India’s anti-corruption movement loses steam

January 2, 2012

In a year of global protests, few were as broadly backed as India’s mass movement against corruption, which drew millions of people into the streets and onto social media to express support for veteran activist Anna Hazare as he staged a series of hunger strikes.

For months, India’s media seemed to talk of little else. Then, in a few short weeks, the bubble burst.

Hazare’s final fast of 2011 attracted just a few thousand supporters and was abandoned after only a day. The legislation he had campaigned for, meant to establish a powerful anti-corruption investigating agency, was watered down by the government and then delayed indefinitely as politicians from all factions attacked it with a mass of competing amendments.

Like many movements that harness popular frustration — from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street — it proved much more difficult to maintain the unity and momentum of Hazare’s movement once anger with the system was replaced by specific recommendations on how to change it. Although millions of people were prepared to turn out to decry corruption, far fewer wanted to argue the finer points of a specific anti-graft bill.

But the movement’s troubles also reflect the fact that the endemic corruption in India was never going to be as easy to eliminate as Hazare sometimes made it sound, and that the activist was never as infallible as some of his most fervent supporters made him out to be.

The 74-year-old, who models himself on Indian independence hero Mohandas Gandhi, had been labeled “Newsmaker of 2011” by a leading magazine. But in recent days, he has been called a flop and a failure. In a cruel twist, he ended the year in a hospital with bronchitis, with his doctor advising him to “respect the aging process.”

“The fear of Anna Hazare has gone, and so has the bill, into an uncertain time zone,” reporter Sheela Bhatt observed, echoing the prevailing sentiment.

The cracks had been appearing for months, since the heady days of August, when the government briefly jailed Hazare, Delhi’s middle class turned out en masse to support his 12-day fast, and the most fashionable headgear in the country was a white Gandhi cap bearing the words “I am Anna.”

First came the questions about the integrity of leading members of Hazare’s team, with the most damaging being perhaps the allegation that respected policewoman-turned-activist Kiran Bedi had falsified her travel expense invoices.

Hazare’s fall from grace, though, seemed even more pronounced. In a country increasingly sick of a corrupt, preening and self-satisfied political class, his strength had been his Gandhian aura of honesty, humility and simplicity.

But as the media turned him into a national hero, the attention seemed to go to his head, critics said. It was understandable for Hazare to insist that India’s 1.2 billion people were the country’s real rulers, but when he proclaimed himself the voice of those 1.2 billion people, he perhaps sounded less humble than some might have liked.

Nor did he stick very closely to the Gandhian script of nonviolence, proclaiming first that corrupt politicians should be hanged and then that anyone consuming alcohol should be flogged. When an anti-corruption demonstrator slapped a leading Indian politician in the face, Hazare hastily tweeted, “Just one slap?” before quickly retracting his words.

An October vow of silence, another Gandhian practice rooted in Hindu tradition, was more farcical than forceful, with Hazare keeping up a steady stream of tweets and statements throughout the 19 days of supposed restraint and reflection.

It was all too much for many of his supporters, including Sanjay Chawla, a 28-year-old real estate agent who had helped organize a rally in his home town of Salem in August only to become disillusioned.

“He claimed to be Gandhian, but what he practiced didn’t go by that,” Chawla said. “He entertained violence, and that drew me away.”

In the end, though, it was Hazare’s foray into electoral politics and his growing association with the country’s Hindu nationalist right that most tarnished his reputation.

Frustrated by the government’s unwillingness to accept his demands, Hazare told his supporters to vote against a candidate from the ruling Congress party in a parliamentary by-election in October.

Then Hazare branded the Congress party “traitors” for not accepting his version of an anti-corruption bill. But when invited to condemn the Hindu nationalist opposition for similarly failing to endorse some of his key proposals, he simply walked out of a news conference.

Others were put off by Hazare’s unwillingness to compromise with the government or even listen to the views of fellow activists. But, in the end, it might have been his very rigidity, dogmatism and single-mindedness that forced politicians to finally introduce a bill last month, after decades of talk but no action.

The chaos and constant back-tracking in Parliament since the bill was introduced simply “proved Anna right,” Bhatt said.

Although “Team Anna” dismisses the legislation as “useless,” even critics such as Nikhil Dey say the movement has achieved much more than it sometimes cares to admit.

Dey and many other activists involved in the successful campaign for India’s 2005 Right to Information Act had always been uncomfortable with Hazare’s ultimate goal — an all-powerful and potentially unaccountable anti-corruption investigating and prosecuting agency, known as the Lokpal.

But since the movement, bills have been introduced that would establish a Lokpal (albeit with fewer powers), increase the accountability of the judiciary and bureaucracy, and help protect whistleblowers.

None of the bills are perfect, Dey said, “but if you take the whole basket of measures, there is a lot of progress — more progress than there has been in many years.”

Taken as part of a multi-year campaign to raise transparency and accountability in India, Hazare’s movement was neither the transformative revolution the media had hyped it to be, nor the failure some critics would argue it has become.

“The fact is, for a year, much of the country’s attention has been focused on the Lokpal bill, and it forced the government to at least bring a bill,” said one of the campaign’s leaders, Prashant Bhushan. “The movement will now have to widen its objectives and perspective, and not just focus on the Lokpal bill. The time has come to take a step back.”

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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