Dissent is a casualty at the Anna show where his rainbow coalition of supporters eats, drinks and makes protest before the camera
Retired Director General of Maharashtra Police SS Virk, who knows something about dealing with Anna Hazare and his fasts, has this story to tell. “In 2009, he was on fast, demanding an inquiry in a criminal case. I called him up and said, ‘Anna, everyone on your stage is not a saint and you should not put your life at risk for people who don’t really care if you die.’ He agreed. I quickly ordered an inquiry at my level and he called off his fast.”
The former top cop pauses for effect. “I told him his life was precious and he must live to fight for bigger causes. A simple, reasonable man, he responded graciously. But this time he has big support. This Ramlila protest… how is the mood there?”
It’s carnivalesque, at first glance, with nearly everyone in sight clicking away—a few with DSLRs, many with point-and-shoot variants, the rest with mobile cams. The crowd is only occasionally in focus. Mostly it forms the backdrop as they shoot themselves, posing with the tricolour or with the more colourful characters around. Three boys and a girl from Sultanpur video-recorded themselves “being interviewed” by this lowly reporter. Being here, a part of this grand spectacle, is like being in the movies they’ve watched.
But isn’t it about anger, about righteous indignation, about protesting against corruption? You might spot them too, if you look past these hormonally charged youth with their frozen wide grins — there are enough scowls on grim faces. It is easier, though, to spot the signs of a ‘popular protest’ around the dozen or so platforms occupied by the news channels. Handheld cameras for vox pops or crane-mounted for panorama, the TV cams are everywhere. So many of them and so eager that after a point people actually get choosy.
Cameras and anger (canned and real) are not the only, or even the most defining, elements of the rally. A couple of protestors who on Friday complained that they were not being allowed to fast alongside Anna assured me on Sunday that the free meals were “good for a rally”. Biscuits and bananas are plentiful. And, true to the spirit of Anna’s cause, strict volunteers threw some school students out of the queues on Saturday for collecting and “hoarding” more than they could possibly eat.
Some Class XI students of a government school from Sangam Vihar were more interested in the ice candies that were not going free. So a vendor did bulk business. Candies put away, a few of them spoke to me reluctantly: they supported Anna; this was their first visit to the Ramlila ground; they had saved on bus fare by travelling without tickets.
Print journalists are cynical by training, just like their TV counterparts are hysterical. I was trying hard to suspend instinct. Particularly because I hadn’t met the girl who, asked if she had read the Jan Lokpal Bill, apparently said she was a science student and did not know much about civics, or even the young MNC worker who blamed corruption for high tax rates.
Late Sunday night, a news channel was beaming yet another corruption special. Citing an example of the corruption he’d faced, one young man said he’d had to pay to get a building plan sanctioned since he or his father could not have possibly visited the government office over and over to fulfil all the requirements. The next one spoke of a cop who hid behind a tree to catch people jumping a traffic light. Why was the cop hiding, asked this ‘victim of corruption’; he’d jumped the signal only because he couldn’t see the cop.
I try to find some answers in the Ramlila throng. Asked why A Raja was in jail, four young men from Yamuna Vihar said it was because the minister had stashed away money in Italy. I also drew three blanks and nine correct answers. Then a young girl claimed that Raja had bribed the Prime Minister.
It must be a reflection on my reporting skill that I did not find a single person in the crowd below 35 who had heard of the JP movement, which drew the biggest crowds by far to these grounds in 1975. A dapper Gurgaon youth, who wouldn’t divulge his profession, thought I was referring to JP Morgan. “Jaypee group? Constructionwala?” shot back another protestor, who had brought his six-year-old boy along.
Few had heard of Posco or Vedanta or Jaitapur either. And fewer said they would stand by their fellow citizens in the villages in their fights. Only one, a spare parts dealer in East Delhi’s Laxminagar, was candid: “It is the media that brings people. We watched Anna on TV and we are here. How can I rally against Posco if I don’t know about it?”
People here don’t like being asked if they’ve read the Jan Lokpal Bill. Till Team Anna started educating the crowd from the stage on Monday, few had any idea of the Bill, except that it will “police the PM, the Judiciary and will end corruption”. Asked who will choose the Jan Lokpal, people either name Anna or say the janata will decide.
But didn’t the same Parliament and political parties and NAC (National Advisory Council) pass the people-friendly RTI Act two years ago? A lively group of young musicians jamming at the site were venturing some answers when the crowds intervened. Soon, a few exchanges like “Kaun hain yeh jo sab poochh rahe hain” (Who are these inquisitors?) and “Congress ne agent bheje hain” (the Congress has sent agents) ended the debate. A lot of wagging fingers and a little shoving around settled it—Anna’s Jan Lokpal Bill was the only means to end corruption. I was told to write it down. I did.
There is strength in numbers and numbers add easily at the Ramlila ground. A sizeable anti-Congress, pro-BJP crowd is conspicuous. There are school students in uniform and the youth have come prepared with face paint and flags, much like they would for an IPL match at the Ferozeshah Kotla stadium not far away.
