Delhi The Times of India and the Hindustan Times, among the largest papers in the world, were filled with incredulous and fawning stories on Sunday of a rarity in modern, big business India: a simple protest that ignited real change in the culture of political corruption. Most of the stories centered on Kishan Baburao Hazare, variously described as a 71, 72, or 73 year old Gandhian leader, also known more popularly as Anna (essentially “uncle”) Hazare, whose “fast to the death” to force the drafting of a Lokpal Bill had won a governmental concession to create a joint committee including non-politicians to create a bill with a commitment from Prime Minister Singh to then have it introduced in the coming monsoon session of the Parliament.
This is really very important, so led me quickly translate for non-Indians what this really means and what is fueling the excitement of “Egyptian-style” change dominating the news and the talk of the town.
A Lokpal would be an independent ombudsman with the ability, if the bill is properly drafted and passed, to independently investigate and take action on corruption.
Winning an independent joint commission breaks the death grip that parliamentarians had had over any review or transparency for their own actions. Previous versions had essentially required politicians to write the bill and the same politicians to decide who and what business might ever be referred to a corruption monitor, essentially guaranteeing that such a post would have no power and no business.
Anna Hazare’s fast to the death, an old tactic suddently captured the imagination of the middle classes of India often portrayed correctly as indifferent to corruption and common practitioners of the steady diet of bribes at all levels and all direction that is a discordant note in the narrative of an emerging India. He did not create a movement but he did create a happening which led many sectors of civil society to rally around him and his fast to break the logjam in Delhi around corruption, drawing supporters from Bihar to Bollywood to the old warrior and his fast. The compromise was an advisory ruling, similar to what we would call an Attorney General’s opinion in the USA, which said that though it was unprecedented, there was no legal reason an independent body could not be appointed to draft the Lokpal Bill. The Prime Minister, seen to be personally honest, but teetering with the Congress Party around huge and embarrassing scandals with the mess of the Commonwealth Games fiasco last fall and the more recent billions lost in the piecing out of 2G telephone spectrum, quickly appointed folks from civil society including as co-chairman a legal gadfly in India who had headed the equivalent to the ACLU here and is described by the Times of India as a “William Kunstler” type lawyer, meaning an advocate of highly unpopular causes.
The celebration at the India Gate in Delhi across from the governmental buildings attracted more than 10,000 to witness the end of Hazare’s fast. Similar celebrations were reported throughout India. Is this Hazare’s 15 minutes of national fame or the start of something that could be a game changer in India?
That’s the project now. Perhaps Hazare and his dangerous fast-to-the-death simply caught lightening in a bottle with the right tactic for the right issue at the right time. The real question is whether or not a the protest can lead to more mobilizations and the happening to a genuine movement for reform. The poor are the real victims of corruption in India and if the emerging middle class stops turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the culture of corruption and allies with them, this could be the dawn of great social change in India.
It is almost hard to believe, but it is breathtaking to imagine!