Hazare is no Gandhi
Until about a year ago, the number of Indians who knew the name of Kisan Baburao Hazare, popularly known as Anna Hazare, ran into a few thousand -- small change in a country of a billion people. The former army driver was known for his peculiar experiments of social reform in a village in Maharashtra, in western India. He had received national awards for his social work.
By the end of August 16, his following rose to tens of thousands, perhaps even millions. Early on the 16th he was detained by police officers acting on a magistrate's order, as he was set to start a fast, demanding that the government pass a law to create an anti-corruption ombudsman, known as Jan Lok Pal. The government feared breach of peace, but after protests grew nationwide, decided to release him.
Hazare, however, refused to leave the jail, insisting that a version of the bill he and his supporters want, must be tabled before Parliament. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh politely reminded Hazare and his supporters that making laws is the responsibility of elected representatives, and outsiders, however well-meaning, can lobby, but cannot dictate terms. But Hazare, at the time of writing, is not in a mood to listen, and has begun a fast in jail.
Over the past year, his followers have grown manifold, including social activists, middle-class professionals, business tycoons, priests, (and even though he tries to claim political neutrality, many Hindu nationalists). Claiming inspiration from Mohandas Gandhi, India's founding father, Hazare has adopted Gandhi's ultimate weapon, a fast, against a government he is portraying as unresponsive. For the current generation of 20- or 30-something working Indians -- only dimly aware of Gandhi through the symbols and Richard Attenborough's film -- it is exciting to see an activist who, like Gandhi, is willing to sacrifice his life for a larger national cause.
This unlikely coalition of forces supporting him, and the momentum that has brought him to India's centre-stage, have come about for three reasons. One, Indians are angry about the level of corruption, and are looking for an immediate, and if possible quick-fix solution; two, the regard for elected politicians is so low that they cannot command credibility when they talk about going through proper processes; and three, there is a touching, almost naïve belief among most of his followers that a law passed quickly will somehow cleanse India of the stain of corruption.
But laws passed out of anger and frustration often make bad laws. While a law to create a national ombudsman was promised four decades ago, and the defence for not introducing such a law by successive governments is wearing thin, what the activists propose is hardly democratic. (They initially wanted a committee of wise people, the so-called great-and-good, qualified, well-meaning people, to write a law, in effect bypassing the elected representatives).
The outrage over corruption is palpable. Two recent scandals -- both spectacular, running into billions of rupees -- have galvanised the movement. One, the way contracts were handed out for construction of infrastructure projects for the Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi last year; and two, the manner in which licences for the next generation of mobile telephony were issued in 2008. Did the Indian state sell its silver -- the licences -- for a song, in return of consideration for certain politicians?
The outrage is understandable, but then criminal investigations and trials are going on, and several key politicians and businessmen are either in police custody, facing charges, and trials. However ponderously, the system has shown that it can work, even without the Jan Lok Pal Bill. The government has begun working on a new draft of the law to create just such an office.
There is a deeper problem with the middle class frustration -- part of it is self-serving. While the cases of grand corruption are important, Indians face millions of instances of daily, petty corruption. The municipal officer demands a bribe from a hawker; the bureaucrat refuses to register a land title or a marriage; the traffic cop beats the rickshaw-driver who can't afford to pay his weekly hafta. These inconveniences at best and affronts to dignity at worst affect many more ordinary people. To expect a single Jan Lok Pal to look into each such instance is unrealistic. Those cases haven't figured in the campaign much. The focus has been on politicians, reflecting India's desperate desire to have a hero who can clean the system. As Bertolt Brecht wrote in his play Galileo, when Andrea said, "pity the nation without a hero," Galileo responded, "pity the nation in need of a hero."
Gandhi showed there is a simpler way to deal with injustice: Be the change you wish to be. Indians have to involve themselves politically, by voting, by standing for elections, by arguing their case, and reform the system, and not by expecting an anti-corruption czar to wield a broomstick (or, given modern times, a vacuum cleaner).
Economists have noted that the way forward to reduce corruption has to be to decrease the discretionary power in the hands of bureaucrats and politicians, while streamlining and clarifying the laws that empower them. But that's too slow and un-dramatic for many Indians.
And remember, Hazare is no angel: Hazare wants to eradicate the consumption of alcohol in the village where he has worked, and when people have defied that, his followers have meted out corporal punishment. His views on women are patronising and chauvinist, and his methods frequently un-Gandhian. While claiming to be non-partisan, he has become a political player, with politicians from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party backing him strategically, and some of his statements are foolish and xenophobic, such as claiming that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh doesn't understand India because he was educated abroad. (Some of Hazare's followers have more extreme suggestions. On the Internet chat boards, some have sought a China-like death penalty for corrupt officials.)
Some of the enthusiasm is because many Indians want their Tahrir Square moment -- they want their own revolution, even if it is against an elected government, and even when the people possess the means of removing that government in elections (and, if they don't like any of their parties, form their own parties and run for office). Those rights were denied in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where people had no alternative but to go to the streets. Indians have political options, and yet seem to want to prefer an unaccountable official to hold elected officials accountable. Ironies multiply.
Disdain for elected representatives is not unusual for India's middle-class, whose own turnout during elections tends to be low. Demonstrations have their place in democracies, of course, but up to a point, as the architect of the Indian Constitution, Bhimrao Ambedkar wrote: "If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? [First] … is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. 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 for these unconstitutional methods."
Those are tough words, but which India -- and Bangladesh, with the prevalence of hartals -- should reflect upon.