And there are the others. I sit down with a group of five friends and they smell of alcohol in the afternoon. All smiles, they tell me they do nothing and were getting bored whiling away time in their Shastri Park bylanes. “Idhar music hai, masti hai. Bas hit gana suno, aur ladki dekho” (It’s fun here. Just sit back, listen to the music and check out girls). On cue, the loudspeakers blare yet another Rang De Basanti number.
Many young couples have walked in too; one can tell because they avoid the cameras. Families are regulars in the evening and also after dinner. The police should take credit: it’s their host-like graciousness that has made this middle-class family entertainment possible. With so many of them deployed here, mob aggression is naturally under check, though one constable did get slapped around (nobody was really sure why) till his colleagues rescued him.
Then there are the rally and trade fair regulars—pickpockets among them, for whom this must be a bonanza. Also, there has been the usual spike in business in the red light quarters on GB road; a 25 per cent increase, reported a daily, is standard every time there is a big rally at the Ramlila maidan.
Yet, this crowd is unlike any other that gathers at the Ramlila. Lanky Shahnawaz stands in his tattered kurta and watches proceedings intently. At a distance, an over-enthusiastic protestor accidentally steps on the tricolour while posing with it. Shahnawaz springs into action, pulls out the flag, wipes it clean, and gives the man a stare. And then returns to his watch behind the swelling crowd.
Shahnawaz does not talk, but many say they trooped in simply because an arrogant government refused them space for dissent. Kapil Sibal is villain No. 1. An autodriver from Shahdara says he felt humiliated by the way the minister spoke on TV: “Woh kya kya bolte hain aur kis tareeke se bolte hain TV pe? Woh hamare malik hain kya?” (See what he says on TV and how. Does he own us?)
For the majority, the methods of Team Anna do not matter. Musicians Bhavesh, Akansha and Ram are protesting for Anna from the day he was arrested. They do not know if Anna’s prescription will work. But they will take anything if that means “a shift, a change from the present system”.
Many also admit that they would not be here if it weren’t for Anna. Sweta Kumar and Basanti Sharma have come from Chhatarpur with their husbands and children. “What will he (Anna) get out of it? It is rare to find a selfless man,” says Basanti’s husband Devender, who works at Customs clearance and knows “how bad corruption can get”.
For the less privileged, though, corruption is an abstract and the real issue is runaway inflation. While paying Rs 5 for a cup of tea, an elderly protestor from Faridabad said he could get one for Rs 2 not so long ago. Stay-at-home women in particular rue how their household budgets have gone for a toss.
The Gandhian angle of Anna’s protest has also drawn thousands of senior citizens to Ramlila. Yet, some like Vaje Singh from Haryana never need much prodding. “I have been protesting since 1965 when the movement for a separate Haryana state was launched. I protested during the JP movement, during the Emergency, with Bansi Lal, with Vajpayee and I was here when Baba Ramdev held his dharna,” gushes the 69-year-old.
Kiran Bedi can add drama to routine health bulletins. “Anna’s BP is 80-130. Aap aur humse achhe hain (Better than you and me),” she roars from the stage on Sunday. The crowd roars back. “Heartbeat is 78. Better than you and me.” Another roar from the crowd. Dr Naresh Trehan, arguably India’s most expensive doctor, appears in the evening to check all’s well with the mascot.
On Monday, though, it seems even Anna’s stage has some room for dissent. Bedi tells the crowd that Anna’s BP is fine but his kidney is infected. Soon, Arvind Kejriwal denies any infection. But much as a few SMS jokes describe Anna as Kejriwal’s Nathha (remember Peepli Live?), the veteran faster, Virk recalls, knows his body and is no puppet.
On Sunday again, Bedi lauds the PM in the morning. “He has done such a commendable job with the Nuclear Bill. I appeal to him to support the Jan Lokpal Bill.” In the evening, activist Akhil Gogoi from Assam blasts the PM, calling him a fraud and accuses him of selling the country to the US.
Away from the stage, I meet two disgruntled Anna associates, who shared the stage with him during his fast at Jantar Mantar. The movement’s growing popularity and clout has drawn many new faces and apparently sidelined the duo. “A few people sharing the stage with Anna are so corrupt that I fear for him,” alleges one. So why did they not warn Anna? “You think it’s easy to reach him these days?” snaps another. So will they spill it to the media? “The media is in no mood for anything anti-Anna now.”
Walking out, I found Shahnawaz outside the ground. This time, he talks. “I am from the LNJP colony across the road. I work at a butcher’s shop. Yesterday, I was at the protest. Today I managed Rs 500 and brought these flags to make some money.” He hopes to finish off his stock if the crowds keep pouring in.
Shahnawaz takes out a bidi and asks for a light. As I search in my pouch, he warns me of pickpockets. I tell him that, according to a daily, crime rates have dropped since Anna began his fast. He laughs, “Police darr gaye, chor nahin (the police have got scared, not the thieves).”
I recall that the cop who came home this morning for passport verification didn’t ask for a bribe. Could it be the Anna effect? Or was I just being cynical as usual and doubting an honest cop? I may never find out.