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Mainstream, VOL L, No 37, September 1, 2012

Satyagraha and Political Power

Sunday 2 September 2012, by Era Sezhiyan

On August 2, 2012, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer and several other eminent citizens made a statement calling upon Anna Hazare and his associates to end fasting and “focus their energies on creating an alternative political force that is democratic, accountable, ethical and non-violent and capable of leading an electoral revolution to democratise and decentralise power and make the power structures of the country more accou-ntable to the people”.

Accepting the sober advice of Justice Krishna Iyer and others, Hazare decided to end the fast. Before ending the fast on August 3, the Hazare Team announced that “they are forming a political party which will contest the elections”. After announcing the political agenda, Arvind Kejriwal asked the gathering: “You will name our party” which gave the impression that the Team had determined to form a political party.

Hazare told his supporters at Jantar Mantar: “It is time for us to think of an alternative. We want a political alternative. But I will not launch or join a party. People should decide who should be given tickets and how to achieve that alternative system.”

He ruminated: “How are candidates to be selected to ensure that honest and clean people enter Parliament? I agree with people that there should be a political alternative. It should be a secular alternative. But when you talk about an alternative, how will we ensure that only honest persons are selected?”
Writing his blog, Anna Hazare said: “Team Anna was formed to get the Jan Lokpal Bill passed, however now it has been decided by the group not to engage with the government on the issue.” He added: “The government was not ready to enact the Jan Lokpal Bill. How long and how many times we will go on fast? Now people have asked us to leave fasting and give an alternative. I also thought that the government is not going to curb corruption.”

When Hazare was not prepared to launch or join a political party, Kejriwal turned round to say: “This party will not be like others…We don’t want to win elections… We want to challenge the existing other parties…We have no great love for entering politics… Our political alternative would not be a party but an ‘andolan’ or ‘movement’ … Our aim is not to grab power, but to end the Delhi-centric government… There will be no High Command and the people will select the candidates…We will go around the entire country and meet the people. They will form the ghoshna patra, or manifesto.” It was also reported that they would take their agitation ‘inside Parliament and on the streets’.

It has become highly enigmatic to the followers of Anna Hazare and the public as to how they would be able to ‘take their agitation inside Parliament’ and ‘end the Delhi-centric government.’

Another prominent member of Team Anna, Kiran Bedi, stated on August 3 that she was still not sure if Team Anna’s announcement ‘to provide the people with a political alternative would translate into the formation of a political party’. In her interview to Times Now television channel, she said: “It is too early to say if a political party will be formed.”

On August 6, Anna Hazare disbanded Team Anna and formed the ‘Election Committee’ to oversee the possible entry of the group into electoral politics.
It is true that, the Satyagraha and fastings undertaken by Hazare and his Team attracted massive gatherings in Jantar Mantar and Ramlila, unprecedented in free India. Though the government tottered, now and then, it managed to drag on without enactment of the Jan Lokpal Bill. Anna Hazare is dejected to say: “How long and how many times we will go on fast?”

Take, for instance, Mahatma Gandhi and his 1930 Salt Satyagraha. The Calcutta session of the Congress party in December 1928 gave an ultimatum to the British Government that unless Dominion Status was given to India by the end of 1929, the party would start a Civil Disobedience Movement. When there was no response from the government, the Congress Working Committee gave Gandhiji full responsi-bility to launch the first act of Civil Disobedience.

When Gandhiji chose to begin with the Satyagraha against the salt tax, it perplexed many Congress leaders. In his Autobiography, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote: “We were bewildered and could not quite fit in a national struggle with common salt.” Gandhiji calmly proceeded with his resolve and the rest was history. On March 6, 1930 Gandhiji with the first batch of 78 satyagrahis began his historic Dandi March. The attention of the world and thousands of pressmen was attracted to this strange non-violent agitation towards the freedom of India. After covering 241 miles and hundreds of villages in 24 days, Gandhiji reached Dandi. On the morning of April 12, Gandhiji raised a lump of salt at the sea shore and declared: “With this I am shaking the foundation of the British Empire.” After his defiance of the salt tax at Dandi, there were numerous salt satyagrahas throughout India. Most of the Congress leaders and more than 80,000 volunteers were arrested.

The individual Satyagraha of Gandhiji against salt tax became a mass satyagraha of India. The impact of the Salt Satyagraha was felt by every-one, including the British officials like Sir Charles Innes, a provincial Governor, who wrote: “England can hold India by consent, not by sword.”

However, the British Government was unassailable to the Salt Satyagraha and. the tax on salt continued. Though Gandhiji and the British representatives held several peace talks such as the Gandhi-Irwin Talk (March 1931), the Second Round Table Conference (September-December 1931), the Congress party contesting the Assembly elections and forming governments in several States in 1937, the ‘Quit India’ Struggle of 1942, all these years there was no abolition of salt tax.
When the dawn of India’s freedom was nearing, the Mahatma wrote on April 6, 1946, to Sir Archibald Rowlands, the Finance Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, to remove the salt tax. Rowlands issued an order for abolition of the tax on salt, but this order was vetoed by the Viceroy, Lord Wavell.

The salt tax was eventually abolished in October 1946 by the Interim Government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru

The Salt Satyagraha was to arouse mass support and served the purpose of augmenting the political power of the Congress party in its freedom struggle.
Gandhiji was not only the prodigious founder and successful practitioner of the subtle appliance of Satyagraha, but he was also the most shrewd politician that India ever had, to strengthen the political power of the Congress party.
In his article ‘Political Power v Satyagraha’, Gandhiji wrote: “If I want political power, it is for the sake of the reforms for which the Congress stands…If we were to analyse the activities of the Congress during the last twelve years, we would discover that the capacity of the Congress to take political power has increased in exact proportion to its ability to achieve success in the constructive effort. This to me the substance of political power…Legislation in advance of public opinion has often been demonstrated to be futile. Legal prohibition of theft in a country in which the vast majority are thieves would be futile... Public opinion in this country is only now becoming a vital force and developing the real sanction which is Satyagraha.” (Young India, 2-07-1931)

Gandhiji relied on the support of the people; he did not rely merely on the law-making power of the government. Through his satyagraha, he bestowed political power to the party he led and in the end, he was able to enact laws to implement the reforms to benefit the people.

When public opinion is built and the people are ready to support a cause, the leader should come out boldly to lead a party or ‘andolan’—by whatever name it is called—he should gain political power. It may take time.

Political power gathered by the Mahatma through his 1930 Salt Satyagraha was able to abolish the salt tax in 1946, after sixteen long years. As far as Anna Hazare is concerned, his satyagraha of April 2011 has taken only sixteen months. Let Hazare and his followers take the slow but sure path enunciated and practised by the Mahatma.

Era Sezhiyan is an eminent parliamentarian and author.

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