It has been an eventful few weeks for the anti-corruption juggernaut in India. One of its mastheads was dealt some fauladi mukkas, another had a shoe thrown at him and yet another found some pesky travel receipts turning up in the wrong place. Now if only half this drama had taken place in Big Boss’s house, life would have been bearable.
It was inevitable that in an effort to “Kill the Bill” the powers-that-be would come after each of the agent provocateurs with pliers and blowtorch (ala “Pulp Fiction”) and that in their ranks, would be unearthed a plant like Mr. Orange of “Reservoir Dogs” (Swami Agnivesh). The strategy over the past few months, has been simple: dig till something turns up. And since none of us have lead blemishless lives, one could, given the resources available to the authorities and to the sympathetic sections of the press, always uncover something that would be embarrassing—if not spurious air-travel bills, then definitely songs on your hard-drive that you do not have receipts for.
Lest it appear so, I am not one of those who would justify or trivialize what Kiran Bedi has been accused of doing. In any corporate environment with reasonable travel policies, travelling free on accrued miles and then charging the company for it or travelling by car and charging the company airfare would lead to a severe censure at best and dismissal at worst. And no, the fact that the money went to her NGO has no bearing—politicians also claim that “donations” go to party coffers and not to their personal treasure chest. That still is corruption, plain and simple.
In the larger context though, the “personal” histories of those leading the anti-corruption movement, embarrassing and damning as they be, should not have anything to do with our perception of it, which should ideally be guided purely by what it proposes to do and how it proposes to do it.
However we do not live in an ideal world. And if today the line between the personalities behind the IAC and the goals behind IAC are being blurred, a large part of the blame should lie at the door of the IAC itself.
It all started with the viral strategy of spinning Anna Hazare into a modern-day Gandhi. In a country that loves its deities, constructing a personality cult is easy and effective. Let children sing his paeans on popular reality shows. Let camera-friendly twenty-somethings prance about with “I am Anna” on their faces. Package the whole thing, at a time when no cricket was on, as “India’s second freedom movement” so that every one could feel the exhilarating “I am a freedom fighter” rush.
This packaging however has proven to be a two-edged sword. All that the government had to do was to cut the power to the rotating halo and everything the IAC stood for would immediately be put under a cloud. It was not a difficult thing to do since Anna, who had once supported the flogging of drunkards, was obviously no Gandhi. And neither were the others Patel or Azad or even Nehru.
The essential problem is that the whole corruption struggle has been framed as “The Perfectly White” vs “The Perfectly Black” whereas in reality it is merely the “The Less Bad” vs “The Really Really Multihundred crore Bad”. (And yes, in corruption as in everything else, degree matters: picking a pocket isn’t the same as robbing a bank). If things had been done otherwise, the focus could have stayed off the personal histories of those helming the movement and stayed more on the issues. But then perhaps we wouldn’t have quite seen the mass madness we saw a few months ago.
Readers of this blog would know how skeptical I have been about the Anna movement, the personality cult at the heart of it and its “Pass this Bill now or I will shoot myself” type of political blackmail which I believe has little place in a society where avenues for democratic redress of grievances remain (which is why Ramlila Maidan was never Tahrir Square). However, of late, I have been heartened to see the IAC platform campaigning in elections, ironically a move that has been widely criticized.
This is because I believe that if the IAC truly represents a serious mass movement of empowered individuals cutting across cities and villages, unified by their determination to wipe out corruption (and this is a big “if”), then the best way for it to move forward is for it to form an apolitical front with a single point agenda: “As a candidate, pledge to get the Jan Lokpal Bill passsed if elected and regardless of your party affiliation, we will support your election efforts.” In that way, the IAC could endeavor to get their bill passed in a democratic way as opposed to the sensationalism, brinkmanship and extra-constitutionalism that has characterized much of its agitation till now. I still may not agree to its basic tenet, namely that a super-committee will solve all problems but at least I can say that if it passes, then it truly is the will of the people, regardless of whether I agree to every thing about it.
But unfortunately, having chosen to piggyback the movement on the personal credibilities of certain individuals (some would say this dependence on certain special “people” is a fundamental flaw inherent in the basic premise of the Jan Lok Pal itself), the whole IAC movement has painted itself into a corner. As the bunnies are being brought out of the hat by the gloating magician, Anna has to go into fire-fighting mode, censuring one, disowning the other and groaning about Illuminati-type “Gang of Four” conspiracies, all just to stay afloat, while those that should have been losing sleep round about now, if only because they do not want corruption to become a major election issue, are smiling to themselves— “Too easy, way too easy”.