My latest column in the Deccan Chronicle & The Asian Age
Why Anna gives it those ones
Anna Hazare and his mop-up team have busted one of the fondest myths in this country — no matter what you do, nothing is ever going to change. Call those who gathered in the big cities and small towns across India, and everyone else who rallied behind the 73-year-old and his team in their battle against corruption whatever names you want — causerati, chatterati, digirati or plain nutty, but something did move.
Anyone who was there at any of the sites where Mr Hazare’s supporters gathered could not fail to notice the sheer diversity of the people. Young India, old India, shiny India, grimy India, had broken the barriers that pigeonhole them in their everyday lives, and for a few magical hours had come together to support an old man who had captured their imagination. Was there a touch of the carnival, a touch of romance in all this? Of course. There was also a dash of the reality show which drew the television crews. But did the TV manufacture the spectacle? I think not. It was a genuinely inspirational moment for tens of thousands of people across the country who are at the end of their tether, grappling with corruption every day. It is a networked society and the word spread fast. There is no taking away from this moment, no matter what happens or does not happen in the weeks and months to come to Mr Hazare’s warriors and their campaign to push through the anti-graft agenda.
But you have to be starry-eyed to think that a piece of legislation will purge the country of scams. No one that I met thought so. The Jan Lokpal Bill itself is a negotiating tool. There have been many versions of the bill already, and there will be more before it takes its final shape. To focus solely on its minutiae, and argue about the technicalities, however, is to miss a deeper point: Why does a fasting Gandhian, albeit with an illustrious record of public service, enjoy rockstar adulation among so many of India’s urban youth who inhabit a vastly different universe?
The short answer is because the message and the messenger struck a chord and the timing was perfect. Mr Hazare’s moral eminence is a strategic differential in a world of steady, drip-drip scams where the power elite is seen to be utterly compromised. Mr Hazare struck a chord among young India because he tapped into their frustrations and fear of being checkmated by corruption, and because his core message was simple and straight: no citizen, no matter how high, is above the law. Embedded in this message is the idea of an India where the ordinary citizen, used to being passive and powerless, has a better chance of taking on the errant powerful.
Young India is unwilling to accept many things which earlier generations had accepted with resignation. Credit it to the prising open of the Indian economy. This country is much more integrated into the global market place than it was 20 years ago. The sarkari Indian mindset, however, continues to remain in a time warp with its notions of waivers for politicians and other VIPs.
Many of the youngsters who took time off to express support for Hazare are, in essence, challenging this notion of VIP privilege. This generation knows more about the warts afflicting society than their elders, thanks to the Right to Information Act legislation. The sheer scale and magnitude of the scams in recent times have added to their sense of outrage. They also know more about the world outside through inter-personal exchanges, satellite television, Internet and social media. They now want not only the goodies from the Western world, but also their protocols of everyday life which empower ordinary citizens, where rules prevail, and where there are few exemptions to “very important people”.
At Jantar Mantar and India Gate last week, I heard the word “future” many times. The young say they are supporting Mr Hazare because they trust him to bat for their future. The “system” against which the youth are rebelling has not grasped this fundamental fact adequately.
The disconnect shows up in so many telling ways. The latest example is the Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s decision to show its “token of appreciation” to the four cricketers from the city (Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli, Gautam Gambhir and Ashish Nehra) who were part of the victorious Team India in the cricket World Cup by waiving their house tax for life.
Similar “appreciation” is shown to a whole galaxy of VIPs by exempting them from security checks at airports which ordinary folks cannot bypass. Airports are not the only places where you can watch the fast-track and special treatment reserved for the VIP. Drive down a national highway and you will inevitably see a big board which lists all those who are exempt from paying toll tax. It starts from the President, includes the vice-president, the Prime Minister, governors and a host of others. Last year, the Central government decided that members of Parliament as well as all members of Legislative Assemblies and Legislative Councils were also to be exempted from paying toll tax while driving down highways within their own states. The issue is not the money that is waived. It is the underlying mindset which equates “appreciation” of the important and the worthy with exemptions from rules that govern everyone else. Such “VIP privileges” are premised on the belief that a certain person’s time or feelings are somehow more important than that of the ordinary man or woman.
Young India is rebelling against the political class because it sees it as the initiator and preserver of these VIP privileges which eventually balloon into a big protective umbrella for all manners of wrongdoing. Young India is desperate for a “hero” it can trust. Mr Hazare is the man of the moment.
The government is on the backfoot. But it can start bridging the trust deficit by simply giving the ordinary person a greater sense of equality. One can take a leaf out of the Maruti success story in India and the Japanese work culture. At the start, Maruti’s Indian managers were resistant to new ideas like wearing a uniform, eating in the same canteen as their juniors and sitting in open offices. But slowly they came around and it has helped the company. If the government wants to win back the people, it could start with doing away with VIP privileges.
Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org