The Transformation of India's Anti-Corruption Warriors
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The Transformation of India's Anti-Corruption Warriors

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They were once comrades-in-arms, giving a clarion call to Indians from all walks of life to fight the system, reform politics, and end corruption in India. They wanted a Jan Lokpal, or Ombudsman, bill to root out political corruption. Behind the banner of the old Gandhian, Anna Hazare, they were the most prominent and recognizable faces of the anti-corruption movement that stirred the India’s national conscience some four years ago.

At the center of the anti-corruption movement back then were Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi, Shazia Ilmi, and Ramdev, among others. They were largely non-political figures and well-known in their areas of work. Their call to change the system and rid India of corruption stirred the whole country. Jantar Mantar became India’s Tahrir Square at that time.

The energy and anger released by the movement overwhelmed the established political parties and  greatly undermined  the ruling Congress-led coalition.

But once the general elections drew closer and the poll for the Delhi Assembly eventually came calling in 2014, the movement began its disintegration. Two years of continuous protest politicized the movement’s figureheads and had emboldened them politically. Popular pressure forced the parliament to pass a toned down version of the Ombudsman bill.

During the movement’s heyday, several questions were raised about the credentials of the leaders and their larger aims. Several analysts pointed out that the anti-corruption activists are playing the game of the now-dominant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)  and that the movement is a project of the right-wing Hindu organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — the ideological godfather of the BJP. These same critics claimed that the movement’s larger aim is to dispose of the ruling Congress Party. The protagonists of the protests dismissed these insinuations with a vengeance.

Some four years later, Kiran Bedi is the BJP’s mascot in Delhi and the right-wing group is pinning its hopes on her to pull out a victory for the party in the Assembly elections slated for the first week of February. Shazia Ilmi, another prominent face of the anti-corruption agitation, is also part of the right-wing contingent. As is Vinod Kumar Binnya a legislator from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, or Common Man’s Party) — Arvind Kejriwal’s brainchild.

One vocal votary of the anti corruption movement was Yoga guru Ramdev. He was not only active in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar but also in spreading the message across the country. He virtually converted his daily yoga classes into a platform to create awareness about the anti-corruption movement. Today Ramdev is dead silent on the issue of corruption. He is on the contrary exploiting his proximity to the BJP regime in expanding his business of Ayurvedic products.

Today, everything is clear. The anti-corruption movement was not aimed at cleaning the country of corruption and ushering in a new political culture in India. It was largely an agitation aimed at dislodging the previous Congress-led government.

Veteran political commentator, Harish Khare, in his recent book “How Modi Won It,” writes that “an unholy convergence of calculations and conspiracies among corporate, political and ‘Hindutva’ crowds saw the emergence of an ‘an anti corruption movement.’” He says that the movement “reached a fork” as “he assorted right-wing groups who were providing ‘boots on the ground’ gradually and quietly withdraw their helping hand.”

Khare in his insightful book surmises that the Gandhian Anna Hazare was used “to delegitimize the Congress and weakened liberal and progressive voices.”

Whether or not one agrees with Khare, one thing that is certain is that that the biggest beneficiary of the anti-corruption movement has been the BJP. The party leader Narendra Modi launched his march to Delhi on ground prepared by the protests. Similarly, most of the activists of the Anna movement have joined the BJP.

Arvind Kejriwal, who charted a different route than some of his comrades, did so at the cost of the Congress party, a centrist liberal organization. He indirectly helped the right-wing Hindu group to come to the center stage at the cost of India’s larger liberal and secular voices.

The purported aim of the anti-corruption campaign was to reform politics; it was a voice against the prevailing corruption in the political system. Has it achieved that goal? Has India found a mechanism or way to address its endemic and systemic corruption?

We all know the answer.

Why are the protagonists of the anti-corruption movement now so silent on the issue of corruption? Why have people like Ramdev gone silent and grown hesitant to utter the word “corruption” to the present regime?

No doubt the anti-corruption protests of 2011 were a movement for a noble cause, but the movement’s leaders had shortsighted political interests. They were opportunists and careerists. India’s millions who came on the streets with the hope of seeing a new beginning have been left high and dry. People like Bedi, Ilmi and Ramdev were playing games with the people. These people were more concerned about their career and business interests rather than the larger cause they rallied for. Naturally, their honesty and integrity falls into question.

Kejriwal, who was the most vocal proponent of the Ombudsman Bill and stood uncompromising on the issue of corruption, is a changed man now. His sole purpose now is to win the upcoming Delhi elections. He does not talk about addressing the issue of corruption or reforming politics with the same vengeance he used to just under two years ago. The rebels have become part of the system.

Kiran Bedi is now standing election for chief minister in Delhi as the BJP’s candidate, representing a party she has called corrupt and compromising numerous times. She shares the platform with the BJP’s president, Amit Shah, a man who has cases pending against him from when he was the deputy home minister of Gujarat. Shah was banned from entering his home state for two years by the Supreme Court for his murky political activities.

How will Bedi justify her political turn?  How will Kejriwal justify his politics? Is financial misappropriation the only definition of corruption? What will the country call the abandoning of the once-noble cause of anti-corruption?

It is worse than corruption: it is a betrayal.

India will not forgive the betrayer.

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