Anna At Nehru Place?!: Aditya Sarkar

Guest post by ADITYA SARKAR

On the afternoon of 25 March, Nehru Place felt different. The rectangular maze of shops and offices wore its usual air of busy activity, but instead of being concentrated around a million acts of individualized consumption as it normally is, the energy humming through the place circulated around a public spectacle. Visitors, bystanders, and low-paid office and shop employees clustered in the central square, and on the balconies of the first floor, their gazes fixed on a street play taking place right outside the central Bajaj office. About twenty young men and women, all dressed in black, raised fists, shouted slogans, and mocked the usual suspects – MNCs, netas, and plutocrats, in the name of the aam aadmi. Shop after shop emptied out. Hundreds of people watched, many applauding loudly. The specific target of this public campaign, though, seemed opaque to most, as the publicity leaflets circulated rather more sluggishly than the sentiments evoked by the performers.

Not that the spectacle went uninterpreted. Indeed, from where a friend and I stood – first near the electronics shops we had gone to Nehru Place to shop at, and then on one of the balconies where people pressed together to survey the performance – one interpretation seemed to outstrip others in its general plausibility, and reach the status of a consensus. There had been labour unrest recently at Bajaj. ‘Strike ka maamla hai’, suggested a middle-aged electronics dealer. This view was seconded upstairs, on the balconies, as a number of young men, mostly employed in low-paid jobs in the various establishments in Nehru Place, spoke of wage freezes, unpaid arrears, and mounting debts. The private sector worker, said one, was well and truly screwed – unlike his public-sector counterparts, he could expect no salary hikes, and with the cost of living rising all the time (this triggered an anguished account of the grotesque food and grain prices in the city), what was one to do but strike? I agreed, with all the vociferousness of one relatively immune to the worst effects of this hardship – you must strike, I said, there is no other way. But who are these people downstairs, in the street play? Are they on strike? Yes, said one of my companions, against the available evidence – the performers were mostly well-heeled, identifiably middle-class, and in any other context I would have marked them as students. The man standing beside me seemed to register this too, and his fertile mind came up with a plausible explanation – these, he suggested, were workers in the Bajaj marketing department, protesting against unpaid wage arrears. Why else, he asked, reasonably, would they be staging this play right outside the Bajaj office? The other men standing around agreed, and the conversation turned, again, to wages, prices, the injustice of it all, and the justice of strikes. These young men and women, said one of them, were doing what everyone should be doing, but few have the courage to do.

As the play wound down, leaflets made a belated appearance. To my surprise, and, I confess, extreme disappointment, the spectacle had nothing to do with striking workers. The choice of location – fortuitous, for it clearly swelled the crowd – was accidental. When I hopefully asked one of the actors whether there was, at least, a connection, he looked shocked and said, no, not at all, nothing to do with strike action of any kind. The play and leaflet, as you may well have guessed by now, were part of a publicity campaign for Anna Hazare’s fast-unto-death, and of the brilliantly conceived and executed consciousness-raising exercises that served as a prelude to the dramatic events of last week, which have been so exhaustively discussed on this website, and in thousands of public and private spaces across the country of late.

This is as good a point as any to join the conversation initiated by the hard-hitting and insightful pieces published recently on Kafila, in the posts by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Aditya Nigam, and Mukul Sharma. What we saw at Nehru Place buttresses, in part, one of Aditya’s principal contentions – that, despite the unmistakably ‘middle-class’ nature of the protests, the mobilization around the Jan Lokpal Bill tapped into energies much wider, and perhaps potentially more progressive, than the semantic closures orchestrated by state, media, and the leaders of the campaign. The people watching and applauding the street play – performed, incidentally, by the Asmita theatre troupe – were by no means dominantly middle-class. Their frustrations clearly stemmed from the state’s economic policies and the miserly, cost-cutting initiatives of the predatory companies that employed them. The office workers and shop employees so galvanized by the spectacle were victims of corruption all right, but this corruption was both deeper and more precise than that which Anna Hazare and the organizers of the campaign have spoken of. This is the corruption that exacts tributes from low-paid workers and dumps them in the pockets of equally underpaid policemen, the corruption that allows enterprises to initiate formal and informal wage freezes, ensures the permanent unaccountability of the structures of state power and capital to their subjects. It is the corruption that simultaneously sustains and nullifies our ‘actually existing democracy’. I had no doubt on this score; nor did the Nehru Place employees I spoke to.

