Who says Gandhianism is dead in India? A veteran social activist claiming the Mahatma's mantle has shaken up Indian politics like nothing else has in the recent past.
The man's name is Anna Hazare, a seventy-four-year-old who has galvanized a large section of the Indian populace (or at least its middle class) around the issue of corruption. At the same time, he and his methods have created doubts in the minds of many.
Hazare, a fairly well-known social reformer, started his campaign in April, when he went on a hunger strike to demand strong measures to curb corruption in India. Taken aback at the popularity of his cause, the Indian government sat down to negotiate. It agreed to create an independent anti-corruption superbody. But Hazare and his team were dissatisfied by the ensuing legislation, which they claimed was too watered down. In response, Hazare decided to go on a fast again, symbolically choosing August 16, the day following India's Independence Day.
The government's response was utterly ham-fisted. It preemptively detained Hazare and many of his supporters, claiming they were posing a threat to law and order. This outraged a lot of Indians.
"Why have you arrested him?" businessman P. K. Gupta shouted at police officers, reports the New York Times. "You should arrest corrupt people! Why have you arrested a simple, honest man? The government is atrocious. God is watching! God will not save you, Delhi police!"
Corruption is indeed an all-pervasive problem in India. Several scandals have recently come to light in which, two decades after the start of India's economic liberalization, big business cartels in collusion with politicians have ripped off the Indian exchequer of previously unimaginable sums. The average Indian also faces petty corruption of a sort that makes daily life very painful. In some sense, Hazare's revolt may be the rebellion of those left behind by India's much-vaunted economic rise.
"For many educated Indians, economic liberalization increasingly seems to have provided cover for a wholesale plunder of national resources by a small incestuous minority," writes Pankaj Mishra, an extremely astute observer of the Indian scene. "Their simmering rage and discontent have found a handy outlet in a series of recent mass movements against the wide target of "corruption.' "
But Hazare's methods and goals have raised questions even from people who, as sincerely as him, want an end to corruption in India.
First, there is the class nature of the protests, with the relatively privileged not seeming to be bothered by the myriad issues --ranging from acute malnutrition to female feticide--that don't impinge upon their day-to-day living.
"I sense a lack of emotional proportion and a troubling hypocrisy from a middle class that refuses to get as moved to action by graver things, such as the murder of female children, child labor in homes, hotels and factories, or poverty outside our car windows," writes Samar Halarnkar in the Hindustan Times. "There is excitable talk now of the constitutional right to protest, but this is not something we like to give to Kashmiris, or bother too much when it is snatched from tribals or others on the margins of middle-India's imagination."
And there is the absurdity that many of those crusading against corruption are not directing their ire at the big business houses that have taken India to the cleaners like never before. Many of Hazare's camp followers either work for corporate India or are admirers of India's corporate bigwigs.
There are larger structural issues here at play, too, such as who gets to decide what's best for the country.
"There is nothing wrong in having advisory groups," writes Palagummi Sainath, one of India's most renowned journalists. "Not a thing wrong in governments consulting them and also listening to people, particularly those affected by its decisions. There is a problem when groups not constituted legally cross the line of demands, advice and rights-based, democratic agitation. And when they seek to run the government and legislation--no matter how well-intentioned they are."
And there is Hazare himself, an immensely complicated person at the center of the storm, a man who embraces some very harsh tactics.
"In interviews he has called for punishments like amputation and public hanging for those found guilty of corruption, something that would appall Gandhi," writes Salil Tripathi for the Daily Beast. "In the village where Hazare has worked for more than three decades in the western state of Maharashtra, one of his campaigns is against alcoholism. One way he ensures compliance is through public lashing of people who defy the ban."