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

Anna Hazare in Historical Perspective

Wednesday 5 October 2011



Anna Hazare’s movement and hunger strike to have the Lokpal Bill tabled before Parliament created a stir in the whole country. Thousands upon thousands of people, men and women, young and old, joined the movement all over the country. Memories of the freedom movement under Gandhiji’s leadership were evoked. Anna Hazare was hailed as another Gandhi come to life. It will be instructive to view Anna Hazare’s movement in the historical perspective.

It is not as if the Indian people suddenly woke up to the evil influence of corruption in Indian society. Even in pre-colonial days, India was a hierarchical society. There were privileged classes in power and there were the people who were ruled by these classes. The underprivileged took it for granted that they could never claim equality with the privileged. Against this back-ground Gandhiji’s movement for Swaraj based on gram-panchayats was a revolutionary ideal. For a gram-panchayat rule, decentralisation of power right to the grassroots is of the essence. This was the ideal before the Indian people when ultimately India became free in August 1947. Then the question of a Constitution for the Republic of India came up. A Constituent Assembly was formed. A Constitution was drafted. Finally a new Constitution for the Republic of India came into effect on January 26, 1950. But as it always happens, the gap between the reality and the ideal was great. However, the Constitution made it possible for the people to dream of the ideal.

Then came the Five-Year Plans under Nehru’s leadership. The idea of a planned society had come up even earlier, before India became independent. It was under the leadership of Subash Chandra Bose, the President of the Congress, that a National Planning Committee was set up. A well-known economist, Prof K.T. Shah, was the Chairman of the National Planning Committee. The main driving force of the Planning Commission set up by Nehru was a statistician, Prof Mahalanobis, who was the founder-Director of the Indian Statistical Institute.

The first two decades were of great optimism. These were the years when the foundations were laid for industrial India. It is relevant here to remember that when it came to projects like building steel factories, the only Indian who came up with a viable steel project was Tata. There were no other industrialists who were as farsighted as Tata to wait for a long gestation period before the project paid off. So, the government had to invest in all the heavy industries that later helped ancillary industries to come up. Even during these days there were cases of corruption. The most important that comes to mind is the Mundhra case. When the case came up in the Bombay High Court, attempts were made to have the hearings “in-camera”. This would have excluded the public and the media from attending any proceedings of the case and kept the proceedings secret. It was only a resolute Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, Justice M.C. Chagla, who put his foot down and insisted on a public hearing. This is the first instance where transparency of the government and the right of the people to know what was happening was ensured by the resolute action of a high-minded Chief Justice.

But this did not mean an end to secret dealings in government affairs. While Gandhiji’s movement advocated transfer of power to the people, transparency in governance, and social and economic justice, the reality on the ground was quite different. In a previously hierarchical society these ideals were not easy to achieve. It required a complete change of the mode of thinking. For example, the Constitution of India made untouchability a criminal offence. Yet, this social evil continues to this day in various parts of India. Privileged classes continued the practice of denying equal opportunity to the Scheduled Castes. Parliament came up with an Act reserving seats in educational institutions and public services for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and later for backward communities. When this was first mooted in Parliament, it was meant to be enforced only for ten years by which time it was expected that the Scheduled Castes and Tribes would have come up to a level where no such reservation would be necessary. But this did not happen and the reservation continued to be enforced for longer periods. Given the electoral system, these reservations created vote-banks which were manipulated by influential politicians. This led to more corruption. Essentially this corruption could flourish only by a nexus that was formed between corrupt politicians and corrupt bureaucrats.

IT is significant to remember what the Swedish Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal said in his monumental book, The Asian Drama, which was a study of the phenomenon of the poverty of Asian nations. He said that the newly emerging free nations in Asia and Africa would certainly not suffer from lack of plans for development. The big problem they would have to face would be corruption amongst the ruling classes. He was prophetic in this regard.

But along with this corruption amongst the privileged classes there was a great growth of social organisations in diverse fields. All of them contributed to a greater awareness among the people of what was going on in the socio-economic-political environment around them. For example, there was the “Chipko” movement, under the leadership of Sunderlal, Bahuguna in the Himalayan region against indiscriminate deforestation. As the most affected were the women-folk, they were motivated to go into the forest and embrace the trees to prevent the contractor’s men from cutting them down. One thing led to another and the women, who were thus empowered, started challenging their drunken husbands to come back home sober or spend the night out in the open. They also organised literacy classes for themselves. In Kerala there was a Shastra Sahitya Parishad, which organised teachers, civil servants, students, and a whole lot of others to build libraries in villages and towns. These libraries became the centres of debate. All activities in the public sphere were discussed.

Elsewhere in Rajasthan, an unlettered woman, belonging to the Scheduled Classes, who was sexually exploited, started an organisation called “Saathin” (meaning friend) and organised underprivileged women in rural areas to fight for their rights. There were literally thousands of such organisations that sprang up all over the country. In fact, these social organisations inspired the writing of a book in 1996 entitled Averting the Apocalypse. This book was written by Mr Bonner who had served for a long period in India as a New York Times reporter. He came back to India, studied these organisations, and felt convinced that only their activities could prevent the collapse of the country.

In the sixty-odd years that India has been free there have been a series of attempts to enlarge the participation of the people in the government, and ensure transparency in public affairs. These movements were a direct response against the wheelings and dealings carried on in the secrecy of the corridors of power. The privileged resisted all attempts to make governance more transparent under one pretext or another. Sometimes, to appease the masses they would make an empty gesture and not follow it up with effective action. For example, the Panchayati Raj Act was enacted during Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership. This was an Act meant to decentralise power right to the level of the village panchayat. But this decentralisation of power was effectively under-mined by a lack of financial decentralisation. The effect was that the village panchayats had to look to some central authority at the State or national level for funds. This in turn made the village panchayat subservient to that authority.

At other times the sanctity of the privacy of contracts in business was evoked when people wanted to know the terms of any contract that was signed with multinational corporations. A contract signed by the Maharashtra State Electricity Authority with Enron for generation and distribution of electricity was a classic example. The people who opposed it were not ignorant. They were professional engineers who had spent all their lives in the field of generation and distribution of electric power. They demanded that the terms of the contract be made public. Political stalwarts belonging to different parties came to the defence of Enron, saying that this would be a breach of confidentiality under the contract. It was only when the enormous fraud of the company came to light in the United States of America that the suicidal terms agreed to by the authorities in India saw the light of day.

It was in the wake of such agitations that the “Right To Information” (RTI) was finally enacted. In spite of Acts like the RTI, corruption in high places continued as witnessed in the Common-wealth Games scandal and the telecomm scandal. Perhaps it was the enormity of these last scandals that burst the dam of public patience and resulted in the movement launched by Anna Hazare. The Lokpal Bill was mooted decades earlier but had been put on the back-burner all these years. It needed an Anna Hazare to bring it back to life. It now looks as if some action will be taken willy-nilly and a Lokpal Bill with necessary teeth will be enacted. As one of the young parliamentarians pointed out during the debate on the Lokpal Bill while Anna Hazare was still on fast, the passing of the Lokpal Bill will not be a panacea to the prevailing ills of governance. It will require a series of actions including the change in the electoral rules to prevent the undue advantage of money power to influence elections.

So it should be remembered that this is only the next stage in an ongoing battle. As it has been aptly said, “The price for an effective democracy is eternal vigilance.” The people of India have been roused. There is no room for pessimism now. The entire country seems to have risen and seems to be marching, chanting as it were the title of a novel written by a well-known journalist writer of the times, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, which he wrote on the eve of India’s freedom, “Tomorrow is ours.”

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