An anti-graft crusader steamrolls a hapless government.
SQUELCHING barefoot in the sludge at Ramlila Maidan, a park in central Delhi, a middle-aged man praises the people’s love for his guru, Anna Hazare. His eyes shine with zeal and hunger. His legs have cramp from fasting, for over a week, beside his 74-year-old leader. So what? We train our bodies to go without food for 30 days, he says. To lose flesh is to gain energy.
Mr Hazare, who has himself lost 6kg, is prone on a platform nearby, framed by a huge poster of Mahatma Gandhi, whose methods he has adopted. A bank of television cameras and a devoted crowd, tens of thousands strong, watch him intently, day and night, cheering and chanting in a sea of mud. Groups of uniformed schoolboys march about, flourishing the Indian tricolour. Young men sport white Gandhi caps with “I am Anna” penned on the sides.
Trade is brisk in Hazare rosettes, headbands, T-shirts, and badges. Five rupees (10 cents) gets three swipes of paint—saffron, white, green—on your cheek. Even police X-ray gates have “corruption-free India” scrawled on them. Dozens of cities have their own marches and protests. The country’s thicket of excitable cable-news networks reports on nothing else.
Mr Hazare’s campaign has turned him from a noted social reformer into a national figure. He has demanded that, by the end of the month, parliament pass a bill his team has written setting up an anti-graft ombudsman, or Lokpal, to oversee every part of government from the serving prime minister and Supreme Court down, holding every government body accountable for corruption and potentially becoming a powerful new arm of the state.
On August 24th, after talks with Mr Hazare, the ruling Congress Party called an all-party meeting at the prime minister’s residence, which agreed to resist the activist. A day earlier the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had been rebuffed after begging Mr Hazare to call off the fast for the sake of his health and a “shared” goal of wiping out corruption.
In the end the government may have little option but to give in to the street protesters, but as of August 25th it was playing for time. Although one ageing but spirited opposition leader, L.K. Advani, has urged the government to quit and call a fresh election, nobody else seemed keen. Even Mr Advani’s Bharatiya Janata Party quickly said it did not want early polls.
Quite how Mr Singh’s government justifies its keep, however, is growing harder to see. By turns it has been inept and indecisive over this affair, while failing to get anything else done either. Last week it briefly jailed and tried to muzzle Mr Hazare, which guaranteed him wide publicity and sympathy instead. That was followed by a daft claim by Congress that the Americans were egging on the protesters. Rahul Gandhi, who with three others is supposed to run Congress while his mother, Sonia, gets medical care abroad, has been deafeningly silent, absent from Delhi and offering no leadership.
Those dismayed by both graft and politicians’ hopelessness have felt increasingly inclined to fall in behind Mr Hazare. Protesters moved from public squares to camp outside the Delhi homes of government ministers and MPs, unsettling the occupants. One protester set fire to himself on August 23rd.
By mid-week Mr Hazare’s supporters claimed they were within sight of a great triumph. They brushed aside questions about parliamentary democracy being undermined by a minority of street protesters. A bunged-up system needed a jolt, they retorted. A newly assertive urban middle class looks ever readier to push elected leaders (and unelected ones, like Mr Singh) to act in their interest.
Cooler heads, however, are wary. To craft a campaign against corruption into a movement around a single figure is faintly troubling. The claim that “Anna is India, India is Anna” sounds close to cult-speak. As it happens, the Supreme Court, the auditor-general, a panoply of civil activists and a more assertive press have all helped to hold the corrupt to account this year. Several powerful figures have been jailed.
Other doubts exist about Mr Hazare. Some Muslim leaders are suspicious of the nationalist, and what they see as at times Hindu-dominated, tone and imagery of his campaign. Low-caste Dalits, who rallied separately in Delhi on August 24th, also question his stand. They fret that if street protesters can, in effect, make one constitutional change, an attack might follow on a treasured but controversial constitutional provision reserving jobs and more for the lowest castes.
Mostly sceptics bristle at Mr Hazare’s methods. The most revered Dalit leader, the late B.R. Ambedkar, chief draftsman of India’s constitution, has been much quoted this week for an early warning about the “grammar of anarchy”, by which he meant using Gandhi-style fasts to impose your will on a democratic government. Hunger strikes, a form of blackmail, might have been justified against the British, but not against elected leaders.
Such grumbles will not dent Mr Hazare’s progress. His camp hints at possible future campaigns on electoral changes and education reform. Rival fasters might also jump in since a hunger strike’s extended drama so clearly suits live television. Yet elected politicians can push back. They have an easy way to remind voters how they matter, by getting on and passing many long-promised bills, for example on further economic reform. Dull and undramatic: but for many voters it matters at least as much as corruption.