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.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Growing up with the World Cup

Read this beautiful post by my good friend daddysan, tying World Cups at different stages in his life with people who meant the most to him, and charting a full circle. It has inspired me to look back at how the World Cup was a part of my growing up.

1983 - Pune
I was 3 years old when we won. I have a very vague visual memory of watching *a* match with my parents and grandparents in my grandparents' small Pune house. The visual memory is very clear - I remember the wooden TV stand, where the couch was, what tree was outside the window, and where everyone was sitting. I am not sure if it's from the World Cup final. But I have no problems pretending that it is.

1987 - Rajahmundry
My dad had been transferred to this small town in Andhra Pradesh. I was 7 years old, in a strange land, not knowing how to speak the native language yet (we had only moved 2 months before). My mom, a housewife, was my only and closest friend (later of course, I picked up telugu, and made friends in the neighborhood and the school). There was a narrow passage next to our house where mom and I played cricket after school every day.

Back then, she was a lot more into cricket than she is nowadays. She subscribed to a marathi cricket magazine called Ekach Shatkar (edited by Sandip Patil), and read me out detailed reports of local matches. I remember her telling me of two promising kids - Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli, who were the talk of Bombay. Most of all, I remember laughing at hilarious Zaltzman-ish articles by Dilip Prabhavalkar (non-Marathis will know him as Gandhi from Lage Raho Munnabhai).

Of the World Cup itself, I retain only two memories. Sharing in my parents' disappointment as Australia beat India by one run in the tournament opener as Maninder Singh was bowled by Steve Waugh. And a few weeks later, returning from school to be told that my then favorite player, Sunil Gavaskar, had scored a "Srikanth-like" century to beat New Zealand. For several years, Sunny's sole ODI century remained my favorite cricketing moment.

I don't remember the semi-final loss to England at all. Just as well. Doesn't seem like a memory worth ruminating over.

1992 - Pune
From this point onwards, the memories become crystal clear. Duh, obviously, I was 12! We had moved to Pune for good. I had made friends in the neighborhood, and we had even set up a local cricket league. I remember all the matches clearly, not just from the World Cup, but also from the Ind-WI-Aus tri-series before it. That was when Tendulkar truly captured everyone's imagination as the sole hope.

I remember our first match - the narrow loss against England by 9 runs or so, when 3 of the last 4 wickets fell to stupid run-outs. A few days later, I probably had my first ever deja vu as India again lost to Australia by 1 run. I remember how tense my mom was during the India-Pakistan match. The memories of Miandad's last-ball-six were fresh in her mind. When Miandad jumped like a kangaroo to imitate Kiran More, I laughed, but my mom didn't. She feared that this might be the very motivation Javed needed to beat us again. It did not happen. We won.

I remember marveling at how great the South Africans were, even after such a long hiatus. I remember Jonty running our Inzy. I remember the calmness and ease with which they chased down 180 in 30 overs against India. I remember being amused at the plaintive "Zimbaa-boo-ee Zimbaa-boo-ee" chants by a handful of supporters during the tricky India-Zimbabwe match. My parents and I shared South Africans' despair when the target was reduced to 22 off 1 ball.

But most of all, I remember the final. My mom is from the generation of women that swooned over Imran Khan. As soon as India got knocked out, our family shifted their support to Pakistan. During the finals, we cheered Imran's (now, Dhoni-esque) gutsy move to promote himself up the order and take charge of the innings. We cheered every England wicket. And when Pakistan finally won, our entire family was as happy as if India had won. This perhaps explains why Pakistan is my 2nd favorite team, and I have never been able to share most of my compatriots' visceral hatred for them.

In your teenage years, your parents become your adversaries. This was the first World Cup where I avoided watching matches at home and sought friends' company. Compounding the matters was the fact that the World Cup coincided with my 10th boards. So regardless of their love for the game, my parents' focus was on getting me to study. I remember being aghast when my dad said "Don't obsess with the World Cup. Focus on your studies. World Cup will be back in 4 years." Such blasphemy!

