Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore)
At the height of the Anna Hazare-led movement demanding the setting up of Lok Pal between during April-August 2011, the common perception among ordinary Congress members was that the arch-protester from Maharashtra has been put up by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to sabotage the prospects of the then Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi emerging as a national leader. The argument, with its overloaded conspiratorial innuendoes, was that the Hazare agitation was drawing thousands of youth, and thus weaning them away from the Congress’ youth icon.
One of the interesting aspects of the Lok Pal agitation of 2011 which sealed the fate of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was that young people, especially in Delhi and Bengaluru, became political participants by default. They were hip, they were college-educated and many of them were working in the private sector. Ever since the 1991 economic liberalisation, young people, it seemed, had become more apolitical than ever. And suddenly, Hazare seemed to have drawn them back into the political whirlpool.
Behind the apparent romanticism of youth participation was the organisation skill of India Against Corruption (IAC), whose leader was Arvind Kejriwal. The IAC had used the social media most effectively for political crowd-sourcing. Hazare was of course not the man who could have created an organisation like the IAC nor was he capable of drawing in the hip urban youth and angry middle class professionals. That was the job done by Kejriwal and his IAC.
But without Hazare at the centre of it all, it would not have been possible to get the kind of political and media mileage that only the man from Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra could pull. It is the charisma of Hazare, which is quite puzzling because he is neither a great orator nor was he a man of ideas that brought in the people. He is not highly educated, he did not know English, and he was fanatical in his simplicity. What amazed people was his moral rage against corruption and his fearless bid to bring it before the people through protest and fast. He had initially won recognition when he took a position against two of the ministers in the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) coalition government. It is still not recorded as to how he got involved in the demand for Lok Pal.
He was, however, a thorough grassroots man, deeply involved in improving rural life through fighting poverty and ignorance. There was a moral edge to his rural development work. He opposed alcoholism in a harsh manner that would make liberals wince. The most cited instance is that of flogging some villagers for their drunkenness, which he justified saying that he did it for the good of the families of those individuals. He went about his work with Gandhian thoroughness and achieved dramatic results in Ralegan Siddhi and the surrounding villages in terms of schools, irrigation and crop rotation. He was an exemplary achiever in terms of social work. He was content to do his work only in the village he was living, the mark of a dedicated reformer.
And all this was done and achieved away from media glare and clamour of the urban centres. Nor did he go out to advertise his achievements. Perhaps it was this fierce simplicity that has created the mystique around him. There was also the self-assurance in him that he was walking the moral path, and what he was doing was for the good of others. He might be a small man from the heart of rural hinterland, but he had immense self-confidence which translated into self-righteousness and even arrogance.
There is a reason behind this burning moral fervour in Hazare. It was his brush with death while serving as a truck driver in the Indian Army during the India-Pakistan War of 1965 that was the catalyst for the transformation of the poverty-stricken man. He would have remained a faceless army truck driver if this inner experience had not occurred. His encounter with death made him aware that he cannot waste away his life and that he has a mission in life. It was a moral mission of changing people’s lives for the better in the moral sense. It became a religious mission for him.
What drew people like Kejriwal to Hazare was this moral-religious aspect. The little man in his simple farmer’s attire stood like a moral giant. In an interview with this writer in October 2011 by-election in Hisar, Haryana, Kejriwal said that there was something spiritual about Hazare and implied that it was this spirituality that drew him to the man.
Hazare is the arch-dissenter who would stubbornly pursue his goal. He would direct his anger against the wrong-doers in high places and in public life. In a way, he was hunting big game. And people believed that he is doing it for the good of the country because he was not looking for any political advantage or benefit from his public fights. He was the man who had renounced power in the true Gandhian sense. He was incorruptible despite the fact that he faced the charge of corruption from the political quarter.
It is partly true that Narendra Modi worked his rhetorical power on the electorate, especially the young and the poor, in the Lok Sabha election of 2014. But the man who really weakened the Congress and battered the image of its leaders was Hazare. It would indeed be a matter of speculation as to how many seats the Modi-led BJP would have won without the anti-Congress ballast provided by Hazare’s Lok Pal agitation of 2011. He had an important, indirect role to play in Modi’s triumph, which the BJP would not want to acknowledge.
Not a Sanghi
Congress speculation about Hazare being an RSS prop remains a speculation as well. It cannot be proved that he was put up by the RSS. The reason that Hazare emerged when the Congress was in power and created a political storm over corruption and literally forced the government’s hand in passing the Lok Pal bill, though it was not the bill that was drafted by the IAC, was because people responded to his call and he touched on an issue about which people at large felt strongly about. It has to be conceded that Hazare was not just a popular protester but he was a successful one as well.
While Kejriwal along with Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav had converted the Lok Pal agitation momentum to create the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Hazare went back to his village of Ralegan Siddhi in true Gandhian fashion. He scorned power as it were. He created a huge furore when in answer to a question at the Press Club of India interaction with journalists at the time he said when asked as to why he did not join politics and fight the battle by contesting the elections and defeating the corrupt politicians, he famously or infamously declared that he had no faith in the electoral processes. It seemed to confirm many people’s misgiving about his being a puritanical dictator who resented democracy. He had also expressed disappointment about the formation of AAP.
Hazare the protestor is getting back into action. He is taking up cudgels against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for its failure to do something for distressed farmers and for Jan Lokpal. He said that his new agitation will not allow Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to be part of the protest and take advantage of it. He said that he had demanded a Rs 100 affidavit from people that they will not support any ideology or political party.
In 2011, protestor Hazare was fighting only the Congress. In 2018 he will be fighting Prime Minister Modi and his BJP and keeping out Kejriwal and his supporters, including AAP. The question is sure to prop up whether he will succeed against a tough Modi the way he did against a mild Manmohan Singh, who was prime minister in 2011. Congress was stumped by Hazare’s Jan Lokpal agitation, and it catapulted. PM Modi and the BJP are not soft targets like Singh and Congress. Hazare is surely going to hit a roadblock. Or he may galvanise those unhappy people who are dissatisfied with the Modi government, something that the opposition parties in parliament and outside failed to do.
Whether Hazare succeeds against Modi the way he did against Singh is not the issue. He is showing himself to be the arch-dissident, who will cross swords with any leader and with any party and with any government over issues that matter to the people. This time round he is not raising the issue of corruption and that is significant in itself. Farmers’ distress is indeed a burning issue but whether it will force the government to concede his demands remains to be seen.
He also seems undeterred whether his agitation will get the same attention he got in 2011. Seven years ago, the media was behind Hazare. It may not take note of his agitation this time round because the media is positively disposed towards the Modi government. There was a strong anti-politician sentiment in 2011 and that is not present in 2018. Hazare’s fight against politicians is sure to hit a roadblock this time.
Hazare is a patient man. He is not looking for instant publicity or instant success. He has made up his mind that he has to fight the government because it is not doing the right thing. It is this focus on the issue at hand and not on the prospects of success that makes Hazare a different kind of a protestor. He is not lobbying for position or for any other favour.
The BJP has not been favourable to Hazare as it was to Baba Ramdev. Even in 2011, the BJP backed Ramdev’s agitation for bringing back black money stashed in foreign banks and kept away from the Hazare agitation for the Jan Lokpal.
Despite his desire and claims to keep himself away from political parties and ideologies, Hazare had indirectly facilitated the birth of AAP and in a way he strengthened the image of Congress-led UPA of prime minister Manmohan Singh as a corrupt regime and that helped the success of BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. He had proved to be a rare political catalyst on the national scene in 2011. He may not this time round. But that does not affect Hazare’s mission to fight social evils. He remains the arch-dissenter.
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