ANNA HAZARE, a 74-year-old activist fond of calling hunger strikes to demand a tougher fight against pervasive corruption in India, was due to start a big protest in Delhi on August 16th. But at dawn, as he and many thousand supporters prepared to gather at a city park, plain-clothes policemen arrested him and, struggling to get through a dense crowd, took him away. Apparently it was necessary to lock up the pensioner for “preventative custody”: he has been dumped in Tihar jail, Delhi’s main prison, for the next seven days.
Mr Hazare was expecting that. He had recorded a television message, now being broadcast, to be used in the case of his detention. In it he grandly announced the start of a “second” independence campaign for India, to fight against a government refusing to do anything useful to stop corruption. He also called a “jail bharo”, another Gandhian tactic (along with fasts and peaceful protests) used against the British when they ran India, in which protesters seek arrest in order to “fill” the country’s prisons. By the afternoon of August 16th 1,300 had already been arrested, amid protests held all over the country.
The official response looks clumsy indeed. The home minister, P Chidambaram, claims that it was a police decision to take away the anti-graft leader. In fact it was a political choice: the opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), rightly points out that the government imposed unusually harsh conditions on Mr Hazare (he was told that only 5,000 could gather and for only three days in total), then had him arrested even before these were broken.
By jailing its opponent, the government has managed to unite a wide range of actors that were otherwise reluctant to swing behind Mr Hazare’s demand that an anti-corruption ombudsman, a “lokpal”, should be given extraordinary powers. Mr Hazare says that everyone, up to the prime minister, should be subject to such a body’s scrutiny. The government, though agreeing to some sort of ombudsman, says every decision of elected leaders cannot be left hostage to an overly powerful, unelected body.
The trouble for Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, and his fellow leaders is that the rights and wrongs of the lokpal are not now the matter of debate. Instead the issue is the clunking, undemocratic way that the Congress government tried to muzzle a critic. India's main business group, FICCI, was quick on August 16th to warn that freedom of speech and assembly “is an article of faith in our democracy”. Opposition parties, from the BJP to the Communists united to condemn the action. Those who fret about the country’s image abroad, especially among foreign investors who are less enthusiastic about the Indian economy these days, also voiced concern.
This follows an earlier crackdown, in June, on a self-promoting guru, Baba Ramdev, who had also gathered supporters in Delhi to protest against the government and corruption. The police and the government bungled that one, too, as television broadcast images of his sleeping supporters being attacked and beaten by police in the night. By getting in early this time, before Mr Hazare's fast could get under way, perhaps officials hoped to forestall too big a ruckus.
But where the populist Baba Ramdev eventually fell quiet, apparently once officials started digging into the tax and other arrangements of the yoga-man’s own extensive, opaque, business empire, Mr Hazare is a stronger opponent. He has a long and consistent record of social protest, and only limited ties to political parties.
Recent official attempts to call him corrupt, too, have rung terribly hollow. Nor do attempts to undermine Mr Hazare for subverting the democratic process sound convincing, since the government agreed to work with him in April, once he called off an earlier hunger strike.
Mr Singh’s government thus looks cornered. Whereas all political parties are tainted by accusations of graft, it is his administration, and the ruling Congress party, that is held responsible for failing to do more to stop it.
Opinion polls show that voters are dismayed by the issue, especially urban ones, and Congress’s support is sliding. This is all taking place while Sonia Gandhi, the president of Congress and de facto leader of the country, is in America for prolonged medical care. The government desperately needs some bright ideas: first on how better to respond to Mr Hazare; and more importantly on how to show it will crack down on graft rather than those who complain about it.