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Sagarika Ghose
Wednesday, August 08, 2012 at 10 : 09

Desperately seeking 1975


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A new political party needs a new political idea.

The Anna Hazare movement has announced they will work towards a "new political alternative". By disbanding Team Anna, Anna has in a way withdrawn his own name and his own brand from this future course of 'political' action. The focus now shifts to Arvind Kejriwal and others. But does the promised "new political alternative" have a new idea?

Anna's erstwhile team announced its entry into politics in a manner reminiscent of the high drama that accompanied actor Chiranjeevi's launch of his Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) in 2008 in Tirupati. Covered live across channels, Chiranjeevi's face flashing from 12 LCD screens, the event was expertly choreographed for primetime TV.

Today, four years later, after having failed to win a single Lok Sabha seat, Chiranjeevi has merged his party with the Congress and is now a Congress Rajya Sabha member.

Kejriwal ended his fast with a full scale address to the nation live on all channels. He invoked Jayaprakash Narayan's 1974 speech by echoing JP's call for sampurna kranti, or total revolution. Former Army Chief General VK Singh also quoted a poem once quoted by JP: "Singhasan khali karo ki janta aati hai." The "new political alternative" is trying to reinvent itself as a neo-JP movement for the 21st century. But will JP's politics work in 2012?

The slogan 'Garibi Hatao' worked for Indira Gandhi only in 1971, not again. The war cry 'Bahujan Samaj' had to rapidly give way to Sarvajan Samaj for the BSP to win a majority. For the BJP, Ram Janmabhoomi and "Hindu rage" worked in the 90s, but by the time it came to 2004, the Ram temple idea had to be junked for 'Shining India'. Political slogans generally work best only once; a campaign around a single idea is built once. To seek to recapture the spirit of sampurna kranti today shows that Kejriwal and team lack a new idea.

Anger against corruption may win a few seats in urban India. But in a highly competitive democracy, where every social group is assertive, a war against corruption has its limits. The reality is, for many, corruption may not be as important as social justice or minority rights.

There are many differences between 1975 and 2012. In 1975, Congress bestrode politics like a huge colossus. It had never been beaten in elections. Indira Gandhi was the authoritarian leader of an indomitable leviathan that was crushing dissent and political opponents.

Is the Congress the same colossus today? Hardly. Congress defeats in general elections of 1977 and 1989 have already busted forever the myth of Congress invincibility. The Congress leadership may be remote but is hardly authoritarian and it exists only at the mercy of its UPA allies. Thus, an all India war cry against a so-called mighty all-powerful Congress machine which is enslaving all Indians is a comic book portrayal, a nostalgic throwback to an earlier era, a colourful chimera without real meaning.

In 1975 no political party believed they could alone defeat the Congress. There was thus an urgent incentive to come together, the reason why parties from Left to Right united under Jayaprakash Narayan's banner. Today every party, including the Congress's own ally Mulayam Singh Yadav, believes they can defeat the Congress. The incentive to band together under a single banner is hardly that strong.

There are other differences. Jayaprakash Narayan was a philosopher-politician of enormous erudition whose intellectual achievements and political vision not just went beyond simply toppling the Congress (although that was the electoral objective) but extended to building a socialist India in all spheres.

Jayaprakash Narayan or even Gandhi - who were both highly educated, wrote prolifically and constantly debated political ideas and strategies - can hardly be compared to Anna Hazare whose worldview appears to be folksy and simple. As voters grow more knowledgeable, how far can khap panchayat formulations of 'hang the corrupt' take you?

Beyond toppling the UPA, Anna has articulated no larger vision. Even in Maharashtra, Anna's methods have not been emulated anywhere outside Ralegan Siddhi. Kejriwal spoke of ending unemployment and reforming government hospitals. But is such an agenda powerful enough to attract people? People join a movement because a new, exciting yet pragmatic vision is projected. Fighting Congress corruption is an idea as old as VP Singh. 'Anti-dynasty' is copyrighted to the BJP and the 'aam admi' slogan has been monopolised by the Congress. A campaign to topple an already weak Congress on the basis of a two-decade-old idea is hardly the way to start a "new" political outfit.

More differences exist between JP and the debutant politicians. Narayan (and Gandhi) were committed politicians; they lived and breathed political activism. Anna's followers are outsiders who have openly expressed contempt for politics. Yet the natural politician is by definition a magnet for people. No visitor is ever turned away from Lalu Yadav's house. Mamata Banerjee lives and works among people. Sushma Swaraj and Digvijay Singh are readily approachable. The natural politician exudes positive energy and is an expert people person. The anger, abuse and invective so far seen in the Anna camp cannot build a mass movement. The 'Angry Young Man' gets claps on screen, not in real life.

The JP movement had no media to rely on. The Anna movement has been over-reliant on the media. In 1975 there was no electronic media, the print media was silenced. JP's idea succeeded and his campaign was built without the media. The Anna movement has revealed that media can only reflect a reality. It cannot create a reality.

As political parties become closed shops for sons and daughters, there is indeed an urgent need for an "alternative" that allows millions of citizens out there to plunge into politics and put their shoulder to the national wheel. But for a new "political alternative" to succeed, a new political idea is needed, not borrowed slogans from thirty five years ago.


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More about Sagarika Ghose

Sagarika Ghose has been a journalist for 20 years, starting her career with The Times of India, then moving to become part of the start-up team of Outlook magazine, subsequently joining The Indian Express as Senior Editor. She was anchor of the flagship BBC World programme Question Time India.
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