In this season of parliamentary discontent in Delhi, take a listen to what the new heroes of the land — civil society activists and, may I have the courage to add, Bollywood heroes — have to say about elected members of parliament. They are “anparh” (illiterate), “ganwaar” (rustic) and have “looted” the country.
Anna Hazare, the self-professed Gandhian, has watched from the enormous stage that has been his world for the last 11 days, reclining on his white pillows and mattress, with an enormous portrait of Gandhi as his backdrop. Now it seems there’s even a statue of Hazare in the back rooms, perhaps in anticipation of sainthood being conferred on him. It’s a marvellous ad campaign, to be sure.
But back to the newfound praise for our parliamentarians from these activists, even Om Puri, whose brilliant cinematic renditions of stories from a poverty-stricken country will remain forever etched in our memory, couldn’t help himself. He, too, fell for the middle-class syndrome that best defines itself with the following phrase: Indira Gandhi was right to impose the Emergency in the mid-1970s because at least the trains ran on time!
This reminds me of the people’s outpouring in favour of army chief general Pervez Musharraf when he mounted his coup against Nawaz Sharif in 1999. Pakistanis, it was said, were so fed up with the grease on which every layer of their nation was being built that they welcomed a man who promised to wipe it clean. At the time, it didn’t matter that he was in uniform.
Make no mistake, the Anna Hazare campaign is predominantly a creation of the television media, which has forced parliament on its knees. Irom Sharmila, a Manipuri woman, who has been on hunger strike these past 11 years against the army’s presence in her native Manipur — she is being force-fed through a tube and divides her time between the hospital and home — is largely ignored by this same media, largely because she hasn’t encapsulated her message in stronger and simpler terms.
Television likes it black and white, at least in India, and you have to understand the power of its simplicity. So when Anna Hazare intelligently tapped into the enormous resentment and anger against a system that Indians know leaks from every sieve, and he couched it into a so-called ‘Gandhian’ struggle against the political class, it was a tailor-made campaign for TV.
Everyone knows that corruption touches our political masters too. Phrases like ‘horse-trading’ abound each time there’s a political crisis in any part of the country. When you hear stories of elected representatives being ‘sold’ for a mere Rs250 million as in Karnataka recently, or the sight of millions of rupees — with the image of Gandhi flagrantly visible on TV — then the shudder courses through all our beings.
But what about epithets like ‘ganwaar’ and ‘anparh’ that the civil society has painted the entire political class with? Fact is, just because I’m literate didn’t make me less corrupt. In fact, one of the reasons the constitution has stood the test of time is because the illiterate and the rustic have contributed beyond measure to building our nation — and they may or may not be corrupt.
Anna Hazare’s greatest contribution has been to put the issue of corruption, back and front and centre. It is his if-you’re-not-with-me-you’re-against-me campaign that smacks of George Bush.
In India, that will increasingly provoke a guffaw. And laughter, as we all know, is the deadliest weapon.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2011.