‘The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk,’ wrote the great early nineteenth-century philosopher Hegel in his preface to Philosophy of Right. Minerva is the goddess of wisdom in Roman mythology, accompanied or represented by an owl, but that apart, what Hegel said—philosophy can comprehend a historical situation only when the moment has passed—reminds of a recent development in India. The founder of the political party Swaraj Abhiyan, Yogendra Yadav, said those who participated in the Anna Hazare movement against corruption must accept they paved the way for the rise of the Hindu Right. Yadav asked in his column, “So, should the leaders and supporters of the Anna movement share the responsibility for the rise of [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi?” He admits, “Yes, in politics you do not limit your responsibility to things you do knowingly...people like me must take part in the responsibility.”
Earlier, Prashant Bhushan, a leading lawyer and civil rights activist, had admitted that the movement misled him. He said in a TV interview that the BJP-RSS propped up the Anna movement, and had he known earlier, he would have dissociated from it. These late realisations will not immediately impact the situation. As Prof Zoya Hasan said in a lecture, in the hey-day of that movement, we were experiencing a “reshaping of democracy by majoritarian politics” led by the Indian Right.
Yet, why did some educated Indians, who are all for justice and inclusive politics and whose commitment to the Constitution is beyond doubt, get mesmerised by the “Anna Is India, India is Anna” slogan and join a movement Hindutva forces supported? Why did they refuse to listen to saner voices, cautioning them about the implicit problems in it?
How were they so taken up by the media-promoted “Anna revolution” that they neither considered the “second Mahatma’s” antecedents in Marathi chauvinism nor his silence after the 2002 communal mayhem, nor that key members of Team Anna were associated with Youth for Equality, an anti-reservation forum?
Leading journalist Rajesh Ramachandran had cautioned that the idea of civil society having primacy over Parliament, which the Anna Movement propagated, essentially fulfilled the Sangh Parivar’s plan to rewrite the Constitution. Another senior journalist, Iftikhar Gilani, asked in Tehelka magazine, Is RSS Running the Anna Show?
Prof Prabhat Patnaik, too, observed the seeds of messianism in the movement. He said it sought to substitute the collective subject—the people—by an individual. The result is reducing the role of people “merely to being supporters and cheerleaders for one man’s actions”, which is “antithetical to democracy”. Referring to Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s approach and comparing it with Hazare’s politics, Prof Sukhdeo Thorat had clearly warned of the dangers of hero-worshipping. “Bhakti or hero-worship in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul, but in politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship,” he wrote.
There were many such cautionary signals, but none compelled the movement’s protagonists to raise questions over the agenda of the campaign. In fact, despite singing paeans to the Constitution, the overall tone of the movement was that “people’s supremacy over Parliament entails, ipso facto, Anna’s supremacy over Parliament”. This was evident, for example, when it came to adopting their version of the Lokpal Bill.
It is essential to draw the necessary lessons from these ignored warmings so that tomorrow, we do not face a similar predicament when another refurbished mahatma appears whom citizens follow again, supposedly to clear the Augean stable of Indian politics. The Anna movement was not the first in independent India that arose to “eliminate corruption from public life”. In the mid-seventies in Bihar, students and the youth joined the famous movement under the leadership of freedom fighter Jayaprakash Narayan in massive numbers, along with a motley combination of non-Congress formations with the RSS and its affiliated organisations, including the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.
The movement ultimately triggered the imposition of internal emergency and later the formation of the first non-Congress government at the Centre, in which the RSS/Jana Sangh had a key role. In the later part of the eighties, a movement led by former prime minister VP Singh, who was earlier with the Congress, also targeted the alleged acts of omission and commission in the Bofors deal. Non-Congress formations, including the BJP and its parent RSS, supported it.
These anti-corruption movements focussed on key individuals or the alleged irregularities under their watch. They always glossed over the structural reasons for corruption, which is illegal loot in the eyes of citizens. They never tried to see how corruption is systemic and flows from the economic policies of governments.
But the commonality between these anti-corruption movements does not end here. In retrospect, we have seen these movements helped sanitise the Hindutva Right in Indian politics; make it more acceptable. Participating in the JP-led Bihar movement helped the RSS gain legitimacy for the first time in post-independence national politics. Until then, it was widely critiqued for its members never participating in the anti-colonial struggle. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the then Home Minister of India, denounced the RSS for creating an ambience that led to the assassination of Gandhi.
The proactive support and participation of the Sangh-BJP in the VP Singh-led movement ‘against corruption in defence deals’ was another milestone that led to the broader acceptance of Hindutva formations as political players in the country. During the Anna movement as well, a plethora of Hindutva supremacist formations felt rejuvenated. They were defensive until the alleged (and often proven) role of their ‘activists’ in violence and communal strife and much worse was being investigated. These investigations into the so-called Hindutva cases were reaching those higher up in such outfits. Then the anti-corruption movement came along, helping lift the morale of these outfits and the BJP, which had faced defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. Importantly, the movement further discredited the Congress party and created an ambience more suitable to “redefine” democracy. In other words, many elements of majoritarian politics, which gained further currency post-2014, started getting legitimacy during those days of the Anna movement.
Take the idea of ‘democracy as people’s will’, widespread among the movement’s supporters. The concept looks attractive but is problematic. It can effectively get reduced to what the majority wants. It can create situations where the majority can crush the minority, turning the country towards a majoritarian democracy.
The phenomenon of anti-corruption movements facilitating the path of the Right, legitimising them, is not India-specific. Brazil under Bolsonaro is another contemporary example. The Workers’ Party in Brazil, which backed social justice policies, was cornered when the Federal Police of Brazil undertook investigations into “Operation Car Wash”. Led by the upper-middle class, with the connivance of the corporate media, this movement was unleashed for “clean politics” but enthroned rabid Right politician Jair Bolsonaro. At the same time, Luiz Inacio Lula, the popular former president who formed the Workers’ Party, ended in jail.
If India had Anna Hazare as an icon of the anti-corruption movement, in Brazil, Judge Sergio Moro, who heard the “Lava Jato” case, became the superstar of the anti-corruption movement. Later, Moro was found “partial in his investigations” and seen as party to stopping the Workers’ Party from winning the 2018 elections. Brazil’s Supreme Court has ruled that Sergio Maro was biased in the Lula Trial. Now, Lula is out of jail, and it is Bolsonaro who faces corruption charges. According to pollsters, there is a fair chance that the Workers’ Party—possibly led by Lula—will bounce back to power in the next election.
The nightmare through which Brazil is passing will possibly be over, but it is difficult to predict when the twilight of democracy in India will end.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.