In not heeding the mandate of civil society, team Anna overstretched the concept. From day one its tone was hectoring, demanding, threatening and authoritarian-pass the Lokpal Bill in exactly this form or else! The symbols that were employed to push this agenda were frankly intimidating to the democratic mind, the use of havans, the presence of religious personalities, and the sloganeering of ‘bande mataram’, foreclosed debate. Civil society is perfectly entitled to stage spectacles as much as political parties are entitled to do so. But politics in civil society is not only about spectacle; it is about painstaking labour in the sense of mobilization of public opinion, and the building of a movement through continuous debate and self-criticism. Movements can endure, but spectacles are by nature transitory. When spectacles lose their audiences they lose their rationale, and this was the fate of the movement against corruption.
More troublesome is the fact that Team Anna has an extremely simple minded view of politics, from ‘ek hi thapad mara’, to the devout belief that one more institution can resolve problems. Corruption is important, but wiping out of corruption need not be democratic at all. Consider Singapore as a case in point. I do not think that the leadership of this movement knows much about democracy, if they did they would know that laws are not made by civil society organisations, but by elected representatives who can be held accountable. Civil society organisations can suggest, and monitor, and critique, and engage with the state, what they cannot do is to appropriate tasks meant for legislatures. Team Anna refused to recognize this and in the process overstretched the concept of civil society.
In doing so it provoked the government, and it impoverished civil society. The government always ready to slide into authoritarianism, lashed out by attacking not only the members of Team Anna, but also a number of civil society organisations, in Kundakulam for instance. Above all Team Anna refused to carry other civil society organisations with the movement, disdained debate and in discussion, and thus build up a constituency instead of an audience. It diminished the project of civil society tremendously by foreclosing networks infused by the spirit of solidarity.
The team has now decided to transform itself into a political party. But this is also deeply problematic. As suggested above the decision undercuts the importance of civil society. If things have not worked here, goes the reasoning, let us push our agenda in the electoral field. Civil society is however important for reasons apart from winning and losing. It is in civil society, messy, chaotic, and troublesome though the space may be; that concerned citizens can come together in all sorts of projects from monitoring the state, as well as troublesome agents in civil society itself. And this is a vital precondition for democracy. Civil society campaigns are not about absolute losses or absolute gains, they are for keeping engagement with the state and with each other going.
Above all, political parties need to have a vision for the country, no political party with a one point agenda has succeeded in Indian politics, not in the days of coalition politics at least. Recollect how the BJP had to water down the Hindutva agenda to win friends and influence people. Team Anna with its rigidities and its orthodoxies will have to go through a period of political tutelage to know what democratic politics is about. Certainly it may win some share of the votes, and get a share in power. But then another movement will arise against the ruling dispensation asking for more accountability and more transparency. This will be the ultimate irony for the Team, but it is exactly this that democracy is about.
(About the Contributor: Neera Chandhoke is Professor at the Department of Political Science, Delhi University)