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Anna Hazare: Savior or Destroyer of Democracy?

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A person landing in India last August might have been forgiven for comparing Kisan Baburao Hazare to Mahatma Gandhi. Anna, the nickname of this simple, cotton-clad man from Maharasthra, was on everyone's lips. His protest hunger fast was featured in media as 'Gandhian'. People proudly, defiantly, declared "Ham Admi" ("I am the common man") after his arrest on the 16th, and came out en masse on to the streets to support his movement.

But this is no Salt March in defiance of foreign colonialists. Rather, this movement is a serious challenge to a homegrown, shadow 'establishment' that has India by the throat -- an underworld that has swollen from the individual political favoritism of past decades designed to ensure certain politicians' dynastic grip on power, into the crippling, free-wheeling octopus it is today.

"Team Anna," as it has come to be known, started rather simply in October 2010 when highest ranking policewoman (retired) and renowned activist Dr Kiran Bedi was asked by Anna-ji to join him in a campaign to urge the government to properly act on First Information Reports (FIRs) lodged in complaint of corruption, which in practice have the tendency to simply disappear in a morass of red tape.

"PM Manmohan Singh had just set up a national committee, the Shunglu Committee (to investigate the Commonwealth Games corruption issue), but it had no real statutory status." said Kiran Bedi in a phone interview. Though she acknowledges the Prime Minister's personal reputation for being clean, she added scathingly: "But how could he have not known about [the level of] corruption? It was in the media, in full detail, all the time!"

Most Indians would concur that the last six years have seen the worst escalation of crime and corruption since Independence. It is ironic that Singh, an erstwhile architect of the earlier socialist economy, carried out major economic reforms as Finance Minister in 1991 which led to the dismantling of the notorious "Licensing Raj," thus opening the door for a market economy.

Team Anna began waging a far greater battle -- the passing of the anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill, which, moribund in parliament for decades, has been carefully redrafted into a 29 page document by the India Against Corruption (IAC) organization. Currently there are at least two versions of the bill: IAC's and the government's 2010 version.

The kindling began to spark, then caught fire in April with Anna-ji's hunger strike in Jantar Mantar in Delhi. By August the flames had turned into a blaze, fanned by a social media frenzy the likes of which not seen before in India. The recent rallies at the Rama Lila grounds attracted a continuous stream of people from all walks of life -- urban families, youths, rural villagers, each group with placards bearing their own grievances. Eminent photojournalist Raghu Rai, who has covered 45 years of modern Indian politics, says he has never seen anything like it. "This is like a second independence movement. There is nothing greater than an idea whose time has come. Politicians came to get on the band wagon, and were welcome to sit with the crowd as individuals but there was no room for party politics on the platform."

Only the cynical, self-interested few would not acknowledge the dire need for reform in the sub-continent. Apart from mainstream Indian's battle with graft, the desperate suicides of more than a hundred-and-fifty-thousand farmers unable to shake off choking debt, ongoing discrimination issues with scheduled castes (Dalits or so called untouchables) and scheduled tribes, and pressing issues of women's rights are all linked in one way or another to corruption.

The Team Anna movement is not without its critics, and perhaps none more sharp than Booker Prize-winning author-turned-activist Arundhati Roy, who suggested strongly in a TV interview that Anna was being steered by a number of NGOs with foreign funding, and that the media frenzy of what some call the "second phase" of Team Anna this year looks too well orchestrated. According to Roy, the proposed Jan Lokpal body itself threatens to become a parallel oligarchy; others fear it might undermine democratic process.

Paul Divakar of the Dalit human rights movement NCDHR is less strident; his main concerns are more focused on the issues of discrimination and exclusion. "The framework of corruption has to be taken into consideration, otherwise it will be an intervention that goes off target. Caste [discrimination] and the framework of patriarchy which is behind it, those factors have not been taken into account. On the lower levels it will lead to witch hunts against whistle blowers -- and untouchables and scheduled tribes will end up being targeted. The hierarchy of relationships needs to be addressed -- untouchability, exclusion and so on, as they are the source of corruption."

Activist Kiran Bedi curtly dismisses these criticisms. Regarding Arundhati Roy: "She is ill-informed. And we have made sure that the Jan Lokpal will be transparent, and there are checks and balances built into the IAC draft -- just read it". As to the concerns of Paul Divakar: "It's the other way around... if corruption was first cleared out then inequities would automatically be addressed. Actually the Dalit issue is just a [politically] propped up issue."

It is a familiar refrain. While many educated Indians acknowledge the need to break down the barriers, many also have long felt that the system of setting caste-based 'reservations' (quotas) for universities and jobs is counter-productive. Writer and activist on women's issues and globalization, Kalyani Menon-Sen, points out that the IAC is a reincarnation of Youth for Equality, an organization formed to oppose such quotas in education. Raghu Rai told me of cases of people who falsely obtain certification as scheduled castes simply in order to ensure jobs, thus completely undermining any merit system.

It is a sobering thought that the fate of a such a huge percentage of the world's largest democracy lies in the tightly clenched fists of a tiny but powerful minority -- the World Bank estimates more than 40% of Indians earn less than $1.25 a day. It would be unfair to say that Indians as a whole have simply abided by the situation. There is no shortage of energetic and courageous activists in this huge, diverse country whether within organizations like IAC, NCDHR, NCPRI or in smaller scale, local versions. The problem is bringing all the diverse groups together in an effective, united national front.

Kalyani Menon-Sen is for the time being taking a 'wait and see' approach as to how the movement will play out. She feels that the elements within it are for the time being discordant - -Anna, the people mobilizing around him, and the Jan Lokpal bill itself -- and that their campaign rhetoric has been somewhat confused. But regarding the backlash at the protests she is decided: ="I don't think that coming out on the street and demonstrating without violence is an anti-democratic act; neither can I see anything anti-democratic in making fun of parliamentarians. I find it ridiculous that the archaic notion of breach of privilege should be invoked to counter such actions."

Democracy has never had one single format. As it was originally practiced in Greece on a scale unimaginably smaller than in India, it had to withstand the very direct scrutiny of the man on the street, the common man. But since those days every nation that has taken on this system has introduced its own brand. Asians, comparatively new to the game, are historically and culturally different from their Western counterparts. Perhaps the sweeping motto "of the people, by the people, and for the people", implying some effective form of checks and balances by citizens, is the only vague guideline applicable across the board. In the meantime Team Anna is clearly a work in progress, as is the Jan Lokpal Bill, as is democratic process in the world's second most populous nation.

It is impossible to ignore the deep psychological need of most Indians, indeed most Asians, to follow a charismatic leader -- institutional or not -- imbued with real or imaginary spiritual qualities. Kalyani Menon-Sen, though a tad apprehensive of this, points out that the dignity of the parliament they oppose has been destroyed by parliamentarians themselves. On the other hand for those championing 'real democracy' (whatever that is), the idea that one man can so rapidly sway so many people to rise up and challenge those within the institutions of democracy might be disturbing.

From that perspective, to conversely quibble that behind the man there is a team, savvy in social and other media, propping him up and steering him and thus rendering his message invalid, is to be simply contrary . Every leader, especially in today's world, must have his or her team. Does Obama actually type out his own tweets? Does the Dalai Lama update his website himself? The reality is that the phenomenon known as Anna-ji, point man or his own man, has galvanized the "common man" to claim his right to know and be involved in the decisions that affect his own fate. And that is an essential part of the philosophy of democracy.