The Janlokpal Movement: A Critical Assessment

Kavita Krishnan

With Anna Hazare’s fast over, it is time to revisit some of the debates over the direction and content of the anti-corruption movement. At the outset let us say that the Janlokpal movement (led by Anna Hazare) is one current (albeit the dominant current) in the anti-corruption movement. Instead of speaking of Anna and the anti-corruption movement as coterminous, we will seek to make a critical assessment of the Anna-led Janlokpal movement from the perspective of consistent democracy.
Defeat of Sarkari Lokpal and Arrogant UPA
One fact that stands out above all is that there is a tremendous sense of victory and vindication among people: a sense that the Janlokpal movement forced Parliament to acknowledge the people’s wishes in the matter of the Lokpal legislation. The UPA Government had all along tried to arrogantly preach ‘supremacy of parliamentary process’ over people’s movements. But the protestors who rallied around Anna Hazare’s 12-day fast ensured that ‘parliamentary process’ is not above the people. Rather, the people asserted their right to hold parliament and all its processes under their close scrutiny and supervision.
However, even on the limited question of the Lokpal Bill, it is clear that the battle is far from won. The Government’s own draft stands thoroughly discredited and parliament has had to adopt a ‘sense of the house’ resolution accepting in spirit the demand for constitution of Lokayuktas in the states; the bringing of lower bureaucracy under the ambit of Lokpal; and a citizens’ charter with provision for grievance redressal in case of violation of the charter by public servants. Even on these three points, there is every possibility of the Standing Committee (to which the Bill has been referred) backtracking. There is as yet no commitment from Parliament on other crucial questions related to the Lokpal Bill - the independence and transparency of the Lokpal selection process; bringing of PM and MPs’ conduct in Parliament under the ambit of the Lokpal; and the mechanism of tackling judicial corruption.
There are many genuine concerns and questions about the Janlokpal movement that we will come to presently. But first, let us remind ourselves of some of the planks of criticism from which we beg to differ.   
In the left-liberal camp, there were many who accused the Janlokpal movement of ‘blackmail.’ Prabhat Patnaik, for instance, accused Anna’s fast of ‘holding a gun to Parliament.’ According to Patnaik, people’s protests can only “convey their mood to the elected representatives,” but in parliamentary democracy, no one mood can prevail, and decisions would be made through debate. In a situation where there is a deeply unequal relationship between the elected representatives and the people who elect them, can we brand the methods of fasts or strikes as ‘anti-democratic’? Does parliament really harmoniously balance various ‘moods’ and interests – or does it uphold ruling class interests except in the rare cases where it is forced by people’s struggles to make some accommodations or concessions?
Arguments equating parliament with democracy and people’s struggles with coercion are immensely self-destructive for the entire left-democratic movement. Because by implication they subordinate people’s struggles and people’s rights – above all those of workers, peasants and the poor and powerless – to the State. It is like self-censorship in a period of Emergency.
Many left-liberal commentators also dismissed the people in the Janlokpal movement as mere ‘spectators,’ gawking herds, ‘elite’ middle classes, beneficiaries of liberalization, drawn purely by media hype. Such comments themselves smack of the worst elitism and contempt for people’s spontaneous participation in street protests, picketing, courting arrest and so on. One cannot forget that the ‘middle class’ – especially the lower middle class – has also suffered at the hands of liberalization. Youth from this section, in particular, has seen the cruel death of dreams offered by liberalization – with education becoming unaffordable and jobs scarce, insecure, and undignified. Instead of branding all such people as pro-corporate elites with which the Left can have no truck, we ought to engage with them, inviting them to connect the dots between the anti-corruption struggle and struggles against corporate plunder and liberalization policies.              
The Politics of Symbols and Slogans
Symbols and slogans are a very significant part of any movement. During the April fast, the ‘Bharat Mata’ figure in the stage backdrop, and the ‘Vande Mataram’ slogan were very prominent. The ‘Bharat Mata’ figure – a depiction of the nation as a goddess atop a lion – and the ‘Vande Mataram’ slogan have a long history of political deployment by the Sangh Parivar. Perhaps their choice at that juncture was made to woo the Baba Ramdev crowd (in April, the Baba could still be taken seriously as a competitor to Anna). Whatever the reason, the use of those images and slogans strongly associated with the Sangh Parivar were a cause of deep (and legitimate) discomfort and suspicion in the secular progressive camp, especially among minority communities and dalits/OBCs.
