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Politics, parochialism
and power in India

Improving the quality and functioning of democratic institutions will require far more than a Lok Pal. India must nurture moral idealism while shunning petty parochialism.

By RAMACHANDRA GUHA
Bangalore, September 2011

Anna Hazare ends his 12-day fast end August 2011 in New Delhi

Anna Hazare ends his 12-day fast end August 2011 in New Delhi. The 74-year-old activist was cheered by large crowds at the Ramlila grounds. - Photo: Getty Images

ABOUT 20 years ago, I found myself in the same room as Anna Hazare, at a meeting organised by the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi. Mr Hazare was becoming known in environmental circles for the work he had done in his native village, Ralegan Siddhi. His successful programmes of watershed conservation and afforestation stood in stark contrast to the efforts of the state forest department, which had handed over vast tracts of virgin forests to industry. Moreover, whereas the forest department was hostile to community participation, identifying villagers as ‘enemies of the forest’, Hazare had energised peasants to care for and renew their natural environment.

When Anna Hazare came into that Delhi meeting room of the early 1990s he wore the same dress as he does now. He exuded the same simplicity. But, as I recall, he spoke softly, even with some diffidence. He was not entirely at home in a hall filled with urban folks whose cultural, albeit not moral, capital, was far greater than his.

It is said that power and wealth make men younger. So, apparently, does the attention of television. As we become older, the rest of us grow less alert, less energetic, less combative. This law of biology Hazare seems now to have defied. For the man I now see on my screen is not the man I once saw in a seminar room in New Delhi. He challenges and taunts the government and its ministers, wagging his finger at the cameras. Once, Hazare was the voice and conscience of the village of Ralegan Siddhi; now he demands that he be seen as the saviour of the nation itself.

Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha


Improving the quality and functioning of democratic institutions will require far more than a Lok Pal. We have to work for changes in the law to make funding of elections more transparent and to debar criminals from contesting elections

Some television channels claim that Anna Hazare represents the overwhelming bulk of Indians. Print, cyberspace and soundings on the street suggest a more complicated picture. Liberals worry about the dangers to policy reform contained in street agitations led by men whose perfervid rhetoric undermines constitutional democracy. Dalits and backward castes see this as a reprise of the anti-Mandal agitation, led and directed by suvarna activists.

To these political reservations may be added the caution of the empirical sociologist. The population of the Delhi metropolitan area is in excess of 10 million; yet at their height, the crowds in the Ramlila Maidan have never exceeded 50,000. In May 1998, 400,000 residents of Calcutta marched in protest against the Pokhran blasts. No one then said that ‘India stands against Nuclear Bombs’. Now, however, as television cameras endlessly show the same scenes at the same place, we are told that ‘India is for Anna’.

This said, it would be unwise to dismiss the resonance or social impact of the campaign led by Anna Hazare. It comes on the back of a series of scandals promoted by the present United Progressive Alliance government — Commonwealth Games, 2G, Adarsh, et al. The media coverage of these scandals, over the past year and more, has led to a sense of disgust against this government in particular, and (what is more worrying) against the idea of government in general. It is this moment, this mood, this anger and this sense of betrayal that Anna Hazare has ridden on. Hence the transformation of a previously obscure man from rural Maharashtra into a figure of — even if fleetingly — national importance.

The success of Anna Hazare is explained in large part by the character of those he opposes. He appears to be everything the prime minister and his ministers are not — courageous, independent-minded, willing to stake his life for a principle. In an otherwise sceptical piece — which, among other things, calls Anna Hazare a “moral tyrant” presiding over a “comical anti-corruption opera”— the columnist C P Surendran writes that “a party that can’t argue its case against a retired army truck driver whose only strength really is a kind of stolid integrity and a talent for skipping meals doesn’t deserve to be in power”. These two strengths — honesty and the willingness to eschew food, and by extension, the material life altogether — shine in comparison with the dishonest and grasping men on the other side.

Large swathes of the middle class have thus embraced Anna Hazare out of disgust with Manmohan Singh’s government. That said, one must caution against an excessive identification with Anna Hazare. Hazare is a good man, perhaps even a saintly man. But his understanding remains that of a village patriarch.

The strengths and limitations of Anna Hazare are identified in Green and Saffron, a book by Mukul Sharma that shall appear later this year [2011]. Sharma is an admired environmental journalist, who did extensive fieldwork in Ralegan Siddhi. He was greatly impressed by much of what he saw. Careful management of water had improved crop yields, increased incomes, and reduced indebtedness. On the other hand, he found the approach of Anna Hazare “deeply brahmanical”. Liquor, tobacco, even cable TV were forbidden. Dalit families were compelled to adopt a vegetarian diet. Those who violated these rules — or orders — were tied to a post and flogged.

Sharma found that on Hazare’s instructions, no panchayat elections had been held in the village for the past two decades. During state and national elections, no campaigning was allowed in Ralegan Siddhi. The reporter concluded that “crucial to this genuine reform experiment is the absolute removal from within its precincts of many of the defining ideals of modern democracy”.

In striving for these changes one must draw upon the experience, and expertise, of the very many Indians who share Hazare’s idealism without being limited by his parochialism

The sound bites spontaneously offered by Anna Hazare in recent weeks do not inspire confidence. Emblematic here was his dismissal of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and of the government’s pointman in its handling of the anti-corruption movement, Kapil Sibal. Hazare said that Dr Singh and Mr Sibal did not understand India because they had taken degrees at foreign universities.

