Costs of Anti-Graft Victory

AsiaWATCH– Anti corruption campaigner Anna Hazare’s hunger strike captivated the Indian public and left the government reeling. But what are the consequences of holding the government to ransom, asks AsiaWATCH from the Indian city of Chennai (Madras).

Since August, India has been captivated by the anti-graft movement led by campaigner Anna Hazare. Millions were galvanised by the self-styled Gandhian’s hunger strike, which two weeks ago forced the Indian government into an embarrassing back down over its proposed anti-corruption legislation.

Ordinarily, a campaign over competing pieces of legislation might seem too arcane to stir such intense passions. But in a country where corruption is so pervasive, Mr Hazare’s hunger strike struck a chord. It inspired similar anti-graft protests across the sub-continent, including in the laid-back coastal city of Chennai, where they were kick-started by senior High Court lawyer, K. Ravi.

“We’ve had four successful campaigns in Chennai, involving officers of the highest rank and the commonest of common people,” Mr Ravi said. “Chennai is a laid-back city that wouldn’t normally budge for anything like this.”

Although the anti-graft movement has managed to muster widespread support, many of Mr Hazare’s supporters will admit to knowing only the basic differences between the rival anti-corruption proposals.

And compared to the international protests of recent months, the differences being argued over were actually quite modest. Both proposals will create a new watchdog, but the government balked at suggestions the prime minister and judiciary should be included in its purview. They were also reluctant to usurp the powers of the 28 Indian states and include lower level bureaucracy in the watchdog’s oversight powers.

After 291 hours of fasting, however, the Indian parliament finally relented and announced it supported Mr Hazare’s bill, known as Jan Lokpal. It’s yet to be passed into law.

For the government, this back down is made all the crueller because it was its own mishandling of the septuagenarian that propelled him further into the national spotlight.  It was only after Delhi police arrested the Mr Hazare on August 16 that his anti-corruption campaign really gained traction.

“The second freedom struggle has started,” he said at the time. “Time has come, my country men, when there should be no place left in jail in India.”

Although the government quickly forced his release, an emboldened Mr Hazare warned that he would fast until his death unless the government supported his anti-corruption bill by August 30.

That ultimatum was supported by thousands of Indian protestors, including 31-year-old film director Appu Indravelu. He has been involved in Anna Hazare’s ‘India Against Corruption’ movement for the last eight months, but it was only when his family saw this “national hero” embark on a hunger strike that they decided to be part of history.

Appu and his elderly father, with the support of Appu’s mother, joined the protestors housed at a crowded raised platform located on a chaotic Chennai street. Whilst Appu’s father ended his fast after four days due to a heart condition, Appu continued his hunger strike for a further six days, only stopping after Delhi-based protest leaders asked the strikers to redirect their energies.

“We are ready to give our lives for this,” he says. “We needed this legislation to be passed in order to stop the corruption that is endemic in our country.”

Compared to other defiant rallies that are so ingrained in India’s stable and vibrant democracy, Mr Hazare’s campaign has the overwhelming support of a public immensely frustrated by widespread corruption. Indians speak of having to pay bribes to receive a birth certificate or connect electricity.

“There is even one famous example where a campaigner bribed an official to write an arrest warrant for the Prime Minister,” said Chennai local Sridhar Laxmanan.

It is the popularity and doggedness of Mr Hazare’s campaign that  forced the government to rethink its approach, which had up until this point included describing Mr Hazare as “corrupt from head to toe”.

Mr Hazare’s strategy of holding the government to ransom does have its critics, who argue that he is a threat to democracy. Indian journalist and commentator AS Panneerselvan views the Hazare bill creating another bureaucracy for a government already overly burdened by authoritarian institutions.

“[Mr Hazare] is the ultimate fascist,” he says. “He is dictating our democratic process. His proposed bill doesn’t consider corporate corruption and it takes a guilty until proven innocent approach to those investigated. There is nothing in Lokpal about corporate corruption nor any disincentive for those who pay the bribes.”

There is no sign that Mr Hazare intends to stop campaigning. As he broke his fast with a few sips of coconut water and a spoonful of honey, the veteran campaigner promised the 85,000-strong crowd that he would be back for more struggles.

Journalist Gokul Vannan from the New Indian Express described the success of Hazare’s protest as a “dangerous trend for India”, although – like everyone we interviewed – he agrees that the endemic corruption is a sign of the general decay in Indian governance.

“When you have a campaign this successful, it will make more people attempt to supersede parliament,” he says.

But others see it as just another part of Indian democracy. Srijana Mitra Das, one of Anna Hazare’s celebrity supporters, defended the protests.

“This is a democracy. Everyone has a right to protest. This protest was entirely peaceful, no force was used,” he told a press conference.

“All bills are passed with political pressure and corporate lobbying. Several interested parties get involved. So what is wrong if the people of this nation – its most interested party – put pressure? Everyone lobbies. This time, the people are lobbying.”

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Luke Hunt is a foreign correspondent, author and occasional photographer who has covered much of Asia fr the last 30 years.

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