Anna Hazare and Don Quixote, A Modern Day Parable

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KS Dhillon

Don Quixote or The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, to give it its full title, a novel by Miguel de Cervantes, follows the adventures of Alonso Quijano, who reads too many chivalric novels, and sets out to revive chivalry under the name of Don Quixote. He recruits a simple farmer, Sancho Panza, as his squire, who often treats Don Quixote’s rhetorical orations on antiquated chivalry with a unique earthy wit. Published in two volumes a decade apart, in 1605 and 1615, with its English language editions published in 1615 and 1620, Don Quixote is considered the most influential work of literature from the Spanish golden age. As a founding work of modern Western literature, and one of the earliest canonical novels, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published. The story line goes something like this:

Alonso Quijano, the protagonist of the novel, is a retired country gentleman around fifty years of age, living in La Mancha, an obscure Spanish town. Mostly a rational man of sound reason, his excessive reading of books on chivalry profoundly affects his rational thinking, distorts his perception and weakens his mental faculties. He starts believing every word of these books of chivalry to be true though these books are, in effect, merely fictional. He decides to go out as a knight-errant in search of adventure. He dons an old suit of armour, renames himself “Don Quixote de la Mancha,” and sets out one early morning, ending up at an inn, which he believes to be a castle. He asks the innkeeper, whom he thinks to be the lord of the castle, to dub him a knight. He spends the night holding vigil over his armour, where he becomes involved in a fight with some muleteers, who try to remove his armour from the horse trough so that they can water their mules. The innkeeper then dubs him a knight to be rid of him and sends him on his way. Don Quixote next frees a young boy who is tied to a tree and beaten by his master by making his master swear on the chivalric code to treat the boy fairly. The master, however, resumes the beating as soon as Quixote leaves.

Don Quixote then comes across a simple village lad, Sancho Panza, and asks him to be his squire, promising him the governorship of an island. The uneducated Sancho agrees, and the pair sneak off. It is here that their series of famous adventures begin, starting with Don Quixote’s attack on windmills that he believes to be ferocious giants. The two next encounter a group of friars accompanying a lady in a carriage. They are heavily cloaked, as is the lady, to protect themselves from the hot climate and dust on the road. Don Quixote takes the friars to be enchanters, who hold the lady captive. He knocks a friar from his horse, and is immediately challenged by an armed soldier traveling with the company. As he has no shield, the soldier uses a pillow to protect himself, which saves him when Don Quixote strikes him. The combat ends with the lady leaving her carriage and demanding those traveling with her to surrender to Don Quixote.

And so the story goes on with Don Quixote and his annointed squire, Sancho Panza, attacking countless windmills. This writer seeks the indulgence of the many admirers of Anna Hazare, who may feel outraged at the suggestion that there exists an uncanny similarity between Don Quixote, the fictional early seventeenth century knight-errant and the self-proclaimed modern day reformer railing against and holding out dire threats against assorted individuals and instituitons in the Indian polity if they did not instantly and without protest carry out his injunctions for what he belived to be the only solution to the many ills that the nation suffered from. Never mind the multiple constraints, constitutional and systemic, that such a process would necessarily have to address and the time span that it would take to do so. The arbiterary manner in which he laid down the course for the Indian government to pursue in fighting corruption and sleaze if they wanted to avoid grave repercussions for the polity as well as for public peace and order, with his right index finger thrust out in the manner and style of a deadly weapon, often seemed odd for a man, who reveled in being styled as a later day Gandhian. In their quest for instant fame, both he and his followers seemed to have overlooked the fact that if a mere donning of a Gandhi cap could turn a person into an overnight Gandhian, countless pretenders would block every street corner, vying for the title. Obviously, it takes much more to justify a claim to be a Gandhian than mere singing of Ram dhun and wearing Khadi.

