There are several things—good, bad and worrying—about the unprecedented success managed by Anna Hazare through his indefinite hunger strike. It eventually ended on Saturday after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) abjectly capitulated.
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All of them signal one thing: the governance deficit is so far gone that a systemic overhaul cannot be put off any more. Capital Calculus on 7 February had cautioned that the system and all its institutions, whether it be government, police, judiciary and media, are beginning to look helpless and gradually losing credibility. The Hazare phenomenon underlines the fact that the time for action is here and the business of outsourcing governance, something the UPA has turned into a fine art, has to cease.
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First, it articulated the angst of the middle class. No matter what the movement may claim or the electronic media may have argued, in the end this agitation was primarily urban-centric and led by the middle class. At the receiving end of such brazen acts of corruption and lack of probity in public life, this class of Indian society simply snapped and rallied behind someone whom they believed to be apolitical (ignoring the self-seeking lot that had, sensing an opportunity, attached themselves to Hazare); this engagement is welcome.
The big plus was the passionate youth, who today account for the majority demography of the country—60% of India’s 1.21 billion are estimated to be of less than 35 years of age. The big question is whether this was a moment to release their angst or the beginning of a new phenomenon that will inspire a new kind of middle-class politics.
Second, the success of the movement lay in the novelty as well as the constellation of circumstances. It was in many ways a unique mode of protest that drew on the romantic ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. At the same time, it is a fact that an important election campaign is under way in the four key states of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu (with a sizeable urban population), Kerala and Assam. While one provided the impetus, the second factor showed up the Congress’s vulnerability to pressure.
Third, closely linked to the above, is that social media as a medium to deliver the voice of protest has now seriously taken root in India. The Twitter world relentlessly sustained the message of defiance, inspiring Indians living in the country as well as abroad. (Wonder what Gandhi could have achieved if he had been able to tap the power of social media.)
Fourth, it showed that corruption, despite that massive distraction called cricket and the feel good of winning the cricket World Cup, is very much on the agenda. With a special court installed to scrutinize 2G cases of alleged corruption, legal rulings will be on a fast track. Piloting of the now promised Lokpal Bill will only spur the debate on corruption and trigger a fresh round of finger pointing.
Fifth, it exposed the vulnerability of the UPA. Already a pale shadow of the winning team in the 15th Lok Sabha election in 2009, the government once again showed that it is incapable of handling a crisis. If indeed it had to give in finally, then why allow the movement to gain such form? The Congress party clearly underestimated the impact of Hazare’s fast, especially if we recall the disdainful manner in which the party spokesperson dismissed his intent to go on an indefinite hunger strike. What were the political managers of the Congress, which leads the coalition, thinking? All the more considering that they are in the middle of an election campaign.
Which brings us to the sixth and final point: It is disconcerting that the polity’s credibility is at such an all-time low that neither the government nor the opposition could be relied upon to defuse the crisis. The fact that some initial efforts were repelled is a strong signal to Indian polity. It is naïve to believe that we can do without politicians; but, if the politicians believe that they can take the country for granted, they are equally wrong—the Hazare moment showed that the limits of such disdain may already have been breached.
In the final analysis, it is clear that Hazare has put in place a new template for public intervention in formal politics. But the core of this argument rests on providing an alternative route for governance; something similar to citizens making up for lack of adequate drinking water supplies through private water tankers.
Further, given the ragtag nature of Hazare’s coalition and lack of a cohesive ideology, there is every reason to believe that the movement will be difficult to sustain. A better bet instead would be to work on structural reforms to fix the leaky and rickety system, making it more suitable to contemporary India.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org