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22 August 2011, Gateway House

The day I became Anna

Indian citizens dissatisfied with poor governance and corrupt dynastic regimes have taken to a traditional Gandhian method: non-violent protests.

Chief Executive Officer and Director, Research and Analysis

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I am not Anna. Even though the Gandhi cap I just bought, which everyone is wearing, says so. But I would like to be. I support his anti-corruption cause. That’s why I went to the protest today. I am not in his league, perhaps not even in the same league as his avid supporters. They have been fasting, skipping work to protest, donating money, volunteering time and working overnight to organize rallies. I, on the other hand, have only kept a day-long, in-solidarity fast, and this is the first time I am on the streets to support the cause.

Nevertheless, as I entered Azad Maidan in Mumbai and looked around at other Gandhi cap wearers, there were some like me – upper middle class – but the large majority was the lower middle class, an important statistic of the emerging story of India, the growing demographic dividend, growing consumer class. They are educated, passionate, decent and downright patriotic. The older men were in office-going cotton pants with shirts, and the women in salwar suits. The younger crowd was in jeans and t-shirts, holding the Indian flag or tri-colors so close to their heart that not even an army could have snatched it from their hands. Their Hindi came with Marathi and Gujarati colloquiums and their behavior was free-spirited.

At first, I just stood there, feeling out of place but trying to absorb the mood. “Aye mere watan ke logo (the people of my country)” was being sung by someone on the stage with everyone humming along. It brought tears to many. I could feel a lump in my throat. The speakers on the podium weren’t celebrities, just patriots. They had written poems, ghazals, shers, stories on India and its worth, capabilities, people, culture and history. There were Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Christians who stood up to claim that they were in it together. So did the Gujaratis, Marathis, Biharis and Tamilians. A publicly vocal complaint by one supporter for the missing photo of Sardar Patel on the podium amongst other freedom fighters indicated how sensitive everyone was to the potential of divisive religious and communal politics that could potentially ruin a fight that had to be fought together. The students protested with the elderly on their side, reflecting the gravity of the cause that had now transcended generations. Some had begun to lose their voice for they had been protesting all day; some couldn’t continue on an empty stomach.

Outside the covered dais, there were groups of protestors in circles doing their own sloganeering. It seemed like these groups had found a manageable number and had a working rhythm. I moved closer to the group to hear their slogans. Perhaps, I could join them but then again, shouldn’t I just wait to be called? I never did learn the rules of engagement for such events. Would it be rude to intrude a group? The more I thought the more conscious I became of my presence there.

Meanwhile, the gravity of the moment caught up with me. The peaceful protest was in stark contrast to the images on television, from Syria, Libya and even London that I was watching before coming for the protest. At Gateway House, we had spent the last few weeks analyzing how similar the uprising is to the Arab Spring. Young citizens dissatisfied with bad governance were overthrowing corrupt dynastic regimes, taking the responsibility of changing their nation on to themselves. Here I was, standing in the middle of a protest with the same profile of protestors from around the world, and the same non-violent approach. The difference is that our state has not responded with violence. That’s the result of India’s long, democratic traditions, and the precedent set by Mahatma Gandhi which legitimizes protest forms like fasting, which our state understands.

The biggest challenge of a non-violent protest is doing something meaningful with the time that typical protestors would usually use to throw stones at the cops or set vehicles on fire. It is about running a campaign on an empty stomach for days while at the same time finding poets, freedom fighters, singers, community leaders, youngsters, and story-tellers to come on stage – minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, to motivate the crowd without mud-slinging or extremist positions. Voice, looks, no bar – passion is the prerequisite. It is standing your ground when the rain comes down. It is about circling clockwise around someone leading the slogans, and then anti-clockwise around the same, just to make sure your head doesn’t start spinning. It requires adhering to the laws. You can protest at the railway station, but not block the entrance.  You will have to let your voice do what you are otherwise craving to do with your hands – hold up each citizen by their collar and ask – “What is the matter with you? Why aren’t you part of this protest?” Nothing could have captured that feeling better than this slogan that was being thrown at the commuters: “Hasta kya hai, shamil ho! (Stop laughing, join in!)”

Which made me wonder, why aren’t some of my friends out there on the streets? What a shame. This is the time to speak up. This is the time to support a movement even if you are comfortable in the privileged life you are leading. Maybe you don’t agree with all the clauses but at least join your fellow citizens for a good cause. Can’t help thinking of this quote by Martin Niemöller on the indifference of the German intellectuals to stop Nazi rise to power:

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I make a mental note to post a note on Facebook when I get back home. Even if it inspires a couple of friends, it will be worth it. “Drop by drop … “. It is easy to become charged and emotional. I gathered myself.

The business analyst in me couldn’t help but notice how the entire protest was being managed. It would have put most business school cases studies to shame. The entire process for registration including getting a postcard (provided free), getting a pen (borrowed), writing my support for the bill (one line), filling in the Prime Minister’s address (done by an organizer) and receiving my chest badge, took me less than five minutes!! Yes, I timed it. That’s called a Throughput time in MBA language, and five minutes would clinch a medal. And all of this was done by five people manning a booth that was seeing thousands pouring in since morning. That’s Lean Management for you.

