The economy may be booming but a hunger strike by Anna Hazare is feeding public anger against political and state corruption.
By Patrick French
The streets of India are choked with anti-corruption crusaders, and walls are marked with busy slogans. Last week in Delhi I noticed a bumper sticker: “I AM FOR A CORRUPTION FREE INDIA. ARE YOU?” Who could fail to agree with that? It is the sort of self-righteous political claim (like “I’m pro-justice. Are you?”) that is designed to cancel debate rather than to encourage it.
In its assertive power, it matches the stunningly successful campaign of Anna Hazare, the born-again Gandhian who has tied up the government in knots with his hunger strikes. Hazare, 74, was yesterday released from Delhi’s Tihar jail. He refused to depart until he gained further concessions. He only left on Thursday after he was granted permission by the authorities to hold a 15-day hunger strike in a city park. The authorities find themselves in an absurd, unwinnable situation.
Since the 1990s, India has changed faster than at any point in its history, and its GDP has doubled in just over a decade. The partial unshackling of the economy from state-administered control by the “Permit Raj” has set in train an economic and social transformation. Unlike China, which depends on exports, most of India’s boom and its rapid annual growth rate of 8 per cent arise from home-grown expenditure and consumption. Billionaires abound in India, even as hundreds of millions remain trapped in grotesque poverty. But perhaps more important in the longer term, is the emergence of an ambitious and assertive middle class.
This new middle class is impatient. It is not particularly concerned with constitutional niceties or conventions, and it has seen other, less privileged social groups gain political concessions through muscle power on the streets. Immediately after independence in 1947, many institutions of the modern state were set up or adapted from the colonial period. Some have functioned well, while others have not. In the two decades since liberalisation, these institutions have proved inadequate for dealing with the rapid pace of change. The police and the Central Bureau of Investigation are often incompetent or corrupt. The legal system is woefully slow, and almost a third of senior judicial appointments are unfilled. Basic mechanisms for chasing corruption, whether at state or at national level, do not function properly. In the past year, the government has been hit by corruption allegations over contracts for the 2010 Commonwealth games, the awarding of mobile phone operating licences, and the construction of an apartment block for war widows which was allocated to army chiefs and political cronies.
Politicians, many of whom are the sons and daughters of other politicians, have failed to develop or entrench the reforms of the early 1990s. Effective legislation has not been introduced to make things change. It is this failure that makes people ready to back an outrider. They know the daily consequences of corruption – having to bribe a policeman for a traffic offence, or an official to issue a death certificate for a relative.
Anna Hazare’s message is simple. He is an elderly ex-soldier, an ascetic and a disciplinarian. His dress is styled after Mahatma Gandhi. He dislikes alcohol, cable television, the chewing of paan and the eating of meat – indeed when three men from his village appeared drunk, he tied them to a temple pillar and flogged them with his army belt. To his younger supporters, his old-fashioned, undemocratic simplicity is attractive.
There are other campaigners, such as Irom Sharmila, an extraordinarily brave woman who has been on hunger strike for more than 10 years (she is force fed) calling for an end to the mistreatment of people in Manipur in the north-east. They have never attracted a fraction of the interest that Hazare has gained.
To combat corruption, he proposes a new body, independent of government, which would administer high-speed justice. It would have the power to investigate and prosecute government officers, judges and politicians – even the prime minister. His opponents suggest that, while well-intentioned, his proposal would create a Gestapo.
A year ago, the name of Anna Hazare was known mainly to rural activists. In April, he catapulted to national attention by going on a public fast at Jantar Mantar, Delhi’s equivalent of Speakers’ Corner. Crowds gathered, politicians were ritually denounced and assorted movie stars joined him on the dais. In the months since, Hazare and his cohorts have sought to impose their programme on the government, buoyed by noisy public support.
This bizarre situation – where elected representatives started to bow to the demands of a self-appointed saint – has depended only partially on the elderly Gandhian’s canny, populist strategy. At every turn, the organisers of his campaign have been aided by the blundering of the ruling Congress Party. Their response has been a masterclass in ineptitude. First, they allowed Hazare and his appointees from “civil society” to determine the proposed shape of new legislation. Then they quarrelled with him as he began negotiating with senior ministers; then they made concessions; then he announced he would go on another hunger strike if further demands were not met.
Through all this, the government led by the 78-year-old bureaucrat turned prime minister Manmohan Singh, has failed in even the most basic aspects of public and media relations. They have not faced down the more preposterous aspects of Hazare’s campaign. The ultimate leader of the Congress Party, the notoriously private Sonia Gandhi, who keeps watch over Singh, has been in hospital in the United States. It is apparent that even members of her entourage do not know what is wrong with her, and information about her illness has certainly not been shared with the nation. The opposition BJP has been able to direct the debate over corruption, backing Hazare when and where it suits them, and calling the Congress leaderless.
Now Hazare has cornered the government by raising the pitch of the argument, just two days after India’s 64th independence day. A fast unto death is a touchy subject in India because of the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, who used the tactic against the British. One thing successive viceroys and prime ministers particularly feared was the popular uprising that would quickly follow if he died on their watch. The viceroy Lord Wavell wrote in his diary in 1944 that if Gandhi were to die in prison: “I might go down to the readers of two thousand years hence with the same reputation as Pontius Pilate.” Many in India are calling the present events “the second freedom struggle”, since the government is relying on quasi-colonial laws to maintain order and restrict freedom of protest. There is the obvious irony of Congress being the party that used these techniques against the British. The reality, though, is that Anna Hazare is an imitation of Gandhi, pursuing a different agenda. But with the government paralysed, the impetus is on his side.
First he was told that he would not be allowed to hold another public fast, then when he refused to back down, the Delhi police carted him off to Tihar. As a site of incarceration, it could not have been more badly chosen. It is home to politicians and businessmen on trial for corruption, who have been refused bail because of the angry public mood against graft. In a neighbouring cell sits Suresh Kalmadi, accused of being responsible for awarding corrupt contracts that led to the fiasco of the Commonwealth Games facilities not being ready on time.
When the authorities switched tactics and released Hazare – supposedly at the instigation of Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent of the ruling dynasty – he refused to budge. By this time though, the streets of many cities were packed with furious supporters wearing “I AM ANNA” headbands. A train was stopped by protesters, and other publicity-hungry campaigners – such as the wealthy godman Baba Ramdev and the “Art of Living” guru Sri Sri Ravishankar – arrived to visit Hazare.
In their anger and frustration, the striving members of the emerging middle class who feel excluded from the halls of power, have turned to Hazare and his promise of a silver bullet to end corruption. And his success will make it increasingly difficult to argue against proposals which would, in practice, create yet another layer of government in a country that has too much bureaucracy, and would create a body armed with the kind of powers over the lives of individuals that have previously only been given to Superman.
Patrick French is the author of India: A Portrait (Allen Lane) and editor of ’The India Site’, www.theindiasite.com
See online: A new ’Gandhi’ shakes India