City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Inconsequence of Team Anna?


From all accounts, Team Anna is going through a bad time. Kiran Bedi is struggling to explain her allegedly less-than-honest actions in presenting inflated travel bills, Arvind Kejriwal has been accused of financial impropriety and high-handedness by erstwhile members of the team, Prashant Bhushan is under fire for his comments on Kashmir and Santosh Hegde seems to perpetually have half a foot outside the team door. The decision to campaign against the Congress has drawn accusations that Anna Hazare is no longer above politics and might have helped elect someone who is allegedly more unsavoury than the Congress candidate. More importantly, not a day goes by without one member of the team sniping at another, giving an impression of overall disarray.

On the other hand, one does not need to be a conspiracy theorist to believe that there is a sustained and determined effort to target members of the team. The Government has been speaking in two voices, with the PM making soothing sounds, particularly of late, and people like Digvijay Singh continuing to attack the movement and its leaders with any and every allegation, without exercising too much discrimination. The Kiran Bedi story, regardless of its merits, seems like an obvious plant, and the Income Tax action against Kejriwal is hardly a coincidence. But the truth is that the campaign against Team Anna is hardly new; what has changed is that the attacks now seem to be having an effect. Many erstwhile supporters of the cause are beginning to wonder about the people they were supporting and although Anna himself is still seen as being largely above reproach, the lustre around the movement has dimmed.

The problem that Team Anna faces is that owing to a complete absence of trust in the government and in the larger political system, it feels compelled to keep doing something in order to keep the pressure going. The anxiety that the Jan Lokpal bill will deliberately get lost in the labyrinth of legislative complexity has meant that the movement feels compelled to find new devices, other than a fast-unto-death to make itself heard. The decision to enter the campaign fray in Hissar comes from a desire to demonstrate that the movement is potentially an electoral force, capable of tilting the balance in key constituencies. The argument that it might have helped elect a less deserving candidate is attractive, but it indirectly supports the Team Anna view that without significant reform, there is little to choose between one politician and another. If all candidates on offer are seen as being corrupt and the difference is only one of degree, then it underlines rather undermines the need for a device like the Jan Lokpal bill.

What the objection to the Hissar tactic illustrates is a common pattern that has been seen in the attacks against the movement. Break down the larger issues into individual actions, reduce the cause to the people representing it, and attack both. The Hissar gambit, when detached from the larger objective of the movement, is easy to attack, but when seen in a larger context, is defensible if somewhat risky. The attacks against the individuals miss the central point- it makes no difference if any or every member of the team is mildly or severely corrupt. The allegations, if true, should and will dent the personal credibility of the people in question, but it is of no consequence to the larger movement. Nothing in the Jan Lokpal bill can possibly benefit the individuals involved, and therefore, regardless of the personal integrity of the people involved, the case for legislative reform remains strong. If anything, the inference that in today’s world, it is extremely difficult for anyone to stay absolutely free of any form of corruption, given the nature of the system, reinforces the need for radical remedial action.

The deeper underlying issue is the tendency to reduce ideas to the people espousing them. The current movement is bigger than any of the individuals involved, Anna Hazare included. It is absolutely legitimate to disagree with the ideas being put forward as indeed many have, but to focus on the words or actions of the team backing these ideas has little meaning. Team Anna is not presenting itself as a political party with a coherent ideology; it is, quite transparently, a group of disparate individuals who have come together because of a cause. The team members are not offering themselves up for public positions; their power, such as it is, comes from the people who support the cause they represent. To confuse their derived and all-too-transient power with the official authority that comes with public positions is a mistake. It is possible, even likely that there are personal agendas involved, and that all members of the team may not have the same degree of belief or commitment to the cause. Disagreements about strategy hurt the cause, but the members of the team are not duty bound to agree with each other. What the media and other political parties are doing is to treat Team Anna as if it were another political party and shared the same compulsion for apparent consensus and coherence, something which in any case, most political parties seem incapable of.

It is true that the sudden availability of such a large platform has spurred on members of Team Anna to speak and act imprudently at times. They seem to talk too freely, and do too much. As a result, they are opening themselves up to the attacks that are coming their way. The bigger danger is that, in the name of defending themselves, they end up becoming mirror images of all that they have set out to change. Obfuscation, denial and misrepresentation are the tools that they have fought against; it would be a shame if they were themselves to employ these very tools. Difficult as it is to accept, their own individual reputations are not the point. The more they get drawn into this debate, the more the larger cause loses. Perhaps Anna Hazare has the best idea- this might be a very good time for Team Anna to embrace a vow of silence. Maun vrat is a great euphemism for shutting up.

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