Yet Another Fast by India’s Anti-Corruption Crusader

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Rajanish Kakade / AP

Indian anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare waves to supporters before a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi on the first day of his hunger strike in Mumbai, India, Dec. 27, 2011.

The Indian anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare began another public fast today to pressure Parliament to pass an anti-corruption law that meets the demands of his movement. While a similar fast this summer — a 13-day marathon — seemed to galvanize Indians’ deep sense of disillusionment with corruption, today’s event looks like little more than political theater of the most ordinary kind.

At issue now are the specifics of a bill to create a national ombudsman agency — the Lokpal. Getting Parliament to table a Lokpal bill was the goal of Hazare’s fast this summer, and he succeeded. Now, Indian lawmakers are hashing out the details, with a three-day debate in Parliament beginning today. Like most legislative processes, this one is messy and contentious, with opposition parties and the ruling coalition, led by the Congress Party, at odds over exactly what the Lokpal will look like—whether it will have investigative powers; whether the Central Bureau of Investigation will fall under its control, and whether states will be required to have their own version of the Lokpal, among other points of disagreement.

Rather than remaining above the political fray, Hazare has vowed to campaign against the Congress Party in several important state elections early next year if the Lokpal bill that is ultimately passed fails to win his approval. That’s a big problem for the Congress Party, which faces several important state elections early next year and needs to show that it’s making some progress on fighting corruption. As Paul Beckett points out in the Wall Street Journal:

For the government, the passage of the bill—with muted resistance from Mr. Hazare—would present a positive end to what has been a markedly dreadful year. And it would give the government some momentum as it heads into key elections in five states in January and February, with all results to be declared March 4.  The government has taken several steps, including recalling Parliament this week for the Lokpal debate, to try to ensure that it doesn’t enter the election cycle tarnished as unwilling to pass an anticorruption law in the face of widespread corruption nationwide.

There’s a risk here to Hazare and his movement as well. For a couple of weeks this summer, Hazare made the fight against corruption look larger than politics—he refused to allow opposition parties to gain political mileage from his events and successfully presented the anti-corruption movement as a big tent wide enough to accommodate any Indian who was simply fed up with the pervasive culture of corruption. Having occupied this moral high ground, Hazare could have simply stayed there. Instead, “Team Anna” now looks like yet another interest group or minor coalition ally lobbying the Indian government for what it wants; one of its leaders has even pledged to throw the movement’s weight behind political candidates who support their version of the Lokpal. And while Hazare is said to live a simple, ascetic life in the village of Ralegaon Siddhi, every time he steps onto the national stage, he looks more like a politician. He traveled to Mumbai last night from in a massive convoy of vehicles; he then began today’s fast with a classic bit of play-acting—his supporters appealed to him not to fast out of concern for his health, although of course a fast is exactly what they’ve all come for. At the second protest site, in New Delhi, there is a separate “VIP” entrance, the Times of India reports. So much for that big tent.

What inspired Indians to support Hazare this summer wasn’t the Lokpal bill itself – it was his message of change. Not surprisingly, the crowds for Team Anna aren’t quite so large this time around. What started as a public protest looks more and more like politics as usual.