I did get my priorities right/wrong (depending on how you look at cricket) and focused more on that interminably long tournament than my studies. I watched the India-Pakistan match with my friends, all of screaming ourselves hoarse at Jadeja's slogging. We all but broke our hand bones with the high-fives after Sohail self-destructed. But my mom's voice was still in my head, saying, as long as Javed is around, we can't be sure of a win. Javed's last hurrah wasn't much of a hurrah we won. Then, the semi-final loss to Sri Lanka. Even after the win in Mumbai on Saturday, it's too painful to talk of that shame. Not because we lost. But because for the first time in my life, as I watched the Eden crowd throw a tantrum, I was ashamed of being an Indian.

The finals. First, shaking my head at Ranatunga's foolhardy decision to field after winning the toss, when every previous World Cup final had been won by the team batting first. By the end of the night, marveling the ease with which Ranatunga and Desilva chased down the total after losing the openers early (Saturday's final reminded me of this match)

1999 - Pune/Bangalore
Engineering first year. It seemed as if the ICC organized World Cups just to coincide with crucial exams. When I was in 10th and the exams were in March, the tournament was in March. In engineering, when the exams moved to May and June, so did the damn World Cup! Our entire group found refuge in the house of a friend whose parents worked late. We were thrilled to see Ganguly and Dravid annihilate Sri Lanka and get a small measure of revenge for 1996. We were aghast at how our team contrived to lose against Zimbabwe. We were touched when Sachin flew back after cremating his father to score a century against Kenya.

It was fun to knock England out over the course of 2 days, with a little help from the Zimbabweans. It was even more fun to titter at the commentators' suggestion that this tall fat oafish kid, reminiscent of Moose from Archie comics, who had taken on Kumble and failed miserably, was supposed to be the next big thing in English cricket. Andrew Flintoff I believe his name was.

The Pakistan match was played against the backdrop of the Kargil war, and maybe it was the comparison to actual war that made it seem like very boring, even though we won. The chase in the do-or-die match against Australia started disastrously. When McGrath dismissed Sachin in the first over, a few of us actually opened our engineering textbooks and started studying. No matter what Jadeja did, we knew the World Cup was over.

By the end of the tournament, the engineering exams were done, and we had traveled to Bangalore for sight-seeing. Mihir's dad worked there and his apartment was our base. I still remember the tied semi-finals. We watched Australia labor towards a modest score. Then went to an Andhra restaurant with Mihir's dad where we watched the Proteas get off to a comfortable start. Then Warne's awesome dismissal of Gibbs (among his best deliveries ever). Then rushing back to Mihir's dad's place to watch the end of the match. Marveling at Warne and Klusener. Being divided evenly into Australia and South Africa supporters. And finally, laughing at how Klusener and Donald threw it away.

2003 - Lucknow
A big shift in cricketing fortunes and my personal life. I was towards the end of my 1st year in the MBA at IIM Lucknow. Cricket was now watched with dozens of fellow-students in the hostel's TV room. The closest approximation to watching it in a stadium surrounded by frenzied strangers. The sweetest memories - Nehra tearing England apart, Sachin hitting the loudmouthed Caddick for a six, and of course, the epic at Centurion. Enduring memory of the finals - cheering for Sehwag's blistering knock, and then cheering for the gathering clouds to open up before it was too late. They never did. The dream died.

2007 - State College/Princeton
My first year in a strange land, away from family and most friends. Satyen was the only one in driving distance. Watched the Bangladesh defeat with Satyen in Princeton. Then Pakistan lost, knocking both my favorite teams out of the World Cup. Followed the rest of the tournament, but it was the diaster it is universally recognized to be.

2011 - State College/Olean/Arlington
By now, America has stopped being a strange land. All childhood friends are now in the North East. Watched most of India's matches together - staying up all night in Olean NY at Mihir's for the Bangladesh, then everyone gathering here in State College for the narrow defeat to South Africa. And the finals in Arlington at Walya's place. It was just like childhood. High-fiving till hands started hurting, hugging each other and dancing around, and randomly pumping fists. It's too soon to look back at it. It hasn't even sunk in completely yet.