Some decades ago, John Kenneth Galbraith described India as a "functional anarchy." The ongoing events in New Delhi centered on Anna Hazare and the Lokpal bill, a piece of legislation meant to curb corruption among civil servants and politicians, reiterate this point. These days it is unclear, however, which element of Galbraith's description -- the functional or the anarchical -- dominates.

Corruption has been a feature of the Indian political system for years, but the sheer scale and brazenness of recent swindles has generated a deep sense of outrage and cynicism. The result has been the revival of earlier demands to pass a bill in parliament that would create the office of Lokpal, or anti-corruption ombudsman. The man who rapidly emerged as the central figure of the movement this spring is Anna Hazare ("anna" is an affectionate honorific meaning "elder brother" in Marathi). Widely perceived as Gandhian, the seventy-three-year-old Hazare achieved prior acclaim for transforming his despondent village of Ralegan Siddhi into a prosperous community and as a maverick campaigner against corruption in his home state of Maharashtra.

After Hazare undertook a fast to demand legislation on the Lokpal this April, an edgy government agreed to form a joint committee of cabinet ministers and civil society representatives to negotiate a draft bill. The talks broke down and, accusing the government of negotiating in bad faith, Hazare attempted to renew his public protest on August 16, when he was taken into custody. He demanded and won permission to carry out another peaceful protest and renewed his fast against the government on August 19.

The ruling Congress Party has argued that, by stubbornly insisting on adding new clauses to the bill -- bringing the office of the prime minister under the purview of the Lokpal, for example -- after it had already been submitted to a standing committee of the parliament, Hazare and his negotiating team have attempted to usurp legislative powers. This argument smacks of lawyerly cleverness, since the official bill failed to reasonably address the concerns presented by Hazare and his team. Moreover, all of the provisions in any such bill would have to be debated and voted on in parliament.

Even as the government's position has come under fire, so, too, has Hazare's -- especially among India's elite English-speaking media. Leftist commentators have scoffed at the bourgeois nature of the campaign, since most of the protesters are urban and middle-class. Meanwhile, liberals have brought a different suite of charges against Hazare, which center on the propriety of his methods in a constitutional democracy. In their reckoning, the process of legislative change should remain entirely in the hands of elected representatives. What links these critiques together is their vehemence.

So strong is the dislike for Hazare and his ilk that many of his critics are starting to look like champions for what is arguably the most corrupt government India has seen since the country's independence from British rule.

The divide between Hazare and the intellectual elite is as much cultural as it is ideological. For many, Hazare is the uncouth country cousin one wishes to disown when in sophisticated company. But if Hazare's penchant for pat solutions to exceedingly complex social issues causes dismay in intellectual circles, it appeals to a broad cross-section of Indian society. Hazare has spent many decades living modestly and working for the public good, which lends him authenticity and trustworthiness. Most important, he has steadfastly advocated nonviolence, enabling many ordinary citizens to participate in the campaign. While there are fundamental differences between Hazare's philosophy and Gandhi's, Hazare idiomatically draws on the legacy of India's struggle for freedom.

It does Hazare no favors with the elite, however, that India's urban middle class, which the elite views with suspicion, constitutes the core of his following. The rising middle class is perceived to be self-serving and fundamentally illiberal in its attitudes. Still, using a critique of middle-class attitudes as a constant refrain masks the serious and legitimate public crisis of confidence in India's political institutions. By repeatedly and brazenly violating the law, large sections of the political class have made themselves unbelievably rich. Although there are many factors that have gone into the creation of this parallel economy, the nature of Indian capitalism is a significant ingredient.

For years, the Indian economy depended on state-driven growth. But in 1991, after a major fiscal crisis, it embraced Western-style capitalism. Over the last two decades, regardless of which party has been in power, capitalism has become increasingly entrenched and has reshaped much of the country's public policy. The government progressively downplayed social welfare and focused instead on promoting economic growth. It accelerated the large-scale transfer of public lands and resources into the hands of private interests. Such policies were justified because they were supposed to bring in new investment and increase economic efficiency.

In many cases, the policies were enacted without regard to the basic rights of large numbers of people who were living on land that was sold. And in many instances, the moves broke the country's own laws. The result has been the development of a culture of graft and collusion between politicians and businesspeople.

To be sure, the urban middle class has benefited from the policies of the last two decades. It has also been largely unmoved by the fate of the poor. But the corruption of public officials and politicians knows no distinction between class and station. In this context, Hazare's campaign resonated deeply.

Hazare's critics have correctly argued that the creation of yet another complicated government institution will hardly fix corruption. But this view does not account for two factors. First, harping about the naiveté of his campaign and the complexity of corruption is an evasive tactic that will only preserve the status quo. Second, it is scarcely believable that Hazare's team does not recognize that corruption is a systemic problem. The limited nature of their campaign reflects the fact that they were as unprepared as the government to deal with the level of popular emotion that Hazare unleashed. During his current fast, Hazare has sought to broaden the campaign to address the question of land rights and a wider cross-section of Indians has joined the protest.

More than a century ago, in his Hind Swaraj, Gandhi examined the institutions of representative democracy and found that they sometimes limit people's participation in the affairs of the government. For example, in both India and the United States, two large and mature democracies, politicians need significant amounts of money to run an election campaign. One outcome is a serious imbalance between the relative abilities of ordinary citizens and special interests to influence policy making and governance. Hazare and his supporters may be inadequate to the task of transforming Indian politics, but that, in itself, does not make their campaign spurious. India's democracy needs renewal, and it is exceedingly unlikely that the impetus will come from within the political establishment. In that sense, the current protests take on great significance. In the weeks ahead, a new chapter on the unique and ongoing story of Indian democracy may well be written.

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  • VENU MADHAV GOVINDU is an academic and author of a forthcoming biography of the Gandhian economic philosopher, J. C. Kumarappa.
  • More By Venu Madhav Govindu