Anna Hazare Isn't Gandhi, But His Movement is What India Needs

Vidyadhar Date wrote for the Times of India for thirty-six years.

Anna Hazare is a simple man, barely able to speak English, from a rural area with little formal education. He used to drive trucks in the Indian Army.  But this simple man has shaken India to the core with his uncompromising anti-corruption crusade.  His strength lies in his zest for public welfare, his deep personal honesty, and his Gandhian values of non-violence and simplicity.  He just brought the Indian government, headed by Cambridge-educated economist Manmohan Singh, to its knees.  And rallying behind him are tens of thousands of young people, not to mention the middle class of India.

Unlike other prominent Gandhians, Hazare does not have an upper-class background.  Lest we forget Mahatma Gandhi himself studied law in London and was a practicing attorney in South Africa, where he began his non-violent struggle.  Hazare, however, has very humble origins, and he maintains this by living a Spartan bachelor’s life in a room in his village temple.  His recent thirteen-day-long fast in New Delhi kept news channels busy twenty-four hours a day, and the Indian Parliament was forced to agree to pass a law curbing the rampant corruption in India’s public life.

The day Hazare ended his recent fast was historic for another reason.  It marked the anniversary of the historic March on Washington in August 1963 led by Martin Luther King, Jr.  Hazare’s movement is seen by some of his critics as an infringement on the rights of Parliament to legislate.  But popular protest movements have always played an important part in shaping legislation.  It was the civil rights movement on the streets of America that ultimately led to the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Sadly, the Gandhian legacy that MLK espoused is dead in the United States, but it survives in India, albeit feebly.  True, Hazare is no Gandhi, and he’s often politically incorrect, but he preserves in him some of the Gandhian legacy.

Like American politics, Indian politics are heavily influenced by corporate interests and lobbying. It’s this kind of politics that seems to inspire some the members the Indian parliament who are the most hostile to Anna Hazare.

Manish Tewari, the spokesperson for the Indian National Congress (the political party, not the Parliament of India), who infamously accused Hazare of being covered in corruption from head to toe, belongs to a very pro-American element in the ruling party, shows a very strong elitist, upper-class, pro-corporate bias.  He is part of an apparatus in which nearly sixty Indian MPs have received training in “political leadership” at Yale University.  It is heavily supported by corporations, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), and is run by the India-U.S. Forum of Parliamentarians, led by Abhishek Singhvi, another Congress spokesperson and corporate lawyer.

It is this kind of elitist politics which explains the virulent opposition among influential congressmen to the Gandhian methods of the current movement for cleaner governance.  It is not surprising that MLK was subjected to malicious surveillance by the FBI, and it’s not surprising that the leading lights of the Anna-led movement are being subjected to inquiries.

This is not to suggest that all is well with the anti-corruption movement.  It has its problems.  Recently, I was surprised to find a strong presence from the HSBC Group at a meeting in Mumbai with the keynote speaker Kiran Bedi, a top ranking former woman police officer and an anti-corruption leader.  She didn’t turn up.  Another oddity was that the meeting was organized in the air-conditioned auditorium of the Hare Krishna movement in Juhu, not easily accessible to most Mumbaikars.  Any campaign against venal politicians will not carry much weight if it does not question corporate dominance as well.

Kiran Bedi has accused of contempt of  Parliament with her parody of  MPs.  But veteran lawyer Ram Jethmalani said on television recently that many MPs were like dacoits.  He has not drawn the wrath of politicians.  It’s the movement leaders who are being singled out.

The present Indian cabinet includes some of the best-educated people, from the prime minister on down.  But what the country needs more urgently are leaders who are down to earth and who care for the common people, rather than corporate profits.  The Best and the Brightest, the title of David Halberstam’s book, aptly conveys the point.  The best and the brightest are not necessarily the best.

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