Waiting for Mohandas

Can Anna Hazare Bring Revolution to India?

anna hazareAs India’s war on corruption continues to drag on, corruption seems to be winning. Scarcely a week goes by without news of another scandal, another public fund pocketed, or another vote bought. Amid a flurry of scandal reports this year – including the defense industry’s attempted bribery of army officials and scams involving politicians’ purchases of homes intended for army widows – one of the most telling examples of corruption emerged when business tycoon Manoj Jayaswal was accused of selling coalfields to uncompetitive companies owned by his friends and family.  Originally praised as an example of India’s growth, Jayaswal’s meteoric accumulation of wealth was uncovered as a hallmark of the crony capitalism that plagues India today.

With corruption intensifying, millions – and in India this number should be taken literally – await the arrival of a modern Mohandas Gandhi to lead the charge and cleanse the Augean stables.According to Tariq Thachil, Director of Undergraduate Studies of the South Asian Studies major at Yale University, “There have been successes.  But certainly, for every success, there have been many who were able to find some initial popular support but not necessarily convert that into long-term sustained political change.”

 In the past two years alone, countless self-proclaimed heirs to Gandhi’s legacy have emerged. Just as their paragon shook off the yoke of foreign oppression, so too, these activists claim, will they free India from internal oppression.  Yet while many activists have attached themselves to Gandhi’s revered name, so far none has successfully channeled his values, sustainably mobilized the masses, or delivered real change.

The most promising of these figures is the ascetic, bespectacled Anna Hazare.  For the past two years, Hazare has championed nonviolent sit-ins and hunger strikes as a solution to political discontent, in an effort to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill, an anti-corruption measure.  Originally heralded as the modern-day Gandhi, Hazare has recently seen a drop in attendance to his protests.  At a time when India is still far from seeing the end of daily manifestations of corruption, this occurrence raises the question of why his movement, one that began with so much promise and support, is losing the attention of the people.

Initially, what set Team Anna – what he and his followers call themselves – apart was a widespread media presence that appealed to a broad range of citizens.  A master of Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, Team Anna rose as a media phenomenon that appealed to the ever-elusive, less politically involved youth demographic; within the first few months, Hazare amassed 80,000 Twitter followers, a number that has since risen to 230,000. But even more importantly, videos of a peacefully protesting Hazare and inspirational tweets such as “be a light unto yourself” drew parallels between Gandhi and Hazare, who benefited from the popularity of the beloved figure with whom he was associated.  In an environment where the people had become resigned to corruption as a constant way of life, Hazare revived political transparency and morality, two values long espoused by Gandhi as the paradigms of existence.

Less than two years into the campaign, however, Team Anna finds itself at an impasse; racked by internal dispute, the movement, embodying India’s biggest struggle, has lost its ability to lead by example.  While condemning the lack of a proper anti-graft watchdog, some of Hazare’s advisers were found guilty of diverting funds for personal expenses.

According to Thachil, this is a frequent problem in India.  “Corruption calls attention to the unsavory details of the leadership of the movement itself,” he said.  In India, many activist movements fall prey to the very vices they seek to combat. However, the biggest problem for Hazare is his lack of overarching objectives. “It’s easier to mobilize the people when there is a proximal goal to be met, and there’s lately been less focus on what Hazare wants.  There’s been confusion over political ambitions,” Thachil said.

Lately, Hazare’s movement has become focused solely on the Jan Lokpal legislation.  And while this may allow for several positive changes later on, one bill cannot possibly eliminate corruption in its entirety.  “Popular legislation enabling some stricter code on corruption could be valuable,” said Thachil, “but at the end of the day … thinking that we can solve it through creating a new body or rule is not systemic enough.  The deeper social causes of corruption need to be rooted out for institutional change.” What Hazare likely needs is the key to Gandhi’s success: a social revolution.

Today, experts argue that this translates to a revival of the independence-era belief that justice can prevail, that the citizens don’t have to desensitize themselves to the ubiquitous offenses around them.  It means a movement that uses policy reform largely as a rallying point – like Gandhi’s once did – and grows beyond this to spark a social transformation.

In order for Hazare to live up to the Gandhi legacy preemptively assigned to him, Thachil argued that he must establish greater social objectives.  Indeed, the paradox of political reform is that it is most effectively brought about through a predominantly apolitical approach.  It is only with a grassroots social revolution that comprehensive political reform can last.

This is perhaps where Team Anna’s approach has erred; after only a year of attempting to apolitically create a movement against corruption, it flirted with the idea of forming a political party, announcing in August that it would run candidates in the 2014 parliamentary elections.  Despite his initial support, Hazare reneged mid-November and announced he would not involve himself in the elections.  Given the public support Hazare gained from playing to this idea that he was above politics, both Thachil and Steven Wilkinson, Professor of India and South Asian Studies, believe Hazare will encounter greater success by remaining apolitical; the public would likely see the formation of a political party as the anti-corruption movement’s assimilation into the heart of corruption itself.

Today, the Indian people are looking to a slew of individual leaders to drive the anti-corruption movement, which has consequently changed forms countless times.  In addition to Hazare, these leaders include Baba Ramdev, a yoga-centric spiritual leader recently-turned political advocate, Arvind Kejriwal, a tax inspector-to-activist-to-politician convert, and several others.

Yet faced with multiple and often-simultaneous leaders, the anti-corruption movement is riddled with internal conflict.  “It’s hard to maintain momentum when there are conflicting interests,” Thachil said.  The group solidarity necessary for large-scale political change is consequently weakened. But ultimately, the power for change is still with the people. “A lot of efforts that have made large differences in levels of corruption lie outside of legislation,” said Wilkinson.  “One study found that a very successful measure has been simply posting lists around the villages of who should be receiving what political position, what land, and etc.  Something as small as that has proven to be very effective.”

Even the most compelling grassroots movement, however, needs a leader.  Lack of central leadership can be fatal to a movement, as America’s all but petered-out Occupy Wall Street has demonstrated.  Anna Hazare initially seemed to hold more promise than most of his colleagues and competitors. But with his dwindling popularity with the people and the emergence of other activists, is he the man for the moment? And if not, will the real Mohandas Gandhi please stand up?

Amy Chang is a Freshman in Trumbull College

Published by Amy Chang

Amy Chang is an Associate Editor of The Politic from Hockessin, Delaware. Contact her at amy.chang@yale.edu.

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