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Picture this: an Indian social activist from humble origins, dressed in homespun and espousing the virtues of non-violent civil disobedience, takes on his country’s corrupt overlords by launching an indefinite hunger strike to bring the government to its knees.  Think you’ve seen this movie before?  Think again.  This time around, the year is 2011 and the man in question is 74 year-old Anna Hazare, a Gandhian social activist who is responsible for taking the anti-corruption fight to the Indian government’s doorstep with his leadership of the “India Against Corruption” campaign.

Hazare’s latest moves come on the heels of what some in the world’s largest democracy are calling the “season of scams.”  I’ve been following these scams as part of my ongoing research on corruption, criminality and money politics in India.  Drawing on fieldwork as well as quantitative analyses of candidates’ criminal and financial backgrounds, my research examines why parties—and voters—are drawn to politicians with reputations of breaking rather than making laws.  Starting in September, I will be a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at CGD and will be exploring some of these themes in greater detail, both in India and beyond.

Following India’s recent scams, it turns out, can be a full-time job.  Looking back just a few months, there was the Chief Minister who helped his cronies obtain apartments in a building reserved for war widows and veterans’ families.  And then there was the other Chief Minister who presided over an illicit mining ring, depriving his state of upwards of $3 billion in revenue over the past four years. There was the infamous Commonwealth Games debacle in which gross irregularities surrounding massive infrastructure projects turned what should have been a shining moment for the emerging superpower into a national embarrassment.  There was the telecom minister who distributed spectrum licenses to handpicked firms at a loss of $39 billion to the exchequer (of course, there is also the previous telecom minister who resigned after allegations of gross impropriety emerged regarding his tenure).

All of this serves a backdrop to Hazare and his movement.  The immediate bone of contention between Anna and the government concerns the creation of a national Lok Pal (ombudsman) who would be empowered to investigate allegations of corruption against senior government officials.  Earlier this year, Hazare began a hunger strike to compel the government to introduce legislation creating a Lok Pal.  Under pressure, the government agreed to form a joint drafting committee consisting of senior ministers and members of Team Anna (the term used to describe his inner circle).  The negotiations soon soured but the government introduced its version of the bill anyway.  Team Anna has criticized the bill for being too weak, and Hazare has once again set off on a hunger strike to force the government to revise the legislation (but not before the government, showing a stunning lack of savvy, chose to arrest him only to almost immediately release him).

Specifically, Team Anna insists that the government’s bill should give the Lok Pal jurisdiction over the conduct of the Prime Minister and the activities of MPs in the halls of Parliament in addition to the upper judiciary.  The government, for its part, does not want to Lok Pal to investigate a sitting PM, the work of MPs in Parliament (or in committee), or the senior judiciary (see here for an excellent comparison of the two bills).  The government is, perhaps with some justification, worried about politically motivated witch-hunts.

And so here we are on the eighth day of Hazare’s fast at Ramlila Maidan in central Delhi, where he is surrounded by an estimated 100,000 well-wishers and supporters.  There are reports that Hazare’s health has taken a turn for the worse and that the government is serious about resuming negotiations.  Nevertheless, a deal has yet to be struck.

This is a story that we at CGD are following closely (stay tuned for future posts on corruption in India, including describing work being done jointly with Devesh Kapur on the link between election finance and corruption) but here is a quick summary of my impressions of the latest events in India:

1) Team Anna and his followers deserve credit for harnessing the frustrations and disenchantment of millions of Indians who bear the cost of the country’s corruption day in and day out.  While many people like to speak of deep-seated “cultures of corruption,” it is clear that there is now a significant segment of the Indian population that is willing to speak out on how corruption is eating away at the country’s core.

2) Despite the movement’s good intentions, Hazare’s tactics raise difficult questions about the role of hunger strikes, the legitimacy of civil society, and his movement’s “my way or the highway” approach to encouraging reform. In the words of Pratap Bhanu Mehta: “The Anna Hazare movement…continues to propagate the tyranny of virtue. It has elided the distinction between protest and fast-unto-death. The former is legitimate. The latter is blackmail.”  As Mehta points out, Team Anna rails against the tyranny of the government, but it too is displaying authoritarian tendencies.  Furthermore, can Team Anna speak for Indian civil society as a whole?  On that score, the answer appears to be no.  And what about the necessity of compromise in a democratic society?  Team Anna seems to think it is the one with all the right answers.

3) One danger of Team Anna’s singular focus on the Lok Pal bill is that it cannot help but depict the creation of a national ombudsman as a silver bullet—which it clearly will not be.  The creation of the Lok Pal can no doubt aid the fight against graft (indeed, it was a state-level ombudsman who uncovered the aforementioned illegal mining racket, leading to the resignation of the Chief Minister) but it is insufficient.  The police, the judiciary, and even the media, to name a few of the country’s institutions, are in dire need of reform.  The state apparatus, in nearly every sector, is woefully ill equipped to address the challenges a vibrant, growing India will face in the 21st century.

4) Finally, all sides would be well advised to tone down their righteousness dial several notches.  This includes members of India’s growing middle class, which has helped fuel Hazare’s latest social agitation.  As Manu Joseph wrote last week in a withering column in the New York Times, “Indians have a deep and complicated relationship with corruption. As in any long marriage, it is not clear whether they are happily or unhappily married. The country’s economic system is fused with many strands of corruption and organized systems of tax evasion. The middle class is very much a part of this.”  Senior government leaders, on the other hand, have often demonstrated a holier than thou attitude towards civil society groups that is frankly laughable given recent events.

Come to think of it, recent events have more in common with Bollywood cinema than the Academy Award winning biopic, Gandhi: over the top theatrics; over-zealous goons; a flawed protagonist; and several break-ups followed by make-ups (and we haven’t even discussed the swami-cum-yoga guru whose recent protest against India’s “black money” ended with him fleeing Delhi under the cover of darkness dressed in women’s clothes).  We’ll save that for Act Two.

UPDATE: Anna Hazare “suspended” his fast on Sunday (the 11th day) after Parliament passed a non-binding resolution agreeing to several of Team Anna’s core demands. Parliament will refer its proceedings to its Standing Committee, which will now decide the finer details of the legislation. Although Team Anna and its followers are declaring victory, Hazare has made clear that he has “suspended,” rather than “ended,” his fast and is ready to resume his protest should Parliament not follow through on its promises.