India's "revolutionary" anti-graft movement splits

Mon Sep 24, 2012 2:01pm IST

Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare waves to his supporters during his public hunger strike in New Delhi August 2, 2012. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare waves to his supporters during his public hunger strike in New Delhi August 2, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

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(TrustLaw) - It was seen as a revolutionary anti-graft movement, which last year not only drew tens of thousands of Indians united against corruption onto the streets, but also stopped parliamentary proceedings and dominated the headlines for days on end.

But 18 months on, India Against Corruption (IAC) - a popular movement led by a group of the country's prominent social activists - have announced they are splitting due to the decision by some members to move from activism into politics.

The face of the campaign, 75-year-old Anna Hazare - who by far drew the biggest crowds - styling himself on Mahatma Gandhi whose non-violent protests won India freedom from British colonial rule 65 years ago - said this week that he would not become a politician.

"There is nothing wrong with fielding a political party, but I will not be part of it," Hazare was quoted in the Indian Express as saying.

"It has my blessings and we work towards the common goal of eradicating corruption. If they get a majority, it is a good thing, but they cannot use my photo or my name ... The paths have been separated."

But other leaders such as the young, more radical Arvind Kejriwal - one of the architects behind India's landmark Right to Information Act - says 76 percent of more than 700,000 people surveyed are in favour of IAC forming a political party and he plans to press ahead with it, with an eye on general polls due before May 2014.

UNITED AGAINST GRAFT

The IAC movement, launched in December 2010, marked the first time in India that both the poor and the middle classes were united against corruption in such large numbers.

Fed up with the numerous multi-billion dollar scams uncovered in government, and the constant need to pay bribes for free public services, thousands took to the streets in August 2011, as Hazare, Kejriwal and other activists such as former top cop Kiran Bedi - the first woman to join the Indian police service - held a series of hunger strikes and protests in New Delhi and elsewhere. Hazare was described by some foreign journalists as India's modern-day Gandhi - complete with a white cotton cap and a benevolent smile - similar to the man revered by many around the world. Gandhi spearheaded a peaceful movement of non-cooperation and passive resistance which inspired millions of Indians to refuse to comply with colonial law, eventually forcing Britain to leave India after around 300 years of occupation.

What did they want? They wanted a new law passed by parliament that would establish an independent ombudsman who would investigate all public graft cases known as the Lokpal. They said they would not relent until the legislation was passed into law, trying to hold the government to ransom through their fasting.

Television news stations lapped it all up - broadcasting minute-by-minute coverage, with everything from speeches of activists, sympathetic politicians and Bollywood celebrities who rallied to the central Delhi ground where people gathered in front of a podium, as a weakening Hazare lay with a team of doctors by his side.

Commentators say the media helped create the movement, reporting around the clock from what their reporters referred to as "Ground Zero", updating people on the elderly man's blood pressure and weight loss every few hours for days.

The government reacted badly, initially arresting Hazare and his colleagues before the hunger strikes, and then trying to stop the fast and protests, popularising the movement further.

Finally bowing to Hazare's demands, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government introduced the Lokpal bill in the lower house of parliament. But the upper house has not yet passed the law, and Hazare's supporters accuse the government of dragging its feet.

FIZZLED OUT

This year, IAC again tried a similar tactic of using mass protests and fasting - to get the bill passed through the upper house.

But this time, local media did not cover the news around the clock and those who turned up in support, while in their thousands, were nothing like the scale of the previous year.

Singh's government also seemed to have learned a lesson and did not try to quell the protests, choosing to largely ignore it. As a result, there was less media coverage.

"Last year, when lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of people wearing 'I am Anna' caps and waving the Indian flag jammed the streets of New Delhi, sections of the media hailed IAC as the 'second freedom struggle'," wrote Amita Baviskar, sociologist at Delhi's Institute of Economic Growth, in Friday's Indian Express Op-Ed page.

"Today, the masses are missing and the tidal wave of media approval has receded as swiftly as it rose," she added. "Post mortem reports of the IAC campaign tend to blame three chief factors: the disarray among the campaign's leadership, the stalemate manoeuvred by the government, and the fickleness of media support."

IAC, in the end, realised that their strategy had to change and that the old fashioned Indian way of protest -- fasting (critics called it emotional blackmail) -- was perhaps not the modern day solution to get what they want.

Hence, IAC's new foray into politics.

Despite describing the split as "shocking, unbelievable, unfortunate and sad", Kejiriwal says he respects Hazare's decision and will continue to seek his blessings as he moves to form a political party.

But without the face of the movement, Hazare (who has said that he prefers to continue his work as a civil society activist rather than as a politician), will IAC's transformation into a political party be enough to win mass support?

(TrustLaw is a global hub for free legal assistance and news and information on good governance and women's rights run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. For more stories, visit www.trust.org/trustlaw)

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