Agitational politics had always been a legitimate way to protest against government policies or their absence.
As Anna Hazare’s fast entered its fourth day (at the time of writing this article), the dwindling crowd of not more than 1,500-2,000 at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan was a pale reflection of the previous “anti-corruption” movement he had led in 2011. This time, his demands aren’t just implementation of the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act 2013, but also includes farmers’ distress and electoral reforms. Going by newspaper reports, he is already showing signs of relenting when Maharashtra minister Girish Mahajan paid him a visit and showed him a video of Union finance minister Arun Jaitley’s speech saying the Centre was making efforts to end the agrarian crisis. Anna reportedly seemed convinced, only demanding that the Centre give its assurance in writing. The reports did not say anything either about appointing a Lokpal or about the use of ballot papers as Mr Hazare had demanded.
It’s a far cry from 2011 when even after several rounds of meetings with senior UPA Cabinet ministers Anna was not easily convinced that for enacting legislation, the opinion of legitimately-elected representatives of the people through an electoral process could not be ignored and sacrificed at the altar of “popular” demands as advocated by him and his former colleagues pushing for acceptance of their version of the Jan Lokpal Bill. But perhaps the most significant fallout of the 2011 movement was not the enactment of the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act, but the emergence of a new political party from a self-proclaimed non-political movement, and the subsequent absorption of many of the faces of the movement into the current ruling party, the BJP. Some of the leaders of the movement who made fun of politicians and political parties went on to become state chief ministers, Central ministers or in one case a lieutenant-governor appointed by the current government. In order to ensure that his protest was not used as a platform to launch political careers, Anna had asked the participants in the current protest to sign affidavits stating that they would not join political parties or contest elections.
At the same Ramlila Maidan where Anna is holding his agitation now, a highly revered personality of his time, Jayaprakash Narayan, gave a thunderous call for “Total Revolution” in 1975, asking the police and the military to disobey the government led by Mrs Indira Gandhi. What followed is too well known to bear repetition here. Though JP was beyond any party politics by then, his political experience, suaveness and revered personality kept him at the centre of the anti-Indira agitation. In 1977, when the Emergency was withdrawn and elections declared, the Janata Dal was formed under his guidance and went on to defeat the Congress and to form the first non-Congress government at the Centre. The current crop of Bihar leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar were all associated as student leaders in JP’s movement.
Unlike JP, Anna was not political, and perhaps unwittingly allowed his platform to be used for the furthering of political ambitions by people who led the movement. There is no doubt that he benefited from the leadership and organisational skills of Arvind Kejriwal and others who turned the agitation into a massive public spectacle attended and supported by celebrities, the general public and reportedly by the RSS as well.
The “India Against Corruption” agitation in 2011 found huge support from the urban middle class, who had increasingly wanted to have a share of the political pie, and was making its presence felt through the politics of activism. The educated urban population could find resonance with the anti-corruption cause; and their desire to have a voice in contemporary politics reflected in the massive electoral success of newly-formed Aam Aadmi Party in 2013, followed by even a greater victory in the 2015 Delhi Assembly polls. But Mr Kejriwal’s subsequent defeats in elections held outside Delhi showed that rants of anti-corruption and mere rhetoric of “alternative politics” are perhaps not sufficient to win elections.
Agitational politics had always been a legitimate way to protest against government policies or their absence. The past year saw thousands of farmers and farm labourers agitate across India protesting against the Narendra Modi government’s indifference to farmers’ plight. Faced with increasing production costs, droughts and falling incomes, the farmers are demanding debt relief, better prices and effective insurance schemes against crop failures. Though Anna’s taking up farmers’ causes did not have much impact in Delhi, various peasant organisations across the country are continuing with their protests against the insensitive Central government.
People’s movements are nothing new in India. Besides numerous political agitations, there have been social movements centered on various causes that attracted public participation in large numbers, forcing governments to change, amend and retract decisions in favour of the movement. In the 1970s, a proposed hydroelectric project that would have destroyed a large area of pristine forest in the now famous Silent Valley in Kerala’s Palakkad district was shelved after an effective and sustained people’s movement and protests by local NGOs. The Chipko movement was another popular movement to save trees, again in the 1970s, led by Sunderlal Bahuguna. Women were major participants and the driving force in the movement, educating people about the perilous effects of deforestation. The horrific Nirbhaya rape in New Delhi in December 2012, that shook the collective conscience of the nation and brought issues like violence and crimes against women into the forefront of public discourse, had led to huge and spontaneous protests by students, activists and ordinary citizens. As a result of such mass protests, the government set up the Justice Verma Committee and as per its recommendations amended the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013.
The politics of activism, the involvement of civil society and the participation of citizens in movements influencing, or attempting to influence, government policies are healthy elements of democracy. Through agitation or peaceful demonstrations, planned or spontaneous movements; the participation of pressure groups, concerned citizens, social activists and NGOs through the politics of confrontation and consultation can only make our democratic institutions stronger and more vibrant.