Anti-corruption campaign fails reality check

India’s movement towards implementing the Lokpal Bill has been fractured by political interests.

anna hazare
No one on Anna Hazare’s team bothered to explain what exactly corruption was [AP]

New Delhi, India – By most accounts, the wildly popular anti-corruption campaign in India led by veteran activist Anna Hazare may be spinning towards a burnout. What began as a movement for the implementation of the all-encompassing anti-corruption legislation, the Lokpal Bill, has since fractured into individuals, groups and vested political interests.

Although the 74-year-old, popularly called Anna, has attempted to stem the disintegration by announcing the formation in the near future of a more broad-based team, the unravelling may be partly due to circumstances beyond his control, and partly due to reasons of his own making or of the core committee he heads.

No one will disagree it was time for people to publicly start protesting against the unbelievable levels of corruption in India. But, the almost biblical scale of the response that Anna’s anti-corruption fast in August this year received, stunned the world and brought to the surface the underlying anger and disgust at the rot in the system.  

In the general euphoria and novelty of the common man’s cathartic convulsions, not seen since the socialist Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement for ‘Total Revolution’ in the 1970s, none in the Anna team really bothered to define what exactly corruption was. However, since the idea of and experience with “corruption” was all-pervasive and every individual without exception was either a perpetrator or a victim of it, or both, the response cut across all sections.

The core committee of the anti-corruption campaign, swept away by the veritable tsunami on India’s streets, did not pause to deconstruct corruption or, even if they did, did not place it in the public realm. This may now prove to be a fatal flaw.

Kashmir issue

The initial jolt was the statement by a core member and activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan who declared he was for a plebiscite by Kashmiris to decide the outcome of the disputed territory, between India and Pakistan. A previously unknown group, reportedly affiliated to the right-wing, pro-Hindu Sangh Parivar, physically attacked him saying he did not deserve to be in the anti-corruption movement as his view was “anti-national”.

Anna Hazare publicly stated he did not agree with Bhushan and expressed his unequivocal backing to Kashmir as an integral part of India and, for good measure, added that he would give up his life to defend it. Since these exchanges, Bhushan has apparently been marginalised and may well be on his way out of the committee.

Hazare stated he would give up his life to defend Kashmir [AFP]

The point of this illustration is not about Bhushan, but whether there is a link between the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir and the issue of corruption. It may be difficult to make a simplistic causal link between the two. Yes, the Kashmir dispute is a political issue and there are historical reasons for it. But is that all?

In recent years, there have been a series of reports on Indian security personnel targeting innocent civilians and covering up their mistakes. Is this not corruption of a different kind, one that parties on the right desist from raising? Given Anna’s views, would the core committee see it as an issue of corruption, albeit of a different kind. Or, does the Anna team let go the misdemeanour “in the national interest”?

Also, the federal government has generously ploughed in funds into the disputed Kashmir valley for development of the region. Its budgetary allocation for “reconstruction” is $5.6bn with $1.6bn this year alone, according to India’s federal union budget for this fiscal. Have the funds been used for the purposes they were meant for? 

The development index of the region indicate that Kashmir is not doing too badly on its economic indicators, ranking 10th among Indian states. But, according to reports, corruption reportedly dogs the state, as any other. Again, given Anna’s blanket view on Kashmir, will that not limit the movement from investigating whether the continuing, though sporadic, unrest has any link to a possible siphoning off funds meant for public good into private pockets? In other words, can corruption be divorced from the political process and viewed in isolation?

Irom Sharmila’s fast

Another issue is the one on which the courageous activist Irom Sharmila has been on fast for 11 years over a single demand: the removal from the north-eastern Manipur state of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958.

For the last few months, activists backing the 39-year-old Irom have repeatedly invited Anna to visit her in Manipur. But there has been no response. Not only that, neither Anna nor his committee has until now not stated what its stand on Irom and her cause is. So much so, in a recent interview, Irom, popularly called “Iron Lady of Manipur”, was quoted as saying that though she reveres him as a leader, the campaign was “somewhat artificial”. An indication, perhaps, of her disillusionment with the campaign.

Similar to Kashmir, as part of the special North-Eastern development package, Manipur has benefitted from generous funds allotted by the federal government for its development. The Congress party-led ruling coalition in New Delhi earlier this year doubled the allocation to $1.6bn for the region. Have these funds been used for what they were meant? Reports suggest that Manipur suffers from severe underdevelopment.

Irom was again quoted in a report as saying that corruption was the root of all evils and that Anna should “come to Manipur, the most corruption-affected region in the world”. The absence of any response from Anna or his team gives rise to doubts whether the anti-corruption campaign ends where Kashmir and Manipur begin.

RSS support

And, finally the role of the Anna Hazare committee in the October by-elections to the Hissar Assembly constituency in north India’s Haryana state. That a high-profile Anna associate and core committee member Arvind Kejriwal thought it valid to take a stance against the Congress party candidate, in effect supporting the opposition pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was an “in your face” moment for a section of those backing the anti-corruption upsurge.

The official reason of the Anna committee was to pressurise the Congress-led federal government to implement the anti-corruption Lokpal legislation. But, on the ground, targeting the Congress candidate sent out the signal that the opposition BJP was a clean alternative.

The naivete, if one were to describe it charitably, has already had its adverse consequences with the core committee becoming a laughing stock. For, according to reports quoting the National Election Watch, the Congress candidate had a cleaner record in politics compared to the rest in the fray.

To top it all, chief of the pro-Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Mohan Bhagvat, has publicly declared his organisation’s long-standing relationship with Anna Hazare and that the anti-corruption movement had its backing and involvement from the start. Anna was not obliged to announce his personal relationships with the RSS, but given the nature of the movement for transparency he was heading, keeping that a secret was a let-down. Not just that, it did have a bearing on his public postures before he went on his fast.

When he was on a recent tour in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, not once did he criticise the state BJP government and its then Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa who have been linked to a raging illegal iron ore mining scam in the state. At the time, a reporter who covered the meeting said it was visible to all that the RSS activists had organised the event and there were smirks all around. Now, with Bhagvat’s admission, it solidifies suspicion that it could all be part of a larger agenda, one that has the potential to drag the movement to its doom.

There is no exultation in the fall from the great moral heights that the anti-corruption movement had touched. Rather, it is a tragedy as the hopes and expectations of millions of Indians were raised dizzyingly only to see the gargantuan weave unravel to near-nothingness.

KS Dakshina Murthy is an editorial consultant with The Hindu, based in Bengaluru, India. He has written extensively on the US invasion of Iraq and West Asian politics.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.