Reclaiming of Gandhi Cap – by the People and for the People

For last 13 days, entire India was caught up in a great firestorm instigated by a 74-year old man. The miraculous firestorm burned no trees, killed no person and destroyed no property. Instead, it tempered down the arrogance of the current rulers, awakened millions of people of India and began re-building the nation! A new Gandhi – and a new hope for India – had been born!

Ends do not justify the means. Yet, I thank the UPA Government and Congress Party for trying to curb the anti-corruption movement. The blunder committed by Delhi police on Aug 16th, apparently under UPA’s directions, by arresting Anna Hazare on the first day of his indefinite fast backfired – and ended up fueling the firestorm. Intoxicated by their ‘victory’ against Baba Ramdev two months ago, UPA representatives had been uttering increasingly arrogant words against Team Anna. They had failed to understand Anna’s ability to fast, the depth of his resolve and the courage of his conviction. Unwittingly, they fed the firestorm and caused the anti-corruption movement to reach its tipping point!

India Against Corruption (IAC), a people’s movement, had meticulously planned simultaneous protests against corruption, starting Aug 16th, not only in Delhi but also in several cities in India. I had the opportunity to participate in this unprecedented movement at Freedom Park organised by IAC’s Bangalore-wing, “Saaku”. During Dec 2010, I had participated in Saaku’s first event that had brought in less than 1000 people, had lasted for less than 4 hours and had been mostly ignored by media. Nine months later, the event by “Saaku” brought in more than 2 lakh people, continued for 13 days and was covered in media almost 24×7!

The specific reason for Anna’s protest was to pressurise the government to pass a strong bill – Jan Lokpal Bill – to curb corruption. Some critics question the legitimacy of the support for Anna, since most people do not understand the complexities of law-making. However, the issue of corruption touched a chord with people. We didn’t need a law degree to understand why the ruling and the opposition parties filled up with corrupt MPs would be reluctant to pass a strong law against corruption. Unlike most political rallies where people are paid for their transportation and participation, Anna’s supporters paid for their own transportation and stood in line to contribute money for the movement.

The movement has not yet achieved the Jan Lokpal Bill. However, it has achieved something even more precious. It gave us another leader like Gandhi; it showed us our power; it gave us hope. The genius of Gandhi’s leadership was in inspiring ordinary people to accomplish an extraordinary goal – a British-free India. Likewise, Anna inspired ordinary people to begin a second freedom fight – for a corruption-free India. Annagiri is the new word for Gandhigiri now!

During last 13 days, Gandhi caps became very popular among Anna’s supporters. Gandhi caps had significance when they were worn by the followers of Gandhi during the fight for freedom. After independence, many politicians continued to use for its political appeal. With the rise of right-wing parties, the Gandhi cap had remained in use primarily by Congress party members.

Thanks to Anna, we, the people of India, have now reclaimed the Gandhi cap from corrupt politicians. This is just the beginning. We need to continue our agitations to reclaim India from corrupt politicians – for the people of India.

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Anna vs Baba – and the War Against Corruption

Two months ago, India witnessed a spectacular support of Anna Hazare’s fast. The success of Anna‘s fast was due to an amalgamation of various aspects. I have personally known several volunteers of India Against Corruption working hard for several months to organize this agitation against corruption, and I have seen the energy and passion of the supporters who visited Anna at Jantar Mantar. The India Against Corruption group had Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi at the fore front for moblising volunteers. It had a single focus, had chosen the right leader and right timing – and effectively leveraged technology and online social networks.

While media didn’t pay much attention to the months of preparation, they covered the event non-stop after the fasting began. Such attention certainly brought additional people to the movement, including those who were hearing about Anna or anti-corruption movements for the first time. The core issue touched a chord with people. The urban educated middle-class, the group that has long held the reputation of being the most cynic or most apathetic, had finally said “enough is enough”.

The movement was not without criticisms and controversies, however. Several bloggers questioned the morality of fasting as a way of protest and whether it was legitimate to have non-elected members to be part of drafting committee. There were doubts about Lokpal Bill’s effectiveness, questions about Lokpal committee members’ suitability, and disagreements about whether the committee meetings should be telecast.

Then, Baba Ramdev declared that he would begin fasting from Jun 4th demanding black money supposedly stashed in foreign banks to be brought to India. The way UPA handled his protests has been criticised throughout the country. I have speculated about UPA’s actions in my previous post.

It is interesting to note the differences between the approaches or situations of Anna and Baba. Anna is a Gandhian and his efforts had formed the base for Right To Information Act. Baba is a yoga guru and has managed to mobilise thousands of people. Anna wears white clothes, Baba Saffron. No one seem to have kept tab of whether minorities (primarily Muslims and Christians) were among Anna’s supporters. On the other hand, the religion of Baba’s supporter-base has been noted as exclusively Hindus. Several celebrities had supported Anna, but couple of Bollywood Khan’s criticism of Baba was published in the media. Anna managed to keep everything apolitical even when several politicians mentioned their support, but BJP’s support for Baba made matters go out of control.

