Smiling out at the nation from every newspaper and TV channel over the last few months, a diminutive 70-year-old has united the world’s most populous democracy in an unprecedented revolution against corruption. Beginning in April, Anna Hazare’s movement for legislation against corrupt public officials moved a reluctant government to accept its demands in what has been touted as India’s second struggle for independence since British colonial rule.
Political corruption in India has been as pervasive and persistent a problem as poverty, illiteracy and booming population growth. Recent statistics show that more than 47 percent of Indians have had to resort to bribes and under-the-table influence to get through public offices, and the country placed a miserable 87th out of 178 in the 2010 Transparency International rankings. Hazare’s movement for stronger anti-corruption legislation peaked at a time when numerous cases of high-profile bureaucratic and political corruption were unearthed by the national media. Scandals like the 2010 Commonwealth Games scam and the 2G Spectrum license distribution scam chiefly involved top government officials, including cabinet ministers and chief ministers.
Hazare’s movement brought the power of the people to bear in fighting corruption, but it began more modestly. A handful of activists demanded an anti-corruption law on the guidelines set by the Jan Lokpal Bill of 1968. The bill, which would create an independent body empowered to investigate and penalize corrupt politicians and bureaucrats without prior government consent, has failed to be made into law for four decades.
Within a matter of months, Hazare’s movement has struck a chord with the masses: frustrated by the government’s refusal to deal with corruption and encouraged by the media, millions joined street protests in support of the Jan Lokpal Bill. Hazare declared a fast until the government agreed to include more stringent measures in its draft of the Lokpal bill and vote on it in Parliament. Twelve days later, he ended his fast to triumphant chants of “I am Anna” as the government and all opposition parties reached a unanimous decision to accept the movement’s demands.
As is the case with most revolutions, this one had its fair share of naysayers as well. Civil society was split neatly in two factions, with Hazare’s opponents insisting that the mass movement threatened basic democratic tenets of constitutional procedure. And even as the nation celebrates the success of its first serious anti-corruption movement, the fact remains that the Jan Lokpal Bill has yet to be passed. By ensuring the inclusion of rigorous measures in the bill, the movement may have taken only its first important step towards a corruption-free future; it will be critical to keep the masses involved, since the length of parliamentary debate over the bill might require another revolution altogether to see results.
The achievements of any social revolution, however, extend far beyond the narrow scope of its targeted issue. Anna Hazare’s movement united the country with a common cause for the first time since the nation’s struggle for independence against a colonial power. Indians, irrespective of age, religion, sex, profession, language or location thronged the streets of not only Delhi and Bombay, but also New York, Houston, Rome, Sydney and Berlin in support of the Lokpal Bill. In all likelihood, part of the reason that the government dragged its feet in responding to the agitation was that it had not expected the surge of patriotism that the cause eventually garnered. Indeed, the widespread support was a heartening surprise even for those already involved in the movement.
As the people unite, so must their elected representatives. Hazare’s fast set the stage for a rare occurrence in Indian politics: unanimous agreement between the government and all opposition parties. The anti-corruption agitation is likely to have a lasting effect in reminding parliamentarians of their duty to citizens, and the politically disastrous consequences of ignoring it.
The most significant achievement of the revolution, however, is far more subtle and deep-rooted than any of the above. India’s youth, who so willingly made up more than half of the movement, consist of those who came after the golden age of Gandhi, Nehru, Bose and other revered leaders of the nation’s independence movement. We’ve spent our growing years in awe of those legendary First Citizens as our elders told us about their courageous exploits in trying to extricate the country from a century-long colonial rule. Anna Hazare, with his Gandhian white cotton cap and entreaty for a non-violent movement, awakened that which we’ve never known, but always felt flowing in our blood: the thrill of striving for one’s country. No matter how small Anna’s victory, the anti-corruption revolution marks a new era of Indian political awareness. Going ahead, the movement will encourage masses to resolve national issues by getting involved in the democratic process, and making their opinions known to a government that is finally answerable to them — all one billion of them.
Shashwata Narain is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.