A week has gone by since Anna Hazare began his fast unto death — taking on behalf of Indian civil society the first, Gandhian, step towards rooting out corruption. I resisted the use of several inverted commas in that first sentence, but there is one adjective that concerns me. It demands punctuation, cries out for explanation. It is the word ‘Gandhian’.
Indian news channels, whose cable-home, middle-class viewership is a superset of the constituency that Team Anna represents, have made the business decision to go in for saturation coverage of the agitation: protest coverage pays. But with every image they show, every speech they broadcast and almost every comment they make, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is invoked.
There are Gandhi topis on sale and on heads in the crowd. The round rim of at least one half of his famous spectacles is in the frame when some comedian gets up to entertain a crowd slightly bored of watching a man not eating. When the man himself rises to speak, he does so with the sophistication of the late night televangelist, but mentions a key word repeatedly: ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence).
I am afraid I find this circus — with its supporting cast of involuntarily winking charlatans, stage astrologers reading national horoscopes and alarmingly off-key bhajans quartets — uninspiring. In fact, I find it distasteful and cheap. In other words, I find it ‘neo-Gandhian’.
I might have had fewer problems with this alleged mass movement had it not so deliberately relied on Gandhi. I might have glossed over the illiteracy of the formula for corruption’s extinction that Team Anna provided (the Daft Jan Lokpal Bill), thinking of it as ‘at least a start’. Arundhati Roy, writing in The Hindu, dismissed what the ‘movement’ insists must be tabled and passed in parliament, as something that simply could not be taken seriously. I would have to agree on objective grounds.
My disappointment is not so much with a piece of paper that may or may not get to become legislation. It lies instead with the devaluation of what it means to be a Gandhian. Several commentators have talked about the hypocrisy India’s opportunistic, bribe-giving, tax-evading middle-class, and the naiveté and herd mentality of the youth it has spawned. That the ‘India Against Corruption’ Facebook page (one of the more popular forums) has nearly half a million ‘likes’ should give you a sense of the scale of this movement. That the ‘zoo-zoo’ cartoon characters from a telecom ad campaign have 2.2 million ‘likes’ and show up in ‘similar pages’, should, however, give you pause.
None of this clicking, calling, texting or fasting, however, makes any difference if you are talking Gandhi. The Boss talked basics. As in: are you willing to make personal sacrifices, weather personal losses, endure personal suffering, for a just cause? This thought is a degree of evolution ahead of mere restraint, or ‘ahimsa’.
Apart from giving up some time to attend the Woodstock-like gatherings (if only the music was better…) no one from our neo-Gandhian masses is being called upon to make — or volunteering — a personal sacrifice. The token arrests and releases for loosely enforced laws just don’t cut it. General Dyer isn’t saying ‘fire!’. The tanks aren’t moving in like in Tiananmen Square. Even the Indian government isn’t that foolish. When Gandhi urged people to break laws, he made one thing very clear: they must also face the consequences of their actions. If they chose, deliberately, not to pay a tax, then they must accept any punishment the state hands down for this breach. Sixty thousand people did prison time for selling small quantities of salt.
I haven’t heard a specific message (leave alone seen specific action) that communicates this agitation actually has anything substantial to do with the Gandhi portrait constantly in the background.
Are its thousands of stakeholders (not just one man on a fast) willing to personally take on the state? Here is an idea that middle-class businessmen would love. Given the government’s lack of accountability and the regular looting of national wealth, they might, for instance, refuse to pay income tax. They are already experts at doing this without advertisement. But would they be willing to pay all penalties handed down as a result? Anna doesn’t ask the question. Given this lot, Bapu would think twice as well.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 26th, 2011.