This is not to say that there was no participation from these sections in the JLP movement; indeed, there was. But the disquiet and uneasiness too was there. In the very first press conference after the April fast, Anna praised two BJP-NDA CMs for their ‘rural development model’: Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar. Anna withdrew the praise for Modi subsequently, saying that rampant corruption in Gujarat had been brought to his notice. But the very fact that Anna could choose to praise Modi, ignoring his role in the Gujarat genocide, contributed even more to alienation of the minorities and oppressed castes.
The Anna team did try some damage control. They consciously distanced themselves from Ramdev’s fast on the grounds that communal leaders shared his platform. They replaced Bharat Mata with Gandhi at the Ramlila fast. ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ joined ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ among Anna’s three trademark slogans. But by that time, the quite justified seeds of discomfort among minorities and oppressed castes, fed and watered assiduously by ideologues close to the Congress, had taken deep root.
At the end of the 12-day Ramlila fast, in an obvious acknowledgement of their Muslim-dalit Achilles Heel, Anna adopted a new symbol. He repeatedly invoked Dr. Ambedkar. He broke his fast by accepting juice from two little girls - one dalit and one Muslim. But this crude symbolism was too superficial, too insincere to allay such fears generated by the much more powerful, Sangh-associated symbols of ‘Bharat Mata’ and ‘Vande Mataram’! 
The ‘Modi moment’ was not the only time Anna has had to retract or modify remarks which have embarrassed his core group. More recently, after core group member Prashant Bhushan publicly distanced himself from Anna’s repeated calls for hanging the corrupt and terrorists, Anna too said he stood persuaded that calling for the death penalty is un-Gandhian and therefore undesirable.
While such retractions do indicate a willingness of Anna and his colleagues to admit and correct mistakes, they also indicate the patchiness of Anna’s social and political world view and the lack of any deeper democratic ideological foundation. They also indicate that the ‘Team’ itself is a coalition of people with very different ideological and political inclinations and commitments.
It is noteworthy, however, that Anna has taken pains to question the credibility of Advani’s rath yatra as well as Modi’s fast. Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan of Anna’s core group were quick to condemn the arrests of Mallika Sarabhai, Mukul Sinha and other activists who were leading a protest procession of riot victims in Gujarat.     
Irom’s Welcome Is A Challenge
The national flag is another symbol employed by Anna. But the very use of such flag-waving nationalism invited comparisons with Irom Sharmila’s 11-year long fast against AFSPA. In response to a letter inviting her to Delhi, Irom sent a reply from the ‘security ward’ of an Imphal hospital where she is imprisoned. She welcomed Anna’s anti-corruption efforts, but pointing out that she herself is denied the democratic freedom to protest that Anna enjoys. She invited Anna to visit Manipur and to take up the cause of securing her freedom. Recent reports in papers suggest that the core group is divided over the question of solidarity with Irom’s struggle against AFSPA. According to some newspapers, Anna himself and most of his core group were in favour of extending support to Irom, it is yet to happen because Kiran Bedi had reservations. Similarly, there have been calls from Kashmir asking Anna to visit the families of ‘disappeared persons’ in the wake of the human rights scandal over the mass graves.
Kashmir and Manipur have posed a challenge to Anna and his movement – can they rise to the occasion with bold and imaginative solidarity to democratic issues which complicate the slick symbolism of the tricolour?
No one expects Anna Hazare to lead every struggle or take up every issue. But Anna and the JLP movement, like any other democratic movement, will naturally be called upon to take a stand on a range of democratic issues and political questions, including communalism, caste oppression, and state repression. Faltering and hesitation at such moments expose the moral and political limitations and contradictions of Anna’s narrowly defined ‘anti-corruption’ agenda.  
An Incomplete Agenda
Most of the recent scams – 2G, Bellary, KG Basin – relate to corporate plunder, and it is clear that allowing private interests to appropriate public resources is at the root of these scams.
