On the face of it, comparing a hunger strike against corruption in a democracy to a mass movement that toppled one of the world's longest serving strongmen seems ludicrous. Yet when Anna Hazare, a 71-year-old social activist with a bent for Gandhian protest, vowed earlier this month to publicly fast to death to end the rot in India's governance, the media began calling New Delhi's Jantar Mantar monument India's Tahrir Square. Four days into the fast, thronged by joyous followers and watched by millions on television, Hazare broke his fast after forcing the government to concede his key demand: to begin drafting a tough new anti-corruption bill.
Though the Hazare protest in New Delhi and supportive ones in other cities around India may not have sparked a revolution, they certainly mark a political watershed. Rather than peasants from the countryside, the vast majority of protestors came from the usually apolitical urban middle class – doctors, lawyers, engineers, private sector employees, college students and retired civil servants – fed up with the parlous state of India's governance. As in Cairo's Tahrir Square, television and social networking sites played a crucial role in amplifying the protests. India's 24-hour news channels quickly turned Hazare, a former army driver with a passion for water management and prohibition, into a symbol of the country's yearning for probity in public life. A Facebook page, India Against Corruption, clocked more than 100,000 supporters. On Twitter, the protests dominated Indian topics almost as comprehensively as the country's victory in cricket's World Cup the previous week.
"Hazare and his supporters focus on creating an anti-corruption institution to investigate the powerful without political interference."
The middle-class upsurge against corruption follows a long season of scandal. Stories of padded contracts and graft – $80 toilet rolls, $19,500 treadmills and a budget bloated many times over the original estimate – marked October's Commonwealth Games in Delhi. In the so-called 2-G telecom scam, still under investigation, auditors claim that the government lost taxpayers up to $40 billion by handing out valuable telecom spectrum to favored bidders at cut-rate prices. In another scandal, top generals, bureaucrats and politicians apparently colluded to snap up plush apartments in Mumbai on land originally meant for war widows from India's 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan. A spate of high-level corruption cases – leading to the arrest of former telecom minister A. Raja among others – threatens to sour foreign investors on India. Despite near 8 percent growth, foreign direct investment dropped by nearly a third to $24 billion in 2010.
For many, the publication last year of transcripts of the so-called Radia tapes, secretly recorded conversations between a powerful corporate lobbyist and prominent politicians, journalists and industrialists, painted a picture of a country in moral freefall, with everything from the front pages of newspapers to judgments by the Supreme Court allegedly available for a price. Last year, Transparency International ranked India a lowly 87th out of 178 countries surveyed. The Singapore-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy rates India as the fourth most corrupt country in Asia, behind only Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Many Indians place politics at the root of this malaise. Indeed, Hazare captured a widespread middle-class sentiment about the masses who elect India's leaders by pointing out that votes are often bought for as little as 100 rupees, or $2; a sari; and a bottle of liquor. Rarely, if ever, have voters punished a so-called mass leader known to have accumulated vast wealth through public office, and some politicians don't even bother to pay lip service to the idea of public service without private gain. In Tamil Nadu, the family of Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has become among the wealthiest in the country; his party, the DMK, or Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, woos voters with promises of taxpayer-funded laptops, mixer-grinders and bus passes. In next door Andhra Pradesh, Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, a former chief minister's son and former member of parliament, recently declared assets of about $82 million, nearly 4000 times more than he claimed seven years earlier.
Leaked US embassy cables published by WikiLeaks offer a snapshot of India's freewheeling political culture. In the run-up to a key 2008 parliamentary vote of confidence on the US-India civil nuclear deal, an alleged aide to Satish Sharma, a senior Congress Party leader known for his proximity to the Gandhi family, purportedly showed a US embassy employee "two chests containing cash," and boasted of a $25 million slush fund "lying around the house for use as pay-offs." Another party insider told an embassy official about the resources commanded by then Minister of Commerce and Industry Kamal Nath. "Formerly he could only offer small planes as bribes," said the party official, but "now he can pay for votes with jets." Both Sharma and Nath deny any wrongdoing.
Nor is the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP, much different. Its government in Karnataka includes the powerful Bellary brothers, best known for amassing a fortune from illegally mined iron ore.
Understandably outraged by these revelations, Hazare and his supporters have focused on forcing the government to work with them to create an anti-corruption institution, the proposed Lokpal – which means caretaker of the people in Hindi – that will be empowered to investigate and prosecute the powerful without fear of political interference. The bill creating the Lokpal is still being worked out by a team of five government ministers and five activists including Hazare, and won't become law before being passed by parliament.
But critics have faulted early drafts for concentrating too much power in a single institution, for seeking to bypass the democratic process by giving elected leaders only a marginal role in selecting the Lokpal, and for adding another potential layer of red tape and interference to a system already notorious for its sloth. Moreover, deeper causes of corruption – including unrealistically low campaign spending limits, salaries for top officials that remain meager by global standards, excessive regulation of business, and a wider culture that tends to value personal rather than institutional integrity – are beyond the scope of any new anti-corruption body, no matter how powerful and well-intentioned.
Criticism will presumably be addressed by the bill that parliament passes, before India's 65th independence day on August 15 if activists get their way. And the experience of Hong Kong and Indonesia, among others, shows that a professional anti-corruption body armed with broad powers can indeed check some of the worst excesses of government officials. But for India, the real significance of Hazare and his movement is political. By asserting its will, the middle class – depending on who's counting between 55 million and 300 million people in a nation of 1.2 billion – has signaled that it will no longer be taken for granted on matters of governance, or be silent until the twin engines of economic growth and urbanization make it the majority. The consulting firm McKinsey estimates that even by 2025 the middle class will comprise no more than 40 percent of India's population.
Moreover, unlike past movements of moral regeneration – the Gandhian leader Jayaprakash Narain's agitation against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s or V. P. Singh's crusade against Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s – the one spearheaded by Hazare is looking for structural solutions for corruption that go beyond merely voting out a government. Needless to say, nobody expects India to overcome this problem any time soon. But at the same time it's hard to deny that India's mini-Tahrir Square moment is a large step in the right direction.
Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.