Friday, September 2, 2011

Should Anna support Irom Sharmila?

This must be a question that must have cropped up in Anna’s mind. Surely, he’s been watching TV and reading media reports which carry Irom Sharmila’s plea to Anna to visit Manipur and help her in her 11 year old struggle. Since she’s the original master of hunger fasts, her support to Anna’s struggle recently had added a lot of weight to Anna’s own hunger fast. What should Anna do now? Should he reciprocate? Or should he stay focused on the issue that he has championed?

Since Anna looks like a very level headed person, who believes in being true to his friends, it would be reasonable to assume that Anna could accept Irom’s invitation to visit Manipur. But if he did so, he would fall into a trap. Not a trap intentionally laid by Irom Sharmila, but a trap that all popular leaders have the risk of falling into. The trap of extending themselves too far. The trap of assuming that the support of the public is to them personally and not to the issue itself. The trap of thinking that no matter what issue they take up, the crowds would be there to support them.

Irom Sharmila has been on a fast for 11 years now. Since she refuses to eat, and threatens to commit suicide by fasting, the government has intervened. She is force-fed every day. Very few people know the issues that Irom is fighting for. Consequently, very few have any  specific opinions about her. Media probably understands that her issue won’t capture the public imagination and has consequently stayed away from her.

Irom Sharmila has been asking for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Since the army is in Manipur and has been called in by the state government to fight insurgency, the AFSPA has come to being around. The Army says that it cannot operate without the protective cover of AFSPA. If the AFSPA has to be removed from Manipur – and Irom’s fast has to end – the army will have to be asked to leave Manipur. So should the army be asked to leave Manipur? Should Anna demand that the army be asked to leave Manipur? These are not easy questions to answer, and the focus of this piece is not on the merits of whether the army should leave Manipur or not. The focus is on whether Anna should support Irom or not.

I strongly feel that Anna should not overtly support Irom Sharmila. There is no question of him visiting Manipur to show his support. Yes, it would be OK for her to reciprocate her gesture by indicating some sort of a token support; but he should not take sides on this subject. There are several reasons for this.

In my view, the core of Anna’s supporters comes from a hardline neo-nationalistic section of the society. This is the section that would typically call for a more aggressive approach with respect to most issues of national security. They would like India to stop dialogue with Pakistan, and take a more hard nosed approach with it. These are the people who would want India to invade Pakistan in a hot pursuit of terrorists. They would hate it if India even dreamt of settling the Kashmir dispute by making the LOC the official international border. They still harbor hopes of acquiring the entire Kashmir back – including the portions held by China.They would like India to hang all terrorists as soon as they are arrested – the legal process being abandoned if possible. They probably cheered India’s nuclear explosions of the past and perhaps even felt a little proud when the world levied nuclear restrictions on India. This is a crowd that is perhaps strongly anti-government; even anti-politician; but strongly supports the army and its strict discipline. Hardlines would not support the removal of the army in Manipur. Hardliners would want the army to continue. Hardline supporters of Anna would be confused – even perhaps angry – if Anna went demanded support for Irom.

The other reason is that Anna’s pristine imagery comes from his single minded focus on removing one of India’s biggest ills – corruption. For twenty years now, he has focused on this one single issue. He’s fasted some 15 times – each time demanding some action against some corrupt government minister or official. In the world of marketing, Anna is a well positioned brand. Whether he is a Gandhian or not is unimportant; what Anna stands for is a single minded focus on one single issue called corruption. He’s a brand whose only motive in life is to eradicate corruption. If he were to now switch to other issues, he might become a diluted brand. This is a lesson every big brand has learnt – to sacrifice temptations to diversify and stick close to its core.

Of course, a brand can extend itself. It can go beyond its core appeal into new areas of operation, but these “neighborhood” areas have to be exactly that. Neighborhood areas. Whether electoral reforms is a neighborhood area or not remains to be seen, even though on preliminary study, it does look like one. However, it’s a relatively weaker area – I doubt if the public at large is really bothered about electoral reforms. Those elements whose primary aim is keeping the government in check may still rally around Anna; but those who came out in support of Anna because they were so personally hurt by corruption will most likely stay away. Brand Anna’s genial appeal may still pull in the crowds, but those would be temporary and less solidly bonded with Anna. The only thing that could ignite this grouping would be stupid moves of the government.

In my view, Anna should stay focused on the Lokpal Bill. And make sure that something meaningful comes out of the struggle. I have always advocated a “flexible” approach to the exact clauses of the bill; but I have always supported that a suitable and strong bill must be passed. Anna should stay focused on that. That will be his lasting legacy to India. Also, he must know that merely enacting a law will not lead to the end of the scourge. He will need to remain involved in overseeing its implementation. It may take many years; maybe even decades before the scourge vanishes….and he must be focused on guiding the movement for that period of time.

The real truth is that Irom Sharmila’s invitation is a challenge for Anna. His heart will surely be urging him to support her. But his head must rule. He must politely stay away even though he may support Irom in a token manner…..

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