Hunger Strike Inflames India

A 74-year-old's impending fast is sparking massive anti-corruption protests. Salil Tripathi on the country’s history of fruitless wars on graft—and why this time may be no different.

08.18.11 4:21 PM ET

Not only is India the world’s most populous democracy, it is also one of its messiest. It holds periodic elections, but nearly one fifth of the elected representatives it sends to Parliament have some criminal record. Its Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but journalists in India often get physically attacked for what they write. Its laws permit peaceful demonstrations, but the police can impose restrictions and even prevent demonstrations from taking place if the demonstrators—in their opinion—are likely to breach peace.

The police in New Delhi did just that on Tuesday morning, when, armed with an order from a magistrate, they took away Kisan Baburao Hazare, popularly known as Anna Hazare, a septuagenarian social reformer who has become the icon of India’s latest anti-corruption movement. The activist was planning to go on a fast, demanding a new law to appoint an anti-corruption watchdog.

If the government thought that would prevent escalating the crisis, it miscalculated badly. Hazare is leading an unlikely coalition including activists, former bureaucrats, business tycoons, and middle-class professionals determined to root out corruption.

Now corruption is one of those vices that everyone claims to be against, and to be sure, corruption is pervasive in India. But neither is it simple to fix, nor is it the single most important crisis that India faces. And there has always been corruption—and earnest, fatalistic declarations from leaders saying how difficult it was to end it. In the 1970s, former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called corruption “a global phenomenon”; last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he did not have a magic wand to end corruption. 

But Indians want a magic wand, and many seem to believe that the solution Hazare and his supporters offer—of an ombudsman—can do the trick. Critics of the proposal say the new office is likely to create a bigger bureaucracy that will be both unaccountable and unlikely to solve the problem. By creating an extra-constitutional authority, it would delegitimize Parliament, they say. (Some of Hazare’s supporters counter that Parliament is in such contempt that they no longer consider it legitimate).

Indeed, many Indians backing Hazare are not in a mood to listen to nuanced arguments, and nearly 1,400 people courted arrest on Tuesday alone. Protest marches were held in several Indian cities. Realizing the public-relations disaster it had already created, the government decided to release Hazare, only to find that he did not want to leave jail. He insisted that the version of legislation he had proposed should be put before Parliament, and that he be allowed to continue his protest fast at a place of his choosing. Earlier this year, another anti-corruption activist—a yoga instructor called Ramdev—had brought the capital to a standstill, as tens of thousands of people began to assemble in support. Mindful of that, this time the government said it would permit the protest, but only under certain conditions. Hazare, however, said he wouldn’t abide by those conditions, and the clamor supporting him only grew louder: India had its full-fledged public spectacle, or a tamasha, as such spectacles are known in India.

By Friday morning up to 25,000 protesters are expected at Ram Lila Grounds, a large site popular for public demonstrations, and Hazare and his key associates will begin a 15-day protest there. Hazare’s supporters are calling the movement India’s second freedom struggle. (In 2004, Hazare called another campaign, this one for the Right to Information Act, India’s second freedom struggle. Arithmetic is probably not their strong point). Hazare calls his tactics Gandhian, which is peculiar, since while the fast is arguably Gandhian, many of Hazare’s views aren’t. For example, in interviews he has called for punishments like amputation and public hanging for those found guilty of corruption, something that would appall Gandhi. In the village where Hazare has worked for more than three decades in the western state of Maharashtra, one of his campaigns is against alcoholism. One way he ensures compliance is through public lashing of people who defy the ban.

That said, the anger in India against corruption is justified. Doing business in India remains mired in bureaucracy, and each delaying tactic creates rent-seeking opportunity for bureaucrats at many levels. The World Bank ranks India 134th out of 183 countries it surveyed for the ease of doing business, and Transparency International puts India 87th among 178 countries in its corruption-perception index. People are most incensed about two major scandals, involving the issuing of licenses for the next generation of mobile telephones in 2008 and the way contracts were awarded for the Commonwealth Games in India in 2010. While the scandals are huge, several implicated politicians and businessmen are in custody facing charges of corruption, and if found guilty will spend a long time in jail. The system is slow in India, but it works. (Or, as former U.S. Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith put it, it is an anarchy, but it functions). 

There is another type of corruption, which corrodes the nation’s fiber, affecting the poor—police constables seeking bribes from hawkers, officials refusing to register land titles or authenticate marriage documents, sales-tax officials shaking down small businesses. It is impossible for a single ombudsman to end all those problems quickly. But in the divisive atmosphere, anyone questioning aspects of the legislation is dismissed, described as favoring corruption.

Finally, there is an existential angst. Long resting on the laurels of being a large democracy, middle-class Indians are feeling left out of the drama of the Arab Spring. They want their Tahrir Square moment; they want to stand with candles campaigning against something (or for something else). Hazare’s campaign offers them the opportunity, and India’s hypercompetitive broadcast media are milking the tamasha for all its worth.

To be fair, the government has introduced legislation that meets most of the activists’ demands—except a couple of crucial aspects, such as including the office of the prime minister within the purview of the ombudsman. Discussions between the two parties have been held across negotiating tables, the conversations inside the room often civil. The government is surprised when the activists portray ministers as negotiating in bad faith; the activists, on a moral high ground, can’t understand why the government can’t simply accept their demands that are ostensibly for such a good cause. Who could be against removing corruption?

What complicates the situation is the threat of a hunger strike to force the government’s hand. Even worse is the way the government has responded—by jailing its critics and making them heroes. It might seem that India is in a downward spiral. But this is India; Indians love drama, and if the past is a predictor, soon there will be a photo opportunity, and everyone will declare a victory. Don’t expect corruption to end anytime soon, though.