Hazare and India's Democracy

The Limits of the Anti-Corruption Protests

Courtesy Reuters

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

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