The End and its Means

I apologize to my readers who come to this blog mostly for Product Management, technology and capital markets fare. I hope you will pardon my digression to a matter that has occupied the collective intellect of most good-minded citizens of India over the past fifteen days
The worst time to speak about peace is during war. Positions are drawn, feelings run high, and rhetoric is generally a preferred option over rationality. Populist polarization fueled by a zealotry sense of attachment to a stand mostly ruins any chance of a civil debate, leave alone meaningful negotiations. Over the past twelve days India has witnessed precise enactment of this script. The fast of a septuagenarian symbol of crusader against the greatest malaise of modern day India – graft – both united the country in rising a voice of protest in unison as well as sharply dividing opinion on both the means and the efficacy of the suggested end. The media – both social and news-centric – exploded into action and it was impossible to cut through the hardened feelings and have a constructive debate. Binary positions evolved on either side and articulation of a position immediately attracted attacks from the other end of the spectrum. Logic took a holiday, much like how law-making had from our executive institutions. Now that the dust has settled it perhaps merits a closer look at what transpired, with an eye that casts a look back at history and sneaks a peek in at what the future might hold. But first a look at the protagonists, the colorful cast that was necessary to act out this even more colorful drama

It is a curse to be on the treasury benches of the Parliament especially at a time when a mixture of complacency and hubris concocted to bring the ruling party to a state where it seemed to be on a path of self-destruction. The Grand Old Party of India, the Indian National Congress lead coalition, the UPA, found itself precisely in that uneviable position. The Congress party has ruled India for most of its sixty four years of independence – sixty four years that until 1992 saw a deeply socialist rule. Given this model where the state controlled most resources and the extensive longevity of successive governments, it is not surprising that members of this party, past, present and those harboring ambitions, are well adept at both creating and exploiting leakages in the system to their benefit. Yes, there were periods on unrest, especially in the 1970s, which was dealt with brute force by the ruling Congress party, which also created a precedence framework of dealing with dissent, especially if the dissent threatened to rattle the seat of power. This is exactly how the government, the current UPA government, dealt with godman Ramdev when it first negotiated and then negated with brute force what was otherwise a relatively inconsequential protest against corruption. Peel the layers back on Ramdev and you will discover that he lacked one vital ingredient that sways public opinion. Credibility. And in that vacuum stepped in Kisan Baburao Hazare, reverentially called Anna

Anna Hazare once contemplated suicide, possibly from depression after serving the Indian army in the 1965 war against Pakistan (he was a truck driver and his co-passenger was riddled with bullets in front of his eyes). He pulled himself up and in 1975, chose to reform a small hamlet  called Ralegan Siddhi, fifty miles from Pune. Studies show that this village today stands head and shoulders above comparable hamlets in economic development (per capita income has risen eight-fold since Anna Hazare came into the scene at Ralegan Siddi). How did it happen? Hazare had quickly identified the root cause of what plagues the village – total lack of productivity and went about solving that in an authoritarian way. He banned alcohol and personally tied up offenders to a pole and flogged them with his army belt. He introduced family planning and refused to give a seat on the village panchayat anyone who had more than two children. Hazare banned non-vegetarian food in the village claiming it increases craving for alcohol. For a man who would later use the electronic media to dance like a puppet to his tune, Anna Hazare banned cable TV in his village – a ban that was lifted only during the time when he went on a fast at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar earlier this year. Hazare tasted success in his social experiment at Ralegan Siddhi and spurred by this heady tonic, he marched straight towards the issue that most captures the imagination of the common man in India. Corruption. And in doing that he merely copy-pasted his previous coercive tactics and a naive belief that what worked spectacularly for a small village will be as successful in a complexly interfaced national governance structure

What happened subsequently in the confrontation is well documented, if not extremely well followed on social, electronic and print media and does not merit repetition but it was important to evaluate the happenings in the light of the past positions of the protagonists that participated. The twelve days were pregnant in possibilities of case studies around game-theory, media handling, low cunning and marketing amongst others but let us devote a quick look at iconism.

It was godsend that Hazare was diminutive, dark and frail. That visual mixed with equal parts of support to similar causes and moderately identical battle-strategies had every Indian associate Kisan Baburao Hazare with Mohandas Gandhi. Very soon Anna Hazare’s tactics started borrowing traits from Gandhi’s struggle for self-rule (astute was the choice of 16th August as the start date of the campaign and the huge visual of Gandhiji behind the stage from where the little old man fought his crusade). A team of technocrats gathered around Hazare and kept the public enthralled, blood boiling, aspirations soaring and rhetoric going all while the icon of the movement was a non-violent, small man who made India dream of a land where a magic wand had obliterated corruption from public life. Great communication depends of building strong visual affinity to the cause and Team Anna (a term cleverly coined to align with the ICC Cricket World Cup winning Team India) did that to perfection

Unfortunately it were members of Team Anna that robbed the movement of its credibility. Enraged minds are easily impressionable. This is what members of Hazare’s team played with. Binary positions much like George W Bush in his mindless war against Iraq emerged – if you are against Anna Hazare in any form you are supporting corruption in all forms – and citizens got lead to the slippery slope of a notion that the democratic state has failed and to build  a better structure it was necessary to raze to ground the existing institutions. Democracy was lethargic to present change opportunities once every five years, so it was perfectly fine to deliver a heat-and-eat governance through popular revolt – it was professed. The bath water had gotten dirty and needed to be thrown out and the public was asked to please not shed tears if the baby also went out with it. Thankfully, better sense prevailed at the end, but a whiff of doubt lingers – what lessons did this movement teach us?

One key cornerstone of popular corruption in India is that the end is what matters – the means are secondary (talk to anyone and watch out for the unconditional praise on the term Jugaad, a get-done-by-any-means approach of success). Scarily enough, this movement against corruption was in a large part that. One can rightly be dismissive of Rahul Gandhi who does not have a cogent stance on anything of political or social significance but it is foolhardy to brush off his argument that a coercive method like what we witnessed could easily be carried out for causes that are vicious, divisive, improper or all of the above. As we have discovered through this movement, whipping up sentiments through popular channels of communication is not a difficult art and perhaps there will emerge guns-on-hire tomorrow to serve ulterior causes at appropriate price. The celebration that has swept the country today is not that of eradication of corruption, nor is it about a successful implementation of a framework – or even a roadmap – of what will lead to it but a mere submission of a bumbling government to agree to start a legislative process. It is an important milestone, yes it is. However as the intoxication of victory settles us down in sobriety, spare a hard look at the method. History often takes an unforgiving stance towards baneful precedences