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Anna Hazare’s Initiative: People’s Movement in a Constitutional Democracy

Two developments in India during the past week convinced me of the above approach in Indian politics. American journalist Joseph Lelyveld’s book The Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India created furore in the country. The book has been banned in Gujarat and Maharashtra is considering a ban. The Central government has serious objections to the book.

Anna Hazare, a Gandhian and social activist, began his fast unto death on April 5 to pressurize the Government to legislate a rigorous anti-corruption bill.

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Two developments in India during the past week convinced me of the above approach in Indian politics. American journalist Joseph Lelyveld’s book The Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India created furore in the country. The book has been banned in Gujarat and Maharashtra is considering a ban. The Central government has serious objections to the book.

Anna Hazare, a Gandhian and social activist, began his fast unto death on April 5 to pressurize the Government to legislate a rigorous anti-corruption bill.

Protest or advocacy, Gandhi continues to occupy the centre stage in India.

Anna Hazare is fasting to ensure that the government makes an explicit commitment to the Jan Lokpal Bill (Citizen’s Ombudsman Bill). According to Anna the Government proposed Lokpal Bill is “complete eyewash”. Rather than strengthen the anti-corruption systems, it demolishes whatever system exists in the name of anti-corruption systems today. It seeks to completely insulate politicians from any kind of action against them.” Anna is convinced that a strong bulwark against corruption requires an active role by the civil society. Anna demands to continue his fast until the Government appoints a joint committee comprising fifty percent officials and the remaining citizens and intellectuals to draft the Bill. India Against Corruption is the movement’s website detailing the flaws of the current bill and making a case for the new Bill. It also tracks developments across the country in support of Anna’s fast.

Anna’s is not an arm-chair social reformer. He has launched many (successful and unsuccessful) anti-corruption campaigns. His most laudable act of ‘social reform’ was the transformation of his home village, Ralegan-Siddhi, from a den of illicit liquor trade and caste divisions to a model of environmental conversation.  Sharad Pawar’s resignation from the Group of Ministers on corruption is the latest episode in the long-standing saga of Anna-Pawar duel. In 1994 Anna had launched an indefinite hunger strike in Alandi, an important pilgrimage for the Vaishnavaite sect of Maharashtra against corruption in forest department. He withdrew his 12-day hunger strike only after extracting a firm assurance from then chief minister Sharad Pawar. BJP may now be siding with Anna but in the past two BJP ministers, Mahadev Shivankar and Shashikant Sutar, had to resign from the BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra in the late 1990s following Anna’s anti-corruption campaign.

Given Anna Hazare’s background as a soldier and social activist, it is unlikely that he will give in before his mission is accomplished.

Anna Hazare’s “unquestioned integrity and unimpeachable credentials” has deepened the moral underpinnings of his demands. B. Raman has used the catchy idiom of recent public protests in Middle East and North Africa by suggesting that “We might be faced with a Jasmine Revolution type situation with the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi from where the movement has been launched becoming India’s Tahrir Square.” The media is using phrases like ‘uprising’ ‘revolution’ ‘history in the making’ to describe Anna’s protest. Though it’s too early to fully accept the accuracy of such comparisons, the movement is gaining momentum throughout the country.

Several political parties keen to bandwagon with Anna Hazare have been disappointed by his and his supporters’ explicit attempt to distance the movement from all political outfits. Bollywood celebrities have expressed support for Anna Hazare’s fast. Anna is gathering support from some unexpected quarters as well. Pappu Yadav, facing a life term in CPI-M MLA Ajit Sarkar murder case, has been fasting along with Anna from his prison cell as a token of support for the cause! Before labelling this support as a sign of India’s ‘jasmine revolution’ a note of caution is essential. Rhetorical support is relatively easy to garner; no sane individual shall ‘oppose’ Anna’s campaign. It remains to be seen how Anna’s supporters will use of his favored Jan Lokpal Bill and other available instruments for ensuring government accountability.

