In India, Anna Hazare again drawing crowds against corruption

Thousands are once again assembling around anti-graft campaigner Anna Hazare in New Delhi, setting up another major distraction for India's beleaguered government.

Adnan Abidi/Reuters
Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare cries while gesturing to his supporters on the first day of his fast against corruption in New Delhi, July 29. Mr. Hazare began his fast on Sunday to demand a bill, the Lokpal, for creating an autonomous, powerful anticorruption agency.

On Sunday, thousands of people across New Delhi showed their support for social activist Anna Hazare, as he starts an indefinite hunger strike against corruption until the government agrees to his demands for a stringent antigraft bill known as the Jan Lokpal.

Mr. Hazare, whose 12-day fast in August last year forced the government to create a less-stringent Lokpal bill to set up a government ombudsman, told cheering crowds: "The politicians are servants and we people are the owners, but the picture today is that people have become the servant and the politicians are the owner. This movement is to awaken the people.”

As Hazare reassembles his street power, his movement threatens to dominate Indian media attention once again, forcing the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) into a defensive position again over corruption at a time when it desperately wants to pass investor-friendly reforms to reignite growth.

US-based companies like Wal-Mart have been trying to enter India for years but have been blocked by the UPA's failure to win looser restrictions on foreign direct investment for big-box retail stores. Other potential investors like Indian steel magnate Laskshmi Mittal have said they have no immediate plans to invest in India, after recent attempts to build steel plants faced local opposition and pushback over land acquisition. Efforts to reform land acquisition remain stuck in Parliament.  

“Since the Anna Hazare movement started last April [2011] things have gone from bad to worse for the UPA government,” says Yashwant Deshmunk, a Delhi-based political analyst and elections expert. “But the question, is can this movement be channeled into an anti-Congress wave? By and large I don’t see opposition movement gaining ground.”

Adviser to the government Satyanarayan Pitroda says there is corruption but believes it’s the media’s coverage of events like the Hazare movement that trumps the progress actually being made by the current government.

“There is a lot of media coverage of the Hazare movement, but the media hardly gives coverage to the more significant things happening in the country,” says Mr. Pitroda, who played a key role in India’s communication revolution. “Even though the media will blow this out of proportion, it will not stop exports or slow legislation in India.”

Mr. Deshmunk agrees the Hazare movement is not likely to stop legislation but says the agitation will make people across India even more polarized to the political class.

“The depth of the movement cannot be seen by the number of people on TV,” says Deshmunk. “The movement has moved from the middle class to the poor – the message has been spread that the government has no plans to check corruption. It’s not going to be easy to set aside. This government has lost the mandate and trust of the people but this has not led to another opponent.”

Though Hazare has criticized both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), saying the country's future is not safe in their hands, he has not offered another option. He says there’s a need for a political alternative in the 2014 elections, and will campaign for those with clean backgrounds selected by the people but has no plans to contest elections to form a party.

Pitroda is optimistic the country will continue moving forward and that campaigns like Hazare’s are the challenge of a growing democracy.

“The elections are still a long way off,” says Pitroda. “This is a democracy. The people will have to decide who is for real and who is not.”

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