“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.”