The Fuel that Fires Anna-ism

Business Standard, Mumbai - 20th Aug 2011

But the Anna-ists have invented yet another category of social activism that wants to job-share with the government in law making – we draft the Bill, you pilot it through Parliament; you implement it as a government, but we monitor your implementation. Even if the Anna-ists calm down soon and this bout of activism fades, it reveals a lot about some of the fundamental changes that have taken place in India recently, which has taken many people by surprise, including the government of the day. And this question is one that has been engaging the more thoughtful print media compared to the frenzied electronic media with its ball-by-ball commentary on television. For a start, a lot of people were wondering why the middle class is not revolting about rising prices. Yet when it comes to corruption, there is an uproar. There has been a general consensus on and disapproval of the fact that when it comes to politics and voting and national issues, the middle class is apathetic. Yet when it comes to justice for Jessica or joining Hazare, there is an unexpected flood of response.


An insightful article on this appeared recently in the Indian Express by a young lawyer Vinay Sitapati. He suggests that Hazare supporters are the "new corporate middle class" that "has little patience with the politics of dignity and identity that are-for better or worse-central to Indian politics. For them, the state is about providing services for which they pay with their tax money. Representation and social justice have little meaning. Consequently, they have contempt for electoral politics and politicians and are deaf to the two biggest criticisms of the Jan Lokpal Bill: that the movement is unrepresentative, and that an all-powerful Lokpal might endanger democratic rights."

As Sitapati points out, the new paradigm of the citizen-state relationship is that of a customer-supplier. We pay you for services via tax money and you have not kept your end of the bargain. This underscores a point made a few years ago by a young European anthropologist who, after doing research in India, asked why Indians, including the poorer sections, think of themselves as consumers first and citizens later. She answered her own question by saying, "I suppose in your country being a citizen gets you far less rights than being a consumer." Modest-income consumers have already started eschewing government offerings and moving to private schools; when someone is seriously ill in a family and in a government hospital, they borrow money and take him to "private" to save him; pension will come from self-financial planning and using the private sector. The middle-and upper-in come consuming classes are already purely private consumers of many public goods. They buy water, create their own electricity options through gen sets and inverters, use private education, private hospitals, private transport, private airlines, private banks, etc. The differences in quality between the government and private are hard to ignore and even as the quality and cleanliness of our privately-run public spaces are improving, the quality of our government-run-public spaces is deteriorating. Even as the rights and services we get as consumers are improving, our rights as citizens are getting worse. "Pay a bribe and let's talk" is the dominant theme in the latter case. Earlier, we did not know that anything better was possible in India. We were resigned to our fate. Now we do know that it is possible, because we see it and experience it. This, then, increase our rage against the government. High-decibel media exposes of government corruption adds to it – it seems to say our money could have worked much harder for us had it been used better. Saying I will stand on principle and not pay a bribe and not get my work done, give up earning potential for principle, is not an option. The middle class sees its power not in terms of the ballot box-in fact, as Sitapati suggests, it hates all things political-but in terms of noise and pressure and blackmail power with the media as its ally. It says I pay the piper so I need to call the tune because you aren't in tune with the rest of my world.

The Anna-ists are yet another representation of the "this as well as that" way in which India changes. They quote the ideals of democracy to get the right to speak and demonstrate, but don't believe in leaving the elected representatives to do their jobs. They use the Gandhi symbols of white-cloth topis mixed with the new-age symbols of candles. This isn't about ideology, it's about market exchange. The more we privatise and show ourselves what can be done, the more we expect "paisa vasool" from our government services.