Why Anna Hazare, Scourge of India’s Politicians, May Join Their Ranks

India's pre-eminent anticorruption activist says he won't run for office, but his movement looks set to enter the hurly-burly of Indian democracy

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Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare waves to supporters during his public hunger strike in New Delhi on Aug. 2, 2012

Last year, Anna Hazare, India’s most famous anticorruption crusader, shook the nation with hunger strikes, protests and a political movement that paralyzed the country’s sclerotic, bumbling government. Now the 75-year-old activist intends to wage his battle from within the system. Hazare announced on Friday that he would launch a new political party to fight graft, a scourge that has long gripped the country’s political system and its vast bureaucracy. While Hazare will not run for office, he will, in his words, “travel across the country and motivate people to develop a corruption-free India.” Hazare and his supporters plan to contest the 2014 polls to deal with what they call an “unresponsive” government. “The people had constantly been asking for a political alternative in the democracy,” Hazare wrote on his blog. “It is not easy to give an alternative, but it is not impossible.”

The announcement was made after Hazare and his followers broke a weeklong fast in Delhi. Last year, the city saw a groundswell of support for Hazare and his cause, helping garner support for an anticorruption bill that was subsequently passed by the lower house of Parliament. (It is presently stuck in the upper house.) On Friday afternoon, though, Team Anna’s venue was almost empty. A couple thousand flag-waving supporters tried to keep the momentum alive through the sporadic shouting of anticorruption slogans. Missing in action were the students, the housewives, the fathers with children on their shoulders, the poets, the singers and the thousands of other everyday Indians who had vowed, along with the diminutive Hazare, to end corruption in the country.

(PHOTOS: Indians Protest the Arrest of Anna Hazare)

They are right to be angry. In 2011, India ranked 95th on antigraft watchdog Transparency International’s annual corruption index. Recent years have seen the unearthing of some of the biggest scams in India’s history, including the 2G-spectrum-allocation scam and the Commonwealth Games scam in 2010. Hazare, a veteran social activist, first channeled public frustration into state-level antigraft campaigns. “Looking forward, I realized that corruption was on the rise all over the country,” Hazare told TIME in a 2011 interview. So he took the fight to Delhi.

But some observers suspect Hazare has lost his political momentum. Some of his key aides have themselves been saddled with corruption charges, which has damaged the credibility of the movement. “Some rivers can be crossed only once. There was a certain novelty the first time around. [The movement] captured both the frustrations and aspirations of the collective. But then it faded from the public consciousness,” says Delhi-based sociopolitical analyst Uday Bhaskar. “If [Hazare] had done the same thing [fasted and formed a political party] last year, there would have been some positive realization of what he stood for. But now everyone is asking, Will he too become a part of the system?”

(MORE: Anna Hazare: Breaking His Silence to Win Back India’s Middle Class)

Hazare’s political party supposedly will stand for transparency, better education, secularism, the poor farmer and the ripped-off common man. But as Hazare’s close aide Arvind Kejriwal said, if the government toes the line with the anticorruption bill and their other demands like recalling corrupt ministers, they will discard the plan, as they have “no great love” for entering politics. “This party will not be like others … the public will decide our agenda. We don’t want to win elections … we want to challenge the existing parties,” Kejriwal said. “The donations we receive will be posted on our website … this will dare the others to follow.”

(MORE: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Is Facing a Crisis of Credibility)

However, in a country full of political parties — more than 200 at last count — the formation of yet another is possibly no big deal for New Delhi. In fact, the decision invited gleeful response from the ruling Congress Party, which called it an exposure of Team Anna’s “real intentions.” Congress minister Kapil Sibal called Team Anna “hardcore politicians,” while the opposition right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party said that if needed, it “will join forces with whoever raises his voice against corruption.” Ram Gopal Yadav, a politician from the regional socialist Samajwadi Party said, “Not one of them can win an election,” and that it will be a “a miracle if a few get away with their deposits intact.”

Whether Team Anna can regain its popular support is debatable. Whether the movement can survive in the garb of a political party is even more so. “What do those in power know about corruption and the common man?” Hazare had said on Friday. “They sit in air-conditioned offices all day.” Can Hazare’s party change that? Should Hazare and his coterie also step into these air-conditioned offices, many will have their doubts.

PHOTOS: India Goes on Strike