Skip to content Skip to footer

Anna Hazare and the Gandhian Ideal

In the past week, the world has been captivated by the bitter confrontation between the Indian government and a short, bespectacled seventy-four-year-old man named Anna Hazare, a self-styled anti-corruption crusader.

In the past week, the world has been captivated by the bitter confrontation between the Indian government and a short, bespectacled seventy-four-year-old man named Anna Hazare, a self-styled anti-corruption crusader.

On August 16, Hazare’s arrest and internment in Tihar Jail, South Asia’s largest complex of high-security prisons, sparked candlelit marches across the country, leading a shaken government to order his release in less than twelve hours. In a stunning turnaround, Hazare refused to leave, insisting that the government remove all conditions on his “fast-unto-death” in protest of the government’s recent anti-corruption legislation, which he feels is not strong enough. Hazare walked out of Tihar a national hero on August 20 and is currently lodged within the expansive public grounds of Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, surrounded by tens of thousands of supporters, national flags, and mammoth portraits of Mohandas Karamchand (“Mahatma”) Gandhi. Today (Wednesday) is the ninth day he has refused to eat.

As an admirer of Gandhi’s, I have found the ceaseless comparisons of Hazare with Gandhi—propagated by the media, Hazare’s supporters, and Hazare himself—troubling and inappropriate. I am not alone in my reservations about Hazare, who is not a popular figure within left and progressive circles in India. His movement has been portrayed, so far accurately, as a narrow, middle-class, upper-caste phenomenon that is dangerously tinged with authoritarianism and Hindu nationalism.

Yet the reference to Gandhi should not be simply dismissed as a convenient political ploy. It speaks to what the Hazare movement wants to be, and to the transformative potential of what has transpired in the last few days. But if the idea of “Gandhi” is an end as much as it is a political means, can Hazare be brought closer to the vision of the one and only?

It is evident from his interviews and speeches that Hazare views corruption as the result of unchecked human greed. There is no further analysis. Gandhi too stressed the importance of personal ethics: “Be the change you want to see in the world” is one of his best-remembered axioms. But Gandhi’s understanding of why humans err was more profound, his diagnosis more structural. For Gandhi, personal greed had a wider social context, and was also rooted in the unethical choices and practices of the state. Gandhi would surely condemn India’s bitter scourge of corruption were he alive today. Unlike Hazare, however, he would demand a more systemic answer to a more preliminary question: How did this come to pass?

The character of corruption in India has not changed over time, though its magnitude certainly has. Conventional wisdom might suggest that the corruption that plagues India today is a vestige of the widespread corruption of the state-centered economy, which preceded the liberalizing reforms of 1991. Yet many of the worst cases of corruption in recent years were borne out of deregulation, privatization, and the fostering of public-private partnerships—the very processes that were meant to reduce the discretionary powers of public officials. An example is the notorious “2G spectrum scam,” in which cellphone licenses were sold for a fraction of their value, resulting in the loss of a staggering $39 billion to the national exchequer.

From a Gandhian perspective, such continuity is not surprising. Liberalization did not transform the core objectives of the state, only its methods and instruments. India still follows what Gandhi fundamentally opposed: a master-narrative of growth-at-all-cost that is at odds with the goal of a more equitable and ecologically conscious society. India remains wedded to a high-modernist development paradigm that traps it, as it always has, in a race to “catch up” with the West and, more recently, with China. There are repercussions to competing in this heady game of global one-upmanship: great impatience with those who choose not to participate (such as indigenous peoples and environmentalists) and intolerance of dissent and “messy politics” more generally. The newly affluent middle classes galvanized by Hazare—the business and corporate leaders who financed his campaign—are particularly guilty of such insensitivity.

One might ask how serious Hazare’s core supporters are about fighting corruption when their primary instinct has been to ignore or quash protest. A recent example illustrates this point. Earlier this month, the state auditor released its final report on the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The 744-page document revealed that the games, held in Delhi last year, were not only unjustifiably expensive (with a price tag of $4.1 billion), but also massively corrupt (some $1.6 billion are said to have gone missing). Yet to some, the auditor’s review was not surprising. In the years leading up to the games, hundreds of human rights advocates, student groups, and independent activists had expressed fears about the event’s flawed planning. Slum-dwellers were being evicted. Environmental norms were being violated. There were many signs of fraud. Hazare’s middle-class supporters heeded none of these proverbial red flags, though they later expressed shock and outrage at the auditor’s report. Rather, as the games drew closer, the event was eagerly celebrated as one that would affirm India’s “world-class” status. Critics were dismissed, even condemned, as unpatriotic killjoys.

