New Delhi: The government seems to have blinked first on the second day of social activist Anna Hazare’s protest against corruption, which has caught the imagination of the nation’s middle class, many people on Twitter and the international media.
On Wednesday evening, even as a crowd of young people participated in a spontaneous candle-light procession near India Gate to express their support for Hazare, the government, which was dismissive of the threat of the protest on Monday, was scrambling to find a response.
Later in the evening, Nationalist Congress Party leader and Union minister Sharad Pawar, whose appointment to a ministerial group on corruption had raised the hackles of some of Hazare’s supporters, stepped down from the panel.
A prominent member of corporate India also expressed support. “This is a movement whose heart and voice cannot be ignored,” Anand Mahindra tweeted.
Earlier in the day, the government’s representatives had made the right conciliatory noises about Hazare and his protest.
Interestingly, the government’s change of heart (if it is indeed that) came on a day when one of the country’s most respected political analysts questioned the wisdom of almost blackmailing the government to draft a more powerful anti-corruption Bill and the effectiveness of such a Bill to tackle corruption.
Still, the government’s hand might have been forced by the groundswell of popular support for Hazare and the backdrop of the protest itself—assembly elections in four crucial states.
For at least 10 months now, the government has been buffeted by controversies related to corruption—the organization of the Commonwealth Games, the allotment of spectrum to telecom firms and the appointment of an individual facing graft accusations as the country’s top anti-corruption officer. The government hopes a good performance in the polls will erase the bad memories of the past months, refurbish its image and strengthen its moral authority to govern.
‘We like Hazare’
That was the refrain of both the Congress party and the government on Wednesday. Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan told reporters that the party “respects” Hazare and is “committed in its crusade against corruption”.
This presented a contrast to Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari’s comment on Monday that in a democratic country, “anybody is free to” go on a hunger strike.
And they indicate a change of heart from last Thursday when Hazare met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to discuss the anti-corruption legislation, the Lokpal Bill, and, finding him unreceptive, decided to launch a protest.
Hazare wrote to Singh again on Wednesday intimating him about the hunger strike and asking him to take “credible steps at stemming corruption”. Addressing media persons on the second day of his protest, he said: “Today, the government is not bending, but I am sure one day it will.”
For those who came in late
Hazare is demanding that the government should set up a joint committee with half of its members from civil society and treat the Jan Lokpal Bill as a working draft for its own anti-corruption legislation. The Jan Lokpal Bill is an alternative Bill drafted by members of civil society for the proposed Lokpal Bill and gives officials appointed under its aegis police powers. It also asks for stringent punishment for wrong-doers and brings almost every elected and public official in the country under its purview.
The Lokpal Bill, which aims at providing for the “establishment of the institution of Lokpal to inquire into allegations of corruption against public functionaries”, has been introduced in Parliament eight times since 1968, but never passed.
The case against
Not everyone is convinced a hunger strike is the best way to force the government’s hand.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president and chief executive of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, said the protest raised several issues. “First, citizens should have a right to show mobilization around the issue of corruption. The second is whether or not a fast unto death is a right way to do it in a constitutional democracy,” he said. “The presumption should be that these kind of tactics should be used only in really extreme circumstances and I don’t think these are those circumstances.”
Mehta added that the Lokpal Bill is not the best way of tackling corruption. “It will potentially create more problems than it will solve. I don’t think in a democracy anybody has the right to morally coerce the government to accept a particular solution, particularly when there is a very good faith; genuine disagreement around.” Mehta’s views are shared by a few others, but this argument has been all but drowned out by the overwhelming public support for Hazare.
Tweets and likes
Tweets flowed in in huge numbers with a special hash tag dedicated to Hazare by #annahazare and a Facebook page in his name gained 5,482 “likes”. The international media has been writing about Hazare’s fast. While The Washington Post called it a “multi-city campaign” by people “fed-up with corruption scandals”, a blog on The Wall Street Journal compared the turnout of people in the Capital similar to the recent World Cup victory.
At the Jantar Mantar circle, an ancient observatory which is the site of the protest, a special stand has been set up for TV journalists. Supporters have been coming in from all parts of the country.
Hazare and other organizers of the strike have endeared themselves to their supporters by refusing to associate themselves with any of the political parties, many of whom are obviously keen to leverage the protest to their own advantage.
The 72-year-old Hazare, who was visited by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Maneka Gandhi, Prakash Javadekar and Janata Dal-United chief Sharad Yadav on Tuesday, has asked politicians not to attend his fast any more. The organizers refused to allow Indian National Lok Dal chief Om Prakash Chautala and Bharatiya Janshakti Party leader Uma Bharti from sharing the dais with Hazare.