Indians look to activist to solve their woes

Associated Press
Supporters of India's anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare shout slogans in solidarity with Hazare as they protest near Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's residence in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011. Singh seized control of a national anti-corruption debate Thursday, calling on Parliament to discuss protesters' reform proposals and appealing to the weakening 74-year-old activist to end his hunger strike. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)
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NEW DELHI (AP) — Rice will be cheaper. Police won't accept bribes. Politicians will be honest. And if you're better qualified, you'll get that promotion over the boss' son.

Supporters of activist Anna Hazare believe his continuing hunger strike will achieve all this and more — even though the legislation he is pushing would just be a first step in tackling India's corruption and a far cry from creating the utopia they imagine.

Many of his followers stand by his demand for the passage of stringent legislation to create an anti-corruption watchdog that would police the prime minister, the judiciary and all levels of bureaucracy. The government says elements of the proposal are unworkable and unconstitutional.

But the details of — and arguments against — such a bill are incidental to many of the tens of thousands who flock to his New Delhi protest camp to sing patriotic songs, punch fists in the air and shout slogans against sleaze. For them the issue is simple: They have had it with corruption, and the diminutive 74-year-old protest leader is their best hope for defeating it.

"A lot of people don't know anything about the bill. There is a basket of issues that have brought people together," including unemployment, food inflation and bribery, said opposition lawmaker Varun Gandhi, a breakaway member of the Gandhi family that leads the governing Congress Party.

"A generation of India that was apathetic, that was happy to be silent passive observers, have deemed themselves powerful enough to become agents of change. I am one of those people," he said.

Hazare — a former army truck driver credited with later turning a decrepit village into a model community — has enchanted many Indians with his stubborn stance against a political system many mistrust, and which has been blamed for multibillion-dollar scandals. The sums are mindboggling in a country where 800 million people scrape by on less than $2 a day.

Hazare sits before a massive photo of Mohandas K. Gandhi on his protest stage, and the allusion to the liberation leader — who is of no relation to the Gandhi family — has been powerful. Tens of thousands now wear his trademark white Gandhi cap emblazoned: "I am Anna."

"When Anna wins, corruption will end," 23-year-old air force technician Rajesh Kumar said. "A lot of politicians' money is in the Swiss bank. It will all come back."

He was not alone in hoping for a sea change from Hazare's fast.

"This bill will make an impact on the people, because it starts with us. It will set an example for the whole world, showing them this is how to deal with corruption," said business student Bumika Aggarwal, 19.

She was sketchy on the details of Hazare's proposal, but believed it would end the schism between rich and poor and force Indians to behave honestly.

The ruling coalition has consistently urged people to be patient while lawmakers work out the complicated details of putting corruption checks in place throughout government.

"There are no simple solutions," said lawmaker Rahul Gandhi, a top Congress Party leader. "Witnessing the events of the last few days it would appear that the enactment of a single bill will usher in a corruption-free society. I have serious doubts about this belief."

Dozens of pro-Hazare rallies have been sparked across India, with wide support from trade unions, doctors, rickshaw drivers, public workers, students and even some state leaders. One man shouting Hazare slogans set himself on fire near Gandhi's memorial, leaving 70-80 percent of his body burned before police put out the flames.

Hazare's aide Kiran Bedi said his bill was mostly concerned with helping the poor, who, she said on Twitter, have "been like cattle milked for votes." That was why he was so insistent on putting the low-level bureaucracy under the watchdog, she said.

"Hazare is making efforts to alleviate the plight of the poor people," said housewife Bhu Devi, 60, from neighboring Haryana state. "His efforts can't go to waste, given the surge in public support across the country."

Others said they looked forward to not paying petty bribes to greedy police or for basic services.

Car parts inspector Mohan Baskota, who traveled to the protest from the northeast state of Assam, said Hazare somehow gave him hope he might get promoted over his employer's son. "And when corruption goes, the food (inflation) rate will also slow down," the 24-year-old said, without explaining the link between rising prices and graft.

Hazare's critics say he is misusing the national anger at corruption to achieve his own more specific agenda.

"Anna and his team need to accept the simple truth that the mass support which they are getting is for their campaign against corruption and not for the (watchdog) bill," retired police official Prakash Singh wrote in The Times of India.

Some also have criticized Hazare for failing to see the protest as an opportunity to educate the tens of thousands of youths who have rallied to his side about the complicated issue of corruption and the differences between the government's watchdog bill and his own.

Political analyst Prabhat Patnaik branded Hazare's movement as messianism in a recent opinion piece in The Hindu, saying the activist was leading a swarm of enthused spectators with meaningless hyberbole like saying the government's bill was for "the promotion of corruption."

"The occasion is not used to enlighten them," he wrote. "If the venue was one where discussions, debates, and informative speeches were taking place, the matter would be different, but those alas have no place in the political activity around messianism."

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Follow Katy Daigle on Twitter at http://twitter.com/katydaigle

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