Anna & Co. – BJP’s Team B
On 30 October last year, when Mohan Bhagwat claimed that Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement was actually supported by the RSS, the remark conveyed palpable nervousness and attracted criticism from Team Anna. Three months later, as Team Anna launches its voters’ awareness campaign in UP, there is not even an attempt to keep its secular mask intact.
The mask, in fact, fell off at the very first stop that Team Anna made in the state to remind prospective voters of their duties in the upcoming Assembly polls. It happened on 2 February at Fatehpur subdivision of Barabanki district, the spot that marked the beginning of the voters’ awareness campaign in the state by the lieutenants of Anna Hazare, and repeated itself through much of the first leg—four rallies, the last on the evening of 3 February at Basti—of Team Anna’s campaign. Kiran Bedi led Team Anna through this leg of the campaign, and the dais was set directly, in three out of four places, by the RSS.
To begin with, the public meeting at Fatehpur was a typical RSS show. Rakesh Kumar Premil, the man who led the local group organising the entire event, has been a prominent member of the local unit of the Sangh Parivar. “Hindus must be aroused to fight against corruption,” he told Open. Premil is known in Fatehpur for his aggressive Hindutva ideology. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, he was president of the Shiv Sena’s Fatehpur unit. Later, he formed an NGO, Manav Utkarsha Sewa Sansthan, and started working under this banner. The banners of this NGO were prominent at the Mahadev Talab ground, where Kiran Bedi, Manish Sisodia, Sanjay Singh, Gopal Rai and some other members of Team Anna addressed their first public meeting. Ably assisting Premil was Ram Kumar Yadav, a local quack who is also the president of the Fatehpur unit of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the farmers’ wing of the RSS.
According to Premil, about 50 volunteers from outfits like the Manav Utkarsha Sewa Sansthan, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and Rashtra Bhakta Vichar Manch, with known if not professed leanings towards the RSS, worked day and night for almost a week to make this event a success. Some of the volunteers, who had come all the way from Agra, belonged to Jai Kali Kalyan Samiti, another NGO with professed Hindutva leanings. No less significant was the role played by teachers and students—they were present in numbers to swell the crowds—of various branches of Saraswati Shishu Mandir, schools run directly by the RSS in and around Fatehpur, as well as those controlled by Sangh sympathisers, including Sai Usha Montessori High School, Glorious Public School and Rabindranath Tagore Senior Secondary School.
If the RSS set the stage at Fatehpur and gathered the crowds, the speakers of Team Anna did the rest. Though members of the Team asserted that they had not come to tell voters who they should vote for, their categorical attack on “corruption” in the Congress, “criminalisation” of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and “misgovernance” by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and high praise for the BJP government in Uttarakhand for bringing in a “really strong Lokayukta Bill” in the state left no doubt in the minds of listeners who they were being asked to vote to the new UP Assembly.
Also, while members of Team Anna spoke, their volunteers distributed a leaflet—containing a 13-point ‘letter of oath’—to prospective voters. The ‘letter’ is an exhortation to the electorate to obtain 13 pledges from the contesting candidate before committing their vote. The first pledge in the ‘letter of oath’, quoting Swami Vivekanand, invokes an idea of India that today only the RSS will endorse: ‘…that I am a citizen of India and every citizen is my brother. Indians are my life and Indian gods and goddesses my divinities. India and its society are the swing of my childhood, the garden of my youth, my sacred heaven and the Kashi of my old age. The soil of India is my highest heaven. My welfare lies in the welfare of India. And this whole life I will chant, day and night—O, Gaurinath, O, Jagdambe, make me more humane and take away my weaknesses and unmanliness.’ It is inconceivable for a non-Hindu to take this oath.
The remaining 12 points in the ‘letter of oath’ are no less absurd, if not so religiously charged. They prod voters to obtain a commitment from contesting candidates that they would never sit in an AC room and remove ACs from their residences, that they would never travel in a luxury car but always in hooded jeeps, that they would never keep a driver and would drive their jeeps themselves—and, surprise, surprise, would always support the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill. There are many other points in this one-page ‘letter of oath’ that point to a simple thing—the anti-corruption agitation of Anna Hazare has gone nuts.
It was hard to miss the farce at Fatehpur. Nearly half the 2,000-odd present at the Mahadev Talab ground were children, most of them from local Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, who had come in their school uniforms and are clearly not yet eligible to vote. When Kiran Bedi, speaking after other members of Team Anna had delivered their speeches, asked “voters” in the crowd to raise their hands, the ones that shot up instantaneously belonged to schoolchildren. Those who might be eligible to vote didn’t even get Bedi’s instructions immediately, and by the time they realised this, it had become too awkward to obey. Bedi, apparently unfazed by all this, went on: “See, how voters are responding to Anna’s call. Now all of you stand up and swear with me that we will never vote for the corrupt.” This time nearly everyone responded, but the schoolkids were again the most eager.
