“People power is bigger than everything, and this movement is bigger than the government and its ministers,” said Anna Hazare. “This fire will spread.” The 70-year-old disciple of Mahatma Gandhi staged a hunger strike in April that brought the movement to life.
Hazare, who dresses in homespun white cotton and a traditional white cap, is threatening another fast next week unless the government strengthens a draft bill to combat corruption.
If he is the movement’s most recognizable face, its messengers are the country’s raucous 24-hour television news channels. Its supporters include students and grandmothers, IT professionals and retired civil servants.
Ammunition for the campaign is supplied by India’s independent comptroller and auditor general, Vinod Rai, whose hard-hitting reports on corruption have helped land a cabinet minister and several other politicians and business leaders in jail.
For its supporters, the movement is a chance to demonstrate the power of India’s sometimes underrated democracy, and to reengage an often-apathetic middle class in the political process. Even more, perhaps, it is a sign that democracy is not India’s Achilles’ heel in the race to catch up with China, but ultimately its trump card, and that the voices of more than a billion people can amount to a force for change.
Even its supporters admit it is not going to be easy to turn anger into lasting results.
“This is the first step in a painful process of transforming the entire nature of government in India,” said independent lawmaker Rajeev Chandrasekhar. “The whole political class and the bureaucratic class will resist this. They will see it as a death sentence. The energy required to get any traction is not going to be trivial.”
A variety of tactics
The India Against Corruption movement coalesced late last year in the wake of two massive corruption scandals, one surrounding the staging of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi and the other stemming from the allocation of cellphone licenses.
A Facebook page helped spread the word and enlist organizers across the country. A little of the excitement of the Arab Spring appeared to rub off as protests were staged in 60 towns and cities in January.
Online, the movement gets tactical advice from Avaaz, a global advocacy group that also backed a successful campaign against corruption in Brazil.
But on the ground, it was the tried and tested Gandhian tactic of fasting that energized the campaign, as the nation’s television screens were filled with images of the frail Hazare in April.
So far, 12 million people have registered their support by ringing a campaign hotline and logging a missed call, while more than 60,000 have sent e-mails to government officials, a response that the movement’s founder, Arvind Kejriwal, calls “overwhelming.”
There was even a cameo appearance in June by popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev, whose own hunger strike in central Delhi ended in violence and bathos.
As police tear-gassed his supporters and beat them with batons, Ramdev escaped under the cover of darkness dressed in women’s clothes. He ended his fast a few days later far from the capital without wringing any concessions from the government.
Hazare and his team initially seemed more successful, invited by the government to help draft a bill to set up an independent anti-corruption ombudsman, or Lokpal.
But the détente did not last: The two sides squabbled over the powers the ombudsman would have, and the government ended by rejecting many of Hazare’s suggestions in the draft bill now before Parliament.
Hazare’s supporters call the government’s bill a “joke” and are burning copies at daily protests across the country.
“I suffered a lot during my career because I would never accept any kind of corruption,” said a 64-year-old retired postal department employee, Taseem Lal Bhansal, who attended one such rally in New Delhi. “I want a modern India free of corruption, and I am ready to sacrifice myself.”
Fighting corruption in daily life
Away from this headline-grabbing battle against multibillion-dollar corruption, other activists are diligently fighting the petty corruption that blights daily life here.
Many are using the powerful Right to Information Act, passed in 2005, to shine a light into the dark corridors of officialdom, while a team in Bangalore has had success with a crowd-sourcing Web site.
I Paid A Bribe allows ordinary citizens to record their own experiences of corruption, providing insight into how much is paid, to whom and for what services, as well as into the psychology of bribe-givers and bribe-takers.
It uses the data to lobby for change and to help design better government processes to prevent graft, but its founders also aim to harness the popular mood to make bribe-giving less socially accepted and reengage the middle class in politics.
“A person who experiences petty corruption every day is broken in spirit,” said founder T.R. Raghunandan. “When your spirit is broken, you tend to accept other forms of bad governance also.”
Several copycat sites were established in China but were soon blocked by government censors after receiving a massive popular response.
Hazare’s rhetoric and methods have come in for considerable criticism: Some say his fast is a form of blackmail, or object to his insistence that his movement, rather than a democratically elected Parliament, represents the popular will.
Others say his aim — the establishment of an all-powerful ombudsman — undermines India’s existing institutions and its system of parliamentary democracy.
“He has the right to protest, he has right to forward his point of view, but he has no right to insist that government accept only his view. That is not democracy,” said the government’s chief negotiator over the bill, Kapil Sibal, who is also India’s communications minister.
In 1973, another popular movement against corruption swept India, led by another septuagenarian Gandhian, Jayaprakash Narayan. It culminated in a march on Parliament on March 6, 1975, that drew about 750,000 people, only to be crushed that June by the imposition of emergency rule by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Today’s movement does not yet have that depth, but a showdown nevertheless is looming Tuesday, when Hazare begins his second fast.
“We will take the blow of the police canes,” Hazare said. “Many Indians sacrificed their lives for the sake of independence. So we are not scared. We will not hit back. Even if we die, it is fine. We will face it.”
Correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.