While he is back at Ramlila Maidan campaigning for the same issues as in 2011, his supporters and sympathisers have moved on.
New Delhi: It has just been seven years, but 2011 might as well have been a lifetime away for social activist Anna Hazare, whose ongoing hunger strike at Ramlila Maidan has triggered none of last time’s political frenzy.
Then, he was the toast of an entire country as he led his massive anti-corruption rally. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was under the scanner for several high-profile scams, and exasperated Indians turned out in droves to rally behind Hazare. His team included known faces such as Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi, among others.
At the time, everyone had a reason to woo Anna. Seeking an end to the agitation, the UPA wanted to placate him, and sent union minsters to negotiate with him. The BJP sniffed a political opportunity, and was out on the streets supporting the agitation. For Kejriwal and company, it was an opportunity to convince the masses about their sincerity.
Criticism and some ‘advice’
Fast forward to 2018, and a lot has changed. In 2014, the Congress was reduced to its lowest-ever tally of 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed office at the Centre with a thumping majority. Team Anna as it stood in 2011 collapsed over disagreement on whether they should form a political party. Kejriwal and a few others split, floated the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and formed the government in Delhi.
Now, while Anna is back at Ramlila Maidan campaigning for the same issues as before, others have moved on. Once the darling of India’s netas, it is as if Anna has now become a political untouchable.
The Congress was most emphatic in explaining why they had decided to stay away from Anna’s agitation, despite shared causes such as farmers’ distress. The party believes Anna is the “B-team” of the BJP and its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and “has doubts about his credibility”.
“The 2011 movement of Anna was an RSS-BJP movement organised solely with the aim of discrediting the UPA government. It was propaganda,” Delhi Congress president Ajay Maken told ThePrint.
“The issues are important but it is also important (to see) who is raising these issues. We have doubts about Anna’s credibility,” he added.
He said the issues raised by Anna, be it farmers’ welfare or electoral reforms or Lokpal, “have continuously been raised by our party president Rahul Gandhi”.
The BJP, on the other hand, had advice for the “aged” activist.
“He is a nice man and social worker, but these sit-ins don’t suit his stature,” a party leader told ThePrint. “We don’t want to indulge in blame-game politics, but he should just relax now and do more social work than politics.”
AAP Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Singh said the party would consider joining Anna at Ramlila Maidan if he gave them a “positive signal”. “Anna has our full moral support as he is raising the same issues we have been raising for a long time,” he added.
Low crowds, strained finances
Anna’s faded aura is on show at Ramlila Maidan too: From lakhs in 2010, the crowd is down to a few hundred now. A member of Team Anna said, “Most of the people in Delhi are not even aware of the agitation this time. Everyone in this small crowd has come from outside.”
Their finances are in dire straits too. Collections for the first six days – the agitation started 23 March — have totalled Rs 1.5 lakh, when the team is spending Rs 2 lakh daily to keep the show running.
“Team members are helping with their personal money but it’s difficult to continue like this because even the team members have limited resources,” a member of Team Anna told ThePrint.
Asked if the absence of Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia — also a part of the 2011 agitation — was a factor in the low attendance this time, AAP MP Singh said, “Every movement has a phase and lifetime. A movement started for the same cause can’t garner the same amount of attention all the time.”
Before starting the latest agitation, Anna resolved to not invite political parties, or allow their members to share the stage. In light of the old Team Anna’s break-up, before coming to Delhi, he also made all his core committee members swear an affidavit that none of them would ever join a political party.
The wisdom of such a decision can be questioned because some political players said Anna had, in a way, compelled them to stay away.
“As far as the issues are concerned, we fully support him. These are the issues we’ve been fighting for,” Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member Brinda Karat told ThePrint. “But Anna has made it very clear that it’s a non-political platform.” Asked if the CPI (M) would support Anna if he asked for it, the answer was an emphatic yes.
Communist Party of India (CPI) MP D. Raja echoed Karat.
“The CPI has been fighting for these issues for a long time… Anna should be supporting our movement,” he said. Raja added, however, that Anna “has made it very clear that his platform is non-political”.
Talking about the possibility of the AAP’s participation in the rally, MP Sanjay Singh also cited this factor. “We have to respect his sentiments,” he added.
The Swaraj Abhiyan, led by former AAP member Yogendra Yadav, has been campaigning in support of farmers since the party’s inception two years ago. Sources told ThePrint that Yadav had planned a visit to meet Anna at Ramlila Maidan, but dropped it at the last moment.
To show solidarity, he instead visited the venue for five to seven minutes Wednesday as part of the audience. “Anna doesn’t want political parties on stage. We respect his feelings. As far as the issues are concerned, we fully support him,” said Anupam Singh, Delhi chief of the Swaraj Abhiyan.
With inputs from Pragya Kaushika