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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Anna’s fast leads to panic in the Congress

By Swapan Dasgupta

Reflecting on events 37 years ago, I must confess that my youthful support for the Jayaprakash Narayan's movement was based on perverse considerations: more than I agreed with Total Revolution, I despised those who opposed JP. These included: an insufferably arrogant Congress establishment which believed it was destined to rule forever; a smug clique of "progressive" politicians and academics who imagined they ruled India through the reflected glory of Moscow; and a flotsam and jetsam of babus and journalists who just wanted to play safe. The shrill charges of being CIA dalals, fascists and disruptionists levelled against the JP movement by this unwholesome bunch proved sufficient to transform my neutrality into support for JP.

It is remarkable how eerily history has repeated itself. Anna Hazare's fast resulted in a spectacular outpouring of public support for an unrelenting war on corruption. Although the fast was ostensibly to press for the inclusion of 'civil society' activists in the committee to draft a more meaningful Lokpal Bill, it was reflective of the larger disquiet against the government's complicity and lack of seriousness in fighting corruption.

But there was a larger and unstated feature of the public support for Anna. What the country witnessed last week was a middle class revolt in which social networking played a significant. Electorally, the middle class anger against the Congress and the UPA Government may not prove decisive. The ruling coalition, for example, still believes its support in rural India is intact thanks to the large number of state-funded welfare schemes.

The belief that anti-corruption is essentially a middle-class issue which carries diminishing electoral returns (because the middle classes don't vote in sufficiently large numbers) isn't a scientific rule; it is merely a working assumption. Ignoring middle class sentiment constitutes an enormous political risk. What tilted the balance towards the UPA in 2009 wasn't a rural sweep but its ability to carry urban India. Particularly relevant was the image of decency and progress associated with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The PM captured the essence of middle class aspirations far more successfully than did the BJP. This was quite a contrast to the 1990s when an emerging BJP encapsulated the feelings of Middle India, not least the young.

The significance of last week's excitement over Anna's fast lies in the formal withdrawal of middle class support from the Congress and Singh. The enthusiasm for a new icon was directly connected with the disappointment with a PM in whom so much faith was reposed. The PM was shown to be a man of straw and the middle classes have rejected him unequivocally. It is striking how little those who backed Anna with an infectious enthusiasm were moved by arguments that the sovereignty of Parliament was being undermined and that India was witnessing the tyranny of the non-elected.

It is not that the misgivings over the exaggerated self-righteousness of some of Anna's chief backers lack any basis. The likes of Swami Agnivesh, Medha Patkar and Prashant Bhushan have often conveyed the impression of being activists in search of causes to latch on to. Their presence doesn't enhance the quality of any movement, especially not a rooted, middle class stir. However, what is also relevant is the credibility of those levelling charges against the wild, anarchist streak in Anna.

In politics, timing is everything. The Congress has conceded most of Anna's demands, much to the discomfiture of Kapil Sibal who, as is his wont, overstated the extent of the Government's contempt for hare-brained, utopian schemes. In doing so—apparently a result of the PM and Sonia Gandhi's magnanimity—it hasn't been able to dispel the impression that it has grudgingly bowed to fierce public pressure. The Government was desperate to move national attention away from Anna's fast because it was fearful of its impact in the Assembly elections. It had to either subvert the movement from within or concede defeat. It is interesting that until last Friday afternoon, the endeavour was to fuel internal rivalries and pit the fractious NGO activists against one another—an exercise that also involved the intelligence agencies. The stubbornness of Anna prevented this from happening and by Friday evening the Government decided to concede this battle in the interests of a larger war that will be fought out in the committee rooms.

For the UPA, being upstaged by a 71-year-old Maharashtra rustic with no deep knowledge of the byways of national politics was a bitter experience. One of Sonia Gandhi's more astute moves after 2004 was in creating the National Advisory Committee as a Praetorian Guard in 'civil society'. The co-opted activists have played a valuable role in channelling youthful idealism in a safe, political direction. The NAC activists were particularly useful in managing the English-language and media discourse, conferring respectability to the dynasty and painting the other side as forces of darkness.

By refusing to be tamed, by widening the orbit of anti-corruption activism to the likes of Baba Ramdev and by incorporating nationalist symbolism (Bharat Mata and Vande Matatarm), Anna has managed to effect a separation of 'civil society' from a decrepit and failing government. Hence the intense nervousness in Lutynens' Delhi that is reminiscent of the panic in 1974-75. The future depends on how well he succeeds in pushing through the process.

http://www.dailypioneer.com/330633/Anna%E2%80%99s-fast-leads-to-panic-in-Congress.html Sunday Pioneer, April 10, 2011

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