This is not to say that middle-class Indians, estimated to be 300 million strong, have no material basis for their complaints, or that they do not recognize that corruption is rampant in both the public and private sectors. School principals will ask for a “donation” before they admit your child. Passport officials will direct you to fee-charging “agents” in return for clearing your file. If you’d like a copy of your birth certificate, you’ll have to give baksheesh (tips). If you’d like a company to award you a contract for changing the light bulbs in its office, you’d better be prepared to offer a “cut” to a lower administrator, or he’ll make sure his boss never hears of your bid. The middle class is by no means an insignificant victim of corruption.

Its suffering cannot compare, however, to the miseries endured by the poor: the loss of income and livelihood, when government officials and private developers conspire to cheat farmers of their land; the hunger, when subsidized food, meant for the poor, is siphoned off and sold on the open market; the missed opportunities, when teachers employed by government schools take up private tuition instead of delivering their classes.

Hazare and his supporters have been silent on a range of recent developments—such as illegal mining and the land acquisition process for SEZs (special economic zones)—in which corruption hurts poor farmers, fisherfolk, and indigenous communities rather than well-heeled city-dwellers. Reckless and rapacious economic transformations have proceeded unchecked, even as Hazare has prayed, fasted, and stressed the importance of vegetarianism and teetotaling. Gandhi would surely have been critical of such unwillingness to connect personal ideals of moral living with a broader vision of social and environmental justice. While Gandhi curried favor with wealthy business elites—a strategy that earned him enduring opprobrium from India’s Communist Left—his primary base of support was always the rural poor, in whose service he advocated a smaller-scale and more ecologically conscious road to “development” than the one India ultimately adopted. Hazare, in contrast, has yet to formulate a position that challenges the neoliberal objectives and ill-founded nationalism of his financiers and followers.

I am not arguing that every protester should be armed with an erudite analysis of national and global problems. Gandhi would have resisted such banal elitism. Yet it is the responsibility of Hazare and his advisers, who now have an enviable upper hand over the government, to develop a platform that addresses not only the symptoms of corruption, but also its root causes. Only then can they reasonably evoke Gandhi’s name.

If Hazare's diagnosis of the problem of corruption is un-Gandhian, so is his prescription of a Leviathan-like “Lokpal,” based on the concept of the “Ombudsman” in Western democracies. While Gandhi would probably not worry about the monitoring of elected representatives by a Lokpal, he would surely raise questions, if not oppose, the creation of another colossal and centralized state institution, over which ordinary citizens appear to have little control. The seven-member Lokpal bench proposed by Hazare’s Jan Lokpal Bill will comprise former judges, bureaucrats, and other “persons of eminence,” ceding enormous power to “experts” cut off from the grassroots.

Despite apparent differences, then, the government and Hazare have the same technocratic approach to reducing corruption, centered on correcting individual behavior. The immediate reason for Hazare’s hunger strike and the events of last week is a bitter dispute between the government and “Team Anna” (Hazare and his advisers) over which version of the Lokpal Bill the parliament should accept. This face-off notwithstanding, the government’s bill differs from Hazare’s not in terms of basic design, but in terms of questions such as who can be investigated by the Lokpal (Hazare wants the prime minister included, the government does not), the sorts of investigatory powers the Lokpal will enjoy (Hazare wants wiretaps, the government does not), and whether whistleblowers will be protected by law (Hazare wants a guarantee that they will, the government does not).

The government’s bill is certainly more conservative than Hazare’s, but both are top-down in their orientation. While the idea of a Lokpal is a good one, the institution, on its own, is unlikely to make more than a minor dent in corruption. An anti-corruption route more in keeping with Gandhian principles is that of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). The NCPRI’s approach genuinely empowers ordinary citizens by recognizing that they are entitled to a transparent and accountable government. Under the Right to Information Act, passed by the Indian parliament in 2005 in response to pressure from the NCPRI, any citizen can ask to review the government’s records and documents. The NCPRI has also created space for voicing grassroots concerns, through locally grounded mechanisms such as Jan Sunwais (public hearings). “Team Anna” would do well to build on the NCPRI’s pioneering work in its ongoing war on corruption.

Still, comparisons of Hazare and Gandhi are not entirely without substance. His willingness to sacrifice himself for a cause is both a Gandhian principle and strategy. Given the history of India’s anti-colonial movement, the government’s labeling of Hazare’s fast-unto-death as “illegal suicide” is both dishonest and offensive. The government’s justification of Hazare’s arrest in the interest of “law and order” and its description of Hazare’s supporters as “armchair fascists, over-ground Maoists, and closet anarchists” are nothing short of reactionary. So is the government’s fast-unraveling attempt to portray Hazare as personally corrupt or the puppet of a “foreign hand.” Even those with a rudimentary understanding of Indian history know that these were precisely the sorts of arguments employed by the British to counter Gandhi.

