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|Volume 10 |Issue 16 | April 22, 2011 ||
India's New Anti-corruption Hero
Kishan Baburao Hazare, popularly known as 'Anna' Hazare, became a national hero when he brought the mighty UPA government to its knees with his hunger fast against a toothless anti-corruption ombudsman.
A 71-year-old small-built man who dropped out of village school when in class seven has become the unlikeliest national hero.
Ably supported by civil society activists and sections of the print and television media, Hazare's protest forced the government to concede to all his demands.
The government did him no favours, though. Thanks to a series of corruption scams, its image was low.
It feared that the longer it allowed Hazare to whip up passions with his fast unto death in New Delhi's Jantar Mantar, a stone's throw from Parliament House, the more would it attract public opprobrium.
So, after flatly rejecting his demands to alter the proposed terms of the Lokpal Bill (Ombudsman Bill), within 72 hours, it buckled under mounting public pressure.
Hazare lifted his fast a day later amid much celebration by supporters. Thus, a new anti-corruption crusader was born.
Hunger strikes are straight out of the protest armoury of Gandhi. Hazare's critics in the ruling party and in the media questioned his resort to fast unto death, saying it was sheer blackmail, a move to bypass the elected representatives and even Parliament.
Others dubbed it as the “tyranny of the unelected”. Gandhi was right in fasting since his goal was to throw out the colonial British power. Hazare was misusing Gandhi's standard tool of protest against the democratically-elected government, critics argued.
But all these arguments fell on deaf ears.
As the frail, bespectacled man wearing a Gandhi cap and dressed in his regulation coarse, white dhoti-kurta, sat on his fast under a makeshift stage with a few hundred supporters chanting patriotic hymns, the entire nation warmed to those images carried live by television channels.
Hazare, who was largely unknown outside his home state of Maharashtra, overnight became a national figure, a rallying point. School children, senior professionals and the proverbial aam aadmi made a beeline for Janatar Mantar.
He railed in his weak voice against corruption, renewing his pledge not to lift his fast till his conditions were met while the animated crowd shouted slogans, egging him on to accomplish his mission to eradicate the scourge of corruption from the land.
Soon there developed fissures in the ruling dispensation. The hardliners who were dead against giving in to his “blackmail” found themselves overruled by Congress boss Sonia Gandhi.
She realised that the political/electoral costs of allowing Hazare to continue would be enormous. As it was, the Congress-led UPA coalition had become synonymous with corruption, what with the Adarsh illegal building scam followed by the humongous 2G spectrum, the Commonwealth Games, the CVC scams, etc.
On April 5, when he resumed his fast unto death, no one knew, least of all the Government, that it would snowball into such a big thing within a few short hours.
Due to live coverage by news television channels ordinary people everywhere identified themselves with the fasting social activist, taking out small processions in their respective towns.
The social network sites on the Internet offered big support, with the “young but concerned” citizens congregating at India Gate, taking out candlelight processions in support of Hazare. Anna - elder brother, in Marathi - was now the darling of the chic and the chattering classes in metropolises.
Specifically, Anna undertook his fast to protest against the “toothless” draft of the proposed Lokpal Bill. The anti-corruption Lokpal at the central government was first mooted 42 years ago. However, successive governments failed to create the anti-corruption watchdog.
The UPA government, at long last, undertook to do the needful but the anti-corruption activists found that the proposed law was flawed.
Hazare protested that the Lokpal Bill was so weak that it would not help fight corruption but, instead, allow the ruling dispensation to further cover it up.
Hazare insisted that the Lokpal Bill be re-written by an equal number of representatives on the draft committee from his side. After holding out for the first two days as Hazare sat on his fast on April 5, the Government came round to discuss the “terms of surrender” on April 7.
On April 8, Hazare's supporters did a victory jig as the government crumbled. Now, the committee of ten wise men, five from Hazare's side and five central ministers, would redraw the Bill by June 30. It would be presented in Parliament for approval in the monsoon session so that it can come into force before the year is out.
A 42-year-old wait for an anti-corruption ombudsman at the Centre was thus expected to end, thanks to the intervention of a new Gandhi.
Admittedly, till a few days ago not much was known about the man who had humbled the mighty government. Born to daily labourers, Hazare joined the army where he worked as a driver.
After his short stint in the army, on his return to his native village he found himself engaged in fighting illicit distilling and drinking. His legend grew when he and a couple of friends tied drunken louts to a tree and lashed them with whips until they undertook to kick the drinking habit.
This led to the birth of an anti-liquor campaign in the village and in its vicinity. Soon he was fighting dowry, caste system, bad agriculture practices, etc.
Not before long his was a model village which earned him recognition from various government authorities and NGOs.
Subsequently, he undertook to crusade against corruption. He named corrupt officials and politicians.
At least in one case he succeeded in forcing the removal of a corrupt minister from the Maharashtra government. In the early 90s, he successfully campaigned for a Right to Information law in the state.
But this was the first time he had forayed onto the national stage. The timing was perfect. The government was neck-deep in corruption scams. Above all, a couple of television channels were ready to lend his anti-corruption campaign a helping hand by saturation coverage.
The middle class, disgusted with daily scams, embraced Hazare with open arms, leading to the quick surrender by the government to, what his critics insist, was “an extra-constitutional authority”.
This article was first published in The Star. Reprinted with permission.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2011