Radical Indians

The Obituary of a Movement

Manu Joseph became a journalist because he did not have to crack any objective-type entrance exam to be one. He is the author of two novels -- The Illicit Happiness of Other People, and Serious Men, his first, which won The Hindu Literary Prize and was one of Huffington Post 10 Best Books of 2010.
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It was good, it was brief

There is a type of talented Indian who lives in the United States with his austere wife to whom he lost his virginity, and has two children who are good at spelling. He walks with a mild slouch. He is still intimidated by White waiters, but not Black waiters. In an elevator, chiefly in an elevator, he suspects he is probably small. He does not drive a Prius. He is acquainted with the word ‘generalise’ as something other people should not do. He is often a she. He is fundamentally a good person by almost all the definitions of that human condition—he is against genocide, burning people alive, including Muslims, and stabbing children, including Muslim children. And he loves Narendra Modi. ‘And’ not ‘but’, for ‘but’ will mean that he has considered all the facts and has made a moral decision. He loves Modi for honourable reasons. He loves the idea of a smart, tough and proud Hindu. He loves him because he loves Mother India. He was not always so traditional and patriotic.

He will give many reasons why he is so now, he will give abstract reasons. He will say love is abstract, love is inevitable. It is not, in reality. Love is calculated, always. In America’s caste system, he is nowhere at the top. In fact, at times he feels he is at the bottom. There are moments, he knows, when brown is the new black. Back home he was something by virtue of his birth, his lineage and education, which was clear to all in plain sight. And the riffraff, which knew its place, readily granted him his, unlike in the United States. That is why he loves India. That is why the Third World middleclass and the rich who live in the West are deeply in love with their homelands. Nations that are filled with the poor are feudal in nature, and so excellent homes for the middleclass. India is probably the best.

Resident Indians, despite all their reasonable grudges, experience the privileges every day. That is at the heart of the collapse of Team Anna’s apparent revolution, which called for a battle to the brink to overturn Indian politics, and asked informed Indians to dismantle what ignorant voters had erected. But then there is no genuine trauma in the Indian elite for them to soil their lives with strife. The Indian middleclass (the not-poor and everything above) does daydream about lining up downmarket politicians and shooting them, but they simply cannot be angry enough and angry too long. What reasons do they have really to be angry in this paradise of the middleclass? They are, after all, the easy beneficiaries of India’s inequities. It is not just about the maids, the baby maids, the cooks, the gardeners and the drivers, who come at laughable rates. The comfort is much deeper. As long as one is from a certain background, one does not have to be exceptional to go a long way in the private sector, academics, arts, media, anything really. In fact, one can even be a low-grade tennis player and still be considered a sports star in India.

But when it all began in April last year, when Anna Hazare arrived in Delhi to fast until he died or achieved the Lokpal, the middleclass assumed they were the predominant victims of the Indian way of life. And they thought the moment had finally come, when they could finally disrupt the political establishment by cheering one old man as he performed his only trick, which is to starve until the orange juice materialises.

At the time, he was not known to most Indians. He had by then won the Padma Bhushan for social work, but such award winners are usually known only to those who gave them the awards and their small constituencies of miserable people. In Hazare’s case, that constituency was a portion of rural Maharashtra. Before April 2011, his name usually evoked amused smiles from Mumbai’s political reporters. There was no doubt that he was financially incorruptible and that his fasts against corruption were not entirely farcical movements. But there was something material that Hazare adored. He liked the idea of the powerful taking note of him, his protests, and like all simple old men of his type he could be a terrible pain when slighted. This, Maharashtra’s politicians knew very well. At the first hint of a Hazare fast, they would run to his feet, make vacant promises and from somewhere the juice would materialise, and everything would be alright. Sonia Gandhi, if she were advised by men who were not so hopelessly arrogant, could have probably avoided Hazare’s movement. Hazare himself carelessly hinted at it the very first day of his dramatic April fast in Delhi.

