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.

Gurinder Osan/AP
Supporters of anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, one raising his portrait, shout slogans outside Tihar prison where Hazare is presently lodged in New Delhi, India, Aug. 18. The renowned Indian anti-corruption crusader struck a deal with police Thursday to hold a 15-day public hunger strike against graft, ending a standoff at a New Delhi prison in which he turned his brief detention into a sit-in protest.

Under pressure by growing crowds of protesters, the Indian government struck a deal Thursday with anticorruption campaigner Anna Hazare that allows him to publicly fast in New Delhi for 15 days.

Police initially tried to restrict Mr. Hazare to a three-day demonstration at a small venue. Mr. Hazare defied the restrictions and was brought to Tihar jail. He then refused to leave until many of the original protest restrictions were eased.

With the protest over the right to protest out of the way, the agitation now moves to the main event: Hazare’s hunger strike. By refusing food, Hazare aims to pressure the government to adopt a stronger anticorruption bill than the one currently before Parliament.

Government supporters have called the fast a form of “blackmail” and a subversion of representative democracy. But this has largely failed to convince the public, due to the historical respect here for civil disobedience, anger over a string of corruption scandals, and a percolating discontent with the current democratic setup.

“There are two sources of power. One is the state, the other is the renouncer [who] has moral power,” says historian Harbans Mukhia. “History is a conflict between these two kinds of powers.”

Debate over legitimacy of civil disobedience

India owes its independence to Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent tactics – including hunger strikes – against British state power. However, the drafter of the country's constitution, B.R. Ambedkar, argued in 1949 against civil disobedience in independent, democratic India.

“When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification,” wrote Ambedkar. “These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy.”

This foundational debate was reprised in Wednesday’s remarkable session of Parliament. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh argued that all sides favor anticorruption legislation but differ on the details. In parliamentary democracy, he argued, those details should be hammered out by elected members of parliament – not street protesters.

“Those who believe that their voice and their voice alone represents the will of 1.2 billion people should reflect deeply on that position. They must allow the elected representatives of the people in Parliament to do the job that they were elected for,” said Mr. Singh.

But following the arrest of 2,600 of Hazare’s supports in New Delhi, senior opposition leader Arun Jaitley appeared to capture the mood with his response.

“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?”

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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