HONG KONG – India’s government survived a challenge last month from an unexpected source, a frail 74-year-old former army driver with no formal political power base, who nevertheless brought the powerful politicians to their knees with his campaign against corruption.
The struggle raises troubling questions, mostly for India, but some with wider implications for the world, especially concerning the efficiency and efficacy and uses and abuses of democracy.
The sight of a frail elderly man dressed in simple, though immaculately laundered, homespun clothes wearing a white Gandhi cap holding a protest fast in a field in the center of Delhi against government corruption evoked memories of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the great Mahatma, and his epic struggle against the colonial British rulers of India.
It was supposed to: Supporters of 74-year old Kisan Baburao Hazare (known as Anna, an affectionate term for elder brother in his Marathi language) presented him as a latter-day Gandhi protesting against a corrupt and incompetent government — to the death if necessary. It was not necessary, since after 12 days and a weight loss of seven kilograms, the government gave in.
A cartoon in a Hindi newspaper showed the original Gandhi looking down from Heaven on the assorted throng of politicians and supporters of Hazare and muttering, “Thank goodness I only had the simple British to deal with.”
Gandhi’s struggle was clear-cut: a decades long protest against alien rule and its cruelties, punctuated by protest marches, periods of imprisonment and shorter spells of abortive negotiations in India and in London with the imperial power, plus numerous fasts.
But Gandhi’s fasts were usually on a narrow issue and he preferred to be alone and out of the public limelight.
Hazare’s fast was a tamasha (show), in which thousands of supporters marched and disrupted Delhi life, and thousands of police were on nervous standby. Given Hazare’s frail health many outsiders feared what might happen if he died or was taken to hospital in a critical condition.
Shravan Garg, group editor of Dainik Bhaskar, India’s largest newspaper, said, “It would have been difficult to control the mob, if anything had happened to Hazare.”
Fears were exacerbated because Hazare has a history of taking an all-or-nothing approach. Although he claims to follow Gandhi’s nonviolence, in the Maharashtra village he developed, he showed a ruthless streak, flogging people caught drunk and claiming that “rural India is a harsh society.” He also advocated the death penalty for corrupt officials.
Hazare won public sympathy because corruption is ubiquitous in India, from routine dealings with police and minor officials to big deals involving public funds. Assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma) said that only 15 percent of every rupee of government welfare spending actually reached the poor; the rest was siphoned off in corruption.
Public outrage erupted after a series of high-profile cases, including the sale of 2G telecom licenses, where failure to set proper prices cost the government an estimated $39 billion, and controversy over the over priced 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games.
Prime minister Manmohan Singh pointed out that Parliament and government had been elected, but no one had elected Hazare. It would be easier to sympathize with Singh if he had seized the moment. But the government dithered, gave the police the go-ahead to arrest Hazare to prevent his fasting, then caved in and allowed Hazare triumphantly out of jail to fast on his terms surrounded by chanting supporters, who were not fasting.
The tamasha continued with to-ing and fro-ing between senior ministers and Hazare’s entourage over the conditions under which he would end his hunger strike, as the protester tried to dictate the clauses of an anti-corruption bill that the government had delayed in presenting to Parliament. Some of Hazare’s demands were unworkable and others an intrusion on the authority of Parliament to write the laws, and most would hardly affect rampant corruption.
There are larger and dangerous forces at work, not least the unpredictable drama in the heart of the capital of India, egged on by 24/7 coverage on a multitude of television channels, each breathlessly chasing every rumor in Hindi, English and regional languages. This was democracy reduced to a live game show.
Indian democracy is trumpeted, correctly, as the biggest and liveliest in the world. Indian voters have shown that they are prepared to give a bloody nose to even the mightiest politicians, notably their crushing defeat of Indira Gandhi when virtual empress of India in 1977. But freedom to vote for one out of a list of doubtful candidates once every four or five years is a poor expression of democracy. This is especially so when almost a quarter of Indian members of Parliament, and many members of state assemblies, face serious criminal charges, including arson, rape and murder.
There is a crying need in India — as in all the developed countries of the West and Japan — to discover a continuing expression of democracy that supports elections. Parliaments all too often are playing in the game show rather than acting as a watchdog over government competence and incompetence. The media, sadly, often acts as emcee for the show.
Handling of Hazare’s fast should raise questions about the succession in India. Manmohan Singh was exposed as out of his political depth, but that is not surprising. He is an honest, incorrupt, loyal public servant, whose job is sorting out the economy leaving Congress party president Sonia Gandhi to handle the political flak. But she is out of India having hospital treatment, believed to be in the U.S. for cervical cancer.
The buzz is that Singh will soon make way as prime minister for Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi’s son and Indira Gandhi’s grandson Rahul, who is party secretary general. Supporters say that Rahul has had a long apprenticeship going round the states and districts really to get to know India. But he made only a late and wooden entry to the corruption debate, speaking in uninspired English; his Hindi is not much better.
Indian commentators generally groan when asked about Rahul, but they are much more positive about his sister Priyanka, “who can light up a room or a village, really electrifying,” according to one. But Priyanka, who is married to one of India’s richest and controversial businessman, seems determined to defer to her brother.
The public feeling that Rahul is not up to being India’s prime minister was confirmed in an opinion poll showing that if Hazare were running in an election against Rahul Gandhi, Hazare would get 74 percent of the vote, and Gandhi only 17 percent.
The world’s biggest democracy has just survived a potential life-threatening crisis.
Kevin Rafferty was executive editor at the Indian Express newspaper group.