Democracy’s Saintly Challenger

NEW DELHI – India is no stranger to protest movements, hunger strikes, and the mass mobilization of citizens for a popular cause. But the recent fast by the Gandhian leader Anna Hazare, culminating in an extraordinary Saturday session of Parliament to pass a resolution acceding to his main demands, marked a dramatic departure in the country’s politics.

The Anna phenomenon reflects a “perfect storm” of converging factors: widespread disgust with corruption, particularly after two recent high-profile cases of wrongdoing (in allocating telecoms spectrum and awarding contracts for the Commonwealth Games); the organizational skill of a small group of activists committed to transforming India’s governance practices; the mass media’s perennial search for a compelling story; and the availability of a saintly figure to embody the cause. It also raises important questions about civil society’s role in a democracy.

Hazare fasted to force the government to create a tough new anti-corruption authority, the Lokpal, with sweeping powers to investigate, prosecute, and punish. Finding the government’s draft bill insufficiently strong, he demanded provisions that would give the Lokpal complete autonomy, an extensive presence in all government departments, and authority over all government servants, up to and including the prime minister himself.

Concerns that some of Hazare’s proposals risked creating a large, omnipotent, and unaccountable supra-institution that could not be challenged, reformed, or abolished were overlooked in the desire to appease him. If the current agencies tasked with prevention, auditing, and investigation are deemed vulnerable to corruption, what guarantee is there that the new institution would be any more resistant? And, if corruption does creep in, what could be done about it, given that Lokpal would be literally a law unto itself?