Unlike Don Quixote, Hazare had several Sancho Panzas, some forty of them, who went by the collective noun of Team Anna, though the more visible faces were fewer in number. One often wondered how Gandhi could wage a long and unique freedom struggle wothout a Team Gandhi or Jinnah could secure a homeland for Indian Muslims without a Team Jinnah. In the process, these more visible members of Team Anna assumed a larger-than-life image and role as his conscience-keepers and intellectual guides. May be the leader was not so well gifted in his intellctual talent to lead such a momentous movement and thus needed a group of assorted individuals from diverse backgrounds to guide him. It is another matter that some more prominent members of his Team did not enjoy a squeaky clean past. They were also known to nurse many private whines of their own against the establishment.

It is not the intention of this writer to dispute the genuineness of the cause that Anna Hazare took up with such gusto. There is little doubt that the evils of corruption and sleaze have been eating into the vitals of Indian society and polity for decades and making life unlivable for the masses. But sincerity of purpose is not the same thing as the capacity to deliver. The capabilities displayed and strategies adopted by Hazare were insufficient in many respects and consequently proved to be inadequate and inherently flawed.

Corruption and bribery are endemic to South Asian socities and their roots go back to remote antiquity. Instead of leading to a decrease in the incidence of corruption, misuse of power, nepotism, deviousness and manipulative practices in matters of governance and implemetation of public policy, independence in 1947 in the Indian subcontinent, in fact, resulted in a steep and massive rise in these social evils. Western values of objectivity, integrity and neutrality that by and large governed the civil service ethics and functions during the Raj days could last only for a generation after independence.  This roughly coincided with the coming into political power of an assorted group of defectors from the Congress party in several North Indian states after the 1967 Elections.  A new crop of political leaders and buearucrats took office, who would greatly accelerate the process of nurturing and promoting an environment of compromised political and bureaucratic culture and values. The subesquent decades would see a further and more precipitous decline in the concepts of honesty, integrity and transparent administrative processes and procedures.  Subsequent dispensations, whether led by the Congress or other parties, did nothing to stem the downward slide. There is no doubt that corruption and misrule are at their zenith in our country and I daresay other South Asian nations are no exception. In some areas, our neighbours, in fact, beat us by leagues in this dubious category.

Patrick French, a bright young British historian, thinks that in Hinduism, there is no clear concept of right or wrong while Christians, Muslims and Jews are brought up on the idea of pairs of opposites (India; A Portrait: page 371).  Though the remark is made in a different context, I am not sure if this assertion would adequately account for the equivocal attitude Hindus, and hence a majority of Indians, display towards the concepts of honesty and integrity. If that were so, Pakistan and Bangladesh would not be mired in the same set of social and political ills. What does seem to be true is that corruption and misuse of power has a wide social acceptance in this country as indeed all over South Asia. This happens partly on account of cultural beliefs and values but also and largely because of the grave systemic flaws and inadequacies in the structure and functioning of criminal justice administration and the inordinately long time that it takes for court trials to conclude. Thus, the problem of corruption all over South Asia is multi-dimensional, being a product of both cultural and legal infirmities. Added to this is the dominant and shared mantra of sab chalta hai throughout the subcontinent that really determines our attitudes to social and political ills, thus seriously impeding the processes of reform and change. For any viable and serious-minded anti-corruption movement to succeed, these various factors have to be woven into an integral agenda and a well-conceived, vibrant, highly motivated and actively-functional organization needs to be set up to methodically work out such an agenda. That is the only way to proceed if the reforms process has any reasonable chance of success in a system where corruption and misuse of power has stuck very deep roots and has become the dominant culture of the ruling classes and other powerful sections in the establishment.

