Vantage point

Thursday, April 07, 2011

On Anna Hazare and Fasting

I am surprised at the degree to which Anna Hazare's fast-unto-death for the Lokpal bill has caught the entire Indian middle class' imagination. The internates and the blogosphares and twittervarses are abuzz with posts that either support Hazare's idealistic cause, or cynically dismiss it as something futile and/or a publicity stunt.

As someone who grew up in Maharashtra in the 90s and early 2000s, the headline "Anna Hazare declares fast unto death" is not a new one. No un-elected official, not even Bal Thackeray, has had as much impact on Maharashtra politics in the last two decades as Anna Hazare. Obviously, most non-Maharashtrians have little idea about Hazare, his track record, and so on. So I thought of writing a post to address the problems with what I have been hearing from both sides - the Anna-doubters as well as the Anna-cheerleaders.

Let's first look at what the Anna-doubters say. The talk of this being a publicity stunt is so outrageously wrong, it doesn't even deserve a rebuttal. The man has dedicated his life to social work and activisim, with a reasonable level of success, without gaining anything for himself. He doesn't need publicity. There is nothing in it for him. Even if Anna Hazare ended his fast today, and retired from his activism to spend his time gardening and watching TV, he will still be remembered as a moral and utilitarian colossus in the fight against corruption.

The other point raised by Anna-doubters merits rebuttal - that fasting or protesting against corruption doesn't really serve any purpose or solve any problems. That his heart is in the right place, but all his agitations do is give the media and the middle class something to talk about sanctimoniously for a few days, and then everything goes back to the way it was.

While Anna Hazare never has and never could "root out corruption", the record shows that his agitations and/or fasts have hardly been futile. Anna Hazare's anti-corruption agitation in 1994 or so (combined with the whistleblowing by BMC official Khairnar) played a big role in turning the public opinion against Sharad Pawar's Maharashtra government. They lost the election, bringing the BJP-Shiv Sena combine to power.

Hazare's crusade against corruption continued despite the change in guard in the Vidhan Sabha. Throughout the SS-BJP rule, Hazare exposed corruption, occasionally going on fasts to demand action. I can recall at least a half a dozen Ministers (including Shashikant Sutar, then MLA for my own constituency in Pune) having to resign or being forced out because of Hazare's agitation.

In one instance, the accused minister...I think his name was Gholap, filed a defamation case against Hazare. Our great court system found Hazare guilty and sentenced him to a few months in prison. He was sent to jail, but the public outcry was so large that Thackeray himself ordered the government to commute his sentence and let him go. Gholap's right hand man was arrested for corruption, and Gholap himself was eased out of the party. Nevertheless, Hazare's continued agitation demonstrated to the Maharashtra voters the extent of corruption even in the (then perceived as) clean Shiv Sena party. The SS-BJP lost the next election in 1999 and haven't been able to return to power since.

Who replaced the SS-BJP? Obviously, Congress-NCP, i.e. Pawar and co, against whom Hazare had first started his agitation. Anna-doubters will point to this regression-to-mean as an example of the futility of his fasts. Well, it's hardly his fault that there is no viable alternative in the Indian polity, is it? The fact remains that his agitations have caught public imagination, made heads roll, and played a big role in toppling governments.

Until about 2000, Hazare's agitation was focused on corrupt individuals. After that, he focused more on systemic problems. He started demanding, among other things, a Right to Information Act for Maharashtra. In the first half of the last decade, he went on a couple of fasts, first to demand that the Maharashtra government pass the Right to Information Act, and then to ask that it be implemented, not just kept on the books.

I remember one particular agitation in 2002 or 2003. The Maharashtra government had passed the RTI, but was not implementing it yet, citing flimsy procedural excuses. Hazare, not a fast-unto-death, but a maun vrat! A vow of silence! he refused to speak until the government acted on his demands, the chief among them, to implement the RTI.

I remember thinking that the old man had lost it. Fasts carry the weight of the "what if he dies?" question that can spur the powers that be into action. Who the heck is going to care if this dude sitting in Ralegan-Siddhi talks or not. But it worked!

The public response even to the maun vrat was so powerful that the Maharashtra government immediately passed an ordinance implementing the RTI law. Hazare broke his vow of silence only after the government took that step. And over the next couple of years, Hazare kept tabs on the RTI implementation, threatening hunger strikes, until it was fully operational to his satisfaction.

Although other states had their own RTIs several years before, it was the much-more-powerful Maharashtra RTI and the activism surrounding it that played a big role in getting the RTI passed at the Union government level too. If I recall correctly, the national RTI law was almost identifcal to the Maharashtra law.

So Hazare's impact has gone beyond just getting a few corrupt Ministers early (or temporary) exits and replacing one corrupt Maharashtra government with another. The RTI movement owes a lot to him and his fasts.

Now on to the Anna-cheerleaders. Yes, his integrity and devotion is impeccable. His zeal for fighting corruption is more intense than any on-screen Bollywood vigilante's. But his tactic of fasting worries me. As a libertarian, I believe everyone has a right to do whatever they want with their body, and that includes fasting unto death. But the tactic is fraught with ethical issues.

It is "do as I say, or I will kill myself", so is fundamentally no different from someone standing on the ledge of a tall building and threatening to jump unless their demands are met. In Anna's hands, the weapon of fasting unto death has mostly been used for the right reasons. But do you know that nation-wide prohibition of alcohol is (or at least used to be until a few years back) one of his causes? If you like your occasional drink, how will you feel if his next fast is for prohibition?

I am not saying it will be. Hazare has so far used the fasting tactic only for important issues. But imagining your own response to someone fasting unto death or killing himself demanding prohibition, or a Ram temple, or a book ban will demonstrate the ethical problems with the tactic itself. It amounts to blackmail. Blackmail in a just cause is still blackmail.

Then there is this specific Lokpal bill issue that he is fasting for. I agree with Hazare's broad sentiment about the need for checks and balances against widespread corruption, but I am not sure the Lokpal bill, or the way he demands it, is the way forward. My thoughts on the perils of such a bill closely mirror those of Pratap Bhanu Mehta so I will point you to his superb article.

To summarize, Anna-doubters and Anna-cheerleaders both have some of it right and some of it wrong. Whether you agree or disagree with me on the efficacy of his hunger strikes in the past, depends on where you set the bar for efficacy in a country as rife with corruption and a lack of accountability as India. Whether you agree or disagree with me on the ethical issues with hunger strikes depends on your moral compass and the ends-v-means debate.

One thing we can all agree on - Anna Hazare is a strong, motivated, and morally gigantic individual, whose self-control and passion for a cause is something few of us could even dream of emulating. Agree or disagree with him, you have to doff your hat to him.