Anna Hazare's anticorruption fast forces legitimacy crisis for India's government

Anticorruption activist Anna Hazare’s apparent willingness to fast indefinitely, puts a literal deadline on the issue of corruption in India and pressure on India's government to act.

Ten days into his anticorruption fast, activist Anna Hazare is demonstrating the power of a tactic made famous by the country's non-violence icon, Mahatma Gandhi.

Talks between Mr. Hazare’s team and the government broke down Wednesday night. Under normal circumstances, delay would help the government given the usual tendency for street protests to die out. Successive Indian governments have avoided passing Lokpal (ombudsman) anticorruption bills for four decades now.

But Hazare’s fast puts a literal deadline on the issue. As long as Hazare is willing to die, his declining health will force the government to arrest and feed him or – worse – be blamed for his death. Either way, the Indian government would face a legitimacy crisis given Hazare’s mass support.

Most protest fasts are not this powerful. One protester against a draconian police law in northeastern India has been “fasting” for 10 years as the government has been force-feeding her. Another protester died while fasting to fight pollution in the holy river Ganges before receiving much notice.

The right stuff for a movement

“There are three factors in a democracy to get mobilization: Money, membership, and legitimacy," and Hazare’s movement has all three, says Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research at Sweden’s Uppsala University. “That is what has made it, with the combination of Anna’s charisma.”

Most Indians are upset with corruption, so the movement has legitimacy.

The leadership also includes the right membership for mass appeal. Another anticorruption crusader Baba Ramdev failed to draw widespread support because of his circle’s links to right-wing Hindu groups. Hazare’s lieutenants, by contrast, are mostly nonpolitical leaders who have developed followings after years of activism and social work.

And as for money, says Professor Swain, the movement’s middle class following ensures funding.

'He has made his point.'

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government appears flustered by the tens of thousands of protesters and the pressure tactic of the fast.

“He has made his point. It has been registered with us,” Mr. Singh said before Parliament today. “I applaud you, I salute you, and his life is much too precious. And therefore I would urge Sri Anna Hazare to end his fast.”

However, the two sides have reached an impasse. The government wants to introduce a new compromise bill through the entire legislative process. Hazare’s team wants to reach a compromise on a bill that’s already made its way before Parliament’s standing committee, the penultimate step before passage. The government’s approach would leave a lot more leeway for amendments and probably delay passage until the next session of Parliament.

In contrast with Singh’s emotional outreach, officials at other points have shown frustration with the fast, calling it “blackmail.” The government’s chief negotiator denied allegations last night from Hazare’s team that he told them Hazare’s health was their problem and not a government concern.

Arrest Hazare or give in to demands?

Tensions rose last night as Hazare’s team warned the crowd at Ramlila that they had warnings the police may come to arrest Hazare.

“If they take me away from here, then there should be no violence,” Hazare told the crowds. Yet reports say the crowds at times formed human chains and even laid down to prevent an ambulance from entering, fearing it was going to whisk Hazare away. Police may have to aggressively move against these crowds if the government wants to force-feed him.

The doctors attending to Hazare have recommended that he be put on a drip, but have so far respected his refusals. The World Medical Association has declared “forcible feeding is never ethically acceptable.”

However, Indian law has a different take, as suicide is illegal. Hazare’s team has been vague on how long he is willing to fast, calling it “indefinite” not a “fast unto death.” Swain suspects the distinction is to skirt the legal prohibition against suicide.

In speeches Monday, Hazare spoke of being ready to die for the cause.

“I would prefer to be beheaded than give up my freedom,” he told the crowds. He spoke of how death can come in one’s sleep. “Instead of getting this kind of death, why not give up my life for the good of the country?”

On Wednesday, he said: “I will not die till the government accepts all my demands.”

A protester named Parag Garg thinks Hazare is prepared to fast to death. "He doesn't have a family and he only has the nation."

He and many other protesters expect the government to give in to Hazare's demands.

"They will cave in, they cannot arrest so many people," says Ashish Malhotra, a jeweler, among a chanting crowd taking over a New Delhi street near Singh's house. "I don't think they would dare [arrest Hazare] because looking at this [energy] it's scary – I don't want to think about that."

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