Anna Bhai, Gandhigiri and Us

Published in bdnews24.com on August 31, 2011

The arrival of Anna bhai and his ‘Gandhigiri’, ironically copying a Bollywood storyline of Munna bhai and his embracing of Gandhi in dealing with national problem, has undoubtedly captured the imagination of the world. But not everybody is a fan. Arundhati Roy has almost called him a fake and the people who are seething in anger are just staying quiet for the right time to criticise him. But Anna Hazare definitely has arrived with Indian media and the middle-class hailing him as the new Messiah.

My prediction: this jubilation will be short lived and Team Anna will regularly venture into territories which will become problematic for democratic governance. However, even though I think his solutions are not well thought through (such sweeping power to an unelected body can never be good for democracy), he deserves a huge bow. At the least, the movement has made certain section of the citizens feel empowered and created a huge demand for change from the way business is being done. That is no small feat.

Sure, the most vocal supporter of his are the elite middle-class but that is also the group who are the most disaffected, risk averse and indifferent but if moved into action, this is the group that can make the most impact. Anna’s team seems to have emboldened this group and forced them into taking part in the movement.

In the meantime, in facebook chatters and iftar parties, Bangladeshi middle-class is clamouring for Bangladeshi Anna and some of our civil society leaders are feeling emboldened by Anna’s success. Ilias Kanchan will go for fasting for safer roads after Eid. So will Tarana Halim if the corrupt practise of giving unauthorised license does not stop. Syed Abul Maqsud, who never wears Western clothes protesting the Iraq invasion, will spend his Eid at the Shaheed Minar demanding resignation of the communication minister.

Regardless of the success or failure of Bangladeshi Annas, Anna Hazare has set an example that in a democracy, outside the partisan circle, citizens can truly be a force to reckon with in issue oriented politics.

In Bangladesh, the political circle regularly dismisses this group or those who are perceived to be leaders of this group as out of touch with the mainstream. Anna, whose career in public sector, is marked with hands on service in rural India, is a remarkable exception and as a result could not be so easily dismissed by the political class in India.

All in all, a good sign — anything that takes the civil society out of the roundtable scene cannot be bad. But getting acceptability among the people will be a long journey. Do they have the stomach for this arduous task? Or will they go for shortcuts like they have in the past which damaged their credibility for which they are still paying for?

But are we ready to mobilise our very own Anna? Before any change takes place, the demand for change has to be there. We have to believe that we can make a change before the real mobilisation starts. We also have to believe that business as usual is simply not acceptable. But how does one start?

There is no accurate answer to that. But may be too often we confuse our rights as citizens as our right to vote only. However, this is rather a continuous process. Before asserting one’s rights in a constituency, one has to establish the ownership first – ownership to this state and its people. Voting or owning a passport does not create that ownership. Rather paying taxes does. As soon as we realise that as taxpayers we are paying for the services, we will start demanding better services. As long as we continue to believe it’s a freebie, we force ourselves for the kind of services or the lack of it, we get.

If my last year’s tax fair experience is any indication to go by, we are surely heading that way. To my surprise, I saw long queues of ordinary citizens happily waiting to pay taxes. When I enquired inside with the officials, they told me that the majority of this group are first time taxpayers and their average returns were for Tk 2000-3000 from very average earning groups. This to me seemed like a welcome change and also seeing the kind of pride associated in their faces while paying taxes also told me that the ownership is being established. With such ownership, the assertion as citizens will begin and mobilisation will follow. As for leadership?

This won’t just depend on leadership. This will depend on the ecosystem for democracy as well of which a critical component is the media. In the team Anna movement, the media played almost a cheerleading role giving the movement a national face. The traditional media in Bangladesh, however, is going through a bit of an identity crisis.

The electronic media lacks any imagination or investment on content. One cannot distinguish one channel from the other. 10 years after the start of the first private television channel, one cannot name any new journalists other than the early Ekushey TV stars such as Munni Saha and J E Mamun. There are blips of hope, flashes of brilliance here and there but the industry flushed with corporate money is too much under rocky terrain to be perceived very dependable. New initiatives also seem to peter away without explanation. The Daily Star started the opinion poll on government’s performance only to stop after a year.

Changes, however, are happening in the social media scene. Recently, there has been encouraging signs of development in the new media scene. Due to the government’s reduction in broadband pricing, the spread of Internet is dizzying. Bangladesh now has almost eight million internet users – an astounding 1300 percent increase in just two years. If you consider that facebook alone has 1.4 million users in Bangladesh and the highest circulating daily has a circulation of 500 thousand, you can safely conclude that more and more people are consuming news from new media than the traditional media. The Arun Chowdhury scandal and the police involvement in killing of a boy in Companyganj were captured in mobile phone camera before it made it to the traditional media. Beyond camera reporting, citizens seem to be mobilising around more specific issues in Bangladesh. Particularly the one surrounding bad medical practice in Bangladesh has taken a momentum.

And as for leadership — sometimes, leadership comes from unexpected corner, but when it does and it crosses the tipping point in that ecosystem, like it did for Anna, powerful things can happen. Undoubtedly enough, the assertion of taxpayers’ civic rights is starting to happen in South Asia. In the Indian version of ‘Anna and the King’, the king was too late to recognise it. In the Bangladeshi version, however, the script is yet to be written.


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