Anna’s continues to guide the movement and clarify his demands after starting his fast. In a letter to Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, Anna requested the P.M. to “stop finding faults and suspecting conspiracies in our movement. Even if there were, it does not absolve you of your responsibilities to stop corruption.” Responding to the Congress offer to table the Bill during the monsoon session of Parliament, Mr. Hazare said he had no objection to it: “But then what will be the content of the Bill?” He emphasised that if a joint committee was formed to draft the Bill, it should also have UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi as a member to ensure its effectiveness. Anna has rejected the Government’s most recent offer to constitute an informal committee to consider the details of the anti-corruption bill.

Anna Hazare’s indefinite fast is not simply limited to the question of corruption but raises wider questions on the working of the Indian political system. Why are elected representative are no longer viewed as ‘representatives’ of civil society? If citizens can’t trust the politicians on one issue, how can trust develop in numerous others tasks relating to public welfare? How will this surge of protests propelled by democracy impact the constitutional structure of the country?

Several limitations of the Jan Lokpal Bill proposed by Anna have been highlighted by observers of the protest movement. (Read here, here and here). Skeptics have also raised concerns regarding the larger implications of the movement on the structure of constitutional government in the country. There are numerous references to Ambedkar’s observation that continuation of satyagraha in Independent India could create a ‘grammar of anarchy’. According to Pratap Bhanu Mehta, “in a functioning constitutional democracy, not having one’s preferred institutional solution to a problem accepted, does not constitute a sufficient reason for the exercise of such coercive moral power.” Intellectuals like Bhanu Mehta have raised the efficacy of candle light marches versus systemic reforms in combating problems like corruption. However, in a political system where corruption is pandemic the impetus for change can’t be expected to come from within. Politicians and public intellectuals continue to suspect the ability of mass movements to engineer change. People’s movements may not be politically refined but this does not discredit its relevance. The notion that popular elections have replaced the need for mass movements in functioning democracies is unappealing.

Anna’s movement may not provide the technically best solution to the problem of corruption in India. Gandhian intentions and strategies are not necessarily magical. But Anna’s initiative has helped to aggregate citizen dissatisfaction into a movement. This movement may or may not achieve revolutionary changes but it has realized one thing: Re-created space for a non-political people’s movement in the country. Discontent has moved out from Facebook pages and twitter timeline to Jantar Mantar. Its achievements may be limited; the ‘people’ may not understand the constitutional implications of what they are demanding, but it is nevertheless a people’s movement. Intellectuals may refer to these people as ‘naïve’ but rarely, if ever, is ‘civil society’ in the real sense of the term a conglomeration of experts.

The real test of Anna’s initiative in the short term is not what the UPA proposes but how the citizens respond. In a few days State Assembly elections will take place in Tamil Nadu. The civil society, politically referred to as voters, will have an opportunity much bigger than the one demanded by their leader Anna. The fate of the Congress-DMK coalition involved in the 2G scam shall reflect how the ‘naïve wisdom’ of civil society works when offered an opportunity. The case for public disgust with corruption will suffer a setback if voters re-elect the political parties involved in corruption. Though the alternatives may not be very promising, but dislodging an incumbent government is the best way to express citizen’s discontent.

It’s important to realize that Anna’s demands refer to creating a strong institutional check against corruption in the government. The Jan Lokpal Bill, however, is not a perfect solution. Thus Anna Hazare led anti-corruption movement will do itself great service by remaining open to discussion on the exact design of the institutional mechanism. History shall judge the Anna Hazare initiative not on the basis of the efficiency of the Jan Lokpal but by its impact on regenerating popular discontent as a potent force in India.

 

Madhavi Bhasin


Madhavi Bhasin is a California based independent scholar. She is currently working on a project exploring the role of new social media in influencing interactions between Indians and Pakistanis. She is a regular contributor at Huffington Post and blogs at The Trajectory.


