Indian Decade

Anna Hazare Going Too Far?

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Indian Decade

Anna Hazare Going Too Far?

Activist Anna Hazare has certainly caught the popular mood in India. But is the movement really democratic?

Is this India’s version of the Arab Spring – a Monsoon Revolution? If social media and global TV coverage encouraged and sustained uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, then they could do the same in India. While the revolutions earlier this year were aimed at autocratic, repressive and undemocratic government, India’s current discontent is directed toward an elected government that refuses to recognize its people’s frustration with corruption and sleaze in public life.

Instead of coming clean over its failings, the government arrested the main anti-corruption crusader, Anna Hazare, a man who has become a symbol of the fight against corruption in public life here. Hazare, who pledged to ‘fast unto death’ earlier this year over corruption, has made a similar pledge now over the government’s failure to include tough provisions his team suggested in the draft anti-corruption ombudsman bill that has been  introduced in the parliament. The government, for its part, argues that it’s the parliament’s responsibility to discuss and pass the bill, and that civil society groups can’t override parliament’s prerogative.

Back in April, civil society representatives managed to pressure the government into including them in talks on formulating a strong anti-corruption bill, but Hazare and his followers have become disillusioned over the government’s rejection of most of their demands. Hazare says that the government betrayed him, and he pledged to go on an indefinite fast until Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to all his demands.

But while Hazare’s earlier stand earned him almost universal support, a few voices are now questioning whether the veteran activist is going too far in challenging parliament’s authority.

The latest flashpoint came on August 16, when police arrested the crusader fearing significant disorder if he was allowed to go ahead with his very public fast. But his detention inflamed not only the supporters of civil society groups, but even those originally opposed to the activist’s rigid stance. (The government has since backed down and granted permission for a 15-day fast).

The 24/7 media has played a major part in mobilizing support for Hazare, but sometimes lost in the din have been the voices of those who feel differently about the whole campaign. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of New Delhi-based think tank the Centre for Policy Research, says that the Hazare movement is propagating a ‘tyranny of virtue. It has elided the distinction between protest and fast-unto-death. The former is legitimate. The latter is blackmail…and they are violating the norms of reciprocity.’

Others have questioned whether the Hazare movement is really as spontaneous as its leaders would like the public to think, or whether it is more manufactured. Poornima Joshi writes that Hazare’s support base has two steel  frames – Ford  Foundation-funded  NGOs and RSS-backed activists.’

RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) is an organization for Hindu rights that is opposed to the secular principles of the country. It is also the parent organization of the main opposition Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).

So, is the anti-corruption movement masking the bigger political game being played? Joshi concludes her report by saying that: ‘Anna and his band of supporters look singularly incapable of even recognizing, let alone resisting, the spread of communal fascism on the anti-corruption bandwagon.’

The Arab Spring was aimed at uprooting despots and restoring real democracy. The Monsoon Movement in India, in contrast, seems to be less about democracy, and more about undermining established institutions in the name of a genuine cause.