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Anna Hazare and the politics of charisma

Anna Hazare and the politics of charisma
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First Published: Thu, Dec 29 2011. 11 02 PM IST

Social activist Anna Hazare. File photo.
Social activist Anna Hazare. File photo.
Updated: Thu, Dec 29 2011. 11 02 PM IST
Is the Anna Hazare movement losing steam? The thin turnout during his hunger strike in Mumbai this week clearly took his band of crusaders by surprise. A broader indicator is provided by Google Trends: data on both the volume of searches and news references across India shows that public interest is nowhere near their August peaks.
Social activist Anna Hazare. File photo.
An ailing Hazare eventually called off his fast as well as the ambitious plan to get thousands of activists to court arrest, but then signalled his readiness to campaign in the state assembly elections. The move to give the movement a more explicit political hue could prove to be contentious. Water rights activist Rajendra Singh had quit the movement in October when Team Anna decided to campaign during the Lok Sabha by-election in Hissar. He also lashed out at the way the leaders had become “a bunch of power brokers”.
A setback after a series of victories can provide a welcome opportunity to introspect. The strategists in what has come to be known as Team Anna have a job at hand. They were assuming that teeming crowds would be a given, so perhaps focused more on playing brinkmanship with the political class rather than mobilizing mass support. The problem is that the politicians in Mumbai have been smarter than those in New Delhi: they neither tried to arrest Hazare nor bully him nor fawn over him. They merely ignored him. Even the mercurial Bal Thackeray steered clear of personal attacks; his newspaper has focused on criticizing the Jan Lokpal Bill. The silence of the Mumbai politicians deprived Hazare of the oxygen of controversy; the war of words in New Delhi had kept the movement in the news.
It is also likely that the people of Maharashtra are more sceptical of Hazare’s whimsical ways, since he has been active in his home state for many years before he shot into national prominence. He was not the unknown messiah. The Hazare factor was also absent during the recent municipal elections across Maharashtra, where the Nationalist Congress Party did very well. What happens in local elections in Mumbai next year will be closely watched.
Meanwhile, the Lok Sabha gave its nod for a Lokpal law that does not meet the expectations of the anti-graft movement, but is nevertheless a big step forward. That could also take some wind out of the Jan Lokpal movement. The Hazare camp describes the Bill as toothless, but then their version of an independent watchdog with sweeping powers was problematic as well.
What the men and women around Hazare do next will be interesting. The New York Times spelt out five options in its India Ink blog a little before the fast was called off in Mumbai: keep fasting; regroup and escalate the jail bharo plan; regroup and try to rebuild support but skip the jail bharo plan; exit gracefully now that an anti-corruption law is in place; enter electoral politics. The fourth alternative is the most unlikely one. The fifth alternative is the toughest.
The setback in Mumbai comes at the end of a year of stunning success for the movement, which virtually came out of nowhere to rattle the political system. The division of labour was smart. Arvind Kejriwal kept the pressure on the government during negotiations. Hazare remained the public face of the movement. They complemented each other.
Much now depends on Hazare and his ability to position himself as a modern-day Gandhi, because that is where the popular support comes from.
The meteoric rise of Hazare to national cult status is testimony to the power of charisma. The German sociologist Max Weber said that there were three types of authority in any society. There is traditional authority based on social customs. There is rational-legal authority based on formal rules enshrined in constitutions. And there is charismatic authority built around a leader who believes his power comes from either a higher power or an inner voice.
The confrontation between Parliament and the street protesters can be understood as a skirmish between rational-legal authority on the one hand, and charismatic authority, on the other. Constitutionalists are quite entitled to be proud of the fact that traditional feudal authority is on the wane in India, but also have reason to fear the emergence of charismatic authority based on worship of an individual (though this is as applicable to many political leaders as it is to Hazare).
To be sure, too much need not be read into the poor turnout at Mumbai. The people around Hazare are a smart bunch that kept even seasoned politicians such as Pranab Mukherjee guessing. But a movement that owes much of its success to the charisma of one man could be exposed if public fascination with “The Leader” finally begins to wane.
The big question now is whether the Hazare cult can carry the movement forward now that a Lokpal Bill (whatever its contours) is on the cards. In a speech he gave during the centenary celebrations of M.G. Ranade, the pioneering Pune liberal, B.R. Ambedkar, had said: “India is still par excellence the land of idolatry. There is idolatry in religion, there is idolatry in politics. Heroes and hero-worship is a hard, if unfortunate, fact in India’s political life. I agree that hero-worship is demoralizing for the devotee and dangerous to the country.”
These words ring true even today.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is the Executive Editor of Mint
Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Dec 29 2011. 11 02 PM IST