Odd setting. Bad formulation. Wrong on facts. But a fair question, nevertheless. A question that needs to be faced squarely: Was supporting the Anna Hazare movement and the Aam Aadmi Party a historic blunder? Should people like me accept our responsibility for unleashing a monster on India?
This question sprang out of the blue during Rajdeep Sardesai’s India Today TV show on 27 September on the Bharat Bandh organised by farmers. To the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s charge of Congress having sponsored this agitation, I took a light dig and said the country’s history would have been different if the Congress (I should have added: or any other party in this country) could mobilise lakhs of farmers for 10 months. This evidently incensed Pawan Khera, Congress’s bilingual, articulate, sharp and combative spokesperson on the show. Suddenly, he turned to the Anna movement, insinuated that I was involved in mobilising Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) support for it and challenged me to now organise RSS support for the farmers’ movement.
I couldn’t help smiling. Not because I don’t take Pawan Khera seriously, but because the whole situation was so weird. One, this outburst had nothing to do with the topic of the day– the Bharat Bandh. Two, if he wanted to prove me wrong on Congress’ mobilisational capacity, the role of the RSS in the Anna movement was hardly germane. This was classic ad hominem (attack the person, not the argument) reasoning so common on our TV debates. Three, in any case, he was dialling a wrong number since I had very little to do with decision making during the heydays of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement. I was a supporter and fellow-traveller of the movement, but was not even a member of IAC, let alone a part of its formal or informal core, Team Anna. The first time I had any conversation with Anna Hazare was in 2012, months after the famous Jantar Mantar and Ramlila Maidan protests. So, the idea of my organising RSS support for IAC was beyond ridiculous. Instead of shouting, I just laugh off such things.
It didn’t stop here. Congress supporters were clearly excited with Pawan Khera’s performance, and showered me with choicest of abuses on social media. I clarified the difference between my association with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), but non-association with Team Anna during the heydays of IAC. For some reason, Pawan Khera pressed the charge that I was lying to escape responsibility, but could not back up the charge. Thus ended an unpleasant, avoidable exchange that could not rise to the level of a meaningful dialogue.
Did the Anna movement aid BJP?
Let me attempt it here. Distractions, insinuations and abuses apart, there is a fair question underlying this exchange. Forget the technical difference between IAC and AAP, how do we assess the role of that movement and those associated with it? Was it a grand RSS conspiracy to bring the BJP to power? Was this a fraud perpetrated on the nation in the name of anti-corruption? Wasn’t this movement and those associated with it responsible for discrediting Congress and bringing Narendra Modi to power? Let us examine these dispassionately.
The idea of the Lokpal movement as a grand conspiracy to bring the BJP to power does not merit much discussion. Not because there was no conspiracy, but because there were too many. At any given point, politics is full of designs, short term and long term, realistic and fanciful. Often, real life is an unintended consequence produced by a random collision of many of these conflicting designs. This is exactly what happened during the Anna movement. IAC promoters had their collective design that kept growing and changing. Anna Hazare brought his personal agenda. The BJP was in the wilderness then and it stands to reason that the BJP and RSS must have sensed an opportunity and tried their best to realise this. The idea that all these competing designs were secretly pre-aligned by the RSS has as much evidence to back it as the theory that the current farmers’ movement has been designed by the Congress. Besides, such a neat theory does not explain why the AAP was such a thorn in the flesh for the BJP, and Modi personally, in the run-up to the 2014 election.
Let us consider a more plausible version, a theory of unintended but anticipable consequences: The Anna movement and the AAP may not have been a conspiracy to aid Modi, but they did end up helping the BJP’s rise. Could the supporters of this movement not see this? Do they not carry that responsibility?
There is some merit to this reasoning. The Anna movement delegitimised an increasingly unpopular United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and intensified popular anger against it. This presented a perfect opportunity for the BJP that was incapable of such mass mobilisation at that time. It used the opportunity deftly. The formation of the AAP fitted into this design as long as it served to divide Congress votes, and not become a rival to the BJP. Eventually, the Modi camp managed to contain the electoral reach of AAP.
Are we responsible?
So, should the leaders and supporters of the Anna movement share the responsibility for the rise of Modi? Yes, in politics you do not limit your responsibility to things you do knowingly. You are also responsible for things you never intended but that you could have foreseen and guarded against. In this sense, people like me must take part in the responsibility. Our mistake was not in attacking dubious acts of the UPA government that reeked of corruption, but in not being able to channelise the resultant anger in an alternate direction. It was as true then as it is now: Only an honest critic of the Congress could have offered an effective critique of the BJP. Our mistake was not in forming a political party – not doing so would have played into the hands of the BJP – but in not being able to ensure that the party stayed on an ethical course. As soon as we realised this, we protested and were thrown out of the party. But enough damage had been done by then.
Specifically, people like me and Prashant Bhushan failed to foresee the most dangerous personality traits of Arvind Kejriwal: His willingness to sacrifice everything at the altar of electoral success. I found him ambivalent on issues of social justice and dithering on secularism, but not, on the whole, a pucca sanghi. The real problem was not that he was ‘Muslim hater’ (he was not, and I believe he still is not), but that he was willing to do anything for the sake of votes. We seriously underestimated his insecurity, his stranglehold over the new party and his ability to manipulate everything and everyone. And we over-estimated the strength of rules and institutions like the party’s Lokpal to resist its capture by a coterie. These were serious errors of judgement from which we cannot escape responsibility.
Lazy political analysis
The question we ask of IAC and AAP should be asked of others too. The leaders and supporters of the Left must take some responsibility for the en-masse shift of its voters to the BJP in West Bengal. The Congress must answer for its long association with Muslim and Christian communal parties in Kerala. Are we willing to anticipate such questions about the possible consequences of the Congress-NCP alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or the Congress-AIUDF alliance in Assam?
Finally, would the Congress have won in 2014 if the Anna movement had not taken place? Such counterfactual questions are hard, nearly impossible, to answer. But one thing is clear: It would take a lazy mind to imagine that all was well with the India story, but for the Anna movement. The fact is that the second UPA government lacked coherence, political imagination or even a modicum of popular communication. It was a bad government and was seen to be one, Anna or no Anna. The country was yearning for a strong leader. Secular politics had long lost its connect with the people. That is what paved the way for Modi’s rise to power.
If we now look back and blame one short-lived movement and a regional party for this historic calamity, it is not just bad reasoning and unfair apportioning of blame, it is also poor politics. Looking for scapegoats for our collective inability to defend constitutional values in the face of the BJP onslaught is an admission of political defeat. Let us not turn our backs to the real political challenge of our times.
The author is a member of Swaraj India and co-founder of Jai Kisan Andolan. Views are personal.