The Anna Hazare movement had indeed caught the imagination of a very large majority of middle class Indians as many of them had been close witnesses to injustice and unfair practices at the hands of the State and its employees and some had even been at the receiving end of such brazen injustice and misconduct. That the movement could be sustained for sixteen long months was due more to the hopes and aspirations that it aroused among the urban middle classes than the deftness with which it was pursued by the so-called Team Anna. However, the signs of slippage were only too clear each time it was sought to be resumed. Even the attempts to co-opt some well-known charlatans and frauds in the garb of sadhus, swamis and assorted godmen failed to revive the movemet to its full potential. The likes of Ram Dev and others of his ilk sought, in their turn, to hijack the spirit and elan of the mass upsurge to further their own selfish ends. The biggest fallacy that Anna and his team suffered from and tried to promote was that the mere constitution of what they called the Jan Lokpal would solve the many problems that the Indian people had to live with for decades. Towards this end, they set arbiterary and impossible deadlines, holding out dire threats to parliamentarians and government ministers if they failed to meet the demands. They and their supporters sought to evoke the spirit of the Arab spring and what happened in Cairo’s Tahrir square, clearly forgetting that those events took place in totally different regimes and situations. The concept of total revolution, mass civil unrest and the reviling of elected legislators does not go well with a democratic system where elections are held every now and then to enable the people to choose their representatives. If the people are unable to make intelligent choices during the elections, the fault lies with the electorate, not the sysytem. The need is to educate the electors so that they do not elect corrupt and criminal elements to parliament and state assemblies. Laws cannot be drafted and enacted in streets. We need legislatures and carefully worked-out parliamentary procedures for that. The kind of Lokpal that the Team Anna had been insisting upon would have created a monster organisation with an impossible charter and a mammoth staff to complement practically no assured accountability norms that no civilised dispensation can afford to work with. Besides, where are we going to find so many Lokpals and a huge support staff to work under them in a society so deeply mired in corruption?

Media reports indicate that Anna Hazare has disbanded his team but there is little clarity on the question of if and when a new political party is to be floated by his team members. He, himself remains equivocal on the subject. If indeed a new Anna-inspired outfit is in the offing, there appears little evidence of the kind of preparatory work that must go into the endeavour. In fact, he should have realised much earlier that the only way that you can bring about substantive systemic reforms is through political processes, not by shouting slogans and trying to incite the people to flock the streets and take the law into their own hands. That is not the way a democracy functions and, in any case, revolutions are not the traditional route for change and reform, adopted by the Indian people over the last many centuries. Kings and nobles have killed their kin to secure the throne but when did the Indian people last rise in revolt against their rulers and create a successful revolution? 1857? 1942?  History has already provided enough evidence to the contrary, much as we may like to call the first as a war of independence and the second a peaceful revolution.

Revolutions are never peaceful. They must shed blood in order to cleanse an oppressive and outdated system together with the entrenched privileged ruling coteries so as to usher in a brand new culture of governance and a fresh new class of socially responsible and responsive people, imbued with high values and sensitivities, in command. Aevind Kejriwal, one of the more vocal of the erstwhile Team Anna members, speaks of Jai Prakash Narain and his concept of puran kranti. Does it make sense to hark back to the slogans of a different age and context in the second decade of a new century? Would Mr. kejriwal measure up to Jai Prakash Narain’s political staure and experience? And what lasting goals did this so-called total revolution achieve anyway except that it spawned a fractious Janata party, which could rule only for part of a term?

Politics is not an easy vocation and not every one is equipped mentally and resource-wise to set up a new political party and run it successfully to come to office through the elctoral process. How many political outfits are already present in a heavily fragmented Indian polity and how many of them can claim to have brought about real change in the matter of eradication of corruption and political and bureaucratic misconduct? These are not merely rhetorical questions.  They reflect the events and experiences of the past several decades. Almost all former Team Anna members are fairly well-provided in financial terms and they can probably afford to jump in the fray of a highly competitive and fractional political mine-field but do they have it in them to conceive, set up, organise and run a political party in the rough and tumble of grass roots politics in this country? Politics is about far too many issues- constitutional, systemic, international relations, economic policies, law and order, insurgencies, good governane, et al. It does not begin and end with the creation of a Jan Lokpal and bringing back black money, reportedly stacked in foreign banks. One feels sorry that an anti-corruption movement that had inspired such high hopes among the Indian middle classes has come to such an inglorious pass. By habit and tradition, the Indian people have been looking for instant heroes and heroines, to take them out of the miseries that they have inherited for ages and more often than not most such icons end up exposing their feet of clay.  The fact remains that it takes a much more intellectually gifted, far-sighted, historically-aware and socially-sensitive leader, blessed with sound vision and charisma to successfully steer such a movement towards a successful conclusion. Clearly, Anna Hzare was not such a leader.