Is Hazare another Seshan?

By Rajdeep Sardesai
27 April 2011 22:23 IST

"Do you know how elections are run in this country? Liquor for the father, cloth for the mother and food for the baby."

"What is not corrupt in this country? India's central vice is corruption; the centrality of corruption is election corruption; and the centrality of election corruption is the business houses."

The above quotations certainly sound like Anna Hazare, the new apostle from Ralegan Siddhi, only they're from an earlier generation when another anti corruption crusader, a certain T N Seshan was being feted across the country as the great middle class hope.

Remember Seshan? The garrulous chief election commissioner whose 'war' against corruption inspired fear among the politicians and awe among the middle classes in the mid-1990s. Seshan's efforts did see a reduction in overt election expenses, but within a few months of retiring as CEC, he attempted to beat the netas by joining them. In 1997, he lost the presidential elections as a Shiv Sena candidate while in 1999; he lost by over 1.8 lakh votes as the Congress-backed candidate against L K Advani in Gandhingar. Twice hurt, Seshan eventually retired to a quieter life in Chennai, embraced by Rotary clubs but forgotten by the vast multitude of citizens.

Will Anna Hazare end up as the Seshan of our generation; celebrated today, gone tomorrow? There are important differences between Seshan and Hazare. The former earned his authority from the office he held: as chief election commissioner, Seshan was able to revive a dormant institutional post, give it a bite that it had lacked for decades. Hazare, by contrast, holds no official position but is a bit of a traveling fakir, who can move easily from one issue to another with his disparate bandwagon of activists.

Driven by ego, Seshan forgot that once he stepped down from his office, the power too would go. Hazare has no such fears. Indeed, he derives his stature from being outside the political system, from being seen as a freelance Gandhian, always ready to inject a certain moral outrage towards a corrupted state machinery through personal example. Seshan had, after all, been a civil servant for much of his life; he was in that sense a representative of the state. Hazare is the army driver who turned village sevak, someone who has always been completely outside the charmed power elite.

Both Seshan and Hazare have derived their legitimacy from the cheering middle classes, but with one big difference. In the 1990s, the Indian middle class appeared to be completely impotent in the face of political venality. Today, the middle class has found a new weapon in round-the-clock television news. Hazare's 'revolution' fired the imagination of the middle classes because the television cameras brought it instantaneously into the homes of millions of Indians. When Seshan was taking on the netas, there wasn't a single private television news channel in the country. Now, when Anna decided to go on a fast unto death at Jantar Mantar, it became a 'made for tv' moment, artfully choreographed between the World Cup and IPL so as to gain maximum eyeballs. In a country with over 100 million homes with cable and satellite TV, Hazare became an instant national figure in a manner that Seshan took years to achieve.

And yet, there are worrying similarities too. Like Seshan, Hazare is also a bit of an authoritarian figure who believes that Gandhian values must be combined with a certain Shivaji-like aggression. Hazare's 'model village' in Ralegan Siddhi is based on a rejection of any dissent, or alternate viewpoints, and a certain element of coercion, with alcoholics for example being publicly flogged. The anti-democratic streak has also seen many of his close aides even part company with him over the years.

Moreover, Hazare hasn't always been discriminatory about the people around him, some of whom have tried to manipulate his simple-mindedness. He almost paid a heavy price for this in 2005 when the Justice Sawant commission report concluded, "The expenditure of Rs 2.20 lacs from the funds of the Hind Swaraj Trust for the birthday celebrations of Shri Hazare was clearly illegal and amounted to a corrupt practice." That Hazare still managed to survive the indictment is a testimony to the credibility he had earned from decades of working for a better society.

There are obvious dangers when the hopes of an entire movement are reposed in an individual, someone who self-confessedly admits to being no Mahatma. Unfortunately, middle class activism has not matured enough to develop the momentum and self-belief to go beyond constantly searching for demi-gods who will slay the political demons of our time. In the Seshan era, there were anti-corruption signature campaigns and seminars. Today, we have candlelight marches and social media networks that attempt to compensate for a more meaningful engagement with public life. The rage may be real, the desire for change may be well-intentioned, but can it really transform society unless it goes beyond the clever soundbite, or the 'mera neta chor hai' slogan?

The real success of a 'peoples' movement' in the war against corruption will come when it doesn't stop with a Lokpal or an Anna Hazare. The challenge is to throw up Anna-like figures and collective groups like Bangalore's Janagraha in every mohalla in this country. We need organized local communities who will hold their elected representatives accountable at all levels, from the Gram Sabha to the parliament. Rather than deify Anna, let's imbibe the spirit of sacrifice and voluntary service that is the mark of his work. The message must matter more than the individual if Anna is not to end up as just another transient middle class icon.

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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