Anna Hazare Galvanizes India

Hazare, a social activist from Maharashtra, winner of prestigious Padma Bhushan and the Ramon Magsaysay awards for his work among the poor, has hit a raw nerve of millions and especially the high aspiring, tax paying, hard working and rising numbers of the middle class, the biggest backers of his "movement."

Currently, Hazare is on a fast at national capital New Delhi where thousands have congregated in support. Spontaneous "I am Anna" rallies, meanwhile, have been reported from across the world, London, New York, Houston, Chicago, Sydney, with the Indian community joining in large numbers.

Even as populations in North Africa and the Middle East have taken to the streets for representative governance, India, a democracy since 1947, has failed to deliver its people from corruption at petty levels to multiple large scale scams involving the tax-payers money.

Ironically, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, belonging to the ruling Congress party and similar in demeanor and appearance to Hazare is increasingly being seen as too effete to take on corruption. The political opposition BJP has also been ineffective in reading the angst of common citizens forced to pay bribes in their daily existence.

Hazare’s demand is that New Delhi should enact the long delayed Lok Pal bill that seeks to pin down public functionaries, including the head of government, judiciary and lower bureaucracy, in corruption cases on complaint of individual citizens.

More than the complexities of formulating the Lok Pal (an Indian version of an ombudsman) the massive emotional outpourings across India, cutting caste, social, religious, age and economic barriers is against the overriding disquiet about corruption.

The protests have taken the form of candle light vigils, street plays, protests by school children, rallies and more. Ground zero is at the Ram Lila grounds, New Delhi where Hazare and some of his followers are on fast, a political instrument of protest used to good effect by Mahatma Gandhi during India’s freedom struggle against the British.

"I will not let this public movement die down. The government has to enact the Lok Pal Bill. We want a revolution against corruption," Hazare told his cheering supporters congregated outside the Tihar jail in West Delhi. In a move that showed a maladroit government, Hazare refused bail when the police arrested him forcing the administration to cajole him out of jail.

Mahatma Gandhi had broken oppressive salt laws in India to galvanize his countrymen against colonial rulers to lead the freedom struggle. Today, there is reason for Indians to be as frustrated about corruption, with Hazare one such fulcrum to air deep seated grievances.

International indexes and rankings consistently peg India among the lowest performers when it comes to issues of transparency, red tape and corruption that extends from top government to corporate to petty officials or "Babus."

The government (police, bureaucracy, politicians) are seen as the worst perpetrators. There are myriad lower level corruption instances involving the dreaded "Babus" that particularly impact the common man (referred as aam admni by politicians when they seek votes).

This extends from civic agencies to the police to multiple government services --- money needs to change hands to procure driving licenses, passport, water connection, house and building plans, lodging a FIR with the police or follow up investigations for crimes such as burglary or stolen car.

The list is endless. At higher levels of institutionalized embezzlements, a vicious inter-connected mafia controls business interests in real estate, education, telecom, health services, defense, oil, gas and coal mines and infrastructure such as road construction and power.

These are the areas where the state continues to retain a strangle hold and the decision making is arbitrary and skewed, in the absence of reforms and liberalization.

For example, India’s defense procurement and modernization processes are infamous as slow, mired in red tape, corruption, middlemen and lack of long term strategic planning. The government strangle hold on higher education continues.

Stung by the charge of being soft on corruption, New Delhi was forced to fire federal communications’ minister A Raja, accused of orchestrating a telecom scam that cost the exchequer huge losses. Raja is in jail.

The cynics have dismissed the Anna Hazare phenomenon as a passing event that will lose its sheen once the TV channels move to the next big story. This, however, is a simplistic view. There is no denying that there is an underlying seething against corruption that will not disappear in a hurry. Indian democracy has not failed. It needs to get better.