When the Bastille was stormed in July 1789, a handful of young and very starry-eyed English radicals — Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey — were on hand to witness the happening. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven,” Wordsworth was to recall famously, albeit, dejectedly. Indeed, the other two romantics went so far as to found a ‘Pantisocracy’ briefly on the banks of the river Susquehanna — a sort of Utopia among the ruins.
The trouble, of course, was that where historians were busy analysing the class character of the French Revolution and evaluating its limitations and transformative possibilities for the decades to come — all in an intellectually cold-blooded sort of way — young radicals like the English romantics had, at bottom, very roseate and millennial expectations of that July in Paris. Severely flawed by their ahistoricity of aspiration, it was their great hope that with the fall of the Bastille, a “new heaven and a new earth” (again in Wordsworthian phrase) would be born, ending evils and corruptions at one fell go. The critic M.H. Abrams would later call this aspiration a “secular theodicy.” That grand abstraction was of course to be defeated by the operations of the historical concrete.
It may not be too far-fetched to see the Anna phenomenon in a somewhat similar frame of reference. We were asked to believe that one Jan Lokpal legislation of our heart’s desire would put paid to corruption in India for all times to come; and nothing was farther from the Annaites thought than the possibility that — like so many aspects of the French event — this kill-all Lokpal could become in itself a source of even more humongous corruption, leaving only the recourse to theodicy.
Admirable, therefore, is the decision of the Annaites to enter the innards of India’s republican and constitutional democracy, although it must be doubted that they have yet much of an idea of how their conceptual and organisational future might shape. Clearly, entering the parliamentary fray, no political group can be a single-agenda group and expect to have a political future. Therein lies the rub, but one that any aspirant to fruitful intervention in the career of democracy so pluralist and fraught as India’s cannot evade beyond a point. Many a stamina thus will be tested by the murk and mire of democratic processes in contention with the nobility of intention, and the purity of purpose, credible or not, will need to battle contaminations of great conviction and clout.
Among those less sublime but all-too-real convictions has been that of the Hindu right wing — that the Anna “movement” could eventually be fully drafted to bolster the organised politics of parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as was the JP movement in the mid-1970s. The dismay in that camp at the turn of events — vociferously and unambiguously being given voice to by their self-appointed spokesmen — is already both raucous and understandable. After all, it stands to reason that whatever popular support an Annaite party of the future may garner in a town here and there is most likely to come from a support base which the right wing calls its own. Leaving the chief enemy smirking in a very hurtful sort of chuckle.
In the rough and tumble of contentious human intention and effort, no quick-heal anti-virus software has yet been invented that may keep such intention and effort free of taint. And, emphatically not within a political economy which makes of moneymaking the very heart of “progress” and “development.” A reality about which one hears little from the Anna camp.
(Prof. Badri Raina is a Delhi-based writer.)