Since the issue at hand is black–(not saffron or green!) money, none of these should have mattered. But religion has always mattered a lot in India – and it seems to evoke strong emotions. Hindu practices such as yoga, saffron robe and advocacy against cow slaughter can be easily discredited as being anti-Muslim in a religiously sensitive India. British exploited this phenomenon with their “divide and conquer” strategy. After British, several politicians – Congress and BJP included – have exploited this in various ways. UPA may have tried this strategy again – to break up the movement by bringing fear of Hindutva, and making it a case of Hindu extremists against Congress rather than Indian Citizens against Corruption.

I wouldn’t say India Against Corruption and other groups should ban Hindu spiritual leaders from joining anti-corruption movement. If Swamis are supporting, perhaps sustained attempts should be made to get the support of Muslim leaders and/or Bishops publicly. After all, politicians and parties care about votes – so, if every section of the society participates in the anti-corruption movement, thus effectively creating a new votebank, the movement will have sustained success.

If we are to mature as a nation, we can’t continue to rely on agitations for law-making for too long. During 1857-1947, India needed many agitators and protestors to fight for freedom and against British. When British left on Aug 15 1947, India needed builders and leaders. Similarly, when win our “second freedom fight” against corruption, most of our current politicians will be ineligible to continue! We need to have a plan for filling the vacuum of leadership. I call upon India Against Corruption leaders and activists to take up active politics as well as identify and develop future leaders.

UPA for Corruption – and Atrocity?

Like most other fellow-citizens, I have been horrified, saddened and angered by the UPA government’s and Congress party’s treatment of Baba Ramdev and other peaceful protestors at Ramlila Maidan on Sat June 4th.

Why did UPA resort to a raid and arrest at night? Was UPA and Congress threatened by the support for Baba Ramdev’s fast? Did they decide Mahatma Gandhi’s ways were to too outdated for modern India and for modern Congress, and hence trying to eliminate fasting as a way to protest? Did they hope that the public and media will soon forget the event and the movement will die down? Did UPA arrest Baba because the opposition party BJP supported him?

Why did BJP support Baba? Does BJP really believe that none of its members or major donors will be caught with black money? Or is it because Baba, if he ever forms a new political party, would actually take away lot more of BJP’s votes rather than Congress’s, and thus strengthening Congress?

Why didn’t UPA arrest Anna two months ago and did arrest Baba now? Were those who handled Anna’s case more civil than those who handled Baba’s or did they just not get enough time to think up such a plan the first time? Was it because the elections were fast approaching in several states when Anna began fasting and there aren’t any when Baba began? Did UPA conclude that Indian citizens will surely forget and probably forgive any atrocities against peaceful protestors by next year when elections will be due in some other states?

Will this be beginning of another 1977 as some fear or will UPA’s acts strengthen the anti-corruption movement? What will UPA do next? More importantly, what should we, the Indian citizens who are against corruption, do next?

We may have lost the Baba battle. But we cannot afford to lose the war against corruption! Whether we agree with Anna’s or Baba’s ways or not, we can’t afford to sit in sidelines or be armchair critics. India needs as many alternative approaches as possible to gather critical mass of supporters. Every person and every approach will count towards reaching the “tipping point” faster.

Nisha Singh

Over last two months, I have immersed myself in Nisha Singh’s campaign. Nisha is contesting Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG) election for the councillor from Ward 30. It has been very exciting, enriching and encouraging experience to work on, to learn from and to contribute towards an election in India.

I came to know about Nisha Singh via Facebook. After a few phone calls and a few emails, I decided that it would be worthwhile in my journey of positive politics to go to Gurgaon for a few weeks and work on Nisha’s campaign. The experience turned out to be much richer than I had imagined.

Nisha had online and offline strategies for her campaign. She leveraged technology. Her website, facebook and twitter accounts gained her admirers and supporters not only from Gurgaon, but also from Indians living in various states in India as well as abroad. She worked very hard on the ground – and met the potential voters where there live to understand the local issues people were concerned about. She also identified opportunities for improvements which she believed she could do as a councillor.

33% of the MCG wards are reserved for women – including Ward 30. This aspect brought about some interesting dynamics. I would say Nisha is not really contesting with other women candidates, but their husbands or their fathers-in-law! This isn’t particularly surprising – especially when you consider that most male candidates in India start their political careers as their fathers’ proxies. What I found amusing was how blatantly and shamelessly several women candidates declare they are proxies – by including their male relative’s portraits along with their own – in their big banners and posters.

