A new, exciting and explosive movement has gripped India. The rise of anti-corruption activist Kisan Baburao Hazare, has put his agenda firmly on the map. The 74 year old former soldier threatened to starve himself to death if his anti-corruption bill was not passed through Parliament. ‘Anna’ Hazare has been affectionately awarded this honorary name of ‘big brother’ by his supporters. They represent a significant shift in the middle classes in India, and could transpire into becoming an important phase in the countries development.
As Ashok Bery notes, “for too long, Indians have tolerated the situation by saying chalta hai (a Hindi phrase meaning “it goes” – the equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders, or “that’s just the way it is”)”. India ranks 78th out of 178 in Transparency International’s Index of Corruption and it is widely acknowledged that bureaucratic and small-scale corruption is rife. A new website http://ipaidabribe.com/ has recently opened in an attempt to try and capture the scale, and gather evidence, of this bribery. On the 7th September, 14,205 people had registered that they had paid bribes of some kind.
Hazare’s campaign led to tens of thousands of supports taking to the streets during his 12-day struggle. Manmohan Singh and his government conceded on Saturday 27th August and, in a historic signal, parliament “agreed in principle” to the majority of Hazare’s key demands: “that anti-corruption ombudsmen should be appointed in all regional states, not just at the centre; that the entire bureaucracy should be covered by the new anti-corruption law, and not just senior officials; and that there should be a citizens’ charter for redressing public grievances against the administration” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/28/anna-hazare-ends-hunger-strike). At the heart of this bill would be the Jan Lokpal – “a constitution-subverting supercommittee of 11 citizens vested with sweeping powers over the executive, legislature and judiciary”.
As Hazare’s ended his fast, he told supporters, “I haven’t given up the fast, I have only suspended it. My fast will really end when all our demands are met, when parliament passes the bill [to establish a nationwide ombudsman system] and there is genuine reform in the country.”
Some however, have suggested that this is a dangerous turn for democracy in India and will perhaps sets a president for such movements achieving success in the future. As Rahul Gandhi noted, “today, the proposed law is against corruption. Tomorrow, the target may be something less universally heralded. It may attack the plurality of our society and democracy.” Some have rightly questioned whether Hazare’s movement can speak for all of India – for the rural poor, different castes and tribal factions. Many have made comparisons between the Gandhian protests of independence and Hazares. But as Bery astutely recognises, the obvious comparisons are inconsequential. “Gandhi was not operating within a democratic environment. Anna Hazare is. He and his followers sometimes seem to be in danger of forgetting this.” So while the movement may have significant implications for India’s anti-corruption drive – it may equally have a less positive effect on democracy in the country.
What is clear is that Hazare has captured a wave of support across India. His anti-corruption bill seems likely to go through, in part, and this may have some important implications. However, perhaps more importantly, and dangerously, it also poses a threat to democracy. Kapil Komireddi suggests: “unanswerable to parliament, above the constitution, beyond the traditional checks and balances of democracy, and its incorruptibility apparently secure because its functionaries would be drawn primarily from a pool of distinguished prizewinners, the Jan Lokpal is a crystallisation of the emergent Indian middle class’s yearning for a benign dictatorship” (http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/08/india-hazare-corruption-modi).