The opacity of the public spectacle at Nehru Place was the very measure of its success. Given a street play that passionately targeted the holders of political and financial power without ever finally specifying a clear and singular enemy, the many spectators that day naturally read their own concerns and anxieties into the play, thereby momentarily trans-valuing its meanings, wrenching them out of their own context and affixing them to another narrative of discontent, whose sources were different from those that animated Anna Hazare’s campaign. In the nature of much effective political mobilization, a performance such as that we witnessed could be all things to all people. The chain of meanings that animated the campaign is more unruly than the self-anointed meaning-makers, ranging from a respected (if distinctly right-leaning) activist deploying Gandhian techniques, to many of his committed and ideologically diverse followers, to the Barkhas and Arnabs and other TRP-fed 24-hour news-mongerers, would like.

There are two political ‘misrecognitions’ at work here, and they invert one another. On the one hand, the Jan Lokpal movement, or, rather, its recuperation within a media-orchestrated, state-buttressed triumphalism, points in a very precise direction. This is a discourse that systematically misinterpreted (and mobilized) all the signs that were there to be read – the growing frustration at arbitrary forms of power in a context of spiralling inflation and economic hardship, for instance – as an administrative problem, one to be tackled through an authoritarian moral guardian whose power will enthral us into believing we have found a quick-fix. Messy, unclean politics will be replaced by clean, efficient policy, and this will herald the dawn of a new India. Now this is, of course, by no means the only dimension of the movement, least of all for many of the tireless activists associated with it. However, the crucial role played by the televisual media in the state’s apparent capitulation to the campaign’s demands is significant. It suggests that this ‘media orchestration’ has to be understood as a constituent, and increasingly central, moment in the politics of the agitation as it unfolded, and not as something external to it.

The employees in the crowd at Nehru Place that day, on the other hand, enthusiastically ‘misread’ the intended message of the campaign’s propaganda, in the light of their experiences and resentments, and thereby identified corruption as a constituent part (but no more) of a chain of exploitative relations that structure every dimension of the sick social world that they inhabit, that feeds off them. Any attempt to suture these wounds through the installation of a charismatic leader, however enthusiastically received at first, can only end up reproducing the very situation it claims to confront.

In the first interpretation, society is basically virtuous, and what we need is unity against a finite set of materially corrupt and morally repulsive authority-figures: this thieving politician, that crony capitalist. Bad men do bad things: stop them (or hang them, as Anna Hazare has suggested) – that’s what we need. The other interpretation, at the very least, enables an acknowledgment that the ‘messiness’ of politics, exhibited in divisiveness and disunity, is not something that can be cleaned up by ‘national unity’, because these antagonisms constitute society itself – society does not exist outside of this conflict. These two interpretations are locked in a latent struggle with one another, even if they seem on occasion to converge. The question is, as Humpty Dumpty put it, which is to be master?

In this sense, the meaning of the layered social frustrations that gave the anti-corruption campaign its depth is up for grabs. The point, however, at least as I see it, is this – such moments of apparently uncontrollable openness are evanescent. Sooner rather than later, their creative political possibilities tend to get tamed, given a consistency they do not have ‘in the raw’, and gridlocked within an inherently exclusionary set of political signifiers. In this case, the signifier is ‘corruption’, deliberately defined in ways that choose not to go beneath the surface, and to proffer dangerously false solutions to dangerously real problems. As Shuddhabrata has argued, the legislation sought by major sections of the anti-corruption campaign, and enthusiastically supported by the dominant fractions of the state and media, is irreducibly authoritarian as it stands. This is the case no matter what the movement’s guiding impulses may originally have flowed from, and however diverse the ideological motivations of its protagonists. The campaign, now fully engrossed by a happy let’s-move-forward-as-one-nation ideology, seeks to magic away corruption – a product of arbitrary and unaccountable power – through the creation of an institution grounded precisely in that kind of unaccountability.