The government’s argument that Hazare is a threat to parliamentary democracy is also disingenuous. Hazare is not calling for regime change, nor is he disputing the parliament’s authority to make laws. Furthermore, even if Hazare’s ideas were truly revolutionary (which they are not), the concept of parliamentary supremacy is not absolute. What about popular sovereignty, the political principle that the legitimacy of the state is created by the will or consent of its people, who are ultimately the source of political power? According to this ideal, distrust of government is healthy, and it is the duty of citizens to monitor their elected representatives. Many important changes would have not occurred were lawmakers simply left to their own devices to enact just laws. People such as Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had to dispute and disobey existing laws in order to pave the way for better ones. Perhaps Hazare, too, will be remembered for forcing open doors when no one else would—for jolting India into starting a countrywide discussion on corruption, of a scale that small, local civil society groups could not possibly hope to initiate.

But despite his high-voltage personality and ability to inspire—which are reminiscent of Gandhi—Hazare has limitations that Gandhi did not have. Unlike Gandhi, Hazare is not a deep thinker. Nor is he an educated man. More worrying, he seems to lack the Mahatma’s sense of compassion and good judgment. Hazare’s critics say that he has a soldier’s view of corruption rather than that of the spiritual leader he claims to be. He is notorious for advocating the death penalty in the worst cases of corruption, public flogging for “ungodly” vices such as alcoholism, and even forced vasectomies to curb population growth.

So far, Hazare’s team of advisers has managed to keep his tyrannical proclivities in check and has played to his strengths, arguing that he better represents the “common man” than refined dynastic leaders such as Rahul Gandhi, of the ruling Congress Party, or the upper-middle-class heroes of India’s freedom struggle. But “Team Anna” will have to do a lot more if Hazare is to become more palatable to other civil society groups and social movements, whose support it will need in order to endure beyond these tense days of brinkmanship. One way that “Team Anna” could genuinely succeed in emulating Gandhi is by building a multifaceted and inclusive alliance against corruption—not only individual acts of corruption by unethical public servants, but also processes, such as unregulated mining by private companies, that have precipitated some of the most injurious forms of corruption.

There are hopeful signs that such a transformation is already underway. Hazare has already broadened his demands beyond corruption to issues such as farmers’ rights to land, the rights of laborers to humane work conditions, and even nuclear nonproliferation. His cause has acquired important allies, such as social activist Aruna Roy, who is a prominent leader of the NCPRI. Besides improving Hazare’s image—which is still that of a man who surrounds himself with cops and swamis (holy men)—Roy’s intervention may help temper some of the more authoritarian aspects of Hazare’s version of the Lokpal Bill. She has proposed several generally friendly amendments to Hazare’s draft, such as that there be three offices of the Lokpal rather than one, each covering a different branch of the government. Roy, however, remains critical of Hazare’s fast, which she sees as an arm-twisting technique that “derides” democratic institutions.

Hazare’s movement, furthermore, has now expanded beyond the urban middle class and Hindu upper caste. Major civil society actors, such as the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements and the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board, have pledged support to Hazare, as have hundreds of students’ groups, farmers’ groups, senior citizens’ societies, taxi drivers’ unions, and small vendors’ associations. An example of the latter are Mumbai’s dabbawallas, who went on strike for the first time in 120 years on August 19 to protest Hazare’s arrest. (Dabbawallas are a unique service industry in Mumbai and other large metropolises: they deliver boxed lunches—dabbas—to office workers in the inner city).

As I picked my way through the jam-packed Ramlila grounds last Sunday—some 20,000 people had shown up, with thousands more lingering in long lines—I was struck by the diversity of the crowds: Christians, Muslims, and Hindus, young and old, mothers and babies, rickshaw-pullers and stylish men sporting designer sunglasses. A joyful, celebratory atmosphere prevailed. The experience left no doubt in my mind that the Hazare “phenomenon,” as it is often derisively called, is quickly becoming an authentically broad-based mass movement. Only the most cynical will deny its significance or insist that it remains a rigid “one-man” show.

Anna Hazare is still an unfinished story. He may never be Gandhi, but the next few weeks will reveal whether his team of advisers and the mass movement he has inspired can live up to the Gandhian ideals of empathy, inclusiveness, and systemic change. In the face of this tremendous possibility, Hazare’s immediate demand—the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill—is of secondary importance.

[Edited 8/24/11: The article has been amended to reflect Aruna Roy’s criticisms of Anna Hazare.]

Dissent is a quarterly, left-liberal magazine of politics and culture.