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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 41, October 1, 2011

The Unforeseen Catalyst for Change

Wednesday 5 October 2011, by Uttam Sen

There are many conflicting versions of Anna Hazare and his movement that will endure. But not the least, the vision of exotic steamrolling that emerged out of Arundhuti Roy’s conver-sation with CNN-IBN’s Sagarika Ghosh. Whether true or untrue, real or fanciful, the agenda of a social network-media-spearheaded urban revolution clearing the decks for the penetration of foreign capital was intimidating (somewhat obliquely conveyed by the reference to the World Bank programmes in Africa where it had appa-rently blessed anti-corruption campaigns in 60-odd countries with a view to entering and gaining the dominant marketshare). The phantasmagoria could be sustained by billions of dollars being made in hassle-free corporate transactions, which did not concern the law (as it was envisaged), while the middle and the lower classes, and those beyond the pale, were smeared by sleaze in small-time exchange (that could become currency for scrutiny with draconian post-Anna Hazare movement legislation). The obverse could be found in nit-picking examination, with conceivably malafide intent, of the crusaders’ own credentials. There was also the over-kill of “native cunning”, stimulated by insecurity and greed, trying to break off an experiential stranglehold and occasionally finding comeup-pance in the uncovering of scams. The cycle seemingly finished with an open-door prospect for the external corporate. But by definition that was also the starting point of a process that continuously repeated itself, namely, privatisation of a sector (telecom) without which the alleged 2G spectrum swindle would have been a non-starter.

The point to ponder is how well the common man is served by the process of information, debate and political action, the last a manifestation of his own endeavours, not just for fulfilment, but of meeting the extreme and drastic condition of imperilled survival. The common knowledge is that the minutiae of the Jan Lokpal Bill eluded him. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that in recent times he has been forced out of the woodwork. Anna Hazare was his/her represen-tation on an all-India platform, Mamata Banerjee or Rahul Gandhi was that symbol in Nandigram, Singur or Niyamgiri, Medha Patkar depicted the displaced poor of the Narmada Valley, Aruna Roy the workers and peasants of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Devdungri village of Rajasamand district of Rajasthan, Arundhuti Roy the exploited tribal backwaters; politically unfashionable names stood up for common people in nooks and corners across the land, perhaps even in the Ramlila Maidan, with food and water in times of need. A self-effacing bureaucrat designed the emancipation of the sharecropper in West Bengal and read out the riot act to an errant politician-bureaucrat-industrialist hook-up. Spontaneous Good Samaritans appeared in Mumbai and its suburbs during the floods of 2005, with or without political labels. Together they aggregated a formidable rally for popular rights—and on occasions, their acquisition. At others they delivered essentials at the scene of action. But apart, they were victims of circumstance.

In present-day pluralism, which also typifies the economic co-existence of the rich and poor, the stakes of the democratic enterprise are considered to be open. Till the other day the poor were to be expressly looked after but even following the avowed withdrawal of the state, the government remains their caretaker in principle. The axiomatic importance of the rich is no longer questioned. What most people know is that wealth-creation is an unflagging bottomline. The middle class (“the game-changers of the future”) is on the global radar. The very difficult preoccupation of balancing the two principles of equity and growth informs governance, and consequently discourse. Public policy dilemmas can be genuinely acute. A distinguished intelligentsia is expected to decipher the plain text of the human condition from the code of conflicting socio-economic signals. By and large it does the job well. But the trouble begins with the assumption of the high ground and stereo-typing that accentuates rather than depreciates divisions.

It does not overly help either the common man or the upwardly mobile corporate to be reminded that they are mutually exclusive or on collision course, when in reality (often glossed over) disparate roles are interchangeable, however unusual the configurations: a native of the Maharashtrian heartland as the icon of a national urban movement, leaders of a national bourgeois liberal party as the custodians of landless peasant rights, an IIM graduate as the voice of oustees from the big-dams-for-development project, to name a few. Discourse on an impending global corporate takeover is impressive (though a little closed at one end without the unforeseen variables). Resentment of the price rise and its constant rationalisation are areas of common distress, though both the intelligentsia and the Left are being rapidly outpaced on their expression by an irate aam janata. Quotidian pinpricks include the backwash of the mass delivery of goods and services, for example, the impersonality of automated operations, the ineptitude of random, chaotic call centres and the outright arbitrariness of enforced selling through persuasion, even manipulation. Generic supply-side optimism is not unravelling too well on the ground where real life is denominated by crippling contradic-tions. People are nevertheless grateful for being kept in the loop that contains a bemusing paradox: both victim and culprit sprang from roughly the same stock in town and country that supported the Anna Hazare movement. The overweeningly desirous have to guard against socio-economic hara-kiri! On their part, interlocutors familiar with emphatic Western declarations of ethics and values in business with India need to convey the facts of the Indian existence to their principals.

FOR the record, the moral deficit in failing to feed and clothe a substantial number of compatriots is often past some aspirants because that knowledge was seldom part of their skill-kit. Curiously, nothing is heard about setting the record straight! The observant and the sensitive would by nature update their infor-mation. They could be genuinely at sea, like most of us, on the degree to which overall economic security can be traded off with modern technology and finance. The choice does not appear in black and white when the pressures of competition and/or survival are paramount. Day-to-day economic and political crises raise questions mostly confined to the subliminal consciousness. The scrimmage required to bring them to the main focus of attention could have been provided by the uncertainty leading to the protests.

But there was also the proverbial break in the clouds. For the most part Anna Hazare survived as a simple, genuine representative of a multi-dimensional polity and society despite the many provocations (it was touching to hear him say during his fast that forbearance was a cardinal principle); the seer of Ralegaon Siddhi had, withal, stressed rural renewal, the foundation of the holistic approach to reform. He had said at the outset that the movement would be a catalyst for change and cleansing rather than the substance itself; a higher consciousness has indisputably transpired in addition to all the foregoing because of the unremitting efforts of the media led in sheer quantitative terms by a particular television anchor whose name tended to become (tongue-in-cheek?) the alias for the movement itself (the Arnab Spring). To imagine that the audience swallowed every word uttered under the out-and-out physical and mental pressure of the moment would be ingenuous. Resilience has indeed put the public wise to the perils of a legal straitjacket in the name of reform that would set the clock back even further. But would not the greater political perception which the movement fostered, whether directly or indirectly, create the accountability to nip in the bud the vicious cycle that bred corruption and in the final analysis threatened the nation? If Anna Hazare could be taken at his word, that was precisely what he had in mind.

In the trail of tough policies, graft has become an existential marker. The collective celebration of the venture to improve the shared condition was foretold from the invitation by a Pakistani delegation to its leader to visit their beleaguered country to the longing of Chinese bloggers for an economic cleanser of their own. But as in the analogy, the substance that increases the rate of reaction must not itself change character to become predictably bootless! Graft of another kind (unity) can elevate change for the worse to transformation for the better.

The potential of regeneration through a convergence (rather than any individual or isolated departure) of actions was clearly apparent when the Right to Information led to the exposure of a Ministerial note concerning the sale of 2G spectrum (though there were admittedly other factors at play). State, society and their common organisations must also operate, if necessary with counter-intuitive rigour, to disseminate information, nail misdemeanour and administer justice. In the sum of the whole, each of the individual parts have meaning on their own, for example, of immediate insights, though taken together the connotation may change, making the whole greater than its parts. The Anna Hazare movement, warts and all, added up as the unexpected accelerator of events as well.

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