Anna Hazare and the Gandhian Moment


New Oranna-hazare-factsleans Walking downstairs in the predawn there was the smell of smoke in the air.  It smelled exactly like a Delhi morning where the acrid dawn is a daily greeting.  Something must be burning on the bayous.  It was enough of a sign that it must be time to talk about Anna Hazare and his widely watched hunger strike now on its 9th day as he and his followers, supported no doubt by millions, press for their version of an anti-corruption bill now pending before the Indian Parliament.

We’ve talked about this before, but to refresh less than religious readers, Hazare several months ago in a similar maneuver managed to break a logjam in the Parliament with such Gandhian tactics campaigning for the Lokpal, a special appointive commission (where he won a determined veto on many members) that was designed to root out corruption, which is universally acknowledged as epidemic at all levels of Indian society.  The government has drug its feet, as governments tend to do, and the final form of the measure is still up for grabs.  Hazare and his people have seized the moment by trying to expand the scope of the Lokpal to include the judiciary and other executive branches and to make the body even more autonomous, creating a vast national bureaucracy, which would have full scope to pursue corruption with accountability to no one.

Regardless of the merits of Hazare’s proposal, much of which is avowedly undemocratic and reeks of the same kind of blue-ribbon “goo-goo” reformist efforts we see rise from time (and even now) where self-proclaimed reformers try to seize powers from elected leaders and citizens on the arrogant presumption of their greater “expertise,” education, investment or whatever, both the old and new tactics Hazare and Team Anna, as they call themselves, are bringing to the fight are worth a good, hard look.  Hazare has also had a huge ally in a fumbling government that has done him the great favor of being even more autocratic and undemocratic than his proposal and preemptively arrested him, igniting the current crisis, fearing the unrest that his early announcement of a hunger strike until death would bring.

No small amount of Hazare’s appeal has come from his and others self-identification with Mahatma Gandhi or what the Hindustan Times calls “Gandhi Lite” arguing that Hazare is Gandhi in style (dressing, fasting, speaking), but otherwise off the game.  Regardless, he has the government in a pickle, which no amount of disparagement can conceal.  They already lost the initiative with his original arrest.  They cannot allow him to die without concession, so Parliamentary and governmental leaders are going to have to make some kind of deal now, whether they like it or not, and likely will have to do in another week or so as the prospect of a “fast to the death” becomes more likely to be fatal.

All of this is also even more interesting since I have currently been reading Joseph Lelyveld’s incisive recent book about Gandhi, Great Soul, which ironically is also “banned in India” not because it is different from the usual, hagiography but reportedly for the passages that raise questions about Gandhi’s sexuality and relationships with men.  Actually reading the book, those sections are the least interesting parts of Lelyveld’s analysis especially compared to the discussions of Gandhi’s challenges as an organizer and leader with his dramatic feints to the front and his sudden almost inexplicable retreats to the rear of the movement and his tactical strengths and often strategic weaknesses coupled with his tendency to negotiate agreements that were often fatally weak in substance and detail.  All of this pales compared to his strengths which were transcendent as a pure politician commanding, usually autocratically, the majority of Indians with a power that was popular because it was moral and transforming.  The fragility of the vessel was nothing compared to the pure clarity and sweetness of the water, quenching the thirst of the people.

Reading Great Soul at the same time as I track the current campaign in India, it often seems to me that perhaps Hazare is more Gandhian that his supporters and his critics would want to concede.  Both seem to be astute tacticians with a razor sharp sense of the moment.  Both are untroubled by any pretense of accountability, democracy, or anything less than their own superior sense of the “rightness” of their position.  Both had negotiated agreements with power that were often inadequate, which is one of the reasons Hazare is once more fasting, and both were not immune from making wildly impractical proposals often more symbolic than that substantial.  Gandhi’s sense of the symbol and his range of issues, campaigns, targets, and ambitions both personally and politically, make anyone else, and certainly Hazare, dwarfs in comparison.

Nonetheless, taken all together, it would be crazy to bet against them on the final outcome of any campaign.