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Fast of the furious

April 14, 2011

Ever heard of the granary that was guarded by the yellow hound? Legend has it that the hound had two assistants. The first one was a rat that counted the grains and grew suspiciously fatter each night. The other was a fox that, for the most part, did the hound’s bidding. But since the hound itself could not be trusted to be faithful, an elephant sat on a windowsill of the granary and occasionally peered inside. If it found the animals stealing the grain, it harrumphed.

You’ve probably never heard of this fable. I created it as a metaphor for Indian democracy, which is represented by the granary. The hound is the Legislative, the fox the Executive, the rat the Bureaucracy and the elephant the Judiciary. It’s no secret that the landlord (the Citizens) has been robbed blind by this mix of animals. It seems that the landlord now wants to solve the problem by introducing a new animal to the setting. In the real world, this animal will be represented by the office of the Lokpal. In the simpler world of metaphors, it will perceived as Godzilla or a kitten with attitude, depending on where one stands on the issue. Some may even see it as a determined Batman who will not rest until Gotham City is cleansed of undesirable elements. Perceptions apart, it is certain that this animal will hold a whip and lash hard. In other words, the office of the Lokpal will hold the specific responsibility of punishing the corrupt.

Since the 60s, the Lokpal Bill has been tabled 10 times in Parliament. On all occasions, one or both the Houses refused to pass it. Meanwhile, the scams in Indian politics have become larger and more unabashed. It’s never been a better time to be a neta, babu, qaazi or a daroga. India is shining and the Indian political system has turned resplendent in its arrogance and unaccountability. The public, it seemed, was living in a comatose state in the outhouse, having given up all hope of salvaging the granary.

It’s all the more surprising, therefore, that a remarkable event unfolded on 5 April at Jantar Mantar in Lutyen’s Delhi. On that day, Anna Hazare began a fast unto death, demanding the implementation of a Lokpal Bill with teeth. Over the years, Hazare has transformed Ralegaon Siddhi, a village in Maharashtra, and made it a mascot for agricultural prosperity and social inclusiveness. He won the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award, in 1992. In the past decade, he has worked hard (and fasted in protest) to ensure that the Right to Information (RTI) Act remained potent. Yet, not many Indians were aware of his existence when he began his fast. So the man himself may not have expected an avalanche of support for him and his views. But that’s exactly what happened.

Perhaps people were infused with hope following India’s triumph in the Cricket World Cup. Perhaps they had concluded that even Sachin Tendulkar could only give them limited happiness. Perhaps locating the fast within spitting distance of the Parliament made a difference. Perhaps a nation starved of heroes saw one in Hazare. Whatever the reasons, Indians of all hues and choler got behind the cause. Facebook and Twitter servers groaned under the strain of two buzzwords: Lokpal and Hazare. The shrillest television channels in the subcontinent then latched on to the phenomenon and took it to the next level.

I happened to be in Delhi during this time and felt compelled to visit Jantar Mantar. The atmosphere was unbelievable. There were as many OB vans at the venue as one would expect to find at Saif and Kareena’s wedding! And the place had become a kind of pilgrimage for freedom fighters, schoolchildren, unemployed youth, working professionals, bored housewives, Bollywood celebrities, saffron-clad agenda-snatchers, academicians, Left Liberals and even a cricketing legend. Anybody with enough clout to reach the mike spoke about transforming society. Even as I watched Anna sahib lean forward to catch the words of fellow-activists such as Medha Patkar and Arvind Kejriwal, I knew that similar protests were being held in Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Chennai, Guwahati, Shillong, Aizawl and many other cities. This had become a pan-Indian movement. My head told me that this model was unsustainable, but my heart swelled with pride and anticipation.

On the fifth day, the government blinked and conceded all demands made by Hazare. Not everybody celebrated, though. An appreciable section of the media raised concerns about the form, content and consequences of the protest. Could a single man with an idea be allowed to subvert the democratic process and blackmail a nation? Do the galvanized masses know that Hazare considers flogging to be a remedy for alcoholism? Even assuming that the man was beyond reproach, did the masses really understand the issues riddling the Lokpal Bill? For starters, how could a quasi-Constitutional body be allowed to wield extraordinary powers?

Very pertinent questions, of course. But is there cause for extreme concern yet? One expects the Joint Committee that will draft the Bill – comprising of nominated Parliamentarians and citizens – to get the theory right. For now, the comatose landlord has registered a resurgent heartbeat on the monitor. I want to celebrate that. And I will hope that, over time, the galvanized millions will gain vertical knowledge on political issues while not losing the appetite for change.

Eshwar Sundaresan is a Bangalore-based writer, freelance journalist, ideator and entrepreneur. His works are Googlable.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.