Anna Hazare, Maharashtrian social crusader and Gandhian, became a household name in 2011 during the anti-corruption movement in India.
However, his stardom has waned considerably in the recent years. Can it be that his agitation has lost its steam? Has Anna, once dubbed ‘The Last Gandhi’, been consigned to oblivion in public memory like the Lokpal Bill? Well, as of 2019, it certainly seems so.
A Brief History of Anna Hazare’s Life and Accomplishments
Anna Hazare was born as Kisan Baburao Hazare on 15th June 1937 in Bhingar, Maharashtra, to Baburao Hazare and Laxmi Bai. They initially lived in penury and the family soon moved to their ancestral village of Ralegaon Siddhi, where they held some property. Hazare, the eldest son, was sent off to Mumbai to study but he dropped out in seventh grade. He became a flower-seller, and not long after, a pretty affluent businessman.
At the age of 23, he joined the Indian Army to serve as a truck driver. This was when his life started changing and he turned to the teachings of Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda for spiritual sustenance. On one occasion, during the 1965 Indo-Pak War, he was barely able to escape with his life during an assault on his truck.
He mused that there must have been a divine reason why he was the only one to have been spared. It was due to this near-death experience that he decided to dedicate his life to the service of the indigent and the less fortunate.
After being discharged, he shifted back to Ralegaon Siddhi. The physical deprivation and the moral degradation of the village dismayed him and he set about putting it to rights with the money that he had earned during his stint in the army. First of all, he enforced a prohibition on the consumption and sale of tobacco and alcohol.
He utilised Gandhian methods like picketing and social ostracism to achieve his goal. He also ensured food security, he built a grain bank and persuaded farmers to develop a watershed and produce crops suitable to the drought-prone environment.
He constructed the village’s first school, convinced the village people to shun casteism, and introduced them to the idea of a Gram Sabha, where all adults would get to have a say in the decision-making process of the the village. All of these measures made the Maharashtra government declare Ralegaon Siddhi as a model village.
Besides heralding in a golden era of rural development, Hazare has been an anti-corruption crusader for the past thirty years. He started the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Andolan in 1991. Since then, he has constantly been fighting to make the common mass receive their proper due.
His efforts have resulted in the transfer and suspension of several corrupt bureaucrats. His street fighter image grew from this phase of his life; he led protests, agitations and sat on fasts, like Gandhi. He became a popular icon with Maharashtrians.
The enactment of the revision of the Maharashtra Right to Information Act was another notch in his belt. India’s Right to Information Act of 2005 was directly based on this document.
Furthermore, as a consequence of his opposition to the practice of wilful transfer and appointment of officials, which was often misused, the government of Maharashtra passed the Regulation of Transfers and Prevention of Delay in Discharge of Official Duties Act in 2006.
His promotion of prohibition prompted the Maharashtra government to halt subsidisation of the manufacture of liquor from food grains in 2009.
The 2011 Lokpal Fiasco and Hazare’s Ensuing Fall from Grace
The spate of scams that had been uncovered during the second term of the UPA government dealt a critical body blow to Manmohan Singh and the Congress. In order to do some damage control and save face, the UPA tried to enact a decades-latent anti-corruption legislation, the Lokpal Bill.
However, the bill that the government had drafted was week and ineffective. Hazare objected to this and started a dharna against the government. On 5th April 2011, he and his followers assembled at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, where he began a hunger strike. His actions attracted immense media attention and he was hailed as a hero, a true Gandhian, by the masses who admired his rustic but compelling rhetoric and his self-abnegating humility.
In the following months, his popularity rose by leaps and bounds. He had accomplished what most political leaders could not – uniting the diverse Indian public beyond class, caste, creed and religion. Celebrities and other social activists flocked to his side, and this led to the formation of Team Anna, comprising the core figures of the anti-corruption movement.
Be that as it may, he refused to share the dais with a politician and continually reiterated the nonpartisan and apolitical nature of the struggle.
At this point, the government decided that detaining Hazare would immobilise this sudden and ever-increasing wave of dissent, and so they arrested him on 16 August 2011, just before he was about to start fasting again.
