11 May 2011

On Anna Hazare's Fast

By Anuradha Talwar
I have three strange measuring rods by which I measure the impact of any political happening in the country. 

The first is a phone conversation that I have almost every morning with my mother, who is a 75-year-old middle class lady. Whether it is the Maoist problem or our relations with Pakistan or price rise, as a woman who avidly reads all the important English newspapers in Delhi every morning, she has a strong opinion about the most important problems that face the country. Her responses give me a good idea about what the English-speaking middle class is thinking. This is confirmed by a quick surfing through all the English news channels in the evening, when talk shows tend to concentrate generally on the issue that seems to worry my mother the most that day. If these two indicators match each other, one knows what the middle class is concerned about.

And then there are the Bengali papers- seemingly talking of a different world, with their coverage of the viscous exchanges between Mamata and Buddha.  They write about happenings in Delhi as if that was another country - unless these happenings in Delhi actually visibly impact what is happening in West Bengal. This gives an idea of what the people of Bengal are thinking about.
Last but not least are the concerns of our members, which are much more difficult to generalise on because they tend to be localised and therefore very diverse. These come up in the phone calls they make to us or in their discussions during our meetings.

It is very seldom that all three measuring rods telling me the same thing - the Nandigram massacre was one such incident where each echoed the others in expressing disgust. Fortunately or otherwise, India’s win of the World Cup was another issue on which all three were effusive.

Anna Hazare’s fast for the Jan Lokpal Bill was an issue on which the three measuring rods did not match. My mother was effusive and enthusiastic about the near revolution she felt was happening at the Jantar Mantar. The English Language channels were equally voluble. The Bengali channels touched on the issue passingly and remained focused on Mamata’s Long March and Biman/Guatam/ Buddha’s comments. Surprisingly, neither party in Bengal spoke about corruption in the state in a very loud voice - the CPI(M) and Left obviously because they followed the adage of people in glass houses not throwing stones, the Congress because they were at the receiving end at Delhi and the TMC for some reason known only to itself (perhaps they were afraid of being upstaged by an old man who was not even in politics) - though one of their Ministers at Delhi did throw  a bombshell by offering to resign and join Anna Hazare’s fast, after saying there was corruption even in his party.   

Thus, despite all the hullabaloo in Delhi even in the midst of the state assembly elections, corruption has not become an election issue. Things are too polarised and supporters of both groups seem to feel that talking of corruption would make the polarisation disappear with both groups being painted black.

As far as our members in villages were concerned, they carry on with their demands for wages and work under NREGA, their rations from the PDS, their missing old age pension, their demand for inclusion in the BPL list, their fight against illicit liquor, oblivious of this old man who fasted in Delhi, as if Anna Hazare had nothing to do with their day-to-day struggles.

There thus remains a worrying disjoint between what is happening in Delhi and the concerns of our village members. The Delhi-walas seem concerned about the 2 G scam, the Commonwealth Games and the Adarsh Housing scam. My khet majoor comrade, Mumtaz Bibi, is worried that her daughter is marriageable age but still does not have a ration card, because she has not been able to bribe the right official or does not belong to the right political party.  Narayan Mahato, on the other hand, worries that the measurement in the NREGS work is giving him a wage of only Rs.72 per day, while the supervisor in collusion with the Panchayat staff and local party pockets the rest of his Rs.130 wage.  Small issues when you compare them to the lakhs of crores in the 2G scam, but these are bread and butter issues, issues of sheer survival for the large majority of our people, especially when raising one’s voice even on such a small issue leads to harassment and even false criminal charges.

There is also the experience of the past 5-6 years when we have seen (after UPA 1) a plethora of progressive legislation, and the ability of the system to turn them into non-performers. NREGA 2006, Right to Information Act, Forest Dwellers’ Act, Unorganised Sector Workers Welfare Act, Prevention of Domestic Violence Against Women – all of these were well-intentioned pieces of legislation with civil society efforts of varying degree put into drafting them and steering them through. None of them have lived up to the expectations they generated, many turning into damp squibs, unable to stem the rot in a system where the ones who are at the receiving end in society continue to get a raw deal despite these Acts.

In all these legislation, it was the build up of a movement that led to such an Act that was very beneficial for people’s movements as a whole. It led to mobilisation, awareness, militancy, removal of fear, voicing of protest and a pressure on the system that sometimes resulted in the system providing justice people. One can only wish that the activity at Jantar Mantar had lasted for a longer period of time to result in the involvement of grass root people in it and its spread to even remote rural areas.

For corruption to end, one needs corruption to become an issue that impacts elections  (which it is not doing at the moment in West Bengal), for the disjunction between the Delhi Jantar Mantar crowd and the khet majoor in Sunderbans to end and for a long-term movement rather than an instant legislation. Let us hope the future holds promise on all three counts.

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