India's anticorruption hero Anna Hazare leaves jail, rallies supporters (video)

The Indian activist who has been leading protests for tougher anticorruption measures left jail today to begin a public hunger strike.

Adnan Abidi/Reuters
Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare waves from a vehicle after he leaves Tihar jail in New Delhi Friday. A vast and jubilant crowd cheered as the Gandhian activist walked out of the jail to carry on a hunger strike in public, the latest act in a drama of popular fury over corruption that has put India's government in a bind.

Boys climbed trees for a view. Vendors handed out sweets for free. Students cut classes to see history. And when their anticorruption hero Anna Hazare emerged from jail today, cheers went up by the thousands.

Mr. Hazare, the Indian activist who was arrested Tuesday for defying protest restrictions, addressed the crowd. The loudspeaker failed, then the skies dumped monsoon showers. But it didn’t really matter. Most have already absorbed his message: No one should be above account from a corruption watchdog bill.

Under a deal struck with police, Hazare left the prison and set up a public fast at Ramlila fairgrounds in the center of the city. The grounds can hold tens of thousands of people. Several thousands showed up Friday afternoon, braving rain that turned much of the area in to massive puddles and streams of mud.

“What I like about [Hazare’s bill] is anybody who is corrupt can be complained against, from the prime minister down,” says Kusum Nayar, a local woman. “It is better for the common man.”

Hazare’s movement appears to be cutting across many of the traditional divisions of class, caste, and party by picking a fight against politicians on behalf of everyone else – the aam admi, or common man. Beyond frustration with corruption, Hazare has tapped into a deep vein of frustration with the quality of Indian office-holders and the privileges they enjoy.

“Our leaders are mostly corrupt,” says Ms. Nayar, who nevertheless has voted all her life. “Educated and honest people are not getting into politics, so we don’t have an option” at the polls.

[ Video is no longer available. ]

A string of top ministers have been implicated in major corruption scandals adding up to an Indian Watergate moment.

The government has introduced an alternate anticorruption bill that would exempt the prime minister, parliament, the judiciary, as well as low-level bureaucrats. Hazare’s own bill, known as the Jan Lokpal, would cover every level of officialdom.

That’s led to a similar post-Watergate sentiment that no one should be above the law, but it’s often the low-level official who are the face of corruption for the demonstrators.

A farmer named Virendra Pratap traveled eight hours by train to support Hazare. He explains how farmers get cheated by government officials who are supposed to distribute seed and fertilizer to them at subsidized prices. In times of high demand, the officials will sell the supplies to the black market instead, making big money and forcing farmers to pay high prices.

Complaints to police do no good because they want 500 rupees ($11) and a letter from a state politician before agreeing to lodge a case.

“I feel the whole government setup is under a cloud, like the weather now – you can’t see the sky,” says the barefoot Mr. Pratap, pointing upward. “I feel [Hazare’s bill] is a bill where we can get transparency in the system.”

If Hazare can sustain the crowds he has gathered in recent days, the government will be under extreme pressure to adopt at least some of the measures of his Jan Lokpal bill. The government and even some anticorruption activists argue that Hazare’s bill would create an overly powerful body.

“We will not leave this ground until the Jan Lokpal bill is brought” before Parliament, said Hazare.

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