. But by December the veneer had cracked ; at MMRDA in December , Mumbai even as Parliament debated the Lok Pal bill, the crowd had thinned to size zero.
Under normal circumstances a forthright constructive debate based on a common salutary agenda for the nation would result in reconciliation, not progressive deterioration. The Lok Pal debate got subsumed by intricate spins and yarns resulting in public disillusionment , food for thought for those who believe in instant stardom based on an exaggerated notion of self-importance. The BJP , masters of gridlock , would use every tactic in the book to gerrymander and charm the rising middle class using Team Anna as their unofficial brand ambassadors. Political opportunism was amplified in practically every move be it in Hisar elections or repeated references to occupants of 10, Janpath . Anti-corruption had transmogrified into an anti-Congress campaign. By now, I was not the only one wearing a confounded expression. Hazare became strident, impertinent and often, nasty. Gandhi??
Eventually, Team Anna got inextricably intertwined in their own verbal inconsistencies. The travel expense vouchers scam , discounted farmland acquisition from the UP government , delayed financial settlement with government employers, and controversial remarks on Kashmir fractured and fragmented those pious postures. Confusion reigned. Sounds can bite, you see . Issues usually get obfuscated amidst obstreperous outbursts; FDI in retail being a classic case of a self-goal. Hazare snubbed Wal-Mart too. India is in love with noise and worse everyone is in love with their own voice. India is not listening to each other. And that is where the problems really begin. The downfall of the Anna movement was inevitable.
When Hazare made a second appearance at Jantar Mantar , Mahatma Gandhi had made a conspicuous disappearing act replaced by flagrant political billboards .What one saw was a hip-hop pop-culture interspersed with political gobbledygook , an absurd concoction , as guitar strumming indie groups and non-stop entertainment made it into a reality show. The incessant predilection for being in the news resulted in trite talk, irrelevant distractions. The movement had become just a moment. When one of Team Anna’s members scornfully dismissed the food security bill as a warped national priority one sensed something was seriously amiss.
Corruption is an emotive issue, it has greatly demoralized Indians, but Team Anna’s efforts to turn it into a parochial political movement using the vociferous middle-class as its vanguard ( ironically the biggest beneficiaries of liberalization) defied common sense. They remained stuck on a core “ constituency” . Comparisons with Tahrir Square were made with grave solicitude, but Team Anna forgot that India is aspiring towards political sophistication , it has overcome its teething troubles. Coalition politics, for all its negative connotations, is Indian democracy at it’s exuberant realistic best.
Vinod Mehta , editor of a leading national weekly says the media and government are natural adversaries, true they are, but they don’t have to be in a state of permanent warfare. In fact, both media and the government receive relentless 24×7 intense public scrutiny, have little leeway even for minor human lapses and are easy soft targets for perpetual vile, vested abuse; Indian democracy needs greater dialogue between these two critical pillars, not mutual recriminations. The government though needs to initiate greater interaction with the media. About time.
Despite the steadfast gloominess that pervaded for considerable periods, India ends the year with a hope of a turnaround, the much needed positive bustling optimism. Time for some sangfroid. We maybe a noisy democracy, but tranquility will finally emerge from within itself. 2012 is the year the Mayan’s declare will be the end of the world. But for India I suspect it is the beginning of a more aware , vibrant and involved nation. Falter and fail we still might , but our fallibilities should never weaken our resolve. Occupy Wall Street collapsed on account of rudderless leadership, cosmetic remonstrance has limited appeal. And as the experience of the Arab Spring showed, after the initial brouhaha and boisterous clapping, shouting and dancing, what often follows is stunned disbelief at the emptiness. Team Anna rode a gigantic wave, followed by an ignominious crash while still at the shore-line.
By the end of the year, it was not just public disenchantment that had robbed the transitory Gandhi of his façade, but sensing his own human vulnerabilities, or perhaps a stealthy side-objective or pure inability to live up to demanding high standards, Hazare had himself assiduously drifted away from that cherished ant-corruption goal. In a sense, that defined the year’s most calamitous downfall. To earn the tag of Gandhi , by itself a Herculean achievement deemed improbable, and lose that incandescence within a course of a mere eight months, for Hazare that was an extraordinary failure. Several will anoint him with accolades, sobriquets and fancy superlatives anyway for bringing corruption center-stage , but away from the shibboleth Anna Hazare was ironically enough, 2011’s biggest loser.
As we enter 2012 maybe that’s the biggest lesson for us all; fifteen minutes of fame maybe good for an individual , but not necessarily for a country. And yes, in a year of Bollywood sequels and remakes , Gandhi remained inimitable.
Sanjay Jha can be followed on Twitter@JhaSanjay