I am not arguing that the attempt to enforce some kind of semantic closure upon a moment of diverse political possibilities is inherently wrong, or, more to the point, avoidable. Had the movement come to be driven by the forms of discontent we saw at Nehru Place that day in March, had its political possibilities been mobilized by a hypothetical Left rather than a leader who admires Modi and Raj Thackeray, it would have been no less a closure than it is at present. But a different set of political priorities and possibilities might have emerged. Perhaps, to speculate further, ‘corruption’ could have been replaced by ‘injustice’ or ‘inequality’ as the rhetorical lynchpin of the mobilizations. It is a measure of how mentally and ideologically impoverished our mass media are that such a possibility seems utopian, ‘idealistic’, even laughable. But why, after all, should corruption, rather than injustice or disparity, automatically emerge as the target of a mass campaign? These are all abstract nouns, yet only one of them seems to have the capacity to mobilize an assertive political consciousness. The political forces that push mass mobilizations like this towards bland, anodyne and tendentially right-wing invocations of ‘national unity’ are currently much stronger than any imaginable ‘progressive’ or left-wing recuperations. Besides, as Anna Hazare’s fast and the media-driven circus around it demonstrate, such campaigns, with their ‘let’s-move-forward-together-as-one’ overtones, enjoy not only the goodwill but also the active patronage of the powers-that-be.

The timing of Anna Hazare’s campaign, as a journalist friend recently commented, was a tactical masterstroke. The base was laid by campaigns and performances much like the one I witnessed, but the true crescendo was reached, as it perhaps had to be, after the chest-thumping euphoria of the Indian cricket team’s victory in the World Cup. Had Anna Hazare’s fast begun in late March rather than 5 April, would the papers and TV channels, all appropriately ‘bleeding blue’ in the shrill display of mediatized chauvinism as they were at the time, have picked up on it with such enthusiasm? This point may appear cynical, but it is no more and no less than a tribute to the strategic intelligence of the campaign, one that many more progressive mobilizations may do well to emulate.

But then again, we need to come back to Shuddhabrata’s point about the relative invisibility of similar, incomparably more heroic campaigns led by incomparably more embattled activists. Irom Sharmila, Medha Patkar and Binayak Sen are only some of the names that spring to mind. Clearly, the Lokpal agitation, with its blend of tactical hard-headedness and sentimental Gandhism (never mind that Anna Hazare’s defence of Modi would have Gandhi reeling 360 degrees in his grave if he had one) could only succeed because it tapped into an atmosphere of enviable political and tele-visual cordiality, which reached its terminus in the absurd convergence of Sonia Gandhi, Uma Bharati and Barkha Dutt (in other words, the country’s most powerful person, a fascist, and a demonstrably compromised opinion-maker) lauding the spectacle of a ‘great man’ willing to sacrifice himself to clean up the nation. So we have a political conjuncture that is truly grotesque: the ‘India’ of the powerful and influential collectively discovers the virtues of selfless political mobilization and courage at the same time as one of the country’s bravest activists puts her life and body on the line against a rapacious military occupation, and another, guilty only of the crimes of conscience and dissent, languishes behind bars on patently trumped-up charges.

A critique such as this runs the risk of indignant lampooning (and trolling), as many of the nauseously self-righteous responses to Shuddhabrata’s piece testify. You can be accused either of anti-nationalism or of cynicism. The first accusation belabours the ‘negativity’ of the campaign’s ‘detractors’, and says (to quote Dylan out of context), ‘If ye cannot bring good news then don’t bring any’. To refuse to participate in this orgy of celebration funded by corporate media houses and a complicit state is to invite a stream of reproaches. You have to be happy: look, there are all these beautiful people on your television screens telling you what a wonderful day this is for your nation; how can you possibly refuse to join the celebrations at Jantar Mantar, how can you stick to your bitter, wasted leftist doctrines that wilfully blind themselves to this glorious new sun?

The second accusation – cynicism – is more serious, but also more misplaced. These critiques of Anna Hazare’s campaign in no way seek to belittle the depth of the genuine resentment millions of Indians feel at the corruption that structures their everyday interactions with power. The point, rather, to insist that corruption is at a basic level always symptom rather than cause. When an auto-driver, compelled to pay Rs. 400 on a daily basis to his boss, and equivalent bribes to an underpaid policeman to avoid a chalaan, makes up the losses by overcharging his passengers, is it really corruption of the kind Anna Hazare decries that is at work here? Yet situations like these are what make up the daily life of corruption in so many social settings, and they go all the way up the ladder.  To reduce social relations like this, grounded in violent exploitation (in which we have some reason to claim to be world-beaters), to personalized episodes of moral ‘corruption’ is to miss the wood for the trees.

