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Born Again Patriot - An anti-corruption movement and the rise of illiberalism

by Kanti Bajpai, 26 August 2011

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The Telegraph, 25 August 2011

- An anti-corruption movement and the rise of illiberalism

Kanti Bajpai

The Anna Hazare agitation is showing signs of becoming a political and social monster. There are several disturbing elements already in evidence, perhaps more disturbing than the awfulness of corruption. Whatever one thinks of the anti-corruption bill drafted by the government, the agitation, by the day, is growing scarier. There is a combustible mix here of hero worship, cult propagation, populist absolutism and irrational exuberance, mass hysteria, de-politicization, militarization, and, increasingly, signs that religion and agitation politics are being intermeshed.

First of all, and most palpable, is the cult of Anna Hazare. The media and those appearing on television, in particular on 24-hour news channels, are breathlessly elevating a rather obscure Gandhian into a Saviour who can do no wrong. Children, old women, teachers, students, doctors, lawyers, even officials, who know little or nothing about Anna, are dedicating themselves to the Leader. There are people fasting who say they will seek “direction” from Anna and only call off their fasts when told to do so by him. The Anna cult has just begun. Rumour, gossip, popular stories and anecdotes about his life and work, and the relentless campaign by adulatory media are deepening the cult around him. I doubt that it is possible to say anything sceptical or critical about Anna Hazare in the vicinity of the protests. This is the surest sign of cult propagation. The fourth estate, which is supposed to be the voice of scepticism in a society, has forgotten its true purpose and is embarrassing itself by fostering the hero-worship developing around him.

Secondly, we are seeing the rise of populist absolutism and irrational exuberance on a large scale. Team Anna has rejected the government’s anti-corruption bill, has insisted that its jan lok pal bill must be presented in Parliament, and has largely ignored all other efforts at writing an anti-corruption bill. If corruption is the issue, there are various ways of thinking about controlling it. There are existing institutions and laws, and there are the proposals made by other civil society groups. Team Anna has more or less ignored all these alternatives. Apparently, there is only one Way. Person after person interviewed on TV declares that they have seen the light, the Anna light, and there is only one Way for them. A former civil servant, from the Indian Administrative Service no less, declared on a major channel that Parliament was corrupt and irrelevant, and so the agitation would now demand a referendum on this and other issues. Elections, representative institutions, all government ministries and departments were beside the point: only the People and the Crowd had the right to decide matters. With the passage of the jan lok pal bill, corruption would be eradicated, and a new India would be born. Watching the exuberance of those who think that a magic wand will make India and Indians good and pure, one almost longs for the dogged, monotonous, legalistic, mumblings of the prime minister.

This irrational exuberance about a utopian future which is seemingly just around the corner is increasingly being manifested in, or being matched by, social hysteria. For over a week now, we have been witness to scenes of thousands of people, mostly young, predominantly from the urban, educated middle classes, shouting, chanting, celebrating, haranguing, eyes wide and wild, dedicating their time and their bodies to the Cause, talking the language of Sacrifice for the Nation, disclosing that they have woken from their inertia and sleep to a new reality. Many look physically and emotionally charged. The experience of being in a crowd, for several days without a break, is both energizing them and seemingly exhausting them. They are in a highly suggestible state psychologically, therefore, and could behave as crowds often can, with great intolerance and with a longing to submerge themselves in the gathering and submit themselves to the wishes of the Leader.

In this crowd, the air is thick with de-politicization. There are those who sincerely think that they are engaged in a highly political struggle. At a certain level, they are. Anyone making collective demands on the political system is engaged in a political struggle. However, politics is more than this. It is a complex, messy, and continuous activity. The Anna agitation, on the other hand, emphasizes the opposite: “real”, “honest” politics is about simplicity, clarity, and great bursts of involvement. There is corruption, it is an evil, and it must be wiped out. It is possible to wipe it out, if everyone just had the determination to do so. How is it to be done? Draft a strong anti-corruption bill, with no loopholes, and create an institution that cannot be corrupted and that cannot be stopped by anyone. This will ensure that everyone is disciplined and honest, from the prime minister to the peon. Once the bill is passed and the anti-corruption institution created and manned, India can get on with everyday political life which is mundane and tedious and which only politicians, poor things, get excited about.

The last few days have seen, in addition, a militarization of the agitation. It is not militarization in the sense of violence, or at least not yet. It is militarized, though, in its vocabulary, with calls to give one’s life to the cause, to fight until the end, to wipe out and destroy corruption, to win a great victory, to bring the government to its knees in surrender, to get unconditional acceptance of its demands. This is the language associated with war and the military. A prominent English-language news channel has for several days presented short, evocative portraits of retired Indian soldiers. These soldiers, to a man, endorse Anna Hazare and the agitation, and do so in emotional and colourful language. With each passing day, we are being assailed by messages of Patriotism, as if only Team Anna, the crowds supporting Anna, and these soldiers qualify as patriots.

Finally, there is the increasing intermixing of religion and the agitation. The first phase of the agitation, before the lok pal bill, saw Anna sitting in front of the image of a Hindu goddess superimposed on the map of India. Anna was joined on the dais by Baba Ramdev. He is now apparently supported by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Swami Agnivesh. Even as Anna fasts at Ramlila Maidan, the spiritual leader, Bhayyuji Maharaj, has offered to mediate with the government. Supporters shout Hindu religious slogans. From the dais, members of Team Anna have led the crowd in the Hindu devotional song, “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram”. Suggestions that Anna Hazare has been associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have not gone away. His praise of Narendra Modi, one of the most rightwing leaders in India, is also troubling and is not easily forgotten.

When we encounter people who invoke stirring images of the Saviour, the Leader, the Way, the Cause, the Nation, Sacrifice and Patriotism in highly charged times, we should worry. When we hear impatient calls for an end to Politics, when we witness religious or spiritual leaders come to the fore of the political stage, and when we hear the militarized language of victory and surrender in teeming crowds, we should fear for the future.

The author teaches international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

P.S.

The above article from The Telegraph is reproduced here for educational purposes and is for non commercial use