Arrest complicates corruption debate

Mr Hazare's supporters fighting against corruption Image copyright AP
Image caption Mr Hazare's campaign has touched a chord with the middle classes

Has India's battle against corruption become a contest between the tyranny of virtue and the tyranny of the state, as some analysts put it?

The police have arrested anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare for pledging to go ahead with a hunger strike against a proposed new anti-corruption law.

After nine meetings with the government, Mr Hazare and his supporters cobbled together their version of the Lokpal (Citizen's Ombudsman) bill. He insists that this bill should be made into law.

The government says it has incorporated 34 of the 40 principles of the Mr Hazare-led bill in the proposed anti-corruption law which is now being studied by a parliamentary committee.

Mr Hazare and his civil society representatives complain that the proposed Lokpal refused to include the prime minister and senior members of the judiciary in the ombudsman's remit.

The government says Mr Hazare is being stubborn.

"It is my law or no other law. That's what he is saying," says a minister - adding that he should not be coercing the government by going on hunger strikes.

So when Mr Hazare threatens to go on an indefinite fast in a park in busy central Delhi, authorities impose 22 conditions, some of which sound absurd to many.

Normal life in Delhi and other Indian cities is routinely disrupted by political protests and religious processions and programmes, but the police are never seen to impose any conditions then.

Mr Hazare rejects six of the conditions - limiting the number of participants and vehicles at the site and time of the protest among other things - and defies the ban. The police arrests him and detains more than 1,000 of his supporters.

Predictably, Mr Hazare's supporters - the restless middle-classes - say that his democratic right to protest has been trampled upon and the decision to detain him smacks of authoritarianism.

The government responds - rather sharply - that nowhere in the world are protests allowed without imposing conditions to ensure law and order. The conditions on Mr Hazare's planned fast, therefore, were in order, it says.

Threat to growth

Nobody denies that Mr Hazare's movement against corruption has touched a chord among many Indians, who are fed up with corruption and the political class. Nobody denies that corruption is India's biggest threat to growth and all-round prosperity and development.

At the same time, many believe that framing the corruption debate only in the terms of the state versus Mr Hazare-led "civil society" threatens to trivialise the war on corruption and augurs ill for India.

Tackling corruption will require much more than a strong law. It would require ending many of the discretionary powers of ministers and officials, sweeping electoral reforms, cutting red-tape, streamlining subsidies, and making existing laws work to punish wrongdoers swiftly.

The political class has been largely found wanting in pushing these much needed reforms, and the people of India need to keep up the pressure relentlessly so that these happen. At the same time, there are independent institutions and individuals - outside the world of Mr Hazare - who are working hard to bring in the changes.

Mr Hazare has done an admirable job in putting social pressure on the government to act on corruption. But, in the view of many analysts including Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India's finest thinkers, he should not destroy his achievements by "being unreasonable on the methods of protest, or the choice of institutions it supports".

On the other hand, the state needs to be come up with a more sophisticated response instead of using force to break up protests or denying permission for a legitimate protests "The need of the hour," Mr Mehta writes "is some statesmanship, not bullies fighting to the finish."

"We need a fine balance, not an insolent civil society or a tyrannical state," he concludes. Many would agree with that.