Civil society & politics

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Tuesday 14 August 2012

Team Anna’s decision to join politics not a lone instance; rural India made its foray long ago

imageTeam Anna took the political plunge while drowning the world’s largest democracy in a sea of questions. Is this the end of the people’s movement against corruption? Is electoral politics the right choice for civil society? Ideally, such questions are irrelevant in a thriving democracy since nothing is apolitical in such a situation. Then why so much debate over a decision by a group of activists exercising a fundamental right?

There will not be a definite yes or no to the group’s decision after 15 months of high pitched moral fight against the evils of electoral politics. But it does give an opportunity to revisit the contentious issue of civil society groups, or people’s movements, joining party politics to push their agenda of change. Political parties have been challenging civil society members to join electoral politics to bring in changes they latter have been fighting for from outside the system.

Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign had an unexpected turnout. In the recent past, the country has not witnessed such an outrage against corruption. His movement had all the makings of a successful political movement, except one: Team Anna never projected itself as a political movement. So, the sudden decision to not only convert into a political movement but to take a giant leap to join party politics triggered a debate. The campaign is middle-class driven. And this class, by convenience, wants governance, not politics. In a democracy, this disjoint is unworkable.

India has many people’s movements that proudly assumed political identity; in fact, most of them declared this upfront to gain more credibility. Team Anna’s decision may sound “historic” to many, particularly the contemporary generation belonging to the middle class, but India’s rural areas have a long history of such experiments. Most of these experiments revolve around rights over local resources, and are rural by constituency. More importantly, these experiments never suffered from the disjoint between governance and politics. They demand political changes that ensure people’s rights over land, forest and water, among other things. They proactively facilitate electoral events like campaigning to push their agenda among politicians. Their electoral success is negligible but they still remain unified unlike the Team Anna campaign.

After much debate, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a people’s movement working on Right To Information, work and ethical electoral process, fielded candidates for local bodies in Rajasthan. Already enjoying popular support, the candidates were successful. However, it has not furthered the electoral base of MKSS. But the decision to stick to local government is the lesson to be learnt. MKSS’ campaign for transparency in governance brought it closer to communities. At the local government level, issues bring more electoral mileage than party affiliation, and there is more direct interaction between candidates and voters. So, MKSS figured out the contour of its electoral foray well.

India’s largest association of people’s movements, the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), entered electoral politics in 2004 after rigorous internal debate. The alliance was set up in 1992 to offer solidarity to various communities fighting violation of their rights. NAPM terms itself a non-party political movement. In 2004, it created the People’s Political Front, a separate but related wing that can contest elections. By doing this, NAPM retained its non-party image. The Front promises an alternative to the Delhi-centric political parties, a promise the Team Anna has also maintained. One of NAPM’s founders, the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, registered itself as a political party in 1995. It has been contesting elections since; it puts up candidates for panchayat, assembly and parliamentary elections. Its argument for joining party politics is: over the years it mobilised communities on local issues, but these are appropriated by political parties during elections. Once the elections are over, the issues get a burial; demanding another round of mobilisation. The Jan Parishad did not perform well in assembly and parliamentary elections but has achieved some success in panchayat elections.

The above experiments show that people’s movements have been electorally successful at the local government-level. Many leaders from these parties point out that politicisation of people’s movements has not reached a level where they will impact assembly and parliamentary elections, but panchayats provide the best possible opportunity because they involve local issues and facilitate direct interaction between leaders and voters. These are the lofty objectives that Team Anna has set for its political journey. But unlike their predecessors, Team Anna has appealed to the urban middle class. That is a new turn in the civil society’s journey on electoral path.

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