As the Kisan Baburao Hazare-led India Against Corruption ended the fast by its leaders on Friday, it promised a “political alternative” that would take its demands forward. Even those who have doubts about IAC’s leadership or the nature of its demands should welcome what appears to be a change of strategy — if it is indeed such and not merely a tactical move. A new political force will only strengthen India’s democracy; IAC, given the name-recognition of its leaders’ and the popularity of its core issues, has a head-start that most other political start-ups would envy, although sustaining a political movement with a single-point agenda will pose its own challenges.
IAC’s new start also throws up a few questions. Prominent among them is: why has its leadership realised that its method of mobilisation for the Jan Lok Pal Bill, through much-publicised fasts, is not as effective as it had earlier planned? The failures of the strategy were partly built-in; pressuring a government on a single-point agenda using a single form of protest was doomed to fail if the government stood firm. Partly, it reflects the depth of India’s democratic tradition, in that even a “movement” of this popularity realised that it needs to legitimise its claims through participation in the regular political process. IAC’s leaders, who have made little effort to conceal their contempt for mass politics, nevertheless, realised that in a democracy, politics is inevitable. Another reason for IAC’s failure was that the media gradually adopted a more questioning attitude. This time around Mr Hazare’s fast — this was his fourth at the national level — received neither wall-to-wall coverage nor the unalloyed respect that earlier iterations had been provided. This change in media coverage sharpened the decline of popular interest. Political observers will have marked the power of the electronic media, in particular, to shape the conversation in India’s cities. While, earlier, it made it appear as if Mr Hazare was the only topic worth discussing — a self-fulfilling prophecy — its lack of attention subsequently deprived IAC of its oxygen, publicity. Once the cameras move away, only the hard work of politics remains.
The final question is: what, precisely, is the nature of this “political alternative” that is being promised? Mr Kejriwal refused to describe it, explicitly, as a political party — an unsurprising reticence, given his previously pronounced distaste for such organisations. Instead he insists that his “alternative” will be an andolan (struggle), not a party. It will not have a centralised structure; its candidates will be picked at the grassroots level, and its manifesto formed by question-and-answer sessions in villages and small towns. This is an ambitious agenda; but then Messrs Kejriwal, Hazare and Bhushan have not shown themselves lacking in ambition. Whatever the number of candidates that are eventually chosen — and Mr Kejriwal’s reference to a transformation three years hence suggests that the 2014 general elections is IAC’s target — the effect on the political landscape, particularly in urban areas of North India, will be interesting. Certainly the Congress, the target of most of IAC’s ire, will not be overly disappointed that the protest vote against UPA-II will not go exclusively to the BJP.