Deracinated from movement leader Anna Hazare, the Indian anti-corruption activists, who launched their yet-to-be-named political party on October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, may find it their biggest challenge yet. The Anna movement rose and faded away so easily because corruption is not a fundamental issue like poverty and inequity are. Corruption needs to be addressed by the culture of a society; and inequity, by law. If bribe-giver and bribe-taker are both happy with the outcomes, which one is the aggrieved party? Whenever pushed to the limits of the debate, Anna and his groupies give up on the Jan Lokpal and talk of “electoral reforms”. They swing from a non-political to a political perch, unsure of their ideological position and, eventually, of the following itself.
The vision document of the new anti-corruption party is full of general good purposes: fighting corruption, price rise and money and muscle power in politics; realising the “quest for swaraj (self-rule) — from subject-hood to citizenship”; and demanding, among other things, administrative, police and judicial reforms. Though party leader Arvind Kejriwal wore a Gandhi cap which bore the original demand of the Anna Hazare movement: “Mujhe chahiye Jan Lokpal”, it seems too much and, perhaps, too late.
While Kejriwal had the nation in a frenzy in August 2011, when Anna Hazare went on a 288-hour fast demanding the Jan Lokpal law, a quiet rival movement was taking shape in rural India, which also culminated on Gandhi’s birthday with Jan Satyagraha — a planned march from Gwalior to New Delhi, with an estimated 100,000 activists mainly comprising the landless poor. The march has begun. Organised by Ekta Parishad, it has a ‘game-changer’ slogan, too: “land for the landless”. It is simple enough, as Ekta Parishad president PV Rajagopal declares on the organisation website: “[it] could bring 40 per cent of the populace out of absolute poverty and reduce substantially the violence that is gripping Indian society ... We aren’t asking for any concession or bounties from the government but a small piece of land to build [a] house and agricultural land for sustaining livelihood”. Unlike the sudden Anna movement, Ekta Parishad is a 20-year-old organisation with international financial and network support — mainly, the UK-based Christian Aid. The Jan Satyagraha March has been meticulously planned over four years and the activists, mostly dalits and tribals from the poorest regions of India have been painstakingly mobilised since October last year. Christian Aid believes the month-long march to Delhi is “set to be one of the biggest non-violent campaigns the world has ever witnessed”.
Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh rushed to Gwalior on October 2, but failed to convince the huge crowd of Parishad activists to go back to their states. It is likely that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government will now seek to trash the very antecedents of the movement with its usual ‘foreign hand’ accusations. But Ekta Parishad openly declares its foreign partnerships and affiliations: in Europe, USA, Canada and Brazil, apart from Asian NGO networks. Many of the foreign representatives have joined the march, providing ‘embedded’ international media support.
The UPA will also try to thwart them by simpler means. Although the Parishad gets an annual grant from Christian Aid, the government blocked foreign funds to the Jan Satyagraha campaign, hoping to cut off food supplies to the marchers. However, the campaign anticipated this and marchers were “encouraged to save precious grains over the last year”, the website says. But food and sanitation remain serious challenges.
The Jan Satyagraha will be a tougher bargain for the UPA than the Jan Lokpal. Leaders who tried to run down the Anna movement as “urban and upper-caste” will be deprived of the rhetoric when it comes to the poorest and most-deprived of Indians. It is no surprise that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh found time to meet the Parishad leaders on Wednesday and Minister Jairam Ramesh promised to announce an action plan on land reforms within a week. A week of the march is long enough; a whole month could seed an electoral nightmare.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 5th, 2012.
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