Anna Hazare inspires middle-class awakening in India

August 19, 2011

As he waited in the rain for India’s veteran anti-corruption crusader to emerge from jail, call-center employee Amit Bhardwaj was still troubled by the bribe he was forced to pay three months ago to get a birth certificate for his firstborn son.

“I hated it,” he said, miming how the official had greedily counted the notes, worth about $20, in full public view. “I had hatred for myself and for him. This was the first thing I did for my newborn son.”

Like millions of other Indians, Bhardwaj has found a degree of personal redemption by joining a national movement against corruption led by the unlikely figure of 74-year-old Anna Hazare. The peaceful movement has drawn in Indians of all ages and from all walks of life, but it marks the first time India’s new, urban middle class has put aside creature comforts and personal ambition and taken to the streets for a political cause.

Unlike the Arab Spring, it is not an impassioned call for democracy or a new government. But it is an awakening of sorts, which could change the face of India’s democracy and, protesters and some commentators say, portend a deeper change in the national psyche and its tolerance for corrupt, arrogant and unresponsive leaders.

“The consumer revolution that we have experienced in the past two decades has told the citizen that he can expect a higher quality of governance,” said social anthropologist Shiv Viswanathan. “The information revolution has created a revolution of rising expectation.”

In the process, India’s anti-corruption movement may blow away a few myths — in particular, that the country’s middle class was too comfortable, apathetic and insignificant in number to swing elections.

Cynical lawmakers, in the past, figured they could get away with almost anything as long as they threw a few sops to the rural poor at election time every five years. But two decades of economic liberalization has brought into being a new Indian middle class, already numbering more than 200 million and growing fast, and whose votes and opinions can no longer be taken for granted. Unlike the older middle class, whose members held jobs in the government or state-owned companies, the new middle class has benefited from privatization and economic reforms in the past two decades.

“India has reached an inflexion point,” Swagato Ganguly wrote in the Times of India on Friday in a piece headlined “It’s the middle class, stupid.” “The ‘new’ middle class, which owes nothing to state employment, is eclipsing the ‘old’ middle class.”

High-profile scandals

The movement against corruption came to life at the end of last year after a string of high-profile corruption scandals. Using Facebook to mobilize and gather recruits, it started to snowball with Hazare’s nationally televised four-day fast in April.

India’s government, as senior officials now admit, consistently underestimated the movement’s power. Scorning it as a middle-class phenomenon, many felt its importance was being exaggerated by the nation’s often sensationalistic round-the-clock television news channels, while others questioned whether a small community of people using social media reflected the voice of India.

But Ganguly warned that politicians ignore the middle class at their own peril. “Just like the TV cameras, this middle class is not going to go away. Smart politicians had better hone their strategies to co-opt middle-class rage,” he wrote.

The government in April tried to get Hazare to join a government panel tasked with drafting a new law authorizing an independent ombudsman, known as the Lok Pal, to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials.

When that did not work, and Hazare denounced the government’s version of the law as “toothless,” the government and the ruling Congress party went on the offensive, first accusing his nonprofit group of misusing funds, then arresting him this week hours before he was due to begin a second hunger strike. Hazare denied the charges and said the government was defaming him.

As India erupted in outrage, the government was forced to backtrack, and Hazare emerged from jail on Friday to continue his fast in a park in central Delhi. The veteran Gandhian activist, who has already lost 6 1 / 2 pounds in four days since he began the fast, was cheered and showered with petals by thousands of supporters as he led them in chants of “Hail Mother India” and “Long live the revolution.”

“You have lit a torch against corruption,” Hazare told the crowd. “Don’t extinguish it until India is free from corruption.”

The bigger question

The government has introduced legislation in Parliament to establish an independent anti-corruption ombudsman, but Hazare says the bill is “good for nothing” because it excludes the prime minister, the judiciary and much of the bureaucracy from the ombudsman’s jurisdiction. He has drawn up his own version of the legislation and threatened to fast until it is introduced in Parliament.

But the bigger question, perhaps, is whether he will try to bring about a wider social transformation in India, to make bribe-giving as well as bribe-taking socially unacceptable, the sort of grand social change that his guru Mahatma Gandhi once attempted.

The novelist and youth icon Chetan Bhagat said this week that it was becoming “cool to be clean” among India’s urban, middle-class youth, although many of those attending Friday’s protests admitted that even Hazare’s proposed new law would not put a stop to endemic corruption. Several dozen people interviewed in recent days confessed to having given bribes, and only a few pledged never to do so again.

“I encounter the demand for corruption all the time. What do I do? If I want quick service, I will pay,” said Govind Patel, a 27-year-old exporter who has complained about corruption on his Twitter page, Facebook and other online discussion forums. “But I am standing here today to fight the real fight. I stand here and see that everyone under this tent feels the same anger as me, they have experienced the same helplessness as me. It gives me courage.”

Dipankar Gupta, an author and expert on India’s middle classes, predicts that Hazare’s movement will peak soon, but that the broader effort against corruption was just beginning. Like many social movements in history, he said, it could years or even decades to bring fundamental change.

“These things do take time, but this is an important input into the system,” he said. “When the next election comes around, how to handle corruption will be a central issue, and that is progress.”

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