Nilekani versus Hazare: Technocratic Thinking and Social Mobilization as Vectors of Change

By Aditya Dev Sood

In today’s Hindustan Times, Ramchandra Guha makes some critical comparisons of the Anna Hazare movement with Jayaprakash Narayan’s rallies against Indira Gandhi, more than a generation ago:

Some commentators have compared the struggle led by Anna Hazare with the movement against corruption led by Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s. A man of integrity and courage, a social worker who has eschewed the loaves and fishes of office, a septuagenarian who has emerged out of semi-retirement to take on an unfeeling government — thus JP then, and thus Anna now.

Once a hero of the Quit India Movement, then a founder of the Socialist Party, Jayaprakash Narayan abandoned politics for social work in the 1950s. Two decades later, he returned to politics at the invitation of students disenchanted with corruption in Bihar. At first, JP focused attention on his own state; then, much as Hazare has now done, his struggle moved outwards to embrace the whole of India.

In the late summer of 1974, as his movement was gathering ground, JP went to Vellore for a surgical operation. While he was recovering, his associate Acharya Ramamurti kept him up-to-date with the struggle. Ramamurti’s communications, note, with some alarm, the entry of a political party into a professedly “apolitical“ movement. While JP was away, wrote his colleague, “the leadership of the movement at least at local levels, is passing into the hands of the Jana Sangh“. Ramamurti also worried that “the common man has yet to be educated into the ways and values of our movement, whose appeal to him continues to be more negative than constructive“.

The materials of history thus suggest that the parallels between JP and Anna are less comforting than we might suppose. Front organisations of the Jana Sangh’s successor, the BJP, are now playing an increasingly active role in `India against corruption’. While Anna cannot be blamed for the infiltration of his movement by partisan interests, he certainly stands guilty, as did JP, of suggesting that the street — or the maidan — should have a greater say in political decision-making than a freely elected Parliament.

Notwithstanding the right-wing bent of the two mass-mobilizers’ following, Guha could have gone much further back before JP, to explore the parallels between Hazare and Vinobha Bhave, M. K. Gandhi, Swami Shraddhanand, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and the even longer pre-modern tradition of social protest movements in India. This tradition runs in striking contrast with a more top-down and technocratic approach to change, which also own in India, which can be traced from Tughluq through Dalhousie through to key representatives of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. But perhaps the most powerful contemporary representative of that tradition is Nandan Nilekani, who argues that the kind of change Hazare is trying to bring about is best handled through his Aadhar or UID initiative:

Hazare and Nilekani appear to represent two extreme and polar approaches to social change in India — one using mass mobilization and ethical and moral appeals and the other looking for technological, regulatory, organizational, and management solutions to bring about change. They seem to be talking two different languages.

How can we translate across these two idioms and bridge this gulf in Indian public discourse?

* The views presented here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Center for Knowledge Societies

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1 Response to Nilekani versus Hazare: Technocratic Thinking and Social Mobilization as Vectors of Change

  1. gharp says:

    I think the first step at translation means that we view the relationships between these actors, their networks, and their goals as something more richly-textured than a dyad, a bifurcation, or as streams separated by a gulf. It’s also relevant that the movements (and this comparison serves as an example) tend to focus on the figureheads because oppositions are so cognitively convenient for processing information and making distinctions.

    What seems to be missing are lucid descriptions and demonstrations of the utopias that the different constituencies seeks to bring forth – along with more difficult-to-process oppositions. Wait, let me rephrase that. What seems to be missing are descriptions of the plausible utopias and their difficulties. These groups are all trying to gain political favor. Ok, fine. But as is common, they are doing so by making claims of vast impact without much attention to the disruptions their visions will create elsewhere.

    What is interesting is the vacuum of discussion and demonstration around mixed strategies – of teasing out the benefits and costs of the different utopias they prepose, in having earnest dialogue about the uncertainties embedded in their technologies, moralities, and ethics, and of what technologies would look like if they explicitly embraced the morals involved. Perhaps it’s because that dialogue would be deeply damaging to the egos of the actors involved. That’s just a guess. For many of us, dialogues that directly question our assumptions and logics can leave us without the platform we thought we had. But in the long view, I think that platform gets a little more balanced and stable when we do.

    What’s most damaging in all of this (and I admit my naivety in the whole matter) is that each approach sees itself as a solution to corruption, while many in the public and policy making domains accept them as problem solving approaches – even if they are not their preferred method. That sets all of the enterprises for disappointment I think, because the situation, the relationship, the networks, all of it, presents us with a spectrum of dilemmas. Don’t get me wrong, I love the dialogue the different approaches are dredging up.

    If anything is clear, it is that the problem is the solution is the problem is the solution is the problem…and so, how will we see this rabbit as it chases it own tail – for what it is – and where it could go?

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