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What will Anna Hazare's legacy be?

August 27, 2012 15:23 IST

The feeling is gathering strength in the Congress that it can see off Anna Hazare if it comes to a fight in the political arena, and that there is nobody else of his stature left to call it to account, says TVR Shenoy.

 

'The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was recognised as a classic of eyewitness history from the moment that it was published in 1960. But long before he was an acclaimed author, William Shirer was one of the finest foreign correspondents of his age, roughly between 1925 and 1950.

At 70 Shirer decided it was time to pen his own memoirs. Having achieved every reporter's dream -- a series of world scoops as a foreign correspondent, followed by a career as best-selling author -- many made a beeline to his door when the news broke.

A standard question was, 'Who was the greatest leader that you ever met?' It was the usual thoughtless question but Shirer was an unusually thoughtful man.

'There were two,' he responded, 'The first was Eamon de Valera [the schoolteacher turned revolutionary who led Ireland's freedom struggle against the British]. And the other was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.' 

When the stunned reporter -- probably expecting Shirer to have responded with the name of a Roosevelt or a Churchill -- asked why, the answer was, 'Because they wielded great power but they never allowed power to seduce them, and so it never corrupted them.'

I would like to believe that, at some level deep down, we have internalised the wisdom expressed so succinctly by Shirer. Lord Acton famously said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but Shirer was saying that this was not necessarily true, that from time to time there is the rare man who can resist the corrupting influence of power.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi could easily have been president of the Congress multiple times and prime minister of India when the time came. He deliberately stepped aside -- and to this day he is still revered as a 'Mahatma'.

Given his prestige, it was open to Jayaprakash Narayan to become the first president of the Janata Party in 1977, and prime minister shortly thereafter. He too chose to step aside -- and even today he is respectfully titled 'Loknayak'.

Yet the reverse is also true, and there are cautionary tales of what happens when leaders wear the mask of renunciation to thrust others out of power, then thrust it aside when office seems within their own reach.

 

VP Singh was at the height of his popularity in the years immediately after he broke with Rajiv Gandhi; the Kashi Vidvat Parishad went to the extent of anointing him as a 'Rajrishi'. In 1989 the Janata Dal came to power, VP Singh became prime minister after some rather questionable -- completely unnecessary -- manoeuvers, and in less than a year the 'Rajrishi' was reduced to being 'Raja of Manda'.

Have Anna Hazare and the members of (the now disbanded) Team Anna fallen into that same trap? They were carried aloft on a wave of popular support from across India as long as they were seen shunning the fruits of power; their fall began when some members of Team Anna decided to participate in the political process, campaigning against the Congress in the Hisar by-election, and now announcing the creation of a new party.

The question of participating in electoral politics was dividing Team Anna even before Anna Hazare chose to formally disband that group. Both Medha Patkar and Justice Santosh Hegde had expressed their reservations, and they were probably correct. Men and women who believed in widely varying political concepts could still work together on the single point of battling corruption. But is that enough to guarantee political success?

Where, for instance, will the new party stand on the issue of foreign direct investment? Will it cut subsidies on fuel and fertilisers? Does it believe in privatisation of electricity distribution? Does it believe in giving Jammu and Kashmir the right of self-determination to the point of independence, or does it want to retain the state in the Union of India at all costs?

These are questions that political parties grapple with on a daily basis. Stating that the new party is determined to fight corruption and enact a Lokpal Bill does not answer any of them.

My fear is that the former Team Anna has walked away from its moral high ground by giving the impression that its anti-corruption campaign was nothing but an attempt to win power for members of Team Anna.

 

I fear that not because of the political fortunes of members of Team Anna but because it could strengthen attempts by the Manmohan Singh government and the Congress to brush aside all allegations of corruption -- wrongdoing in general. 

The feeling is gathering strength in the Congress that it can see off Anna Hazare if it comes to a fight in the political arena, and that there is nobody else of his stature left to call it to account. This belief -- indistinguishable from arrogance -- has been manifest in several ways since Team Anna's initial fall from grace in Hisar. 

The Planning Commission told the Supreme Court that an Indian could not be considered poor if he or she lived on Rs 32 a day -- and nobody in the Congress protested. The Union steel minister defied economic logic when he claimed that inflation was good because it benefitted farmers -- and the Congress would not call him to task for this. It is manifest when Kapil Sibal's reaction to the ongoing saga of Coalgate is the blanket statement that, "Our prime minister can never do anything wrong," while his colleage V K Narayanswamy contemptuously accused the Comptroller & Auditor General of "not following its constitutional mandate".

Simply put, there is nobody left -- so the Congress believes anyhow -- to call the party to account for its acts of commission and omission.

The Janata Party's follies only led India to forget all the excesses of the Emergency, bringing Indira Gandhi back to power. A whole generation of idealistic Indians became cynical, turning its face away from politics, because of a sense of betrayal by VP Singh. What will be Anna Hazare's legacy?

Shirer described Mahatma Gandhi as 'the greatest revolutionary, after Lenin of our age, and the greatest man,' and of the Civil Disobedience campaign that 'All that I had previously covered in Europe somehow seemed trivial.' He lived in an age of giants; we are not as lucky.

TVR Shenoy