Peepli Live from Jantar Mantar

Why am I not so impressed with the hoopla surrounding Anna Hazare and his fast unto death at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi?

May be because I have seen too many of these too many times before — and also sat in on how successive Maharashtra governments have conned this rather innocent man into a series of compromises from which, each time, he took that much longer to recover.

Although the Shiv Sena is on his side now, I remember a time when Bal Thackeray called Anna Hazare a ‘crackpot’ and refused to have anything to do with him. That’s because Thackeray was taken aback when Anna switched attention to the Sena-BJP government in the late Nineties after having taken on the Congress in the earlier regime. Thackeray was miffed that someone he considered a friend should have so clearly turned a foe by targeting his own ministers’ corruption in government, quite failing to recognise the neutrality of Hazare’s positions. Anna subsequently lost a case of defamation brought against him by one of the ministers named by him and was even thrown into jail. But a hasty commutation by then Chief Minister Manohar Joshi had him out within a day.

I was following Anna closely in those days and I was startled when, despite all this, he changed his mind about Thackeray again after friends and well-wishers of both arranged a meeting between him and the Sena supremo. That’s when I discovered how impressionable he was and was both charmed by and apprehensive of Anna’s propensity to see things only in black and white as well as his inability to grasp the complexity of situations and the shades of grey in every issue.

Not surprisingly, the BJP, which was an ally of the Sena in government, also cottoned on to this and one day decided to use it – no, not against either the Sena or the Congress, but against one of their own.

I was present again at the press conference announced so excitedly by Anna Hazare in Pune who told us he would be ‘exploding a bomb’ about a senior minister in the government. That minister was Gopinath Munde who held the Home department and was also the state’s Deputy Chief Minister. Under the circumstances, the explosion was a damp squib and it was soon apparent to even Anna Hazare how he had been had.

There was a certain upper caste lobby in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the state who, quite frankly, detested Munde, an OBC, for having got where he had, all under his own steam. Most of us by then knew, unofficially, about his liaison with one of the state’s most beautiful tamasha dancers called Barkha by whom he had also had a son. The Maharashtra government then had a scheme which we called “the ten per cent quota”. Not to do with money but the allotment of flats. Every builder had to transfer ten per cent of the apartments he built in every building to the government which the government then gave at concessional rates to impoverished artistes, writers, journalists, backward classes, handicapped, scheduled castes and tribes, retired defence personnel, et al.

Munde had quite legitimately, as it turned out, allotted one such flat in Pune to his paramour/second wife, duly paid for by her own funds. Anna had been misled by this upper caster lobby into believing he was exposing a property scam. But all that that expose did was to establish a clear link between Munde and his Barkha. Earlier, his liaison was in the realm of gossip and spoken of in hushed tones. Now there were papers to prove that Barkha had taken a flat under the name ‘Barkha Gopinath Munde’ (after which Bal Thackeray famously advised Munde, “Pyaar kiya toh darna kya!”). The expose enraged Munde and Barkha was forced to overwrite all her documents to make them read ‘Barkha Gopinath Patil’ to stop people from drawing inferences.

Munde, though, lived down the scandal. But not so Anna. He felt humiliated at having been so misled. That’s why, I believe, he is now throwing out people like Uma Bharti from his dais (though Bharti now is not officially the BJP). But his rather harsh, “Kon RSS? Kon BJP? Kon Congress? (Who is the RSS? Who is the BJP? Who is the Congress?)” was a stern warning to politicians of all hues not to hijack his forum again and believe they can once again con him into compromising his position.

But it is not the BJP (whose Lokpal bill of 2002 has been copied in toto by the current government with little application of mind) or even the Congress which is Anna’s problem. Rather it is the Nationalist Congress Party whose ministers have now gone ballistic against this simple-minded Gandhian. I must admit I was startled when Sharad Pawar threw in the towel so early because that is not how the Maratha warlord usually meets such issues. But now I have a glimmer of the reason why. And these things could not have been happening without Pawar’s express sanction and blessings. So, I believe, Pawar resigned from the committee of the group of ministers on corruption not because he was stung by Anna’s allegations against him but to orchestrate the collapse of his latest road show, for which he would necessarily have to operate from behind the scenes. If Anna believes otherwise or even that he has had Pawar’s scalp, then the Maratha warlord is dangerously close to succeeding.

Just look at how Pawar operates: Sureshdada Jain, who was earlier a NCP minister in Maharashtra and now is a Shiv Sena MLA after an estrangement with Pawar, has been singing the Maratha warlord’s praises for the last two days, calling him a ’sensitive’ politician (when he always thought of Pawar as bullheaded before). But more significant is that Jain has also simultaneously chosen to revive memories of a scam in Anna Hazare’s own Hind Swaraj Trust.

Jain was earlier stung by Anna’s charges against him and brought forth his own – that Anna had misappropriated funds from the HST which had received a Rs 2 crore grant from the Maharashtra government. A judicial enquiry subsequently led Justice P B Sawant to conclude that there had indeed been misappropriation of Rs 2 lakh from the trust ‘amounting to corruption’ – to celebrate Anna’s birthday in his village of Ralegaon-Siddhi. The difference between the politicians and Anna Hazare was that Hazare admitted to the misappropriation – and now Justice Sawant is supporting his agitation against corruption. “What I probed was certainly a case of corruption. But Hazare accepted that it was a mistake so he can certainly go ahead with the agitation,” Justice Sawant has told the Hindustan Times’ reporter, Yogesh Joshi, in Pune.

But Jain and other ministers who were indicted by the same judge and commission which probed Hazare are not so ready to let bygones be bygones. “My fight with Hazare will continue. I, too, can make allegations against him. He must withdraw from this fight.” Jain chose the serious forum of the Maharashtra Assembly to make those statements.

Nawab Malik, another NCP minister who had to bite the dust along with Jain, did not use the Assembly to make his statements but reiterated,”There was corruption in Anna Hazare’s trust. But no one wants to talk about that.”

Malik believes Anna is being misled by ‘right wing forces’ but I think that is not quite right, either. Rather, I believe, Anna is hamstrung by his own image (please read this piece by Manu Joseph in Open magazine which captures the essence of this real-life Peepli Live) and that people who would not get a look-in otherwise are once again using Hazare as a front to succeed in their own primary agenda which is not just about fighting corruption.

I would not agree with every last conclusion made in his piece by Joseph, a former colleague, who can sometimes be liberal and at other times hurtful (as I have told him before) with his interpretations of the truth. I simply do not agree that Anna is obsolete or that he is deliberately imitating Mahatma Gandhi and his tilt of head in a studied fashion. But Joseph’s piece is relevant to the extent it captures what the cameras do not – though I would not go so far as to call it a farce either. As someone else said before me, it just gives me a feeling of life imitating art, suspiciously like Peepli Live played out now at Jantar Mantar.

As I write this, there are unconfirmed reports that a couple of Maharashtra bureaucrats who have dealt with and calmed Anna down before have been dispatched to New Delhi to work the levers again and put an end to the show as early as possible. By past experience, I believe, Anna too knows the government cannot allow him to wither away and sooner or later will come out with a package that seems to meet most of his conditions without giving away too much, either. Therein lies the danger and I am not sure even the activists rallying round him will able to spot the manoeuvre. Even as, as in the past, Anna allows all the adulation go to his head and fails to see the stumbling block in the process, allowing the allegations against him to gather steam that will surely compromise his next agitation which might not start off the ground without a little bit of a hobble.

Meanwhile, here’s a brilliant piece, a satire, by Smita Prakash.

This, at least, should bring a smile to everyone’s face.

Happy reading.

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