This inevitably invites the rejoinder, ‘So what? A single-issue campaign cannot possibly resolve all our social problems. At least this is a beginning.’ This is the mistake: to see the deliberate foreshortening of the political perspective of a campaign as a ‘beginning’ rather than as a closure of a dangerous kind, symbolically consummated by nationalist flag-waving and drum-beating. The misrecognition of fundamental questions of social structure and relations as questions of corruption may seem a minor problem: the point, however, is that this displacement leaves the door wide open for dangerously regressive ideological operations, of the kind we have seen in print and on TV recently. To miss the point that the social conflicts and antagonisms that manifest themselves in a thousand daily acts and relations of ‘corruption’ are irreducible is to seek a short-cut (whether in the benevolent figure of a Lokpal or the sinister one of an ‘incorruptible’ Gujarat chief minister) that is essentially authoritarian. Several of the comments on the previous posts on this website on Anna Hazare, rightfully animated by frustration at a decaying and unaccountable parliamentary system, take refuge in the fantasy that a strong authority-figure, chosen by equally unimpeachable eminences, is the answer to our ills. This, I would submit, is rapidly emerging as the logical direction in which the discourses and practices of an anti-corruption politics tend to drift, despite the commitments of many of its followers. If corruption is to be seen as cause rather than symptom – and in the final analysis how one sees it is a political decision – then the logical corollary of ‘anti-corruption’ is necessarily some version of authoritarianism,  in its political implications if not (yet) in any fully realized institutional structures. This, and not the ‘negativity’ that detractors of the campaign are accused of, is true cynicism.

In this sense, the workers at Nehru Place on that day had it right, however off the mark their specific interpretations of the political event they witnessed were. Confronted with a shrill diatribe against a corrupt political system, they instantly translated that ‘corruption’ into their everyday experiences of discrimination, injustice, declining real wages, and workplace-based power relations. In that process, the analyses that circulated in the crowd on 25 March were infinitely deeper than anything the media-exalted campaign for the Lokpal Bill could possibly offer: they were radical, to quote a much-maligned nineteenth-century philosopher – they went to the root. The pity of it is that the panacea offered by the circus of tele-visually manufactured ‘public opinion’, which may crystallize in a new piece of legislation offering us a new, squeaky clean Leader, will have no place for insights – and experiences – such as theirs. Instead, it will falsely engross their grievances and demands through an exemplary ideological operation, by breathlessly promising ‘change’ and ‘reform’ till the cows come home, all so that things, at their root, stay exactly the same.


9 thoughts on “Anna At Nehru Place?!: Aditya Sarkar”

  1. Too confusing, highly intellectualised and at times self-contradictory. Anna Hazare’s ideological affiliation is clearly on the side of Hindu Right and it is disturbing , if not dangerous. The entire anti-corruption campaign is disappointingly silent on bribe-givers, the critical component of teen murti constituting the capital, the bureaucrat and the politician. Fast-unto death is an extremely lazy option. It kills any social movement. Gandhi would have not fasted unto death on corruption. He would asked people to stop giving bribes and suffer the consequences. Anna Hazare has simply played an intellectual fraud on Gandhian praxis. He never undertook fast unto death on issues of communal strife or social injustice or caste oppression- the real issues of the masses.
    yogesh

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  2. seems cricket and TV fever makes the writer above forget that five states are into assembly elections where we see the power of money and corrupt candidates making a mockeery of elections.Perhaps the focus of Lok Pal Bill and the single demand for the fast have also been’misread’! administrative and corporate corruption is something we can fight thru this legislation. And if you had not been buying electronic parts from the grey market( stealing?) you might have heard many non famous speakers talk about the bribe giveer and the well connected. Does everything have to be said by a leader? Cant people contribute?