Nisha has been getting very good response from the citizens of her ward. Every day, Nisha gets emails of appreciation from strangers – voters from her ward as well as outsiders who pass by or hear about her. They have been pleasantly surprised to see an educated person wanting to make a difference is contesting in their ward. When we go door-to-door for canvassing, people greet us very well and offer water or chai. Several people have said that they had decided to vote for Nisha the moment they saw her posters – one she was well educated (Engineer, MBA) and secondly she was alone in her posters! That told them she is not a proxy candidate – and they were sick and tired of the phenomenon of proxy candidature.

Nisha began her preparations as an independent candidate 6-7 months when the elections were being planned – and decided to stay so even after getting offers of ticket from various parties. To be a viable independent candidate one must possess several personality traits of a leader – strength of character, intelligence, courage, discipline, energy and passion for the cause. Nisha has all of these traits and has fully employed those towards the ultimate test in a democracy – the ballot. The polling will occur on May 15th – 4 days from now!

If Nisha is elected, I would say it might be a small win for Nisha in Ward 30, Gurgaon, but a giant hope for me towards positive politics in India!

If You Were a Local Elected Representive…

You have been elected as a local representative in your ward. Let’s say combating corruption is your number one priority. Share your thoughts about your next two priorities.

“Saaku” – Enough Already

Dec 9th is the International Anti-Corruption Day. With India ranking a shameful 87th- along with Albania, Jamaica and Liberia – on Corruption Perception Index 2010, with the 2G Scam holding up parliament sessions, and the land and mining scams closer to home, corruption was quite a relevant issue. Several NGOs came together in Bengaluru under a common banner to raise awareness about anti-corruption activities that week and to say “Saaku” (“Enough” in Kannada) to corruption.

Starting with a workshop on “Fighting Corruption” on Dec 8th and ending with a rally on Dec 11th, I had an opportunity to meet several activists, including Dr. Shankar Prasad from Lok Satta Party. With him and his team, I visited several colleges, including RV College of Engineering and St.Josesh’s, on Dec 9th and 10th. It was encouraging to see many youngsters getting involved carrying a baton from one college to another. I had an opportunity to hear Lok Satta’s founder Dr. JP’s speech. The rally was quite successful with 800+ people coming together on a Saturday morning. Overall, it was an energizing and warming-up exercise for me as I had just begun my journey.

Amidst the excitement of shouting slogans with hundreds of people, I was painfully aware that saying “Saaku” was not enough. It was not simply because of annoyances that many volunteers showed up at 9:45 AM – 15 minute late – grinning that IST stands for “Indian Stretchable Time” and our rally in the prestigious section of Bengaluru forced us to walk through pot holes and filth. It was because of a simple question by a poor and illiterate woman who began walking with me during the rally.

The woman hadn’t understood the purpose of the rally or our slogans such as “Saaku Saaku Corruption Saaku”. She didn’t know the English word – Corruption – or its Kannada equivalent. Yet, she enthusiastically walked with us and I actively encouraged her. Well, my jubilation was soon dampened, when she whispered “duddu kodtaaraa?” (“will I get money?”). It dawned on me that she had been accustomed to join political rallies who were simply buying out participation. Unfortunately for her, participants in our rally were volunteers who are outraged about the levels of corruption in the government, private, NGOs and general public – and were definitely not bribing anyone to join!
The poor woman probably needed daily wages – to feed her family that night. She had no capability to think about her own future, let alone nation’s.

I shuddered to think that the poor woman represents about 40% of population – and perhaps 50% of the voters – in India. Will she vote for a positive politician who wouldn’t violate the ethical codes of an election and wouldn’t distribute cash or sari to her? Will she realize the short-term benefits of some petty cash aren’t worth risking the gainful employment for her teen-aged son in the long run by electing a corrupt person? How can we help her understand the long-term views? Are there possibilities so that her understanding of the issue becomes irrelevant? The Saaku event has added several interesting questions to my journey through the political maze!

Taking the Plunge into Politics…

The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping felt that his only option was to “cross the river by feeling for the stones”, as he began China’s changed course towards a market economy. As I take my plunge into Indian politics, I feel likewise.

A clear path has not been laid out for me. However, I don’t feel completely unprepared. Since I wrote my first blog “Why Politics?”, I have had opportunity to get to know others who have had interests similar to mine – this includes a few who have already put the courage of their convictions to real-life tests. Several people who feel the need for positive politics in India have provided me support and encouragement. I have also received ideas and suggestions from folks actively involved with NGOs.

A particularly interesting experience was volunteering with and observing the US election campaign of Krystal Ball. She and her campaign team generously shared their experiences and perspectives on various matters of running a campaign. I don’t expect that most of the tools and techniques used by them to be directly applicable in India. However, I definitely was able to develop new perspectives and this experience has certainly enhanced my own passion.

I am cautiously optimistic and I look forward to the challenges that lie ahead. As I prepare to take my baby steps towards public service, I am thankful for the stone here, the rock there, and the boulder in the vicinity immersed in my side of the water. I hope that this kind of support will continue and increase as I aim for the other side.