Then there was the classic MBA communication strategy. Simple, direct and catchy. There were two boards. One with the slogan “Azaadi ki doosri ladai (Freedom’s second fight)”. Considering that we were right opposite Victoria Terminus (built by the British) and Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation (probably the most visibly corrupt institution), I couldn’t help notice the uncanny resemblance between the first and our second fight for independence. I wondered if our freedom fighters are also present here in spirit. The second board listed out the 11 major differences between the government’s version and Anna’s version of the Lokpal bill. It was so simply written that a taxi driver, who had also been looking up at the board, turned to me and said, “Agar MP aur MLA ko vote khareedne ke liye nahi pakad sakte, to kya faida (If we can’t convict a Member of Parliament for buying votes, what’s the point)?” No better indication that the board was serving its purpose.

Lastly, there’s the Four P’s of marketing: Product (Gandhi cap), Price (affordable), Place (Azad Maidan), Promotion (viral marketing). The Rs. 5 “I am Anna” – the right price-point – caps did three important things: One, they made everyone a participant in the process within seconds, without having to learn any slogan, without having to know details of the bill, without being a card-carrying member of an association and without having to give a minimum number of hours of loyalty. Second, they automatically made everyone a volunteer, a marketer, since they are spreading the word by just wearing the cap. The caps reached out to anyone uninvolved with the same call of duty as the messages you see during elections, “I voted, did you?” And thirdly, they enabled the people to form an invisible line of succession from Anna. You can topple him, arrest him, starve him but his spirit will live on, and there will be someone else to take his place. What could be more Gandhian than this?

The police was present in large numbers. They were not perturbed. They too liked the non-violent approach. For once, it was not directed at them. As this slogan indicates:

“Government kitna darti hai, police ko saamne karti hai (The government trembles with fear, it puts the police over here)” followed by “Sabse achhi baat to hai, ki police bhi hamare saath hai (but there’s no need to fuss, even the police is with us)”.

The ordinary public gets it. They know that the government is using the police as a shield. Their body language indicating that if they were not in uniform, they too would have protested. Protested against the bribes they had to pay to become a constable or an inspector, or just for the promotion that they deserve anyway.

In any case, the government should be concerned if protesters get rough – but I think they should be seriously scared if the protesters are enjoying themselves. The slogan “Twinkle twinkle little star, Anna is a superstar”, brought momentary smiles and energy to everyone but it was obvious to see that humor and wit are essential to sustain long marathon-like campaigns.

The media was finding a way to catch the pulse in photos and video. Some protesters were shouting into the cameras as if the spark would carry through the wires and flash in South Block. There were some who came with children. It is something that I had always objected. After all, what do children know? They are being used to get attention! The news photographers are quick to take such photographs – as if to confirm this is a “human interest” story, if it isn’t already evident by the thousands gathered there. But I felt differently this time. What the photographers rarely catch are the emotions of the parents who bring their children. Their eyes were beaming with pride that they are active about leaving a better country for their children than the one they inherited. The photographs also miss the reactions of the other people passing by, who stop to reconsider their indifference to the movement when they see children participating. Perhaps, they see their own children in them. Or perhaps they are reminded how little they have done for others beyond their own selfish priorities. If a child can stay in rain and with hunger, why can’t I?

I wasn’t done admiring and analyzing all the systematic and behavioral nuances when suddenly, someone from the group going round in circles reached out and pulled me in. Within seconds I found myself humming to the rhythm of the slogans and marching to the circumference of a very large circle. My inhibitions and interpretations dissolved into the spirit of the movement. I was one more citizen who had joined the movement. I was one more voice. I was one additional Indian who the news reporters would count when they relay the numbers to their studios, and one more postcard that the Race Course postman will deliver to the Prime Minister. It was an eclectic mix of staunch supporters, passers-by, college students, school children, young parents, and other random citizens of India. No one there cared whether I had kept a fast, or whether I had participated in prior walks – they just wanted me to raise my voice, and be loud. So loud that the screams from Azad Mumbai should reach Delhi, and beyond Delhi, to each and every corner of the country so that they all get inspired to start their own circles of protest and pull in the ones who are shy.

As I protested with everyone else, “Mein bhi Anna, Tu bhi Anna, Ab to saara desh hai Anna (I am Anna, You are Anna, now the whole nation is Anna)”, it finally dawned on me – It was the only situation where your voice would not be valuable by itself or get drowned out by those of others, but only get amplified. It was then that I felt like Anna. Just as the seven colors of the rainbow that reflect white when they are combined, the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-demographic citizenry of India had fused into a new identity called Anna. Of which, I was only a one-billionth, but still an integral part.

Akshay Mathur is Director, Reaearch and Analysis and Fellow, Geoeconomic Studies, Gateway House.

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