As it happens, worthier men have had foreign degrees; among them, the two greatest social reformers of modern India, M K Gandhi and B R Ambedkar.

Hazare claims that the last 64 years of political freedom have been utterly wasted (“chausutt saal mein humko sahi azaadi nahin mili hai”). The fact is that had it not been for the groundwork laid by the Constitution, and by visionaries like Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and others, Dalits and women would not have equal rights under the law, nor would elections based on universal franchise be regularly and freely held.

Dalits and women were less-than-equal citizens in the raj of the British, and in the raj of Anna Hazare’s much admired Shivaji Maharaj as well. Those other regimes did not have, either, constitutional guarantees for the freedom of movement, combination and expression. To be sure, there remains a large slippage between precept and practice. I have elsewhere called India a “fifty-fifty democracy”. The jurist, Nani Palkhivala, once said the same thing somewhat differently: India, he suggested, is a second-class democracy with a first-class Constitution.

In the years since Palkhivala first made this remark, India may have become a third-class democracy. But the ideal remains, to match which one needs patient, hard work on a variety of fronts. Anna Hazare claims that the creation of a single Lok pal will end 60 percent to 65 percent of corruption. That remark confuses a village with a nation. A benign (and occasionally brutal) patriarch can bring about improvements in a small community. But a nation’s problems cannot be solved by a Super Cop or Super Sarpanch, even (or perhaps especially) if he be assisted (as the legislation envisages) by thousands of busybody – and themselves corruptible – inspectors.

Improving the quality and functioning of democratic institutions will require far more than a Lok Pal, whether jan or sarkari. We have to work for, among other things, changes in the law to make funding of elections more transparent, and to completely debar criminals from contesting elections; the reform of political parties to make them less dependent on family and kin; the use of technology to make the delivery of social services less arbitrary and more efficient; the insulation of the bureaucracy and the police from political interference; the lateral entry of professionals into public service, and more. In striving for these changes one must draw upon the experience, and expertise, of the very many Indians who share Hazare’s idealism without being limited by his parochialism.


Reproduced with minor edits from The Telegraph with the author’s permission. Ramachandra Guha is a historian and biographer based in Bangalore. He has taught at Yale and Stanford, held the Arné Naess Chair at the University of Oslo, and been the Indo-American Community Visiting Professor at the University of California at Berkeley. His books include The Unquiet Woods, and an award-winning social history of cricket, A Corner of a Foreign Field (Picador, 2002). India after Gandhi (Macmillan/Ecco Press, 2007) was chosen as a book of the year by the Economist, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and a host of international publications. Guha’s books and essays have been translated into more than 20 languages and the New York Times has referred to him as ‘perhaps the best among India’s non fiction writers’; Time Magazine has called him ‘Indian democracy’s preeminent chronicler’. In 2009, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the Republic of India’s third highest civilian honour.

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anju chandna (18 September, 2011) – uk
A balanced, unhysterical piece by a favourite of mine( hugely enjoyed his A Corner of a Foreign Field!)We would do well to heed his advice if we really want to turn things around.The very middle class Indians who are being carried away on the Anna wave need to opt in and play a more decisive role- lawyers, financiers, educationalists all.
Ranjan Pal (17 September, 2011) – India
A very thoughtful and analytical piece by one of India's finest social commentators and writers which makes some excellent cautionary points about the whole Anna movement.
Dahiya (13 September, 2011) – India
A very well written piece and so close to the truth that it feels uncanny. The last ten line sum it all......way to go Ramu.
Indira Mukherjee (13 September, 2011) – India
As i read the article, a shiver ran down my spine. A visual flashed across my mind in which the exclusion of a particular people in "Anna's India" was complete. The genie is almost out with the help of the media. The good old genie is needed but only to catch the sharks; the genie should not become the shark. The way it is dangerous to give power to the children, to the youth,it is equally dangerous to submit one's thinking to one person who believes in HIS TRUTH , nothing but 'his truth'. His wonderful work in his village needs to be spread but not the method. The people enamoured of his method should themselves be subjected to it! There is a need for a Kabir, a Ma Sharada, a tagore, a Gandhi, a Ambedkar ... to speak the language of inclusion and compassion.
S.N.Iyer (13 September, 2011) – India
I have written several pieces in my blog on the Anna phenomenon. Check chinindru@blogspot.com I entirely agree with what Ram has written as also what respected Mr B G Verghese wrote in the Deccan Herald of 30th August. Also read the article "Hazare vs Hazare" by Shiv Vishwanathan - a well known sociologist in the Economic and Political Weekly. As Ram points out there are a few plus points but if carried too far it can prove counterproductive. Anna Hazare himself is a simple and sincere man but he is ill advised by some of his advisers who are using him to further their own ends and by a biased reporting by the electronic media. – This comment has been edited
Robert Delaney (12 September, 2011) – UK
I was in New Delhi during this episode. Some friends cheered, others were alarmed. There is a fine line between activism and anarchy. The voices from the streets need to be heard and processed by Parliament, which is, after all, the ultimate 'people's voice'. The indications are this will now happen in an orderly manner.
Vinod Sarkar (12 September, 2011) – USA
True democracy has to come from institutions. One charismatic man cannot change India. Now maybe Parliament will take action on corruption issue.

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