Thursday, August 18, 2011

Anti-corruption crusader’s arrest a PR nightmare for Indian government

by stephanie nolen Globe and Mail
Aug. 17, 2011

India’s central government ignited a political crisis when it put the
anti-corruption leader Anna Hazare in jail – and then, they couldn’t get
him out.

Mr. Hazare, a 74-year-old long-time activist who has become the face of a
populist movement against graft, was ordered released Tuesday night. But
he refused to leave the prison until the government withdrew restrictions
on his planned protest. He remained behind bars Thursday morning, but he
was reported to have agreed to a deal with police to allow him to stage a
15-day hunger strike in a public park. The government of Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh, meanwhile, was left fumbling awkwardly.

Supporters of anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare place a portrait of
Mahatma Gandhi, bottom, near a marking on the road that reads 'Anna'
outside the Tihar prison where Hazare was holding his hunger strike in New
Delhi, India.

Mr. Singh addressed parliament on the crisis Wednesday morning, one of the
worst he has faced in his seven years in office, insisting that Mr. Hazare
sought to thwart democratic institutions. In response, the main opposition
party seized the opportunity to speak for the people.

“How is it that this government has lost all sense of statecraft – of how
political agitations are to be dealt with?” demanded Arun Jaitley, a
senior leader with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. “You may not
agree with what they have to say, but how can you take away, snatch away,
their right to say it?”

The Lok Sabha, the lower house, fell silent as he spoke, and Mr. Singh sat
stone-faced with his arms crossed, looking like a man under siege.

As Parliament debated the government’s actions, street protests in support
of Mr. Hazare spread. In the southern city of Hyderabad, lawyers boycotted
court and students skipped class, while small crowds marched there and in
Mumbai. The geographic range of the protests was striking –several
thousand farmers marched in the eastern state of Assam, there were sit-ins
across the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, and a major rail line was
blocked by protesters in Uttar Pradesh, in the heart of the country.

Mr. Hazare, a social activist, is usually based in a village in the
western state of Maharashtra, where he advocates living by Gandhian
principles. He rose to his current prominence when he came to New Delhi in
April to stage a “fast unto death,” unless the government created a
lokpal, or ombudsperson, with sweeping powers to investigate corruption.
Mr. Hazare was angry, in particular, at what’s being called the “2G scam,”
in which the former telecommunications minister held a corrupt auction for
the country’s cellular network license and cost the treasury as much as
$40-billion. The ex-minister, plus a handful of senior government figures
and business people, are now awaiting trial, held in the same jail that
Mr. Hazare won’t leave.

The grand corruption cases anger many Indians, but it is the daily rota of
bribes they must pay to obtain basic services that are the chief
preoccupation of Mr. Hazare’s largely middle-class, urban supporters.

Back in April, the government capitulated on the fourth day of his fast
and invited his supporters to help draft an anti-corruption bill, even
though there are already strong laws in place, if not enforced. But when
the bill was tabled a few weeks ago, in a form that left the office of the
Prime Minister outside the lokpal purview, Mr. Hazare said he would gather
his followers and resume his fast this week. He insisted that it must be
his law or he would not eat until he died – a “non-violent” protest
technique Mahatma Gandhi used.

New Delhi police ordered him to agree to conditions limiting the duration
of the fast and the crowd size; when Mr. Hazare refused on Tuesday, they
arrested him. That proved a monumental blunder, as even people who
resented Mr. Hazare’s political methods were outraged that his right to
protest would be denied. The government’s about-face 12 hours later did
little to calm the anger; the Indian National Congress-led government has
looked inept indeed.

In Parliament, the Prime Minister heaped criticism on Mr. Hazare’s
tactics. “The path that he has chosen to impose his draft of a bill upon
Parliament is totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for
our parliamentary democracy,” Mr. Singh said of Mr. Hazare. “Those who
believe that their voice and their voice alone represents the will of 1.2
billion people should reflect deeply on that position. They must allow the
elected representatives of the people in Parliament to do the job that
they were elected for.”

However sensible his words, they did little to calm his critics; Mr.
Singh, often criticized as weak or reclusive in his handling of this
crisis over the past six months, once more seemed out of touch. The
surprise winner in the situation Wednesday was the opposition BJP, which
had until now proven unable to capitalize on the government’s bumbling,
despite the ease of the target. In his 20-minute response to the Prime
Minister in Parliament, Mr. Jaitley articulated widely held sentiments.
“The issue today is not whether we agree with your version of the bill or
their version of the bill – the issue is how is it that you have handled a
political crisis?”

He implored the Prime Minister to show backbone and “political will” in
tackling corruption. “Smugness, which has become a characteristic of this
government; arrogance, which has become a characteristic of this
government – there are not a methodology by which corruption can be

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