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Makkal Needhi Maiam is the Name of Kamal Haasan’s Political Party

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Veteran actor Kamal Haasan on February 21 launched his political party Makkal Needhi Mayyam (roughly, ‘People’s Justice Forum’) at a public function in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.

Haasan unveiled the name and symbol of his political outfit in front a huge crowd at Madurai’s Ottakattai Grounds.

“This is a party for you, for the people. I am your instrument, you are the leaders, this is a crowd full of leaders,” Haasan said.

The party symbol, six arms interlinked around a star at the centre, is in the colours of red, white and black. The party flag, which is primarily white, will carry the symbol along with the party name.

Curiously, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and AAP leader Somnath Bharti were present on the stage with Haasan.

 

A lot of observers noted that while Haasan spoke about the name and the flag of his party, he distinctly failed to elaborate to the public what his party would stand for. The only issue he talked about at the launch event is corruption.

Kamal Haasan began the day of the party launch by visiting the house of former President A P J Abdul Kalam in Rameswaram. He took the blessings of Kalam’s elder brother Mohammed Muthu Meera Lebbai Maraikayar, who is a centenarian.

Describing the former president as his ‘role model’, Haasan said in a tweet:

“Greatness can come from simple beginnings. Actually it will come only from simplicity. Glad to start my journey from a great man’s simple abode”.

Kalam’s family presented a memento carrying an image of the former president to Kamal Haasan.

On his way to Madurai, Kamal Haasan had a brief stop in Paramakudi. “I grew up in these streets,” the actor said there. “The way you have been waiting for me in this heat shows your love towards me… I will certainly come back to my people here.”

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CBI Questions Rotomac Pens Chief Vikram Kothari

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India’s premier domestic investigation agency CBI continued to question Rotomac Pens Chief Vikram Kothari and family members for the second day today. The company allegedly owes funds to the tune of 3600 crore rupees to seven public sector banks.

The magnitude of the alleged fraud committed by Rotomac Pens owner Vikram Kothari has ballooned compared to its initial estimates.

Kothari allegedly cheated seven public sector banks of over Rs 3600 crore rupees by not making repayments of loans.

The Central Bureau of Investigation – CBI has registered a case against Vikram Kothari. The probe agency questioned Kothari, his wife and his son.

Properties belonging to Vikram Kothari and his family were raided in Kanpur in connection with the probe.

The Kanpur-based company’s owner had taken loans from a consortium of seven public sector banks.

Rotomac was declared a wilful defaulter in February 2017.

Vikram Kothari, his wife and son have been detained by the probe agency.

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Centre Seeks Report About Assault on Delhi Chief Secretary by AAP Members

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The issue of alleged manhandling of Delhi Chief Secretary by Aam Admi Party MLAs gathered steam when Home Minister expressed concern and sought a report from the Lt Governor about the incident – even as IAS officers posted in Delhi took out a candle-lit march outside Delhi Secretariat in protest.

Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash has alleged that he was assaulted by two Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) lawmakers in presence of the chief minister after being called for a meeting at midnight. Taking serious note of the incident, Home Ministry has asked for a report from Delhi Lt Governor.

Reacting to the matter, Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted –

“I am deeply pained by the happenings involving the Chief Secretary of the Delhi Government. The civil servants should be allowed to work with dignity and without fear. MHA has sought a report on the incident from the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. Justice will be done.”

IAS association has condemned the incident. Bureaucrat associations DANICS and DASS met the home minister and updated him on the entire issue and demanded legal action against the culprits

Meanwhile, IAS, DANICS and DASS associations took out a candlelight march at Rajghat to protest over the matter.

Aam Admi Party, on the other hand, has called the allegations baseless. In fact, they have accused the chief secretary of using derogatory language against some MLAs and leaving the meeting without answering questions.

However, Opposition has seized the moment to corner AAP.

For now, AAP seems deeply embroiled in this new controversy and it remains to be seen how it manages to deal with it.

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