Protests erupt over corruption. But Sonia Gandhi’s health may matter more.
INDIA’S bungling rulers have been rattled by an anti-corruption campaigner yet again. Rather than let Anna Hazare, an ageing Gandhian, fast before a crowd in Delhi, plainclothes police grabbed the pensioner for seven days of “preventive” custody on August 16th. The idea was to stop him breaking arbitrary rules on his protest. Instead, it triggered a storm.
Within hours 1,300 of his followers were also in jail, several thousand young protesters were gathering in the sunshine around India Gate, in central Delhi, chanting “long live the revolution” and cable television was in full national-crisis overdrive in dozens of languages. Too late it dawned on the government that clumsy efforts to muzzle critics were not only undemocratic, but were also failing. On August 18th, the government climbed down, offering Mr Hazare a deal under which he left jail to begin a 15-day hunger strike.
That will not be the end of the matter. Ministers have long tried to smear Mr Hazare as corrupt, or as a demagogue set on subverting democracy by imposing a flawed anti-corruption ombudsman, or lokpal, to whom both prime minister and senior judges would be held accountable. On August 17th the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, called Mr Hazare’s hunger strike “totally misconceived”.
But he has become a focus of discontent about a government widely seen as fatally compromised by corruption. Opposition leaders, anti-corruption campaigners and all manner of activists have queued up to lambast the government for its treatment of Mr Hazare. Quick to spot a chance for self-promotion, Varun Gandhi, an MP for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and nephew of Congress’s leader, Sonia Gandhi, says he will bring Mr Hazare’s lokpal bill to parliament on August 19th.
Congress may hope for only limited political fallout. The anti-corruption campaigners seem to be mostly city types, students and romantics frustrated by the bitter compromises of Indian democracy. Elections, by contrast, are won mainly among ill-educated, rural voters, most influenced by inflation, jobs, welfare and the charisma of the ruling Gandhi clan.
More troubling for Congress, therefore, is the uncertain fate of Mrs Gandhi. She is in New York this month reportedly getting treatment for cancer. Party spokesmen refuse to describe her illness, apart from saying that she left intensive care after an operation. Doubts persist over when she might return. Her 41-year-old son, Rahul Gandhi, may soon have to be promoted, perhaps sooner than he wished. Though few in public are paying close attention, given the other fuss, her prognosis may well have a bigger long-term impact on Indian politics than Mr Hazare’s ill treatment.