Anti-corruption protests in India
I, the people
An anti-graft crusader steamrolls ahapless government
Aug 27th 2011 | DELHI | from the print edition
SQUELCHING barefoot in the sludge atRamlila Maidan, a park in central Delhi, a middle-aged man praises the people’slove for his guru, Anna Hazare. His eyes shine with zeal and hunger. His legs have cramp from fasting, for over a week, beside his 74-year-old leader. Sowhat? We train our bodies to go without food for 30 days, he says. To loseflesh is to gain energy.
Mr Hazare, who has himself lost 6kg, isprone on a platform nearby, framed by a huge poster of Mahatma Gandhi, whosemethods he has adopted. A bank of television cameras and a devoted crowd, tensof thousands strong, watch him intently, day and night, cheering and chantingin a sea of mud. Groups of uniformed schoolboys march about, flourishing theIndian tricolour. Young men sport white Gandhi caps with “I am Anna” penned onthe sides.
Trade is brisk in Hazare rosettes,headbands, T-shirts, and badges. Five rupees (10 cents) gets three swipes ofpaint—saffron, white, green—on your cheek. Even police X-ray gates have“corruption-free India” scrawled on them. Dozens of cities have their ownmarches and protests. The country’s thicket of excitable cable-news networksreports on nothing else.
Mr Hazare’s campaign has turned him froma noted social reformer into a national figure. He has demanded that, by the endof the month, parliament pass a bill his team has written setting up ananti-graft ombudsman, or Lokpal, tooversee every part of government from the serving prime minister and SupremeCourt down, holding every government body accountable for corruption andpotentially becoming a powerful new arm of the state.
On August 24th, after talks with MrHazare, the ruling Congress Party called an all-party meeting at the primeminister’s residence, which agreed to resist the activist. A day earlier theprime minister, Manmohan Singh, had been rebuffed after begging Mr Hazare tocall off the fast for the sake of his health and a “shared” goal of wiping outcorruption.
In the end the government may havelittle option but to give in to the street protesters, but as of August 25th itwas playing for time. Although one ageing but spirited opposition leader, L.K.Advani, has urged the government to quit and call a fresh election, nobody elseseemed keen. Even Mr Advani’s Bharatiya Janata Party quickly said it did notwant early polls.
Quite how Mr Singh’s governmentjustifies its keep, however, is growing harder to see. By turns it has beeninept and indecisive over this affair, while failing to get anything else doneeither. Last week it briefly jailed and tried to muzzle Mr Hazare, whichguaranteed him wide publicity and sympathy instead. That was followed by a daftclaim by Congress that the Americans were egging on the protesters. RahulGandhi, who with three others is supposed to run Congress while his mother,Sonia, gets medical care abroad, has been deafeningly silent, absent from Delhiand offering no leadership.
Those dismayed by both graft andpoliticians’ hopelessness have felt increasingly inclined to fall in behind MrHazare. Protesters moved from public squares to camp outside the Delhi homes ofgovernment ministers and MPs, unsettling the occupants. One protester set fireto himself on August 23rd.
By mid-week Mr Hazare’s supportersclaimed they were within sight of a great triumph. They brushed aside questionsabout parliamentary democracy being undermined by a minority of streetprotesters. A bunged-up system needed a jolt, they retorted. A newly assertiveurban middle class looks ever readier to push elected leaders (and unelectedones, like Mr Singh) to act in their interest.
Cooler heads, however, are wary. Tocraft a campaign against corruption into a movement around a single figure isfaintly troubling. The claim that “Anna is India, India is Anna” sounds closeto cult-speak. As it happens, the Supreme Court, the auditor-general, a panoplyof civil activists and a more assertive press have all helped to hold thecorrupt to account this year. Several powerful figures have been jailed.
Other doubts exist about Mr Hazare. SomeMuslim leaders are suspicious of the nationalist, and what they see as at timesHindu-dominated, tone and imagery of his campaign. Low-caste Dalits, whorallied separately in Delhi on August 24th, also question his stand. They fretthat if street protesters can, in effect, make one constitutional change, anattack might follow on a treasured but controversial constitutional provision reservingjobs and more for the lowest castes.
Mostly sceptics bristle at Mr Hazare’smethods. The most revered Dalit leader, the late B.R. Ambedkar, chief draftsmanof India’s constitution, has been much quoted this week for an early warningabout the “grammar of anarchy”, by which he meant using Gandhi-style fasts toimpose your will on a democratic government. Hunger strikes, a form ofblackmail, might have been justified against the British, but not againstelected leaders.
Such grumbles will not dent Mr Hazare’sprogress. His camp hints at possible future campaigns on electoral changes andeducation reform. Rival fasters might also jump in since a hunger strike’sextended drama so clearly suits live television. Yet elected politicians canpush back. They have an easy way to remind voters how they matter, by gettingon and passing many long-promised bills, for example on further economicreform. Dull and undramatic: but for many voters it matters at least as much ascorruption.