City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Lokpal deep freeze

For all practical purposes, the Lokpal bill seems to have been put to sleep. As it dwindles in scale, ambition, relevance and memory, it is interesting that its erstwhile champions have shown little or no reaction. Having given up on the bill till 2014, Team Anna is setting its sights on the PM and the members of his cabinet, and threatening yet another protest. A few months ago, it would have been difficult to envisage a scenario like this- where the Lokpal bill has not only been shelved, but without causing any great ferment. Looking back on the entire episode, it is worth reflecting on what have been some of the key messages that have emerged.

1. Change is a process that unfolds over time; the fantasy of a silver bullet makes real change untenable- during the entire period of the protests, there were several occasions on which agreement could have been reached but for Team Anna’s insistence on doing things exactly their way. Now, there some areas on which giving in would have made the bill itself meaningless, but the problem was a deeper conceptual one. To think of the Lokpal as one desperate throw of dice, to load all possible expectations about improving the state of politics on a single instrument, was at it best idealistic, and its worst colossally simplistic and naive. Most importantly, the fact that when the political establishment, which has a deeply entrenched and functioning system of its own, with the intricate meshing of all the moving parts greased by various acts of corruption, is confronted by the idea of such dramatic change, would do everything in its power to neutralise the threat was never understood. This is exactly what happened; in seemingly divergent ways, different elements of the political establishment worked together to quieten the Lokpal beast. Had the Lokpal bill been seen as one step in a long arduous journey, where a small change would create a demand for a larger one, which in turn would gradually change the nature of expectations that voters have from their leaders, there might have been a better chance of bringing deeper and more real change.

2. The biggest danger comes from saying too much and doing too much- in terms of managing a movement of this kind, this is perhaps the biggest lesson from the JanLokpal agitation. While the decision to focus only on a single action in terms of the bill allowed for the concentration of energies, the manner in which each member of Team Anna , beginning with Anna Hazare cspoke and acted made for the dissipation of their efforts. Too many fasts, too much belligerence, too many personal beliefs and pet projects and far too much eagerness to appear before television cameras exposed more than was necessary or palatable about Team Anna. With a leader like Anna Hazare, whose views on things other than corruption, are far from the kind of stuff that the anti-corruption constituency wants to hear, silence would have been the most potent strategy.

3. Media follows people and events, not principles and issues- the early success of the movement came in part from being able to turn the protests into television events, but thanks to Team Anna’s garrulousness, and the obvious relish with which some of the members embraced their moment in the sun, soon Team Anna became the story. This was aided of course, by the government’s relentless efforts to denigrate each member personally by all available means, but Team Anna’s own actions helped the government successfully deflect some of the attention away from the issue. The successful use of media requires enormous restraint and an ability to frame issues sharply and calibrate one’s personal exposure; skills that are not easy to learn in real time. It is noteworthy that in the absence of any event worth following, media has shown little interest in pursuing the cause of any concrete anti-corruption measures; every scam produces its own little island of outrage, but in the world of media, there is no mainland.

4. Self-righteousness is an open invitation for counter-attack, and in the world of 24X7 media, one simply cannot win a slanging match- nothing raises the hackles of those attacked than self-righteousness, and the overwhelming urge is to bring down the other person to one’s own alleged level. “Who are you to ask me this- you are no better than I am”- is the most commonly used argument in all debates of the day. By calling politicians names and by implicitly positioning oneself as being morally superior, all that one ends up doing is ensuring that the other side works that much harder to correct the imbalance.

Overall, change does not come merely because it is wished for, however righteous the cause, and whatever the intensity of one’s feeling. Change needs to be visualised as an entire system, unfolding over time, gathering strength and momentum from actions deliberate and accidental, navigating hurdles and harnessing occasional tailwinds. The battle against corruption cannot be won by imagining actions arrayed against the political class; it can only be won if it becomes advantageous for politics to find another way. The Lokpal bill, with more modest ambitions, and a less threatening body language might have begun this long journey, but that was not to be. The most important lesson of all; sometimes change is too important to be left exclusively to activists. Without activists, no change can begin, but with only activism, lasting change might not come about. Activism is a hot-blooded business, possessed by a sense of idealistic self-importance, whereas bringing about change might need a measure of cold-blooded wisdom, focusing not so much on championing an immediate cause as much as on fashioning the long-term effect.