New Delhi: The botched arrest of activist Anna Hazare rapidly snowballed into spontaneous protests against corruption across the country, taking the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) by complete surprise.
A shocked government continued to grope for solutions, even as it fended off sharp political attacks from a united opposition during an impromptu debate in the Lok Sabha over the arrest of Hazare, and watched helplessly as support continued to rise for the 74-year-old activist.
The political fallout is also causing rifts within the UPA as some sections have begun a blame game. Similar divisions are plaguing the Congress party, handicapped by the absence of party president Sonia Gandhi, who is recuperating in the US from a surgery to treat an undisclosed illness.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, pointed out that the government’s response to the situation was inadequate and it had failed to put up a credible action plan.
“There is absolutely no credible counter-narrative in the Congress that one can latch on to,” he said. “This is politically a very complicated game.”
Meanwhile, Hazare continued to keep the government on the edge by refusing to back down on his demand to hold an unconditional fast to rally support for the Lokpal Bill, which was summarily rejected by the UPA. Several rounds of negotiations between the police and Hazare’s team had failed to break the deadlock.
Spurred by messages on social networking sites, thousands marched from India Gate to Jantar Mantar in central Delhi, shouting anti-government slogans and declaring solidarity for Hazare and his fight against corruption. Strikingly, the demography of those agitating included a significant section of females and youth.
The huge crowds brought normal life to a standstill in sections of the city. Similar responses were witnessed in other cities such as Mumbai, Bangalore, Guwahati, Kolkata and Chennai.
Reflecting popular sentiment, Sunil Sharma, a 55-year-old businessman from Jalandhar, who came to the city on Tuesday to participate in the protest, said: “This issue should have been raised earlier, but there was no leader capable of leading such an agitation. You will find a lot of young people here as they are fighting for their future.”
Nitin Rajasingh, a medical student at Lady Hardinge Medical College, was at the protest march with 80 other students supporting civil society’s Lokpal Bill and also offering medical help to those who may require it.
In Parliament, the government came under fire for arresting the rights activist on Tuesday morning and putting him in Tihar Jail. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement in Parliament justifying the arrest as “inevitable” to maintain peace and tranquillity only further irked the opposition. “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,” Singh said in the statement, which was later described by senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sushma Swaraj as a “bundle of lies”.
In a candid observation, Arun Jaitley, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, conceded that the polity was out of sync with public sentiment. “It is a wake-up call for all of us unless we put our house in order. The people of this country are becoming restless,” he said.
Analysts say Hazare has now become a rallying point for citizens to vent their frustration on issues ranging beyond corruption.
“Lot of these protesters may not know what is Lokpal Bill or what Hazare wants. Hazare just gave an opportunity or a window to vent their frustration against corruption,” said Sandeep Shastri, political scientist and pro-vice-chancellor of Jain University and director of International Academy for Creative Teaching, Bangalore.
While Mehta believes that the UPA, given its lack of credibility, will find it difficult to overcome the current political crisis, Shastri argued that it showed that democracy was not just about elections. “But a common culture should be developed to have greater avenues to know what the government is doing and not doing,” Shastri said.
Ruhi Tewari, Utpal Bhaskar and Nidhi Misra contributed to this story.