April 11, 2011

Those Five Days

The question one needs to ask before commenting on Anna Hazare is for whom did the man fast for 96 hours?

If for nothing else Anna Hazare’s fast has made the Government of India realize one thing that perhaps it has no clue on what the people of this country are thinking; or am I expecting too much from the government? To say that Anna Hazare blackmailed the government of the day into giving it to the demands of the civil society might be right in some context but try as hard I couldn’t think in that context.

I’m a very cynical person and some might suggest that my cynicism has no ‘real’ reason for its existence. But that’s not the issue here. I’m not suggesting that like George W. Bush’s ‘Either with us or against us’ business line those who don’t support Anna Hazare aren’t patriotic or aren’t troubled by the rampant corruption. Those who think Hazare is an arm twister or an opportunist who simply held his breadth till they blinked before him have their reasons but I’m not in a mood to buy it. Many senior journalists or like my new term for them Rock Star Columnists have gone to town shaking their heads, making fun of Hazare’s method and almost negating the ‘cause’ for which almost all leading social activists have joined hands.


What’s a good enough reason to not ‘support’ this ‘cause’? In a democracy everyone has a right to say or do what they like and while some of them want Hazare supporters to appreciate their opposition to the methods and the man, do they not like the idea that just about everyone they know is not getting their point? Manu Joseph, who became an instant crusader for the truth when his magazine published the Radia Tapes conversation between journalists and the corporate lobbyist, became the first one to run down Anna Hazare and his methods. There is nothing wrong in presenting a different point of view but reading Joseph’s The Anna Hazare Show you’d realize that Joseph has no real point to make. All he does in the name of a different opinion is to say that Hazare is a strange man for he decided to continue his fast for a day longer to facilitate the presence of more English speaking journalists for the moment he’d break his fast and hence can’t or shouldn’t be taken seriously. Before that Joseph says that he went to Jantar Mantar and from what he saw there concluded that this couldn’t be the ‘movement’ or the ‘revolution’ that it was being made out to be. Like Joseph Tavleen Singh too wasn’t impressed with the show at Jantar Mantar and even scoffed at the idea of non-elected and non-administrative individuals pressurizing the government. (click here for Manu Joseph’s The Anna Hazare Show).

I have no problem in accepting the truth that the Jan Lokpal Bill might not be able to completely solve the problem. I don’t fool myself by suggesting that this is a magic wand that will change everything. But that isn’t the issue. The bigger picture is that this government has failed and people need some kind of power or tool to tell them just that. Why else is the Supreme Court of India taking interest in running this country? Of course, the judiciary doesn’t have any business issuing directives to the government on governance but then what happens when the government doesn’t perform its basic function. Yes, we can vote them out but does that mean you simply go on with it for a stipulated time for our democratic right is handy on one special day every five years? Are we only to write, blog, and fight like over intellectualizing apes on television debates and till then? And a few years later the same people will be voted back in to do what they were voted out for? And let’s not forget that in the interim the ‘other’ party will do the number.

Manu Joseph didn’t refrain from making blatantly sexist comments while arguing with Barkha Dutt on NDTV’s Left, Right and Centre during the whole Radia Tapes controversy. Even though it was a little difficult to overlook his comments one was willing to look beyond certain facets of Joseph’s personality in order to discuss the larger issue at hand. Joseph had no qualms for expressing his sexist views, which at some level bordered on misogyny, but made every effort to ensure that his point of view not be squashed as a result of his stand on some issues but with his article on Anna Hazare he makes no such effort. He is convinced that Hazare is an opportunist who thrives on being in media’s spotlight and is sure that it’s the media and not Hazare who’s galvanizing an entire nation.

Joseph argues that Hazare once continued with his fast for a day longer than needed/intended/planned for the simple reason that there would be no media to cover the event of him breaking his fast. Is there something wrong in that? No matter how you see it a few minutes would convince you that perhaps Hazare, maybe, continued with his agitation for the media’s attention. So what? The greater good that would come from an action as desperate as a man fasting for something depends on how many people’s lives that action touches. Who is to say that Mahatma Gandhi didn’t fast for a day longer to ensure that his endeavor inspired many more to join his movement or simply ensure that the powers be understood the gravity of the situation? Some columnists have also said that no one writes about Irom Sharmila who’s been fasting for the last ten years against the Armed Forces Special Power Act. They even joked that next time she should fast in Delhi so that the government will be forced to do something but the thing is why the newspapers or the publications or the TV channels that went out of their way to cover Anna Hazare didn’t go to Manipur? These free thinkers need to realize that if they think they know of Anna Hazare’s shallowness in using the media, the man knows their superficiality better. Why else would you think he chose Jantar Mantar? He could have done this number during the Cricket World Cup but he did it when he did it and how he did it and it got somewhere.

