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India’s anti-corruption revolutionary

A 74 year old social activist from the western Indian state of Maharashtra has shot to global fame this week as the leader and icon of India’s anti corruption crusade.

Anna Hazare’s demand for a powerful anti-corruption ombudsman – or Lokpal – has drawn stunning popular support across India. It has also brought him into confrontation with the India’s government.

But what could the objection be?

The tussle is over the extent of the Lokpal’s reach. While the Congress government wants to keep the Prime Minister’s office and the Judiciary outside the purview of the Lokpal legislation, Hazare and an array of anti corruption activists insist that these powerful bodies must also be included.

Indian social activist Anna Hazare (C) waves the Indian national flag as he stands on the back of a vehicle outside Tihar Jail in New Delhi on Friday. Photo AFP

In early August the government presented its version of the anti corruption bill, which was promptly rejected by anti corruption activists as toothless.

Hazare, whose impromptu hunger strike in April 2011 gathered such popular support that it led to the government agreeing to a bill in the first place, announced last week he would go on fast again unless a stronger bill was forthcoming.

But before he could start, he was unexpectedly arrested on Tuesday, triggering a nationwide movement of demonstrations and vigils demanding his release that have received worldwide coverage.

He was released Friday.

‘Foreign Hands’

While Hazare’s supporters hail him as a modern day Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attacked his campaign as ‘misconceived’.

Singh has been derided after claiming that Hazare’s movement was backed by anti Indian ‘forces’ seeking to thwart India’s rise.

Congress party spokesperson Rashid Alvi even claimed that the United States was behind the movement, adding “We will have to find out the truth, why the US is supporting this movement.”

The claim even compelled US Senator McCain, the 2009 Presidential candidate, now on a six day visit to India to issue a denial.

Under increasing pressure from a growing social movement and opposition parties, the government ordered Hazare’s release late Thursday. Hazare is set to begin a public fast on Friday.

National movement

Hazare is an unusual figure for India abroad. Unlike the Bollywood starlets and corporate industrialists that are the international faces of rising India, Hazare’s public career is that of a social reformer working on grass roots agricultural and social development projects in his home district Ahmednagar in Maharashtra.

His arrest Tuesday prompted popular outrage nationwide, with thousands taking to the streets from the northern Himalayan town of Leh to the southern Tamil Nadu cities of Chennai, Coimbatore and Madurai.

His supporters come from across India’s socioeconomic spectrum and include a high proportion of young people, college and high school students as well as young professionals.

They are mobilised by the country’s recent high profile corruption cases, as well as the more mundane corruption that pervades daily life.

A sign of the growing popularity of the movement, Bombay’s famous tiffin carriers (Dabbawalas) have also said they will strike Friday - for the first time in 120 years - in support of Hazare’s campaign.

 Young supporters of Anna Hazare. Photo India Today

But the anti-corruption movement is also drawing on popular resentment against the more mundane corruption that Indians face in everyday life.

For middle class citizens, getting a passport or driving license, and other routine interactions with public service invariably involves paying small bribes to otherwise recalcitrant officials.

Low income urban workers such as auto-drivers or street vendors have to pay bribes to get necessary work permits or even to avoid harassment – an unofficial protection racket institutionalised in the state.

In rural areas, poor villagers have to bribe officials to access desperately needed and publicly provided goods such as food rations or access to government run employment schemes.

Congress resistance

Public anger over corruption has been spurred by a spate of high profile scandals that have plagued the Congress government and even Prime Minister Singh’s reputation as incorruptible is no longer able to stymie it.

In February authorities arrested then Telecoms Minister A. Raja for his part in the 2008 underselling of 2G telecoms licenses, estimated to have cost the Indian government $40 billion.

In May the authorities also arrested Kanimozhli, a parliamentarian from the Tamil Nadu party, DMK, a key ally in Congress’ ruling coalition. Raja’s appointment to the post of Telecoms Minister, press reports said, was a Congress concession to the DMK for its support.

Quoted on CNN

"He gives hope for all Indians. There is a feeling he can take us out of these problems. People have started considering him another Gandhi."

- Usheer Mohan, New Delhi business owner who took to the streets to protest Hazare's arrest.

"If you keep track of Indian news, you know how truly widespread and national this is - it is in every nook and corner of this country today.

"One and all have either seen bribes or experienced bribes or suffered from a bribe, so it's both at bottom and the top, and it's truly united this country in a wave against corruption."

- Kiran Bedi, a Hazare aide

"The path that he has chosen to impose his draft of a Bill upon Parliament is totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our Parliamentary democracy."

- Prime Minister Manmohan Singh 

The Congress government’s refusal to accommodate the anti-corruption movement’s demands has put it out of step with the groundswell of demands for better governance and public accountability.

The party is also losing the support of coalition partners while opposition parties - particularly the Hindu nationalist Bharatha Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) – draw succour.

Some analysts even suggest the government’s vacillation, tinged with belligerence, has also put the spotlight on the Gandhi family, particularly Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, widely expected to become her successor and eventually a future Prime Minister.(See Reuters' report here)

Prospects and implications

The anti-corruption movement’s goal of a wholesale transformation ushering in good and accountable government is hugely ambitious.

It remains to be seen whether the requisite changes in institutions, practices and, most importantly, attitudes of India’s extensive and complex bureaucracy, the political class and individual officials will necessarily follow the massive outpouring of sentiment.

However, the national mobilisation is striking in and of itself.

Firstly, it has sprung from national popular sentiment, rather than the actions of the leadership of any political party. Having long accepted corruption as an inevitable, if unattractive, part of Indian reality, the protestors are motivated by a vision of a better India. Whether or not their objectives are realised the anti-corruption agenda has become a core moral issue for a national public.

As such, secondly, the issue has united Indians across the country. Indian politics have been dominated by conflict – and sometimes violent conflict – along cleavages of caste, religion and ethnicity.

It has also brought to fore the underbelly of India’s spectacular economic growth: the corrosive aspects of the close and often corrupt relationships between government and the corporate sector.

As such, the spectacular scandals such as that over 2G licences, have brought to national consciousness something that has hitherto only been reflected in the simmering Maoist insurgency fighting on behalf of tribal peoples living in India’s mineral rich forests and seeking to preserve their ways of life against the advances of major mining corporations.