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India: A tale of two movements

by Amita Baviskar, 6 September 2011

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The Times of India

September 6, 2011

The agitation for the Jan Lokpal Bill (JLB) is being hailed as ‘unprecedented’ and as a ‘second freedom struggle’. More grounded analysts have likened it to the Navanirman movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s. However, a more apt comparison lies closer at hand.

Less than six years ago, Parliament enacted a national Right to Information Act. This was a major victory for the RTI campaign which aimed to empower people to fight corruption and malgovernance. It mobilised a nationwide network of support, bringing together activists, NGOs and ordinary citizens, and effectively using media and middle-class interlocutors. India Against Corruption (IAC), the coalition leading the present campaign, shares the goals and the networking strategy of the earlier campaign, and its leaders Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan and Anna Hazare were closely associated with it.

Yet, the differences between the two campaigns are striking as well as instructive. The RTI campaign and the JLB campaign both strive for greater government accountability, but their ideologies, modes of organisation, support base and strategies diverge in important ways. Understanding these differences is crucial if the Lokpal Bill, once enacted, is to achieve its stated goal.

The RTI campaign grew out of the experiences of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), the jan sangathan (people’s organisation) in rural Rajasthan which had, for two decades, fought corruption in village development works. The MKSS pioneered the use of jan sunvai or public hearings as a technique to empower villagers to ‘speak truth to power’, challenging an opaque, oppressive and corrupt system of governance. The jan sunvai’s success depended on systematic preparation to mobilise people to testify, collect information and check its accuracy. The groundswell of public anger against abuse of public funds was harnessed to create a coordinated campaign led by trained local activists.

From the villages, MKSS took its campaign to the district and state level, staging determined demonstrations that attracted the middle classes and intellectuals, before leading the national RTI campaign. The national network was more eclectic; it included not only jan sangathans like the MKSS, but also individual anti-corruption activists like Anna Hazare and Shailesh Gandhi. Notably, the RTI campaign aligned itself with the National Alliance of Peoples Movements, sangathans of the rural and urban poor fighting against dispossession. This organisational base gave the RTI campaign a solid political credibility.

The JLB campaign shows a distinctly different trajectory. Even though Kejriwal’s Parivartan, which battled corruption in ration shops in two Delhi slums, was a jan sangathan, its base was too limited to launch a nationwide campaign. The other campaign leaders – Prashant Bhushan, Kiran Bedi and Hazare – also cannot muster a trained cadre of activists. The JLB campaign has mobilised participants in two ways: through social networking and the media; and via regional chapters of Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s congregations.

The coming together of a predominantly young, white-collar constituency that communicates through text messages and Facebook, lower-middle-class followers of Baba Ramdev, and the professional classes that practise the Art of Living gives the JLB campaign the strength of numbers as well as the image of appearing all-inclusive. However, this strength may dissipate once the Bill is passed. Mobilising crowds for a successful agitation is one thing; having a committed and trained activist base to convert that success into long-term institutional change is quite another.

If the RTI campaign embraced sangathans with an Independent Left ideology, the political beliefs of the participants in the JLB campaign are harder to pin down. Eight of the 20 founders of India Against Corruption are religious figures, of whom only Swami Agnivesh can be described as a champion of jan sangathans. The rest voice patriotic sentiments and anti-government hostility without a clear analysis of how the systemic problems that plague public affairs will be tackled. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s previous social initiatives have been of doubtful value (cleaning the sewage-laden Yamuna by picking up garbage from the riverfront) and marked by dubious claims (11,000 Naxalites ‘converted’ to the Art of Living).

While other founders like Hazare and Bedi have a reputation for personal probity and courage, they endorse a form of individualist authoritarian action that’s applauded by a public hungry for vigilante heroes. The JLB thus represents a shift in the political spectrum: from the left-of-centre democratic decentralisation of the RTI campaign, to the right-of-centre legal-technical-fix of India Against Corruption.

The test of any law lies in its implementation. Much disquiet has already been expressed about the overly-centralised design of the JLB and the impracticability of the mammoth bureaucratic machinery it demands. However, making a law work also requires a mobilised public, a dedicated and organised network at every level that will keep up the pressure on public institutions. The ideologies, organisational structure and support base of the JLB campaign do not indicate that it is capable of such long-term and systematic social action.

The RTI campaign’s activist base has allowed it to sustain an arduous struggle against corruption, but the challenges have been formidable. It remains to be seen how the JLB campaign will equip itself to walk the talk, and translate strident demands into effective action.

Amita Baviskar is a sociologist at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.


The above article from The Times of India is reproduced here for educational purposes and is for non profit use.