He said he had written letters to Sonia Gandhi about the Lokpal, but she never responded. It was as if he were not important enough. That inspired him to come to Delhi. (Eventually, he stopped mentioning this.) He delayed the start of his fast to let the cricket World Cup fever subside. By the time he sat by the wayside, swearing to die until the bill was passed, several forces had aligned in his favour—the growing public disgust over the Commonwealth

Games scam and 2G scam. Also, though the number of those who walked miles holding the accusatory white candles was growing in several Indian cities, the idea of a massive, festive public demonstration against crooked politicians was still new to the educated urban middleclass, and it was an intoxicating experience for them.

Some families arrived in their luxury sedans to be part of something they imagined was important. Good fathers carried their daughters on their shoulders and showed them the distant introspective image of Hazare. Lovers held hands and sang songs. It was all very joyous. In states like West Bengal and Kerala, where the middleclass has always been a part of the political process and were not amateur citizens, people were not so stirred, but they took Hazare’s name with affection. On Arnab Goswami’s Times Now television channel, when I defended my report in Open of the first two days of the fast, which had described it as ‘a comic revolution of an obsolete man’, one of the guests on the show, an angry young man who was setting out on an ‘indefinite fast’, said, “Get out, get out, all you cynics, get out.” Which was baffling because I was sitting in my house.

Television news loved the revolution for reasons other than just business. After the revelation of the Niira Radia tapes, some anchors were facing a crisis of credibility—were they merely agents of politicians? And Anna Hazare presented them with a sexy story through which they could appear to trash the political system.

It is true that mass movements need the assistance of farce. Common sense and rational analysis do not have the profound influence that farce has on a large body of people. And for some time, it did appear that the farcical beginnings of the movement were indeed coming together to become a more meaningful and cunning parallel political force. An inner circle of Hazare rose and came to be called Team Anna. It was a circle of unlike minds—Hazare is a villager, infatuated with the right wing, who hates corrupt politicians who do not respect him and likes tainted politicians who flatter him (Vilasrao Deshmukh, who is facing graft charges, is an agreeable politician in Hazare’s eyes). Arvind Kejriwal has a discreet contempt for reservations in colleges and jobs (he was once driven away from the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University by Dalit students). And Prashant Bhushan is the human embodiment of Arundhati Roy’s prose. He has deep socialist tendencies, is suspicious of capitalism, and appears to believe that the efforts of modern economists to put a huge mass of humanity firmly in the saddle is a conspiracy of saddle manufacturers.

Team Anna was not composed of natural allies but it was held together by the common cause of the fight against political corruption. It was inevitable that such a battle in India had flaws in its very reasoning. It assumed that corrupt Indian politicians are an unnatural phenomenon while the fact is that they are merely the success stories in a republic where savage practicality has always been valued more than ethics. Is there anything in the Indian system, in the Indian way of life that will help a clever impoverished child from a remote village reach the top layers of society through honest hard work?

Also, as Sharad Pawar showed in the municipal elections in Maharashtra, even as the Hazare movement reached its peak, the shame of corruption is not a disadvantage at the polls. All Indians, including voters, lament that corruption is destroying the nation, but again and again they return the corrupt to power. The middleclass, through the media and films, has made corruption appear to be the most loathed aspect of Indian society. Yet, circumstantial evidence suggests that when they have to make a decision, Indians not only consider other issues more important than corruption but also rate corrupt politicians as more efficient, impressive and useful than the soft good folks, of whom there are not many in politics anyway.

Despite all this, Hazare’s war against political corruption received massive support in 2011. Who can deny that it was a greatly enjoyable war—the underdogs on one side and the arrogant, filthy politicians on the other.

What killed the revolt was not its inherent hypocrisy but the fact that the movement could not escalate from a farce to something substantial. For an enjoyable revolution, and it is important for a revolution to be enjoyable, the scenes have to keep changing. But Indians were stranded with the same old man and his inner circle, doing the same things and saying the same things for several months. The middleclass, whose primary instinct is to be an island untouched by India, lost interest in the revolt and went back to its life — among other things, bribing government officials and accepting huge amounts of black money while selling homes. It was inevitable that television anchors, including the delightful evening patriot Goswami, should abandon the movement. And the comic revolution of an obsolete man finally died.

Mourners say that it was all still worth it. At least, the political establishment knew that there are dangerous adversaries lurking around. That is not true. What the brief life and death of the farcical revolt has done is ensure that a more substantial and potent rebellion against Indian politics will not come anytime soon.