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Will India's anti-corruption campaign implode?

Soutik Biswas
Delhi correspondent

image copyrightAP
image captionActivist Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign has touched a chord with the middle class

Will India's civil society-led campaign against corruption implode under the weight of its own contradictions?

Two months after a rousing crusade for tough anti-corruption laws led by former army driver turned Gandhian activist Anna Hazare caught the government on the hop, his core team - a motley group of activists, lawyers and former government officers - is mired in controversies.

Though Mr Hazare's campaign has thrived on demonising politicians, his team plunged into campaigning against the ruling Congress party in a recent by-election in Haryana state. (Congress lost as expected but Mr Hazare's campaign claimed the verdict was one on the "corrupt" federal government.)

Uneasy with this meddling in politics, two leading activists, Rajendra Singh and PV Rajagopal, quit the campaign. Mr Singh also spoke openly about the "lack of inner democracy" in Mr Hazare's camp.

Then Kiran Bedi, India's first woman police officer, who openly mocked politicians during Mr Hazare's marathon hunger strike in Delhi, was accused of overcharging expenses. She said the excess money went to her NGO. Now Ms Bedi says she will return the money.

Arvind Kejriwal, a former revenue officer who is said to be closest to Mr Hazare, has been asked to pay some income tax dues, which he has now agreed to. Prashant Bhushan, a leading lawyer, has stirred a hornet's nest by openly supporting a referendum in Indian-administered Kashmir, something that is anathema to most Indians.

Prominent social worker Swami Agnivesh, who appears to have fallen out with Mr Hazare, has demanded full disclosure of funds collected during the campaign.


Rattled by these events, "Team Anna" - as the campaign's leadership is popularly called - has closed ranks and blamed the authorities for carrying out a witch hunt against them.

Now Mr Hazare has announced that he will resume his hunger strike if parliament fails to pass the anti-corruption law during the upcoming winter session.

Analysts like Salil Tripathi believe that Mr Hazare is being unreasonable.

"Mr Hazare's team - assuming it is still a team - wants power without working for it, without responsibility," writes Mr Tripathi.

"It picks causes no-one would disagree with, such as anti-corruption, and then insists that only what it proposes must be implemented, within a timeline it determines, even if adhering to such a timeline is unrealistic and would subvert constitutional processes."

There are some other questions as well.

Is Mr Hazare's campaign really a movement, as this correspondent and his peers have described it? Or is it really a series of largely media-fuelled urban protests with reverberations in smaller towns?

It is hardly surprising that the middle class has been the mainstay of the campaign - for the first time in nearly a decade it is feeling the squeeze of inflation, serial interest rate hikes and a slowdown in jobs in the cities.

Also, a strong "movement" is usually led by a group of people with considerable organisational experience, something which few members in Mr Hazare's core team have.

So where do Mr Hazare and his campaign go next?

Many believe that with strong, disparate individuals making up the cream of the leadership, greater differences of opinion will emerge as more complex issues, like electoral reforms, arise. A lot will also depend on whether the hyperventilating media will continue to give uncritical support to the movement.

Many believe the campaign needs to tone down its viscerally anti-political tone and broaden its base. India's Dalits (former untouchables), for example, who have empowered themselves through electoral politics, have been suspicious of the campaign's motives.

They believe that Mr Hazare's deadlines to parliament are an affront to BR Ambedkar, the Dalit scholar who led the drafting of the Indian constitution.

Whether Mr Hazare's campaign will continue to flower will also depend on whether the beleaguered Congress government will work harder to improve its failing credibility with the masses. Watch this space.