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Anna Hazare: India's anticorruption activist wins right to fast in public

Anna Hazare defied an initial ruling restricting him to a three-day protest and is now allowed 15 days. But critics argue he and his supporters should press their demands through the ballot box.

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“How is it that this government has lost all sense of statecraft – of how political agitations are to be dealt with?” said Mr. Jaitley. “You may not agree with what [critics] have to say, but how can you take away, snatch away, their right to say it?”

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For Professor Mukhia, the moment revealed Singh’s blind spot to power that lies outside state institutions.

“He’s never been a political person, he’s always been a technocrat,” says Mukhia. “He doesn’t have the political instincts” of people like Sonia Gandhi, the ruling party president. Ms. Gandhi, who chose Singh as prime minister and wields power behind-the-scenes, is convalescing abroad.

Has the middle class lost faith in elections?

Still, some observers have been perturbed by the way Hazare’s supporters discount the legitimacy of the ballot box. Indian elections often see turnout of 60 percent or higher. By most accounts, the election watchdog agency remains strong and independent. Voters recently succeeded in ejecting the ruling coalition of the state government in Tamil Nadu for corruption – something Hazare’s supporters could try instead of protests.

“I’m a little worried with people losing faith in elected institutions. The answer would be to boycott the next elections,” says one academic, whose current government position means he cannot be named.

The poor vote in droves while the smaller middle class – which forms the backbone of Hazare’s street support – often don’t show up. Many in the middle class are disillusioned with the idea of bringing change through voting because of perceptions that people’s votes are bought or banked along caste lines.

“Eighty to 85 percent don’t even know if the person they voted for is in power or not,” says Anand Kumar, a chef at a five-star hotel in Delhi who turned out for protests this week.

A push to deepen Indian democracy

Protest leaders point out that they are trying to work with the government, which has been entangled in a string of high-level corruption scandals. Singh agreed in April to bring them into the bill-drafting process. But their recommendations were subsequently dropped – leaving Hazare’s activists without input and, they say, with little choice but to protest.

“I don’t think this is a democratic government,” says P.V. Rajagopal, an activist on Hazare’s core committee. “We have elections every five years, … there is a debate in Parliament, there is an opposition party – and I’m proud of it. But in 65 years, we haven’t tried to deepen democracy in India.

“We need to move from a crude democracy to a participatory democracy, where elected people are accountable to the people,” he says.

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