Anna Hazare: The face of India's fight against corruption
The expectations of 1.2 billion people can be heavy.
At 74, self-confessed Gandhian Kisan Baburao Hazare is finding out just how heavy. The last days of 2011 saw the Indian Parliament debating the Jan Lokpal Bill for which Hazare, fondly called “Anna” (elder brother) by millions, provoked mass protests when he launched a fast in April, 2011 in the national capital of New Delhi. History will be made if Parliament passes the bill, paving the way for a constitutionally-approved public ombudsman dedicated to fighting graft in this notoriously corrupt country.
In the summer, Hazare had made the government bow to his demand for setting up a representative panel to draft an effective bill, the first time for any government-appointed committee framing legislation to have equal representation of the government and civil society. The government had bowed then because hundreds of thousands of Indians had hit the streets across cities and towns demanding that it should.
They were smarting from the revelation that the exchequer had lost US$39 billion because the sale of licences for the second-generation (2G) telecom spectrum had been rigged, and outraged because a septuagenarian had to adopt a means of protest that was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s favourite when dealing with the intransigent British rulers. Had nothing changed since Independence in 1947 then?
India’s predominantly young population – their sense of entitlement honed by more than two decades of steady economic growth and upwardly-mobile literacy rates – identified with a fasting and aided Hazare’s call for a “second struggle for Independence”. Indian politics and its associated, pervasive corruption and Indian politicians disgust the youth. When Hazare banned politicians from his fast site, they cheered. The Gandhi cap on the former army truck driver’s crown inspired in them a vision of an agitation against corruption glittering with the elements of classical, non-violent Gandhian dissent.
The coalition government led by the Congress Party that had ruled the country without interruption for 37 years since Independence, suddenly heard the steadfast voice of a people ignored unless it is election time. The country’s culture of public dissent had changed, and it knew when to concede. Anna Hazare had won the first round in the summer of 2011.
Winner of India’s third-highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan in 1992, Hazare had his moment of epiphany while still serving in the Indian army that had hurriedly conscripted him during the Indo-China war in 1962.
When he left the army after 12 years to go back to his ancestral village in Ahmednagar district of the western Indian state of Maharashtra, his roadmap was ready despite little formal education. Employing Gandhian principles and the philosophy of leading 19th-century Indian thinkers, he organised the village youth.
Over the next three decades, Ralegan Siddhi was transformed into a self-sufficient village that had written its own story of community-based prosperity – a model worth replicating anywhere in India, where thousands still die of starvation. Hazare buttressed his renown by resolutely fighting against corruption all the time, but acquired national recall when he made the graft-ridden federal government blink in the summer of 2011.
The government has since arrested Hazare in August, only to release him within hours, for threatening another fast if Parliament did not pass the Lokpal Bill during its monsoon session. It did not.
Now, the winter session has been extended to debate the bill that Hazare and his civil society aides deem weak. He intended to stop eating for three days from December 27 so that the government is pressured to re-draft the bill to give more powers to the proposed graft watchdog.
More importantly, Hazare plans a tour of the country to tell the people how much the government has let them down by tabling in Parliament a watered-down bill. Five Indian states go to the polls next year and the social activist’s censure might harm the ruling party’s prospects. But it does not seem too worried.
For a man whose impatience for democratic structures are well known and who once shunned politics and politicians alike, Hazare’s agitation is slowly acquiring political overtones: the focus seems to have shifted from fine indignation to unrefined one-upmanship. The man on the street is bewildered, he is unsure if the time has now come for Hazare to blink!