RALEGAN SIDDHI, Maharashtra — A motley crew of gossipy local journalists, phlegmatic policemen, and bored villagers at the village’s Yadav Baba temple made up the entirety of the audience that sat before Kisan Baburao “Anna” Hazare, the 81-year-old social worker who once transfixed the nation with his aura of righteous self-mortification.
In 2011, Hazare’s indefinite hunger strike for a strong anti-corruption law, known as the Lokpal Bill, turned the presumed embezzlement of public funds into a poll issue, solidified public perception that scandals had hollowed out Manmohan Singh’s beleaguered government, and planted the seeds of what eventually became the Aam Aadmi Party. Even Aamir Khan, the Bollywood actor, attended his protests and posed for photos.
Nearly a decade later, Arvind Kejriwal is Delhi’s Chief Minister, a new national government headed by Narendra Modi is battling its own scandals — most notably the Rafale scam—Manmohan Singh has confronted the ignominy of being portrayed by Anupam Kher on screen. Aamir Khan has since posed for selfies with Narendra Modi.
Last week, Anna Hazare began a hunger strike once more — this time, he was largely alone, abandoned, and his demands for a strong Lokpal had still been unmet after years. His story could be a modern-day parable on the fickleness of politicians, the pitfalls of social media, and the fleeting but unfulfilling promise of fame.
Hazare’s 2011 protest had galvanised young people into chanting “I am Anna”. Now, the few youths who visited him this week appeared more interested in taking a selfie with him.
Each time Hazare updated his Facebook page with the details about his protest, he was trolled by people asking him what was he doing for four-and-a-half years, why he had woken up only at the time of elections, and why he was silent when farmers faced so many troubles all these years and many more.
“Every now and then he protests. How can we participate in every protest? Nobody can sit with him all through the day. Do we not have any other work? We come in the morning and then in the evening after our work.
Over the past few days Maharashtra’s political classes made feeble attempts at placating the old man — the sort of kindly, half-hearted gestures one makes to convince an elderly but stubborn relative to quietly eat their medicine.
Fadnavis had deputed irrigation minister Girish Mahajan to meet and request Hazare to end his hunger strike on Sunday. Hazare refused. Raj Thackeray, the Chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, visited him but urged him not to sacrifice his life for a government Thackeray described as “useless.”
“I don’t care about the scale of protest. I don’t care about failure or success. My mission is to strive for the country,” Hazare told this reporter. “If I had thought success and failure I would not have been here.”
Yet as the hunger strike dragged on, his supporters appeared worried by the lack of interest in Hazare’s protest. The old man also threatened to return his Padma Bhushan, but this time — it was clear — the magic was missing.
“Wait for some time, this hunger strike will also pick up and the crowd will increase slowly,” said Manohar Patil, Hazare’s long-time associate. “If the government doesn’t take cognizance, this protest will become bigger than the one in 2011,” said Patil, who had attired himself like Mahatma Gandhi.
Shiv Kumar Kapka, another long-time associate who is also on hunger strike with Hazare, conceded that Hazare’s fast was not gathering as much attention and support as his previous protests, but said that people’s movements took time to take off.
“People with political agenda got involved in his protests in 2011. They were politically ambitious which made those movements political,” said Kapka, who has been associated with Hazare since 2010. “This hunger strike now is not a political one and this is how (slowly) non-political movements grow.”
There are still some believers.
Lakshman Venge, a farmer from Latur district of Maharashtra, said he joined Hazare in his hunger strike because the Modi government was driven by corporate agenda and didn’t care about farmers and laborers.
“Lokpal scares the corrupt. This government is more corrupt than the previous governments,” Venge said. “They have done more corruption in the last four and half years than others could do in the last 70 years.”
Anna’s protest in 2011 was organised by Delhi people, Venge noted. “This hunger strike of Anna is only for the implementation of those laws and create awareness about farmers’ issues.”
The price of playing with Delhi people has cost Hazare dearly.
“The RSS-BJP’s sleeper cells had supported Hazare’s previous movements. He is not on very good terms with Congress-NCP leaders,” said Madhav Sagargave, a reporter of a local news channel who sat by the temple, waiting to give his next update to his newsroom. “But there are supporters of PM Modi who oppose him now. The supporters of NCP and Congress never really liked him.”
People were also now inured to the charms of social media, Sagargave surmised.
“When he protested in Delhi in 2011, people around him knew about media management and social media had just entered the scene,” Sagargave said. “One Facebook post was enough to create a sensation. Last time people followed him blindly, even called him second Gandhi.”
Now with everyone online and outraged all the time, it must be hard for a slow-moving hunger-strike to gather attention. Even his offline supporters in his village struggled to keep up an appearance of interest.
“Every now and then he protests. How can we participate in every protest? Nobody can sit with him all through the day,” said a woman who lives not far from the temple. “Do we not have any other work? We come in the morning and then in the evening after our work.”
There was also a lingering suspicion that this time, the old man was out on his own.
“There is a feeling that he is not doing it for the country but for himself,” said a local panchayat member. “This is why old people are not coming near him and young people from the village are keeping a distance.”
Yet, Hazare and his coterie remained steadfast.
“Lack of support or presence of people doesn’t make a difference to him. He says his demands matter, not the number of people who turn up in his support,” said Dr. Dhananjay Pote, Hazare’s personal physician.
Hazare, his doctor noted, had lost over four kilograms since he stopped eating. When Hazare called off his strike in 2011, Pote had told reporters that Hazare had lost over seven kilograms. Yet, Hazare is now eight years older, his health is failing him faster than it has in the past.
“There are people who are protesting with me in 88 blocks of Maharashtra and 27 states across the country,” Hazare insisted in an interview with this reporter.
There is little evidence of such protests, but this is election season. And as Hazare knows better than most, anything can happen in election season.
He struck a philosophical note when asked about Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi, Yogendra Yadav and his fellow travellers from 2011.
“Their ways are different and my ways are different now,” he said. “It happens when power and position goes to your head.”
Hours after this story was published, Hazare ended his fast, after Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis promised him that the process of appointing a Lokpal would be initiated soon.