India's activists on warpath against the government

The battle lines are drawn: it is the government versus "civil society" in India now.

A controversial anti-corruption bill has been tabled in parliament, and a showdown with "civil society" representatives, backed by an energetic section of the media, looms.

After months of wrangling with activists led by folksy anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare, the government says it has cobbled together the best possible legislation.

It is called the Lokpal bill but Mr Hazare and his supporters derisively call it a "jokepal" bill, which they say is too weak and humiliates the Indian people.

Their main grouse is that the prime minister and senior judiciary will not come under the remit of a new anti-corruption ombudsman.

At the moment, the prime minister can only be investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). And judges under a cloud can only be investigated by fellow judges.

Mr Hazare's group reasons that the CBI cannot be relied upon to carry out an impartial investigation against the PM as it works directly under him. And it points out that judges have given permission for just two of their number to be investigated for corruption in the past 20 years.

There are other differences too. For example:

  • The government says the ombudsman should investigate only senior officials for corruption, and not all four million federal government officials. The campaigners believe both high and low ranking officials should be investigated.
  • Mr Hazare's group wants a separate ombudsman in every state. The government says states are already empowered to create their own ombudsmen.
  • Hazare activists also want the ombudsman to have powers to investigate MPs accused of taking bribes to vote or ask questions in the parliament. The government says such investigations can only be done by parliamentarians themselves.

The breakdown of consensus between Hr Hazare's group and the government has prompted a bizarre war of words between the two.

Mr Hazare's team say they carried out their own own 'referendum' in one constituency in Delhi, and claimed that 85% of respondents favoured their version of the bill over the government's one. The Congress party predictably dismissed it, saying most of the respondents were supporters of the main opposition BJP.

Now India's leading newspaper the Times of India has done an online poll of more than 20,000 people and found that most of them favour the inclusion of the prime minister, senior judges and bureaucrats under the purview of the bill.

"That's a massive vote of no-confidence in the government version of the bill and a clear endorsement of the views of Team Anna," the paper said.

On the India Against Corruption website, put up by civil society campaigners, there is an ongoing referendum poll for visitors. It says more than 80% of over 35,000 respondents have already voted in favour of the civil society version of the bill.

Mr Hazare is himself a dour neo-Gandhian using, as analyst Vinay Sitapati says, "Gandhian motifs and methods, without Gandhi's political imagination".

His supporters are largely angry middle-class Indians, who loathe politicians and are fed up with corruption. Many of them believe India is being held back entirely by its politicians, and many of them don't come out to vote.

But as Sunil Khilnani, writer of the acclaimed The Idea of India, says, democracy is a "struggle and slog". And blaming politicians for all its ills is more cathartic than "blaming ourselves as we decline to vote in the legislative bodies, or pay the bribe that bypasses the regulation, or demand immediate government services that mortgage the future".

"But there's one thing even harder than lowering expectations for democracy," he concludes. "It's raising expectations for ourselves."

Corruption, campaigners argue, threatens the present and future of India. It needs to be tackled on a war footing. Mr Hazare's movement has tapped into the groundswell of mounting public frustration over seemingly unending corruption scandals, cutting across party lines.

But many believe his movement should become a force within India's electoral politics, and not against it. And they want the government - including the political class - to demonstrate that it is serious about combating corruption, without making it a deplorably partisan issue. The growing alienation between the government and "civil society", and the other people of India, will do the country no good.