When I last blogged about India's recent anti-corruption groundswell, a loose coalition of NGOs and citizens led by social activist Anna Hazare had just scored a crucial victory in the ongoing struggle to curb corruption in the world’s largest democracy. For months Anna's India Against Corruption movement (dubbed “Team Anna” by the press) had engaged in agitations meant to pressure the government of India into standing up an independent ombudsman (known as a Lok Pal) charged with rooting out corruption at the highest levels of the government. In the face of continued government waffling, Anna launched a fast unto the death to compel Parliament to act. By late August it seemed as if his plan had worked: Parliament adopted a non-binding resolution agreeing in principle to Team Anna's core demands.
Fast forward six months. As I write, the movement is on life support and Parliament concluded its winter session without passing a Lok Pal bill. In December, after months of internal debate, the government introduced its latest version of the Lok Pal bill, which fell short of Team Anna's full suite of demands. In an attempt to recapture the magic of last summer, Anna announced he would fast once more.
But Anna’s latest hunger strike was widely panned as a flop: it ended almost as soon as it began after Anna fell ill and organizers failed to muster a critical mass at the movement’s rally headquarters in Mumbai. The journalist/author Manu Joseph termed Team Anna's latest push a “farce” (though this term could easily be used to describe the government’s actions-or inaction, as the case may be). Although the bill cleared the lower house of parliament, the government did not have the votes to get the bill through the upper house. Indeed it could not even get its coalition in line behind the bill. Rather than call a vote on the bill and face the music, the government abruptly called a recess and Parliament was sent home.
So here we are, several fasts, fights, disruptions, bouts of moral outrage and mudslinging later and India is still without an ombudsman to keep a watchful eye on public officials taking from the till.
With this background, It seems now is an opportune time to pause and reflect on some of the lessons That emerge from India's anti-corruption fight. What lessons does Team Anna's campaign have for activists and leaders in India and elsewhere who campaign against the scourge of poor governance and corruption?
1. If you want to expose the government’s dirty laundry, you’d better have clean hands yourself. Team Anna harshly criticized members of Parliament, demonizing anybody and everybody who opposed their recommendations as complicit in corruption. Their unstinting criticism, coupled with a “either you’re with us or against us” mentality, meant that when stories began to emerge about potentially corrupt (or at best, unethical) activities implicating core members of Team Anna , the movement’s credibility quickly started to unravel.
2. Picking “good” politicians is a dangerous business. Team Anna saved its harshest criticism for politicians affiliated with the ruling Congress party. In an effort to teach the party a lesson for its opposition to their version of the Lok Pal bill, Team Anna explicitly campaigned against Congress in a critical bye-election, unwittingly aiding other candidates who were-shall we say-less than model citizens. Indeed, of the leading candidates in the race, the Congress candidate was the only one with no prior criminal record!
3. Getting to the rural grassroots. Judging from my conversations with colleagues in India and from media reports, it seems the Anna Hazare movement has largely been fueled by disgust and dissatisfaction among the urban middle class. Without strong roots in the towns and villages of rural India, however, the movement was not able to successfully expand or consolidate large-scale support outside of India’s major urban centers.
4. Avoid reproducing the anti-democratic tendencies of the government you criticize. Team Anna took the government to task for governing in a manner that suppressed the will of the people, yet the movement’s centralized (some might say autocratic) structure reproduced the worst tendencies of the government they criticized for exhibiting similar shortcomings. Team Anna's "my way or the highway" approach alienated many potential supporters, even in civil society-social activist quarters.
No doubt we have not seen the last of Anna Hazare and the India Against Corruption movement. Yet, the movement is clearly at a crossroads--with one key member openly asking citizens to write in with their suggestions on how the movement can pick up the pieces. With regional elections approaching in a matter of weeks, namely in the critically important northern state of Uttar Pradesh, can India’s corruption fighters rebound and learn from past mistakes?
Questions abound for the government as well. When Parliament reconvenes in early March, will it have the fortitude and foresight to muster the votes necessary to create a strong and meaningful Lok Pal? Team Anna and the government will likely never see eye to eye. But the issue is whether both can rise above their talking points to see what's in the best interest of India.