Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Anna Hazare phenomenon

WEEK ago, the name Anna Hazare would not have rung a bell with most people outside India. But since his arrest on Aug 16 - a day after India's independence day - and his ongoing, indefinite hunger strike in New Delhi demanding a strong anti-corruption authority in India, Mr Hazare has become a global name.

The controversy over a strong anti-corruption agency - or Lokpal as it is being called in India - has been brewing since April this year. That was when Mr Hazare, a former soldier turned activist, and his supporters staged a hunger strike for four days forcing the government to draft new legislation for a Lokpal, an idea that was mooted as far back as 1968 but had been shelved since. Mr Hazare and key members of his team were taken on board by the government to draft the new legislation, but they later walked out over some of the provisions of the Bill.

As the situation stands today, the government has placed a draft Lokpal Bill in Parliament which is being vetted by a parliamentary committee. But Mr Hazare and his team have disagreements with the version before Parliament. Some of their main objections are towards keeping the Indian Prime Minister, the conduct of MPs inside Parliament and the senior judiciary outside the ambit of the Lokpal.

Though corruption is widespread in India and can be traced back to the very first years of independent India, the magnitude of recent corruption scandals has brought the issue to centre stage. What began with allegations of corruption against the organisers of last year's Commonwealth Games in New Delhi was dwarfed by one of the biggest scams in independent India's history involving allotment of spectrum for wireless telephone services, which is estimated to have cost the Indian exchequer as much as US$40 billion (S$48 billion). Three Members of Parliament, including a federal minister, are in jail for their alleged involvement in the scams.

Mr Hazare's anti-graft campaign has tapped into the deep resentment among India's growing middle class against corruption and politicians, whom they see as venal and self-serving. For large numbers of India's middle class, Mr Hazare has emerged as a crusader on whom they have pinned their hopes of checking corruption. Though the anti-corruption protests have been concentrated mostly in metropolitan cities, the response in New Delhi has hardly been matched in other parts of India.

The scale of protests over the last few days has something to do with the Indian government's poor handling of the issue. The right to protest is fundamental to any democracy, and the government's decision to arrest Mr Hazare even before he began his hunger strike boomeranged. More people came out into the streets to protest than might have been the case had the hunger strike been allowed to proceed normally. The opposition parties, too, found it a handy stick with which to beat the government.

Several questions remain about Mr Hazare's movement and its solutions to tackle corruption. One is his method of resorting to a fast-unto-death to achieve his goal. Fasting to achieve political goals has a long history in India, going back to Mahatma Gandhi's numerous hunger strikes against colonial rule. But one needs to make a distinction between a hunger strike against a democratically elected government and one against an oppressive, foreign regime. Indeed, this distinction was made by the man who is known as the father of the Indian Constitution, Mr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, who believed that the Gandhian methods of fasts and civil obedience had no place in a constitutional democracy. Besides, the belief of Mr Hazare and his followers that they are the true representatives of India's more than 1.2 billion people and that they can dictate terms to an elected Parliament is very disturbing.

Second, it is unclear whether the sort of anti-corruption body with sweeping powers that Mr Hazare and his followers are proposing is desirable. In the name of tackling corruption, it would mean vesting incredible power into one institution, which has the potential of destroying the checks and balances of a democracy and undermining the very institutions that have struggled to strike root in India. The talk now is about corruption in high places and multibillion-dollar scams. What is much more difficult to tackle is the daily, endemic corruption that the average Indian faces - and is often complicit with - in dealing with government institutions and bureaucrats.

Third, the nature of Mr Hazare's movement is such - backed mostly by the middle class and relentlessly covered by the media - that it demands immediate solutions to the problem of corruption. It has no patience for the institutions, which despite many problems, are at the heart of Indian democracy.

Mr Hazare's movement was responsible for bringing back corruption to top of the agenda in India. It has also galvanised a large number of people, waving flags and spouting patriotic slogans, who are not known to take to the streets for political causes. But their belief that the Lokpal will be a one-time panacea for corruption in India is naive to say the least.

The writer is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.