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  3. nina rao has conveniently suggested that sarkar was on the wrong side of the law (on the basis of his presence at Nehru Place) while herself supporting a massive spectacle that can only be termed illegal (and that’s hardly my problem with it).
    now she will find justification for hazare and seek to apportion more blame onto sarkar, in any way possible, irrespective of the consequences for her own (agument’s- if there is any) integrity
    classic.
    NB: not all of workers’ problems are a result of corruption. in fact, one may often achieve through the corridors of corruption, respite and justice (yes, even justice) otherwise impossible, in order to live a life slightly more equitable. to believe otherwise only indicates ignorance of the most vicious kind.

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    1. It is too premature to over-dissect and kill a democratic endeavor.As of now it is not a movement but a small short-term project to compel the government to have a positive single legislation.Intellectuals in FB and other forums have poured in all that could be critical of a small step.Don’t u think it is over- kill?Hazare ,who is not a gandhi or JP, is not important but the experiment is. Nor is Hazare an African despot who cannot be replaced or thrown out .If the experiment ,which is so far is positive, goes wrong it is not irreversible.The whole episode displays only the shallowness of indian intellectuals who do not like’simple’ things that won’t allow a free- play of their sterile marxist-maoist-feminist-minority pedantry.So they make it as much complex as they can and revel in the resultant slush.Despite Hazare no revolution awaits u and the whole world is direction less.even at these junctures one can afford to be not petty.

      If we concede certain premises such as[1] marxism-leninism is a failed experiment [2] that India is still a nominal democracy[3]that it is a better place than most of the other countries of the erstwhile third world,Hazare’s movement was a relevant one reinforcing democratic values.Reserving our rights to criticize or abandon him someday in future ,the new committee may bring in a legislation which will be of some improvement from the present anti-corruption enactments.The civil society is represented by some daring legal luminaries who are known for their result -oriented works. Probably,hazare and his team may become a failure.Instead of appreciating this small step the eternal argumentative Indians are back at their job with their predictable but worthless analyses.They must realize that these cynical words are too much cliche -ridden although garbed in pedantry.Probably Mao had called such analysts’pedantic fools’.The tone of their argument is that if Hazare was not there,the very next day they were to bring in some Marxist revolution!So far it is silly to attribute Hindutwa tendencies to these activists.When he highlighted Mody and Nitish ,Hazare categorically said that he is not attesting any of their communal positions.Further,Advani has been strongly rebuffed by Hazare .The fact that Nitish is part of NDA should not prevent one appreciating that he is the best chief ministerIndia has.Any Mahatma Gandhi can be tarnished by some silly statistics!

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  4. I wish Mr Hazare had struck for the right of workers and other employees to protest and not be sacked.
    The corporate world is full of the peck order and the a -licking of the bosses the nepotism gets one up . Wonder if such a thing counts for corruption in Anna Hazare’s words.

    But that he gave a clean chit to Modi is atrocity itself because we know of a man who was not fit to be a lecturer in an M. B. A. Dept. of North Gujarat University as he did not have an M. B. A. himself but was professor. He was also acting VC. on HNGU and is the VC of Vir Narmad South Gujarat Univesity, Surat. Is this not corruption is Anna out of his mind?

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  5. A related musing:

    This event seems like a carefully construed and skillfully orchestrated PR/Media coupe for Hazare and co. The product being ‘the Bill and/Hazare and co.’ sold under the brand of ‘anti-corruption’.

    I was in Mumbai recently when these event/s were unfolding, in the heart of commercial area, where I encountered flyer wielding crusaders of the cause. I was overawed by the zeal of the people involved. It has in some sense translated into an ostensible ‘grassroots’ campaign with the aide of the various tools used to shape public opinion.

    This is the ‘Act of God’ GOI/Cong was waiting for, this changes the focus of public consciousness from the myriad scams which have plagued its public image in the recent past. In fact there may be a nexus (between the Party and the Hazare party), and therefore an opportunity for ‘astroturfing’ for the Cong Party. This opportunity provides Cong with the means to rejuvenate itself in the public eye. This is similar to what the author refers to through the phrase “atmosphere of enviable political and tele-visual cordiality”. This conduciveness was simply lacking from the efforts of people like Irom Sharmila, Medha Patkar and therefore would not provide Cong the necessary leverage it seeks in the current political scenario.

    Nicely written.

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