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Anna Hazare's movement - a reality check for India

28 August 11 12:16
Anna Hazare (27 August 2011)
By Soutik Biswas
India correspondent

Anna Hazare is no stranger to hunger strikes. The activist's fast at Delhi's sprawling Ramlila grounds was his 16th since 1980. But, at 13 days, it was his longest. It was also his most significant ever.

He took on India's troubled government by demanding the setting up of a powerful anti-corruption ombudsman, or Lokpal, with sweeping powers to investigate every part of the government. By the time he ended his fast, the former army lorry driver-turned-activist had galvanised large numbers of Indians in the "war against corruption" and become a national figure.

Mr Hazare's move came a day after MPs expressed support for his proposals. He has made it clear that he is merely suspending his agitation. "I will not rest," he says, "until all the changes that I look to are achieved."

India's excitable media are saying Mr Hazare's movement heralds a new beginning, and that this is a huge victory for the campaigner. It may still be early days to come to this hearty conclusion. Both Mr Hazare and the government have walked away from this episode with important lessons.

Mr Hazare's movement has been criticised by many for being virulently anti-political and striving to bypass parliament by putting unreasonable demands on it. It has also been questioned for making a veritable messiah out of the campaigner - 'Anna is India, India is Anna", said one of his aides - and giving birth to a thriving personality cult which made Mr Hazare sometimes appear more like a televangelist than an activist. The protest sometimes seemed to degrade into a soap opera, with people of dubious credentials invading Mr Hazare's stage and making incendiary speeches against politicians as onlookers cheered lustily. It had, many say, some disturbing strands of nihilism.

On the other hand, Mr Hazare's movement has humbled India's entire political class by bringing the issue of corruption under a dazzling spotlight. An anti-corruption law has been in the works for the last four decades - surely an embarrassing record for a country which calls itself the world's largest democracy.

India's government stands shamed by the street in a movement which spread from being merely an expression of middle class frustration against corruption into something more expansive. Mr Hazare appears to be "everything the prime minister and his ministers are not - courageous, independent-minded, willing to stake his life for a principle", wrote historian Ramchandra Guha.

So the calling off of Mr Hazare's fast is not an unqualified victory for any side. It is actually a climbdown for both. Mr Hazare had wanted his version of the anti-corruption bill to be passed by the parliament by the end of August. A harried - and haughty - government had categorically ruled out putting the prime minister and all federal employees under the ambit of the proposed ombudsman, among other things.

Both sides have backtracked on their extreme positions. The government has promised a tough anti-corruption ombudsman which India so direly needs. There is also a growing realisation that a powerful ombudsman will not be a panacea to cure India of its brazen corruption perpetuated by its politicians, businessmen, police, judges and government employees.

More than anything else, India needs sweeping institutional and electoral reforms, something which politicians and bureaucrats have resisted, and show no signs of relenting on. When it comes to corruption, India has been a country of lofty pronouncements and virtually no action.

The good news about Mr Hazare's movement is the triumph of Indian democracy. As many commentators said, it has been a victory for people. It proved that lobbying for better and stronger laws is no longer the preserve of politicians, NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and businessmen. Activism became mainstream.

The movement also marked the coming of the age of the Indian street in the cities and small towns as people demand more from their politicians. It is a warning, as a friend says, to the venal political class, which is largely seen to be lazy, corrupt and disconnected.

Mr Hazare's movement is a much-needed reality check for India. It is also just the beginning of a long struggle against corruption, which has sunk very deep roots in one of the world's most unequal and hierarchical societies.

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