The Tata Literature Live annual literature festival is currently taking place at the Tata Theatre at Nariman Point, Mumbai. The last session of the day on 3rd November was one in which Indian Member of Parliament from Trivandrum, Dr. Shashi Tharoor and best-selling American author and NY Times columnist, Mr. Thomas Friedman exchanged ‘provocative’ ideas.

Dr. Tharoor grilled Mr. Friedman on the current world economic crisis and America’s role and significance in the world today. Mr. Friedman asserted that the entire world is going through a huge ‘revolution’ in many ways. The Arab World experienced the almost complete wipeout of dictatorship and oligarchy, the traditionally capitalist world of America and Europe are going through a rethink of economic policy and so on. Mr. Friedman then came to the Anna Hazare phenomenon that had captured the imagination of the Indian people. Dr. Tharoor, who is part of the Congress Party (the ruling party that is seen to be extremely uncomfortable with most essential points of the Lokpal Bill), toed the party line stating the usual – ‘the supra-institution may itself get corrupted’ and ‘Anna Hazare’s supporters know what they are standing against, but not what they are standing for.’ Dr. Tharoor went on to say that Mr. Hazare is not exactly the leader of the movement, but he is the symbol as his contribution was limited to pulling the masses for the cause. As much as I respect him for his understanding of India as seen in his books, in this case I have reason to differ with his line of argument.

Dr. Tharoor points out that the other members of Team Anna drafted the Bill and then sought Mr. Hazare’s leadership. This, he said, makes Mr. Hazare, not the leader, but the symbol of the entire movement. This statement had thoroughly confused me. So, I thought of comparing Mr. Hazare’s situation with that of any other leader whose life I happen to know a little.

Mahatma Gandhi is probably the most studied Indian public figure. He is arguably among India’s most celebrated leaders. When he joined the Indian freedom struggle, he followed most of the ideas, like ‘Swadeshi’ and ‘Swarajya’, which Bal Gangadhar Tilak had been propagating for years. In fact Tilak is often called the ‘precursor of Gandhi’. Although the means employed by the two leaders were different, their motives and principles were similar.  The reason Gandhi became the most successful leader of them all is that he brought the masses into the movement. He became the face of India’s freedom struggle. If we consider Gandhi as a leader and not simply the ‘symbol’ of the struggle, why then should Anna Hazare be called anything but the leader of the movement against corruption and the movement for the Lokpal?

Dr. Tharoor also questioned the movement’s supporters’ knowledge about what exactly they were supporting. It must be said that he is right when he says the majority of the masses who come on the streets to support him are unaware of the intricacies of the Lokpal Bill. However, I fail to understand how that is a drawback of the entire movement. I can not think of even one mass movement (which had a leader) where all the supporters knew exactly what the movement stood for. In 2008, when the crowds at President Obama’s rallies roared when he declared ‘Yes, we can!’ I doubt whether more than 20% of the people knew the exact details of what Mr. Obama stood for. They cheered him on because he was the symbol for change in America. Moreover the supporters trusted their leader. They did not need to understand what the leader did to bring change. Isn’t that what a leader is all about – trust? Mr. Hazare’s supporters trust him and believe him to be the symbol of change in India. Is that not his biggest qualification to be a leader, Dr. Tharoor?

With this I come to the larger question of the difference between leadership and symbolism. The fact is – A leader is always the symbol and in most cases, if not all, a symbol is the leader. So, is Mr. Hazare the leader of the movement or simply the symbol? I think it is crystal clear.