The Age of Instant Gratification
To stop wasting time is an enviable pursuit. Kal kare so aaj kar, aaj kare so ab- is a mantra that has been spewed timelessly by parents, teachers, office bosses, self-help specialists and spiritual gurus. Its impact though has been inversely proportional to its use, procrastination proving a naturally more appealing option than diligence. For modern day middle-class India however, Kabir’s couplet has found an unintended ally: the desire for instant gratification. Want to buy a car? Waste no time and drop by at your nearest dealership and drive away with the car of your choice with no down payment and an attractive EMI scheme. Have no time to wait for news? Choose from a cacophony of 24*7 news channels with second-by-second updates, jostling to break the same news mili-seconds before each other. Or better still, avoid the drama and use your IPhone, IPad or BlackBerry for instant updates through fully customisable apps. In fast-paced, ultra-competitive, post-liberalisation India in a hurry to become the world’s next superpower, why wait when you can instantly satiate?
The most remarkable product of this age of instant gratification has been Team Anna and its movement to rid India of corruption. Despite being panned widely for its flawed institutional vision, its political naiveté and the questionable company it sometimes kept, Team Anna struck a chord with a people fed up with governmental corruption and apathy because it promised a readymade solution to corruption in the form of the Jan Lokpal, an all-powerful ombudsman who would potentially instil fear into the hearts and minds of corrupt public servants and cow them into honesty. Not only was this simplistic solution made an article of faith for the movement, but it was also sought to be made actionable through an ultimatum to the government: fail to instantly gratify the movement and risk Anna fasting to death, a rallying call that resonated amongst large sections of India sick of corruption and looking for an instant, no-jhanjhat solution for it.
Several other factors too worked in its favour: a shocking series of scams that the government was directly or indirectly involved in, a string of governmental blunders and miscalculations in dealing with its protests in the initial stages, a Gandhian icon whose personal probity and integrity was an ideal rallying point, and a diverse backroom team comprising a widely respected former judge, two senior lawyers passionately committed to the cause, an astute mass mobiliser and a populist, flag-waving former police officer. But above all it worked because it was a movement which demanded instant gratification from the government: a sentiment that middle-class India could identify with from their daily lives, even if it meant equating ridding the country of corruption with ordering a home-delivered Domino’s pizza when the craving for a change from the roti-sabji routine struck.
Unfortunately, the perils of founding a political movement on instant gratification is that one is subject to the same standards that one expects. Having promised a Jan Lokpal Bill, but after a year of coaxing, debating, arm-twisting and protesting, failing to deliver it meant that Team Anna was unsurprisingly hoist on its own petard. Seeking instant gratification but failing to gratify its supporters instantly (over a year literally) meant that time for Team Anna was always running out. So it was not entirely unexpected that the steady stream of supporters would one day dwindle, the continual tactic of fasts would have to come to an end, internal dissensions within the team would surface and Anna Hazare would return to Ralegan Siddhi as its keeper of virtue. But does this mean that the movement has been a failure as many have suggested? Could it have strategised differently in order to sustain longer?
Those who suggest that the movement has failed and have penned obituaries for it, are unconsciously subject to the same desire for instant gratification that they accuse the movement and its middle class support base of. The protests to have India against Corruption’s Jan Lokpal Bill enacted in Parliament have undoubtedly failed because the fact of the matter is that the Bill has not been enacted. But to infer from this that the movement itself has failed is entirely fallacious. First, the protests ensured that for the first time a public debate on reforming the CBI has taken place, the need for an anti-corruption ombudsman unanimously accepted and corruption firmly established as a key electoral issue henceforth. More crucially, middle class India has come out of its happy closeted existences to the streets concerning an issue of national interest, a development whose significance cannot be understated. As I wrote at the time,
“Vast numbers of people coming together in Delhi, even more pledging their solidarity and support by organising their own protests in cities across the world, the chaos, the frenzy, the disagreements about next steps, the patent flaws in the drafted statute, everything about the protest conveys the simple human emotion of standing up for what one thinks is right, without sophistry, nuance, or caveats.”
This promise of an easy solution to corruption, without sophistry, nuance or caveats, in the form of a Jan Lokpal may have been a key spur for such spontaneous protests. I doubt deeply the feasibility of a sophisticated, rationalised protest movement at the time, in terms of both its composition and functioning, being able to galvanise the masses the way in which Team Anna did. Paradoxically however, the recipe for its success—the promise of easy-to-grasp instant results—proved to be its undoing; the solution wasn’t as simple as suggested, and even the suggested solution wasn’t very simply achievable. But, on a balance of factors, that was a risk most definitely worth taking, if not taking it meant that the movement couldn’t be kickstarted in the first place.
Second, the movement against corruption is more than, and must be more than protests about the enactment of a Jan Lokpal Bill. It ought to be a wide-ranging effort directed not just at institutional reform but civic reform as well. It requires a much more clever, sustained and long-drawn out struggle than a year-long protest for a legislative enactment. It’s a struggle that doesn’t promise ready answers or instant solutions. But at the same time it’s a struggle that requires mass participation to succeed. Instant gratification-hungry India must be brought on board the politics of patient struggle. If India against Corruption is serious about this task, the ending of the year-long protests came at the right time. The past provides a perfect prelude that guarantees extensive media coverage, funding sources and a degree of public sympathy, if not support. Attention now turns to the more serious business of finding constructive ways and means to rid the country of corruption. A task that requires all of us to not just to look at our leaders, but at ourselves. And reserve our desires to be instantly gratified to the local pizza delivery company.