The benefit of floundering foes

There are times when the quality of the people who hate you is the most generous compliment you can receive. The Indian National Congress, which heads the government in Delhi, is a beneficiary of its foes.

By Manu Joseph (Issues)

Published: Thu 23 Aug 2012, 8:50 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:30 PM

In early 2011, mired in the fallout of major political scandals, the Congress Party appeared doomed. But after a wave of festive, sometimes farcical, anti-corruption demonstrations against it heralded by rustic revolutionaries, the Congress has ended up looking better than before, even modern and dependable compared with its adversaries, while the anti-corruption movement has emerged as a traffic hazard.

Since April 2011, when the social reformer Anna Hazare first sat on a roadside in Delhi to demand powerful anti-corruption legislation, the movement against graft has lost its virtuous halo and evolved from a hugely popular citizens’ struggle to a mere right-wing political campaign against the Congress.

The epilogue of the movement unfolded last week in Delhi. At the heart of the spectacle was a yoga teacher in saffron robes called Baba Ramdev, who presides over an alternative-medicine empire worth hundreds of millions of rupees through which he offers cures for cancer, arthritis and even homosexuality. What he wants is that the government “bring back” the billions of rupees of illicit money that wealthy Indians are alleged to have stashed away in overseas tax havens. Ramdev’s own companies are under investigation for tax evasion, a charge Ramdev has consistently rejected.

Last year, when he attempted a fast to force the government to retrieve the illicit money from abroad, he ended up inside female attire after he tried to flee from the cops – a camouflage that he somehow thought would work even though he has a lush, flowing beard. A few days after the incident, he declared that he would distribute firearms to young people to revolt against the government. When reporters asked the home minister at the time, P. Chidambaram, for his reaction, he nodded in a severe, schoolmasterly way, as he often does when he is angry, and he dared Ramdev to resort to violence. Ramdev then quickly clarified that he hadn’t really meant it, that he had only threatened to arm the youth of India in a moment of weakness.

This week, though, Ramdev appeared more in control of his actions. He sat on an elevated stage and fasted for a few days in the presence of thousands of his supporters. When the government ignored him, he found an honourable exit by declaring that he was going to walk to the parliament. He did that. Inevitably, the police stopped his march. He and his supporters were put into buses and taken to a stadium far away from the parliament, where they were released.

What Ramdev has done is irreversibly presented the anti-corruption movement exactly the way the Congress Party wants – the secular and liberal Congress versus the Hindu right wing. So, what Indians at first thought was a new struggle has become an old, tired contest between two familiar ideologies.

Hazare’s movement, at its peak, did threaten to draw away the constituency of the Congress Party. But after Hazare became the face of the anti-corruption movement in April last year, he floundered. In December, when he attempted yet another fast, this time in Mumbai, and asked Indians to “fill the jails” in protest against political corruption, he discovered that his clout had waned. People still liked him and his cause, but they were getting bored with him.

A few weeks ago, when he arrived in Delhi for what he claimed was an “indefinite fast,” he found that the public and news media support for him had diminished further. He called off his fast midway, saying that fasts were “a waste of time.”

While the Congress Party rejoiced, Hazare said that he wished to enter electoral politics – not as a candidate, but as a godfatherly figure who would support clean candidates. Then, in a sudden and dramatic move, he disbanded his inner circle, known as Team Anna, and returned to his village.

It is a familiar act, Anna Hazare going back to his village. In the last several months, it has been a frequent newspaper headline or a photo caption – “Anna goes back to his village.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh never “goes back” to his village. Because at all times, no matter where he is, he is accountable to the people. For all his fame as a revolutionary, Hazare never was.

Manu Joseph is editor of the Indiannewsweekly ‘Open’


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