Monday, August 22, 2011

Anna Hazare and the Armchair Philosophers' Stones

The New York Times, August 22, 2011

The largest mass citizen movement in India in decades is in progress. Today is Day 8 of Anna Hazare's fast unto death for the cause of the Jan Lokpal Bill. The core committee is doing a fantastic job of trying to keep the main thing the main thing, a herculean task in our country where all too often agendas transmogrify, not very unlike events in the Harry Potter world, into something completely different from the original. I was exchanging thoughts with a friend on that great sign-of-our-times Facebook and thought I might as well put them down here as well.

SG's point: One of the few sensible voices on the anti-corruption movement that are being lost in the mayhem:

(Some others also linked Arundhati Roy's piece in the Hindu: "I'd rather not be Anna" - a reference to one of the slogans adopted by the protesting public, "I am Anna".

My point: I disagree to a large extent (and SG, you know I am not the kind of person who agrees with something just because it's populist). The questions raised in the article are important, no doubt, but the underlying rationale is sadly defeatist and narrow in vision. The hope from the movement, at least for me, is for PEOPLE to change their outlook and approach to everyday corruption. We need to start somewhere. I agree we will likely never eradicate it (and no entity in the world of even half the size and scope of India is without corruption), but all those villages suffering from poverty, illiteracy and the other issues mentioned will benefit immensely from even a few crores, rightfully theirs anyway, reaching them instead of being sunk in corruption. This movement is where the seeds of that goal are being sown. Also, this is just a scaling up of what has actually been already achieved on a small, realistic scale, by Anna in villages in Maharashtra. Agreed the methods may not be ideal, but there are few other realistic avenues left. Also, btw, I am not sold on the Jan Lokpal bill. I am more interested in the side effects of this spotlight on anti-corruption - hopefully, a fundamental change in ordinary people's approach to corruption (resist instead of submitting). There are many, many things wrong with the bill, but way fewer than the number of wrongs that can potentially be righted through this movement

SG's counter: Creating a mass movement and establishing Lokpal isn't going to solve the problem of corruption affecting the poor and villages. The real solution is to give them identity (read UID), give them bank accounts and transfer subsidies/loans directly to these bank accounts rather than distributing subsidises food/loans through intermediaries, thereby eliminating these intermediaries who are the cause of such corruption. Trust me, there are hundreds of other more realistic avenues to eliminate corruption than Lokpal or a mass movement

My counterpoint: I'm sure there are other ways to tackle corruption, no argument there and I am all for it. The problem is the inherently corrupt and the inherently corrupt system will find a way. In the bank account example, who will establish and govern such a system and ensure it is not touched by middlemen? My contention is the effectiveness of such a system can be significantly increased when there is a fundamental change in the mindset and approach to corruption in general. Like I said, Lokpal is not and will not be the most effective solution, and it too has the potential to go wrong (like anything else) but it is sowing the seeds for good stuff. The truly virtuous and the truly corrupt cannot be changed. My hope for the movement is to be able to convince the vast majority among us who are on the borderline (intentions good, but actions support corruption due to compulsion / convenience) to try harder to not support corruption. The idea among us that there is a support system now, and the idea among the corrupt that there could / will be negative consequences - for me, this is where the potential value lies and this is what I hope won't die out. The rest, especially the really good operational ideas, will follow soon enough.

Considering your feelings on Anna Hazare's movement? Don't think it involves you? Remember the crores of YOUR and MY tax money amassed by Raja, Kalmadi, and almost any other politician. Hard earned money we give up everyday without a fight and they take without conscience. Money our families and our lives deserve. Just taken, for (relatively) nothing in return. It's when there's actually an inkling of a chance for change that passion should be ignited. This is that inkling. There can be no doubt- it's Now or Never, to quote another of the popular protest slogans of the day.

Corruption is as much a devil-figure in India as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (whose empire is toppling as I speak - Tripoli was overtaken by the rebel forces yesterday). To exaggerate a bit to prove the point, Ramlila Maidan in Delhi is our Tahrir Square. Common people in Egypt fought through peaceful protest, as we too, incredibly, are doing. I can't think of the last time a mass movement in India did not result in the destruction of public and private property.

We are witnessing something special - lakhs of people all over the country coming out in support, of their own volition and not through political influence (in Hyderabad at least, politicians were being booed away and refused entry into the protest gatherings. Truly amazing considering how much importance and status they are accorded otherwise); protest / support gatherings of Indians all over the world, from New York to Auckland; one small suggestion of Anna's during a speech, almost an aside, resulting in people sitting in peaceful protest outside politicians' residences. The movement attacks corruption from the top (through the bill) and is igniting (at least the desire and encouragement to) change from the bottom, at the common man level. For all the flaws in the nature / methods of protest (a fast unto death in a democracy is practically blackmail - although it can be argued that our democratic system is largely a failure, and the common man has almost no other avenues of protest left if he wants to effect change), the Lokpal bill which has the potential to create the greatest power centre in the country (thus with theoretically the greatest potential for corruption itself), and a fickle public known for reverting to life-as-usual all too soon, this movement is something special.

And yet, the armchair philosophers throw stones. Not that long ago, I was one of them. Throwing not so much stones, but the usual pebbles of resignation ("nothing will happen eventually, it will all sink, as always, into the morass of our political system"). The counter-culture among the facebook intelligentsia is tom-tomming articles against the movement. All too often, we fixate on black or white. With or against. As even the Harry Potter saga shows in its darker second half, things are usually mostly grey. The pure fight the good fight and win in the end, if they remain pure. And with a little help from their friends. And then everyone wins

Be that friend and help Anna Hazare. As Airtel never tires of telling us these days, har ek friend zaroori hota hai.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cant read the highlighted bit. Could you unhighlight it?

12:08 AM, August 23, 2011  

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