In an interview (Frontline April 23-May 06, 2011), Prashant Bhushan had stressed that the policies of privatization that are enabling corporate control of the bulk of resources are creating a huge incentive for corruption. Unless these policies are changed, he said, corporations will continue to be able to subvert every democratic institution and “however credibly you try to create a Lokpal, it cannot withstand the onslaught.”
Prashant Bhushan is a member of Anna’s core group. But while he as an individual has stressed this point, Anna Hazare and the JLP leadership as a whole has carefully steered clear of addressing the policy roots of corruption. The Janlokpal draft does have several clauses that address the corrupt nexus between corporates and public servants/politicians. But in public discourse, in Anna’s speeches for instance, there is no attempt to discuss this nexus as the cause of the worst corruption witnessed today. Instead, the entire discourse is focused on corrupt netas – the corporate beneficiaries hardly ever merit a mention.
As long as the Janlokpal movement avoids addressing this crucial, twin aspect of the corruption issue, it will remain, at best, a well-intentioned movement that cannot really take the battle against corruption to its logical conclusion. Corporate corruption, if not confronted, will not only subvert even the best Janlokpal, it will corrode the credibility and courage of the Janlokpal movement too.   
Anna has begun speaking of a struggle for ‘vyavastha parivartan’ (changing the system). But the moot question here is – what model of social change? A movement for social change would be expected to have social and political clarity on a number of issues – communalism, caste oppression, state repression on oppressed nationalities and people’s movements, economic policies and the social structure. Without such clarity, slogans of ‘systemic change’ can only be rather hollow and vague. 
CPI(ML) in the Anti-Corruption Movement
Unlike many in the Left-liberal camp, the CPI(ML) did not fall into the trap of denouncing the Janlokpal movement and defending the system in the name of parliamentary supremacy. We welcomed the people’s aspirations and assertion against corruption, and strongly protested every act of repression by the government, be it the lathicharge at Ramlila Grounds or the arrest of Anna. At the same time, we were candid in our criticism of Anna – be it for his praise of Nitish and Modi, or for his silence on policy issues and corporate corruption.
While we too demanded a genuine Lokpal law, we refused to restrict ourselves to the narrow confines of the Janlokpal agenda as defined by Anna Hazare. Instead we strove to build a powerful, independent, Left-democratic current in the anti-corruption movement, one that emphasised the need for reversal of the policy regime that is breeding corruption and linked the anti-corruption agenda with the broader struggle to defend democracy.
In this effort, we have made a good beginning. The student-youth campaign and barricade at Jantar Mantar established an independent and distinct identity and credibility. Thousands of copies of the ‘Combat Corruption, Save Democracy’ booklets published by our party were sold all over the country.
We also strove to isolate and expose the Sangh-BJP-NDA forces trying to ride piggyback on the anti-corruption issue. In NDA-ruled Bihar, the Bihar Bandh called by AISA-RYA on 27 August, while championing the demand for a genuine Lokpal and Lokayukta, exposed Nitish Kumar’s anti-corruption claims. The successful Bandh targeted not only the corrupt and repressive central Government, but the AC/DC Bill and BIADA land allotment scams and the Forbesganj firing in which JD(U)-BJP leaders are implicated. AIALA’s protest initiative in rural Bihar on the same day highlighted the Indira Awas scam that had even led to suicides of rural poor victims of the scam.
In Bhavnagar in Gujarat, a procession called by AISA on 24 August was faced with lathicharge and arrests by the police. AISA’s bandh call on the very next day received a huge response, with 5000 students spontaneously boycotting classes to gherao the police thana and ensure the release of arrested activists. In the process, the anti-corruption mood effectively turned against the Modi Government in Gujarat as well as the Central Government.  

Our effort has been, and continues to be, to make common cause with people’s spirit of fighting corruption and struggling for a genuine Lokpal law, while striving to unleash people’s initiative on the whole range of corruption that affects common people, and to carry the anti-corruption movement forward to offer a political challenge to scam-ridden state and central governments and their regime of corporate plunder and repression.