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Friday , August 19 , 2011
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- With Anna Hazare, the government dialled a wrong number

Among my most enduring memories of the Emergency — which, mercifully, I experienced fleetingly, being overseas for most of the time — was an overheard conversation between two ‘progressive’ faculty members of Delhi University in early July, 1975. One of the two gleefully told the other of the strange shortage of teachers in the Sanskrit department. “Most of them have been arrested,” he chuckled. There was neither outrage nor fear in his voice, just a puerile delight.

The subtext of his happiness was clear to those of us familiar with the university. The Sanskrit department, or so the stereotype went, was dominated by ‘Jana Sanghis’ and ‘chaddiwallas’ (the pejorative colloquialism for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh members) and, as such, was unworthy of sympathy, never mind solidarity. In those fear-filled days, there were two ends of the university. At the privileged pole stood the ‘progressives’ — Congress activists, Communist Party of India members and ‘friends of the Soviet Union’ — and at the other end were the outcasts — those associated with what the ‘progressives’ dubbed rightwing, communal and casteist (read Lohia-ite) parties.

According to the ‘progressive’ version of history, faithfully narrated by India’s most prominent textbook historian, it was the desperation of the conservative, communal and casteist forces to “oust Indira Gandhi from power even if the legitimacy of the parliamentary process and the party system was put into jeopardy” that forced the Emergency. As the CPI cheerleaders said in justification, circumstances demanded “a spirit of unity and urgency to inflict a decisive defeat on the forces of fascism and counter-revolution”. Since the Emergency was ostensibly imposed to save democracy from its enemies, it naturally followed that there was one place for Sanskrit-spouting enemies of constitutional government: jail.

The dramatic events in Delhi over the past few days, particularly the prime minister’s statement that the powers and sanctity of Parliament couldn’t be outsourced to the rabble on the streets, are eerily reminiscent of the misplaced constitutionalism that led to the derailment of democracy 36 years ago. At that time too, it was a battle against corruption and arbitrariness that came to be viewed as a challenge to democracy and the parliamentary process. In terms of mobilization, the Jayaprakash Narayan-led movement’s ability to get people out on the streets far exceeded the show of solidarity with Anna Hazare. On March 6, 1975, for example, JP led an eight-kilometre-long march to Parliament with a charter of demands that included the immediate dismissal of the state governments in Bihar and Gujarat.

However, despite the apparent similarities, it is facile to suggest that the Manmohan Singh government’s approach to the Anna Hazare-led crusade against corruption has produced an “Emergency-like” situation. There are important differences.

For a start, unlike Anna’s campaign, which rests on spontaneity, media support and the endorsement of Magsaysay award winners, the JP movement was far more organized and involved the active participation of nearly all the non-Communist Opposition parties and their affiliated student wings. JP played the role of a symbolic leader but the activists were invariably attached to political parties. Many of today’s non-Congress politicians, from Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar to Arun Jaitley and Narendra Modi, cut their political teeth in the JP movement.

In 1974-75, when the reach of the print media was fragmented and limited and the electronic media spewed government propaganda, the reliance on established political networks was understandably greater than it is now. The Anna movement has consciously chosen to bypass the networks of political parties. This is partly because of the perception that the entire political class is the problem and partly because the so-called Team Anna is fearful of being eclipsed by politicians who are more accomplished in the extra-parliamentary game.

The detachment from organized politics has conferred a halo of moral superiority on Anna and given many television channels a reason for extending support to an ostensibly trans-political (at times anti-political) initiative. However, it has paid a price for this exaggerated sense of virtuousness. The social depth of the Anna movement is limited: geographically it is confined to metros and the bigger towns and socially it appeals mostly to students, the retired and the small businessmen.

In another age, a movement centred on the frustrations of those who came of age with the post-1991 liberalization would have worried a government but not triggered a panic. Compared to tremors caused by the Ayodhya movement and the Mandal agitation, Anna’s movement resembles a good-natured street festival. It is a commentary on both the political ineptitude and the inherent fragility of the United Progressive Alliance government that it was so thoroughly unsettled by Anna that the prime minister had to take cover behind a mythical operational autonomy of the Delhi police chief.

It was the ‘Emergency mindset’ which initiated the series of miscalculations. Emboldened by its success in out-manoeuvring Baba Ramdev with duplicity and repression, the government felt that the process could be repeated with Anna. The calculated manner in which the negotiations with Anna and his infuriatingly sanctimonious team was allowed to meander into irrelevance and the shrill campaign of character assassination that followed provided clear indications of a brewing confrontation. Had the government confined the clash to a war of words, it is entirely possible that the Anna campaign would have made injudicious utterances and ended up pitting their stage army of the good against a united political class.

The ‘Emergency mindset’ led to the government converting an innocuous battle over an abstruse piece of legislation into widespread outrage over its scant respect for democratic rights. That high-handedness was also in evidence during the post-midnight police action against Ramdev’s followers two months ago. But the government got away relatively unscathed from that encounter partly because Ramdev made an ass of himself by trying to evade arrest by dressing up in women’s clothes and partly because media attitudes were shaped by modernist derision for a practitioner of yoga and herbal remedies. With Anna, however, the government dialled a wrong number.

First, the pre-emptive morning arrest of Anna coupled with his peremptory despatch to Tihar jail where the great symbols of corruption and venality are lodged were seen not merely as unfair but an attempt to mock an elderly man who had the country’s best interests at heart. It was the unfairness and the undemocratic response of the government that provoked outrage. Secondly, the government erred grievously in underestimating the obstinacy of a Gandhian. Anna, it would seem, has imbibed a sense of politics from his inspiration. Like Gandhi, his response to the government combined steely righteous determination with a clever sense of symbolism. His decision to decide the timing of his own release from Tihar was a masterstroke that left an already disoriented government completely flummoxed. After 24 hours of pleading with Anna to leave prison, the government surrendered unconditionally and accepted all his demands. Anna was not merely a winner but the government, including the prime minister, was shown up to be disingenuous and duplicitous.

The surrender in Tihar exposed the fragility of the government and made it look ridiculous. At the same time, quite intentionally, Manmohan Singh punctured the self-serving alarmism about an impending Emergency-type crackdown on civil rights. The Emergency was the contribution of a strong leader determined to prevail at all costs. Today, the political authority of the government has been further eroded by a non-functioning dyarchy comprising a plasticine prime minister and a ‘youth icon’ whose role has been taken by a 73-year-old Gandhian. An internal Emergency today is as likely as Don Quixote playing Stalin.

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