In spite of being arrested, he proceeded to go on his hunger strike, a move which recalled the arduous struggles that Gandhi and his ilk undertook to rescue the nation from the British invaders. Needless to say, this plan of the government massively backfired and both the government and the Parliament ultimately had to concede to his demands.
However, it appears that Hazare lost his magic thereafter. When he called for a hunger-strike in Mumbai and a subsequent Jail Bharo Andolan from 27th to 29th December 2011, only a few turned up. Consequently, due to the weak public response, he was forced to suspend both, though he cited his ill health as the official reason.
Next year, when Team Anna renewed their agitation, the government turned a blind eye to them. Congress had been able to correctly assess the shift in people’s mood, who had forgotten about the Lokpal bill and had turned their attention to other concerns of the time.
Team Anna called off their protests, and decided to redirect their energies to the political sphere. By this time, rifts and differences among the members had also become visible, which later proved to be a crushing setback. A certain section led by Arvind Kejriwal decided to dip into the electoral foray by forming the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Hazare expressed his disapproval and there occurred a number of public and embarrassing spats between the former members. The Indian public had, by then, lost all faith in the veteran activist and had made him an object of ridicule.
The low point of this affair was when Hazare meekly accepted the diluted and diffident Lokpal after a long-drawn struggle of two years, opening him up to accusations of betrayal from ex-members of Team Anna.
Recently, in January 2019, Hazare embarked on a short-lived hunger-strike in Ralegaon Siddhi. He wanted to highlight the delay in the appointment of the Lokpal. However, the protest fell through, very few came to support it and it was ignored by the big media houses. Even so, his demands were eventually met with the first Lokpal being nominated soon in March 2019.
Deciphering Hazare’s Decline in Popularity
The reason for Anna Hazare’s sudden popularity in 2011 has been credited to Indian media’s unanimous decision to focus all their energies on him. The Indian media world was still reeling from the Nira Radia tapes scam, which had exposed the collusion between politicians and certain media outlets, and promoting Hazare’s cause seemed like a welcome diversion. When the media found other things to report on, Hazare was forgotten.
Hazare was successfully able to unite and accordingly mobilise the urban Indian middle-class. However, the liberal class refused to rally behind him. The centres of liberalism like various universities and progressive circles were put off by what they perceived was his closeness to the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
He had praised Narendra Modi for his work as the Gujarat Chief Minister and this was anathema to the liberals. This endorsement was also seen as a betrayal of his nonpartisan ideals. Additionally, it was revealed that he was a bit of an authoritarian, and ruled his village with an iron hand according to Brahminical standards. It was also said that he held casteist and anti-Dalit opinions.
The contretemps that Team Anna engaged in, after its separation, simply served to rub salt into the wound. They became objects of ridicule and political parties who Hazare had earlier scorned took pointed jabs at him. Political parties accused Team Anna of wanting political publicity and Kejriwal’s decision to fight the elections served to bolster their charges.
Hazare himself accused Kejriwal and his confederates of capitalising on his popularity, even though they somewhat helped to bring him into national spotlight. His vanity and disdain for politics eventually brought him disfavour, though it was lauded in the beginning.
Mismanagement of his anti-corruption campaign was also a crucial factor which led to his subsequent decline. So far, he had been operating in Maharashtra. His advisors were ill-equipped to handle national politics. His repeated threats of fasting-unto-death were a tad overused and ultimately became a joke.
Moreover, he himself had to fend off charges of corruption with regard to a birthday celebration hosted by his Hind Swaraj Trust. The Indian public started losing their trust in him.
Last but not the least is his advanced age. Physical infirmities have led him to cut short quite a few of his recent strikes. For instance, he had to be hospitalised in February 2019 following weakness due to lack of blood supply to his brain. Undertaking hunger-strikes was certainly an admirable feat, but it has taken a huge toll on his health.
Hazare’s civil disobedience movement against corruption and opulence was necessary to expose the villainy of the Indian bureaucracy. His contribution to the betterment of Indian governance is undeniable. However, his appeal and popularity has declined substantially in the past few years.
Indeed, it appears that his colossal growth in popularity was a fluke, perpetrated by the Indian media, which desperately needed a positive distraction. Whatever he may be now, it would be wrong to forget this Gandhian fakir.