For months now, there have been comparisons between civil society leader Anna Hazare and political reformer Jayaprakash Narayan, the only person to unsettle the seemingly invincible Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. Indeed, the 24 hour news cycle here has provided space for speculation that Hazare’s movement could leave the United Progressive Alliance government facing a similar challenge to that faced by Gandhi in the 1977 election.
It’s true that Hazare has managed to capture the imagination of a substantial section of the Indian population, which is frustrated with the corruption and choking red tape faced by the public every day, a frustration compounded by a series of corruption scams involving officials.
Still, drawing parallels between Hazare and Narayan is a misreading of both movements, for several reasons.
First, while Team Anna has stated that its main aim is the introduction of the Lokpal (Ombudsman) Bill to strengthen the fight against corruption, its support of questionable anti-Congress Party candidates like Kuldeep Bishnoi has left Hazare’s movement in a bind. Narayan, in contrast, joined the electoral fray more directly, taking on the might of the government head on.
Second, Narayan's movement also comprised prominent forces from the left and right of the highest integrity, who joined hands to defeat the Congress. Unfortunately, some of the company that Team Anna has chosen to keep is, at best, questionable. For example, one of the more vocal members of the team, former Indian Police Service officer Kiran Bedi, has been hit by claims that her NGO office claimed hugely inflated travel expenses for her attendance at seminars. And, although many will argue that what Bedi did wasn’t particularly serious, it surely raises questions about the high standards Hazare has proclaimed are essential for officials. The Indian Express made this point well in an editorial, arguing: 'Team Anna should square with itself and then start identifying what constitutes corruption, deception, and what is simply human resourcefulness, or finding a way to live with rigid and unrealistic rules.’
Third, India's political fabric has matured over the past few decades, a point underscored by how sensitive Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been to Team Anna's demands (a flexibility helped by the fact that Singh is probably one of the few Indian premiers in living memory who can cope with criticism).
Finally, the Indian media of 2011 is very different to that of 1977. Today’s media is much freer (some might say frustratingly free sometimes in light of its sensationalizing of the Hazare protests and its insistence on likening them to the Arab Spring).
While Anna Hazare certainly deserves credit for making corruption a national issue, he will need to rethink his definition of corruption and his expectations of what exactly he wants changing. Otherwise, he will be left with the choice of being a hypocrite, or operating with a much smaller team.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.