September 3, 2011

Gandhi redux

What we see: social activist Anna Hazare forever poised on the lip of a threat, that of a prolonged fast. What we know: Hazare is demanding that the Parliament of India adopt the Jan Lok Pal bill, as drafted by his team, which promises to create a new, independent and anti-corruption agency.

With the fasting and a leader wearing a white cotton cap of a certain kind, it seems that Gandhi and Gandhism is back in vogue again. Gandhi led one of the greatest political movements the world had ever witnessed – India’s non-violent march towards independence from colonial rule. Many of today’s protestors believe that they are participating in the second freedom struggle from misrule.

So they don the Gandhi cap as they join street protests against corruption and mis-governance in India. Cap=Gandhi, fasting=Gandhism? Equally, while exercising the freedom to protest, there is a danger of undermining the very constitutional processes that have protected these freedoms.

Actually, the contrast could not be starker between the original Gandhi and his self-proclaimed heirs of today. Gandhi did not fast to fan anger and didn’t seek to bring pressure on the government. His political fasts always had a very specific message for his followers. He did not need to fast on a public platform. Yet his political fasts carried the message, strongly, succinctly, and widely, inspiring millions. Gandhi’s self-denial was an occasion for introspection, and bringing the spotlight on the issue at hand. This is why almost on every occasion he was willing and able to compromise and carry his critics along.

There is no doubt about the angst in society today. A large section of the populace has been both victim as well as participant in the prevailing corrupt environment, governance failure and economic mismanagement.

The lack of credible political leadership at the moment has created a vacuum, and it is this space that civil society activists like Anna Hazare has filled. However, good intentions are not sufficient to cure all ills.

It is much easier to join a popular campaign, rather than doing the requisite hard work to understand the underlying causes.

As for the coverage in the mass media, the 24/7 news media have their own interests in stoking the fire in pursuit of the drama, and hardly have the time and space necessary for a dispassionate discourse on any issue.

Mass movement
Gandhi taught the world the power of Satyagraha, peaceful civil disobedience, as he led India’s struggle against British rule. He gave a completely new meaning to the concept of fasting, by turning the traditional Indian ritual into a powerful political tool. The fasting symbolised Gandhi’s own conviction and reflected his confidence in his followers. Gandhi was a leader who expected his friends and followers to rise to the high standards that he set. Today, political leadership primarily consists of pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Gandhi initiated fasts on a number of occasions throughout his long public life. However, he was anything but inflexible. On February 4, 1922, police fired on a procession of protestors near Gorakhpur. A rampaging mob then set fire to the police station in Chauri Chaura, killing more than 20 policemen. Gandhi called off the agitation despite objections from his colleagues in the Congress Party. He felt that his followers had not yet grasped the essence of non-violence and therefore, were not ready to undertake satyagraha.

Fast essentials
In 1932, Gandhi started his politically most controversial fast while in jail, in Pune. The British government had accepted a proposal for separate electorate for lower caste sections of the population, following a demand from Dr B. R. Ambedkar. Gandhi went on a fast against this proposal. He was not fasting against the British government but wanted Ambedkar to withdraw that demand, and not divide the Indian Hindu population on caste lines. After days of negotiations, a compromise was reached, and it was agreed that rather than a separate electorate, a certain number of seats in the assembly would be reserved for the lower caste sections, in order to facilitate their political participation.

Ambedkar was not very happy with the Poona Pact but he accepted the compromise because he felt that if something were to happen to Gandhi, he and the lower caste population would be blamed, and that would put at risk whatever little progress was being made in the matter.

Gandhi performed his biggest miracle in September 1947. He went on a fast in Calcutta, in an ordinary house in a Muslim locality in the city. He said he did not want to see the destruction of the ideals he had tried to strive for all his life. Gandhi declared that unless the violence ended, he would prefer to die. As the word of his fast spread, citizens and leaders began to come out, calling for peace. In three days, the 78- year- old Gandhi was able to calm the religious frenzy and the mob violence ebbed.

Today, the protestors claim to believe in constitutional democracy but do not seem to believe in the legitimacy of the elected Members of Parliament. They claim to represent the angst of the masses against corruption but feel that the same masses are gullible and would never elect ‘honest’ people to office. They claim to be followers of Gandhian ideals… yet one of the most talked about Anna Hazare legends is of him tying up village drunkards to a tree and whipping them with a belt!

While exercising the freedom to protest, there is a danger of undermining the very constitutional processes that have protected these freedoms.

Changing course
For those who want to uphold Gandhian values and fight corruption, it would be worthwhile to ponder if their target should be the elected government of the day, or if, like Gandhi, they could inspire people to eschew the giving and taking of bribes.

The anti-corruption campaigners want to create a strong and independent institution of Lok Pal, combining the roles of policing, investigation and prosecution, all in one. They may be looking for a Superman who could easily turn into Monster Man.

Caught in the middle of the anti-corruption battle, today’s crusaders seems to have forgotten that corruption is not merely a consequence of moral frailty but an outcome of policies that sanction state patronage, bestow favours, and distort normal economic functions.

Institutions matter. But in their zeal to end corruption, the campaigners are attempting to de-legitimise the only institution which the people are able to hold accountable – the Parliament. Most other sections of society, be it family, business or non-profit organisations, do not have such a regular and periodic turnover of leadership, as is the case with the elected representatives. For good or ill, barely half of the sitting legislators have a reasonable prospect of getting re-elected.

In the current turbulent times, it would be useful to remember what Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Committee which drafted the Constitution, said in the Constituent Assembly, in 1949:

If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgment we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution.

It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation
and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

In the name of Gandhi, one should not throw his values and constitutional methods out of the window. It is good that Gandhi is back in the public memory. If this provides us with an opportunity to try and understand him, it will be even better.

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