Personal leadership: Anti-corruption crusader’s arrest a PR nightmare for Indian government

Personal leadership often means standing up to forces that might seem all-powerful. Yet as this unfolding story in India demonstrates, without the courage to do so, there is little chance for change and often these acts of personal defiance can spark larger forces for change. Only the passage of time will tell whether this was the start of much-needed reform in India’s governance, or if it is a passing event that will eventually peter out. This story is also important in that arguably India’s advancement as an economic powerhouse depends greatly on whether or not it can change the culture of corruption in its politics and public services. Stephanie Nolan, in a story in the August 17th 2011 edition of The Globe and Mail wrote:

India’s central government ignited a political crisis when it put the anti-corruption leader Anna Hazare in jail – and then, they couldn’t get him out.

Mr. Hazare, a 74-year-old long-time activist who has become the face of a populist movement against graft, was ordered released Tuesday night. But he refused to leave the prison until the government withdrew restrictions on his planned protest. He remained behind bars Thursday morning, but he was reported to have agreed to a deal with police to allow him to stage a 15-day hunger strike in a public park. The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, meanwhile, was left fumbling awkwardly.

Mr. Singh addressed parliament on the crisis Wednesday morning, one of the worst he has faced in his seven years in office, insisting that Mr. Hazare sought to thwart democratic institutions. In response, the main opposition party seized the opportunity to speak for the people.

“How is it that this government has lost all sense of statecraft – of how political agitations are to be dealt with?” demanded Arun Jaitley, a senior leader with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. “You may not agree with what they have to say, but how can you take away, snatch away, their right to say it?”

The Lok Sabha, the lower house, fell silent as he spoke, and Mr. Singh sat stone-faced with his arms crossed, looking like a man under siege.

As Parliament debated the government’s actions, street protests in support of Mr. Hazare spread. In the southern city of Hyderabad, lawyers boycotted court and students skipped class, while small crowds marched there and in Mumbai. The geographic range of the protests was striking –several thousand farmers marched in the eastern state of Assam, there were sit-ins across the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, and a major rail line was blocked by protesters in Uttar Pradesh, in the heart of the country.

Mr. Hazare, a social activist, is usually based in a village in the western state of Maharashtra, where he advocates living by Gandhian principles. He rose to his current prominence when he came to New Delhi in April to stage a “fast unto death,” unless the government created a lokpal, or ombudsperson, with sweeping powers to investigate corruption. Mr. Hazare was angry, in particular, at what’s being called the “2G scam,” in which the former telecommunications minister held a corrupt auction for the country’s cellular network license and cost the treasury as much as $40-billion. The ex-minister, plus a handful of senior government figures and business people, are now awaiting trial, held in the same jail that Mr. Hazare won’t leave.

The grand corruption cases anger many Indians, but it is the daily rota of bribes they must pay to obtain basic services that are the chief preoccupation of Mr. Hazare’s largely middle-class, urban supporters.

Back in April, the government capitulated on the fourth day of his fast and invited his supporters to help draft an anti-corruption bill, even though there are already strong laws in place, if not enforced. But when the bill was tabled a few weeks ago, in a form that left the office of the Prime Minister outside the lokpal purview, Mr. Hazare said he would gather his followers and resume his fast this week. He insisted that it must be his law or he would not eat until he died – a “non-violent” protest technique Mahatma Gandhi used.

New Delhi police ordered him to agree to conditions limiting the duration of the fast and the crowd size; when Mr. Hazare refused on Tuesday, they arrested him. That proved a monumental blunder, as even people who resented Mr. Hazare’s political methods were outraged that his right to protest would be denied. The government’s about-face 12 hours later did little to calm the anger; the Indian National Congress-led government has looked inept indeed.

In Parliament, the Prime Minister heaped criticism on Mr. Hazare’s tactics. “The path that he has chosen to impose his draft of a bill upon Parliament is totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our parliamentary democracy,” Mr. Singh said of Mr. Hazare. “Those who believe that their voice and their voice alone represents the will of 1.2 billion people should reflect deeply on that position. They must allow the elected representatives of the people in Parliament to do the job that they were elected for.”

However sensible his words, they did little to calm his critics; Mr. Singh, often criticized as weak or reclusive in his handling of this crisis over the past six months, once more seemed out of touch. The surprise winner in the situation Wednesday was the opposition BJP, which had until now proven unable to capitalize on the government’s bumbling, despite the ease of the target. In his 20-minute response to the Prime Minister in Parliament, Mr. Jaitley articulated widely held sentiments. “The issue today is not whether we agree with your version of the bill or their version of the bill – the issue is how is it that you have handled a political crisis?”

He implored the Prime Minister to show backbone and “political will” in tackling corruption. “Smugness, which has become a characteristic of this government; arrogance, which has become a characteristic of this government – there are not a methodology by which corruption can be fought.”


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