Just because Anna Hazare continued his fast for a day longer doesn’t diminish the nobility of his action. Or does it? Is there something wrong in ensuring that more people know of the injustice that you fought for? Decades ago when Gandhiji first sat on a satyagraha there would have been people like Manu Joseph who must have ridiculed the action. It is said that in the olden days of newsreels that played prior to a film in cinema halls John F Kennedy was once requested by a camera crew to go back into his plane and repeat his actions of getting off and being welcomed by the head of the state for the sake of the ‘camera’. Kennedy, his wife, his team and the head of the state of the country the US president was visiting and just about everyone repeated the action again. So JKF was a publicity hound?

In his article Joseph also says that much like the toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue in a city square, an unplanned and relatively unimportant event that somehow ended up becoming an iconic image of the Iraq war, Hazare’s fast and the people’s crusade against corruption is something that has been conjured by television channels. What he forgets is that history is always made of unplanned events. Much like Joe Rosenthal unintended photo-op of four American Marines hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima would become an image that would inspire an entire nation; the sights of a small lane at Jantar Mantar might have the power to shake a government out of its slumber.

Irrespective of the outcome Anna Hazare’s endeavor aroused millions across the nation and this can’t (shouldn’t) be trivialized. Manu Joseph’s article is in real bad taste and totally uncalled for. If he believes that his personal traits shouldn’t be a deciding factor while debating a deeper issue then how come he refuses to apply the same rules unto someone of Anna Hazare’s stature? One of the fair arguments for the opposition of this Bill could be that if and when implemented this would become an all encompassing and perhaps too powerful a tool in the ‘hands’ of a few who might start abusing it. Yes, this who will watch the watchmen is a rather fair argument and yes, this needs to be debated but that still doesn’t mean Anna Hazare or his methods are unjust.

The problem with these Rock Star Columnists is that they end up thinking that they are influencing popular opinion in this country. This might not be totally incorrect but more often than not this notion is very different from what the opinion of this country is. In this Anna Hazare and the people of Indian cities versus the government many popular columnists have trivialized the actions of not only the social groups but even the ordinary citizens. Its one thing to be cynical but to be dismissive of what the common man is shouting on the streets is something else. They say that the ‘tactics’ of the people and especially Anna Hazare are ‘unjust’ and some fractions have also called it ‘fascist’. I can’t make any sense of that. How can an Indian use the word Gandhian and Fascist in the same sentence? Tavleen Singh even went to the extent of saying this on a television news debate- NGOs and civil society can’t be a part of the drafting committee of the Jan Lokpal Bill. My argument is rather simple- if Ms. Singh were to be ‘invited’ by the government of India to be a part of a negotiation or interlocutor group with say, the Kashmiri separatists, would she refuse? Would she have refused has she been invited to be a part of the five member civil society group that will form one-half of the drafting committee? If she agrees then we are to understand it’s her ‘expertise’ as a journalist who understands what ordinary Indians want that made her say yes to such an offer but if Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal were to be part she’d have a fundamental problem with it? Ms. Singh just needs to ask herself that would have had the same stance if she were present when Gandhiji made similar demands of the British. (Click here for Tavleen Singh’s column on why she doesn’t support Anna Hazare; and I must say that I haven’t read it yet as I didn’t feel like after watching her television performance.)

While one understands that difference of opinion shouldn’t be dismissed there needs to be a reason to oppose someone so vehemently in public. I get a feeling that could these Rock Star Columnists be angry for the government and the people didn’t ‘bend’ when they were suggesting the same things for years and ‘instantly’ agreed in a few hours when Anna Hazare galvanized the ordinary people of this nation. Some have gone to the extent of saying that it’s ego that is making Anna Hazare ask for the government’s word in writing even though they agreed in principle to have a joint drafting committee. If the government, present or past, were serious about tabling this Bill would it have dillydallied for four decades? And what’s wrong in asking for something in writing from the government of India when it asks the same thing from me for just about everything!? It hurts to see seemingly intelligent people who have it in them to sway public opinion undermine the latent anger and frustration of a billion people who responded to a clarion call of a man who is unblemished and steadfast in his mission for attaching some kind of accountability to public representatives who care two hoots for the law of the land. How can I take someone like Mr. Kapil Sibal seriously when he says what’s the need for a written notification when we are committing in spirit; isn’t he the same man who suggested that the state lost nothing in the supposed 2G spectrum scam. So if we lost nothing then why is the former telecom minister in judicial custody!?

People like Manu Joseph and Tavleen Singh are looking at this as if it weren’t serious and will probably ‘blow’ over and everything would be back to ‘normal’ and it’s not because they may have good reason to believe so. Perhaps it’s so because this attitude is ingrained so deep in them that no matter how hard they try not to they end up seeing this everywhere. Manu Joseph’s moved on from his Radia crusade once Ms. Dutt’s ‘pretty’ face sold enough copies of his magazine and will perhaps move on from Anna Hazare as well but what’s the point of making splashes for no real reason?

The attitude of many politicians and the so called Rock Star Columnists reminds me of an old joke. A young boy who abused a lot for no reason was sent by his parents to a psychoanalyst who conducted a blot test on him. When the kid continued to utter obscenities looking at each blot drawing the doctor asked him if he ever saw anything good? The kid smirked I might if you stop showing me dirty pictures.

Image: www.deccanchronicle.com

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