That was the first voters’ awareness rally of Team Anna, which left Fatehpur as soon as Kiran Bedi had finished her monologue around 2.30 pm on 2 February. The next destination was Gonda, about 140 km away from Fatehpur. Here the meeting began at 4 pm at the Ramlila Maidan in the heart of town, though the cavalcade of Team Anna reached slightly behind schedule. The farce was repeated here too. So was the silent message, though members of Team Anna continued to maintain that they were not foisting a political choice on prospective voters. As in Fatehpur, the organisers of the event at Gonda too had among them a generous peppering of the Hindutva brigade. The chief organiser of Team Anna’s voters’ awareness rally at Gonda, Dr Dilip Shukla, is a known RSS face in the area. Once again, the lieutenants of Anna Hazare set about their task in earnest—ripping apart Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Digvijaya Singh and many others, besides SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and BSP leader Mayawati. Once again they maintained a calculated silence vis-à-vis the saffron party. When they spoke of the BJP, they didn’t fail to mention the “strong” Lokayukta Bill brought in by the BJP government in Uttara khand. And as they concluded the meeting, once again, they left no doubt in the minds of those present who Team Anna would have them vote for.
By the time they reached the Gulab Bari ground at Faizabad, around 1 pm on 3 February, Team Anna’s language had acquired the subtlest change in inflection. Here, they started off with the need to change the present system so that farmers, labourers and the unemployed could get their due, before returning to the familiar theme of bashing every other party save the BJP. Praise for the Uttarakhand BJP government’s “strong” Lokayukta bill was now a little subdued; there was mild criticism too of the party’s UP state unit for not yet promising voters that they would follow Uttarakhand’s example. But only the envelope had changed, the message hadn’t—by the time the Faizabad leg concluded, Team Anna had left voters here in no doubt which way they leant. ‘Don’t vote for the BJP till it promises you a strong Lokayukta in your state’ was another way of saying ‘vote the BJP if it does’.
The reasons for Team Anna’s restraint in Faizabad are not hard to figure. Unlike in their previous stops at Fatehpur and Gonda, the rally at Faizabad was organised mainly by those who have for long been associated with the Left and Dalit politics in the region—names like Gopal Krishna Verma, who led the group that organised the rally at Faizabad, and team members Arvind Murty, Nitin Kumar Mishra and Vinod Singh, among others. The presence on the dais of Tariq Sayeed—a senior member of the local intelligentsia and head of the Urdu department of KS Saket PG College, Ayodhya—who presided over the public meeting at Faizabad, may have been a deterrent for members of Team Anna and forced them to be less deferential to the BJP than in the previous two meetings.
Their restraint notwithstanding, most members of Team Anna were silent on the threat of communalism. Only one of them, Mufti Shamoom Kazmi, underlined the need to fight communal politics. “Ayodhya means the place where no one fights, but some politicians of a particular party have tried to damage Hindu-Muslim unity in the name of religion. We must not forget that we can fight against corruption only if we remain one irrespective of our religious identities.”
Here, too, Kiran Bedi created a flutter on the dais when she elbowed out stage manager Arvind Murty, who wanted to call speakers to the mike in a prearranged order. Bedi had ideas of her own, and when she grabbed the mike, Murty left the dais in a huff. She proceeded to hold forth for half an hour, and by the time former MP Ilyas Azmi, who was supposed to speak before her, began his address, the crowd had begun to recede.
In Basti a few hours later, the last stop of the first leg of the campaign, the Anna anthem had been restored to its original fervour. Gone was the aberrant restraint of Faizabad, most apparent in the speeches of Bedi and Sisodia. Only three speakers of Team Anna—Sanjay Singh, Manish Sisodia and Kiran Bedi—spoke here, and the meeting was wrapped up in less than an hour because some of the Team’s leading lights had to catch a train to Delhi. “Rahul Gandhi says UP has been looted for the past 21 years. He says if you give him a chance, he will change the state in the next five years. Fact is, the Congress is in pain because it has not been able to loot UP for the past 21 years. That’s what they want to do now.” That was Sisodia. Bedi made a shorter speech here (remember she had a train to catch), signing off with the now familiar reference to the BJP government in Uttarakhand and its “strong” Lokayukta Bill.
As for the organisers of the rally at Basti, the presence of the Sangh Parivar was even more obvious here. Harishchandra Pratab Singh, an advocate and a key figure in the local committee, has been district convenor of the Shri Rama Janmabhoomi Mukti Sewa Samiti formed in the late 1980s and was one of the leaders of its karsewak wing. He is a well-known Hindutva face in the district.
Even the four-page message of Anna Hazare, distributed at all four stops, has a clear pro-BJP bias. Anna’s message is a litany of charges, framed as questions for Rahul Gandhi, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati. For the sake of form, the tail-end of the message has some questions for the BJP too, but they sound more like exhortations to repeat what Team Anna sees as the party’s stellar performance in Uttarakhand. There’s not a mention, for example, of the corruption of the BJP government in Karnataka, nor its communal record in Gujarat. So, while the pamphlet names P Chidambaram and Mulayam Singh and Mayawati, it bestows no such honour on former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa or Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
When Anna Hazare sat on his first indefinite fast at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar in April last year, his proximity to the Sangh Parivar was on show. Hindutva symbols were a feature of the stage decor. Understandably, it drew flak from people then close to the movement but not similarly inclined politically. When it still seemed important to take these people along, as in Anna’s next show at the Ramlila Maidan, his lieutenants tried to play down this association—Gandhi had now replaced ‘Bharat Mata’ as stage backdrop. In UP, Anna and his henchmen were back to home base. In the days to come, as the political battle rages in the state, Kiran Bedi and her cohorts may continue to make a great deal of sound and fury. But it won’t amount to much except this: Team Anna’s transformation into Team B of the BJP is complete.