Some television channels claim that Anna Hazare represents the overwhelming bulk of Indians. Print, cyberspace and soundings on the street suggest a more complicated picture. Liberals worry about the dangers to policy reform contained in street agitations led by men whose perfervid rhetoric undermines constitutional democracy. Dalits and backward castes see this as a reprise of the anti-Mandal agitation, led and directed by suvarna activists.
To these political reservations may be added the caution of the empirical sociologist. The population of the Delhi metropolitan area is in excess of 10 million; yet at their height, the crowds in the Ramlila Maidan have never exceeded 50,000. In May 1998, 400,000 residents of Calcutta marched in protest against the Pokhran blasts. No one then said that ‘India stands against Nuclear Bombs’. Now, however, as television cameras endlessly show the same scenes at the same place, we are told that ‘India is for Anna’.
This said, it would be unwise to dismiss the resonance or social impact of the campaign led by Anna Hazare. It comes on the back of a series of scandals promoted by the present United Progressive Alliance government — Commonwealth Games, 2G, Adarsh, et al. The media coverage of these scandals, over the past year and more, has led to a sense of disgust against this government in particular, and (what is more worrying) against the idea of government in general. It is this moment, this mood, this anger and this sense of betrayal, that Anna Hazare has ridden on. Hence the transformation of a previously obscure man from rural Maharashtra into a figure of — even if fleetingly — national importance.
The success of Anna Hazare is explained in large part by the character of those he opposes. He appears to be everything the prime minister and his ministers are not — courageous, independent-minded, willing to stake his life for a principle. In an otherwise sceptical piece — which, among other things, calls Anna Hazare a “moral tyrant” presiding over a “comical anti-corruption opera”— the columnist C.P. Surendran writes that “a party that can’t argue its case against a retired army truck driver whose only strength really is a kind of stolid integrity and a talent for skipping meals doesn’t deserve to be in power”. These two strengths — honesty and the willingness to eschew food, and by extension, the material life altogether — shine in comparison with the dishonest and grasping men on the other side.
Large swathes of the middle class have thus embraced Anna Hazare out of disgust with Manmohan Singh’s government. That said, one must caution against an excessive identification with Anna Hazare. Hazare is a good man, perhaps even a saintly man. But his understanding remains that of a village patriarch.
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