By Ravi Velloor
This must be the French Revolution with Indian characteristics.
The shoeless ones pouring in from the hinterland to support the fasting man onstage suggest a nation so sickened by its effete and corrupt power elite that they will clutch at anything. Hope for them is a 74-year-old man reclining on bolsters. Every time he stirs, a cry goes up: "Inquilab, zindabad! Long live the revolution."
Declining all food and accepting only water for sustenance, Mr. Anna Hazare has held the nation in thrall as he steadfastly demands that the government accept his version of an anti-corruption Bill, and his alone, and have it passed quickly in Parliament.
Once in a while, his hand extends to tap his thigh, keeping time to patriotic music being played to the crowd at New Delhi's Ramlila Maidan, estimated at more than 60,000 on Sunday. Across the nation, in town and countryside, thousands of similar meetings are being held.
In Protest Central that is Delhi, hundreds of cool young things scamper shiny-eyed about the muddy fairgrounds, aware of a vague sense of being part of history. Some wear cloth caps with pointy ends, "I am Anna" written in blue on the headgear. Others sport armbands with the Indian tricolour. There is much embracing. Someone takes an electric guitar on stage and another, long hair tied back in a ponytail, begins a mellifluous tune in support of The Cause.
For a time, the great caste and class divides of India melt away. In an atmosphere reminiscent of the Woodstock music festival, everyone agrees the government is rotten, and everyone wants to do something about it. And while nine out of 10 people accosted by this writer had not read the Bill for a Lokpal, or ombudsman, they all figure Mr. Hazare must be right. Why else would a skittish government jail him, only to sheepishly release him in the face of a national outcry?
This surely is the magic of India, with its established freedoms to dissent and challenge. A powerful government rattled by the will of a single man's moral force, his message carried to every corner by an unfettered media.
But walking around Ramlila Maidan on Sunday, it was difficult to avoid a sense of unease as well: Is the festival of democracy descending into farce?
At one corner of the open field sat, cross-legged, the half-naked form of an Indian sadhu, eyes closed in deep meditation. A few metres away, farmer Balram Yadav from a village in Haryana was dancing like a dervish to a transcendental tune playing in his head.
Meanwhile, camera shutters of a hundred Nikons and Nokias rattled and clicked as the smart set, some clad in Armani jeans and Cavalli eyewear, positioned themselves so as to make sure the huge stage with its picture of Gandhi is seen in the backdrop.
Mr. Hazare's team has adroitly captured for themselves the magic of the Mahatma, whose principal weapons to overthrow the British Raj were non-violence, non-cooperation, and the threat of the death fast. The day before his arrest last week and upon his release three days later, Mr. Hazare, who sometimes speaks of "shooting" the corrupt, was at Gandhi's mausoleum to pay homage. Indeed, pictures of him kneeling there upstaged visuals of the prime minister addressing the nation on Independence Day.
But while no one grudges Mr. Hazare his Gandhian moorings, some have begun to concede that the government may have a point when it complains about his "my Bill or no Bill" rigidity. Gandhi, after all, operated in an era when Indians did not have democratic freedoms. Besides, for him, a fast unto death was always a last resort. Some serious commentators in India think Mr. Hazare's tactics come close to blackmail.
"Gandhi never claimed that God and truth were exclusively and solely on his side," noted film-maker Mahesh Bhatt.
Once a jolly, rum-loving driver in the Indian Army, Mr. Hazare turned his attention to social causes after reading the works of Swami Vivekananda, a reformer from Bengal. Of his 15 fasts to date, 13 have been targeted at the Maharashtra state government. Almost always, he has succeeded in bending his intended target to his will.
Thus emboldened, he boasted in April that Premier Manmohan Singh may have been compelled to resign if he had continued fasting another couple of days. "India is Anna and Anna is India," key Hazare ally Kiran Bedi, India's most famous woman police officer, said last week.
In the incoherent narrative that sometimes emanates from his camp, Mr. Hazare and his supporters say they have faith in Parliament, but not in its MPs. To be sure, civil society activists may have a point when they say they don't trust parliamentarians. In the lower house, no fewer than 150 of the 544 MPs have faced criminal cases, according to the non-governmental organisation National Elections Watch. These came from both the opposition and ruling parties.
And action has certainly been tardy: A Lokpal Bill was first proposed 42 years ago, but has remained stuck despite the efforts of eight standing committees of Parliament.
Observers marvel at the sophistication of Mr. Hazare's campaign, India Against Corruption, with key members assigned precise responsibilities ranging from media management to crowd control. Could this all be the work of a largely unlettered man? While few agree with suggestions of a "foreign hand" at work, many believe that he may be unduly influenced by a coterie around him.
And here, much attention centres on Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, a Ramon Magsaysay Award-winning activist known for exposing corruption. An obsessive campaigner, Mr. Kejriwal insists the government Bill is a sham and it must switch the text with the one offered by his group and ram it through Parliament before the current session ends on Aug 30. Some say his advice leads to Mr. Hazare taking positions that he may well rue in the future.
Among those who have expressed misgivings is Mr. Kejriwal's former mentor, Ms. Aruna Roy, another Magsaysay laureate. She has voiced concern about the scope of the Hazare Bill, with its all-powerful ombudsman who would monitor politicians, bureaucrats and the judiciary, as well as about the truculence, "the props and the choreography" of the campaign.
"Anna Hazare," says Ms. Roy, "is wrong to undermine democratic institutions."
Source: The Daily Star, Dacca