THOUGH August 22nd was a national holiday in India, a crowd of tens of thousands gathered in the Ramlila Maidan, a public ground in central Delhi, to cheer on Anna Hazare, a populist anti-corruption crusader who has tied the government in knots. They gathered in the dust and sunshine, some seated beneath enormous awnings, most wearing white Gandhi caps and badges proclaiming "I am Anna". Dozens of television trucks lined up outside the grounds, as cable channels feverishly broadcast every moment of Mr Hazare’s hunger strike. He is poised to complete his first week without food on August 23rd.
The crowd sweltered but remained in good cheer. These protests will not fade, whatever the temperature or the admonitions from a nonplussed government. Many have made big efforts to attend: one man had travelled 150km from Haryana state; a student had arrived from rural Maharashtra; another had arrived from Patna, in distant Bihar. For the youngsters, especially, there was a thrill of being part of something momentous—plus a decent chance of getting on national TV.
Asked if they worried about Mr Hazare becoming a cult figure, perhaps even usurping the image and methods of Gandhi, his supporters roared back that their leader was pure, set on a good cause to purge India of dreadful corruption. Mr Hazare and his legions of fans insist that the government passes, word-for-word, a bill he has drafted that would up a Jan Lokpal, a people’s anti-corruption ombudsman with powers to hold everyone from the prime minister and high-court judges downwards to account.
Is it democratic for street protesters to impose their law, however good or not, on an elected system? Do we know that the billion-plus other Indians really want to go along with it? Shouldn’t parliament have some sort of say? Other civil activists, such as Arundhati Roy, have blasted Mr Hazare’s campaign for its strong air of nationalism. Muslim leaders, too, are worried that it is taking on too much of a Hindu nationalist feel. Chants that "Anna is India, India is Anna" suggest a troubling demagogic tendency. Shouldn’t that give supporters pause to think?
Those in the crowd pushed aside such squeamish questions. India is the greatest democracy in the world, they pointed out. They support that system, but politicians are so venal that it now needs a jolt. Their protest, and Mr Hazare’s refusal to eat until his bill is passed, are that jolt. The youth, the middle class, the urban Indians, they said, are merely voicing what everyone surely thinks.
Mr Hazare, who is 74 years old but in good health, has lost about 5kg in the past week. But he appears to have got more sure of himself. At the weekend India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, delivered a conciliatory message and suggested a compromise was possible. His officials tried, too, to kick the whole thing into the long grass by saying that any law would take about four months to pass.
But Mr Hazare is having none of it. Despite his weakening body, such is his growing strength that he flatly turned away Mr Singh’s fluffy talk as a scheme to break his momentum. He gives the government until August 30th to pass his bill, or face the consequences. If anyone wants to talk to him, it must either someone from the prime minister’s office or a leading member of the Gandhi clan.
That is a barbed attack: Sonia Gandhi is absent, thought to be getting treatment for cancer in New York, so her son, Rahul, is supposed to be overseeing Congress (along with three loyalists) while she’s gone. But Mr Gandhi has been hiding in rural Maharashtra, desperate not to get entangled in the Hazare nightmare. For a young and rising leader, who has made a virtue of trying to talk for India’s youth, his silence grows more deafening by the day.
The options for the government are now few. The bravest route would be to call Mr Hazare’s bluff and let him fast until his doctors force him to call it off. A better communicator than Mr Singh (who sits in the unelected upper house of parliament) could meanwhile try to explain how his government has done more than any other in India’s history to fight graft. He might add that Mr Hazare should not threaten to kill himself to get his law passed—nor should democratic governments give in to such threats unless it wishes to invite other populists to follow suit.
But the risks of that route are evident. Enormous protests that become uncontrollable, perhaps violent, could follow. Already protests have spread to dozens of other cities. Among Mr Hazare’s supporters in Delhi, many claim that if their old leader suffers, a heavy price would be extracted from the government. A revolution or even an early election are unlikely. But Congress may face a future pummelling at the polls if voters with famously short memories are annoyed enough.
The government's other options are equally dismal. Some hapless officials grew so desperate (or perhaps confused) last week, they tried briefly to suggest foreigners, Americans apparently, were behind Mr Hazare’s campaign. That didn’t wash. In the end, therefore, the most likely outcome seems to be that the government will acquiesce in Mr Hazare’s demands. They would look weak. And in time, Indians may regret setting up a Jan Lokpal, what amounts almost to a constitutional change, in such chaotic circumstances. But it is hard to see another other way out.