by Soutik Biswas
How has a fasting 72-year-old ex-army man turned social activist managed to captivate middle-class India’s imagination and get the beleaguered government on the ropes? Why have thousands of people rallied around Anna Hazare to demand tough new anti-corruption laws?
Well, the answers are simple enough. Indians are fed up of sleaze – the country has been rocked by a string of corruption scandals in the past few months. Mr Hazare is a calm man of unimpeachable integrity with a pleasing smile. He has a track record of fighting corruption in Maharashtra – one of India’s most corrupt states. Evoking Gandhi’s example, he has become a rallying point for the burgeoning anti-corruption fight and the infuriated middle classes. And there is no greater symbol of coercive non-violent protest in India than a fast – again a Gandhian legacy – however much this form of protest may have been debased in recent years by some politicians who snack surreptitiously while on “hunger strike”.
Mr Hazare’s tactics appear astute. He has now upped the ante, exhorting his followers to “fill India’s jail” – again a throwback to Gandhi – in a mass campaign of civil disobedience. It is clear Mr Hazare is not about to ease the pressure. His fast, played out in the full glare of 24/7 news television, is a significant moment in India’s largely jaded fight against corruption. The middle classes have responded, happy there are no politicians taking part. For most Indians, politicians, unfortunately, epitomise all that is wrong with the country. Two politicians were turned away from the site of the fast at Jantar Mantar, a historic Delhi observatory, by irate campaigners.
The fast has also had a bizarre side, with assorted Bollywood stars, controversial gurus and publicity hungry lawyers flocking to the stage. There have been also excited and absurd claims that this could be India’s Tahrir Square moment.
Anna Hazare has made enough sacrifices to earn the leadership of this powerful protest – most Indians feel their politicians have conspired to remain silent about rampant corruption. The last time corruption was an issue in election was in 1989 when a minister in the Congress government quit against alleged kickbacks in a defence deal, and became a rallying point for the opposition.
But commentators like Pratap Bhanu Mehta eloquently warn that “sometimes a sense of unbridled virtue can also subvert democracy”. They say that the Jan Lokpal Bill (Citizen’s Ombudman Bill) that the activists want will amount to an anti-corruption institution vested with draconian powers. They ask: Why do we think that this institution will be corruption-free?
Corruption is a complex malaise in India. It is rooted in opaque and badly-run institutions that have been fostered and tolerated over the years. Then there is the stifling, post-colonial bureaucracy. Everyone knows the warped government policies, like misplaced food and energy subsidies, are open to abuse. Add to that the failure to reform India’s election system with its shadowy private funding of candidates, many of whom have criminal records. And many people – some now protesting against corruption – have become habitual bribe givers to navigate the system they have lost faith in. More cynicism has bred more corruption. It’s not clear how far Mr Hazare’s campaign will go – but setting up an citizen’s ombudsman will not be the end of corruption. There’s much more to do.