India's anti-corruption hero sees popularity fade

January 5, 2012 - 5:46 AM

NEW DELHI (AP) — The anti-corruption movement that seemed to energize India's middle class just a few months ago, led by a once-obscure social activist who defied the government with public hunger strikes and mass rallies, is facing a new enemy: apathy.

Anna Hazare's supporters, some of whom had pledged their lives to his cause, barely bothered to show up at his last hunger strike, which was called off after less than 36 hours. Government officials speak of him derisively. Hazare's ultimate goal, legislation to create a powerful anti-corruption watchdog organization, is stalled in Parliament. Hazare himself is in the hospital, with doctors insisting on rest.

The man who dominated Indian TV news channels for much of the year now seems like an afterthought, raising questions about whether his following was ever as large as it was portrayed.

"The movement has run out of steam," said Siddarth Mishra, a columnist for The Pioneer newspaper who has written extensively about the anti-corruption campaign.

At its August peak, tens of thousands of middle-class protesters turned out in New Delhi to support the former army driver, often wearing paper hats proclaiming "I am Anna." The protests received relentless, often-breathless coverage by TV news channels. The anti-corruption campaign became a ratings bonanza, and some channels began calling on viewers to join the protests.

But in a country of 1.2 billion people, where protests that large are fairly commonplace, many now wonder if the Hazare phenomenon was more about television than reality.

"The media made it look very big," Mishra said. "It provided for a lot of discussion on television but nothing beyond that."

In the end, the movement had only one weapon: an elderly man who portrayed himself as a near-saint, compared himself to India's greatest hero, Mohandas Gandhi, and threatened to die for his beliefs. For a time, those threats terrified the government, suddenly giving Hazare immense political power.

"His willingness to say he would die for this cause is what was so startling," said Mukul Kesavan, a professor at Jamia Milla Islamia university in New Delhi. "But how often can a 74-year-old man starve himself to death?"

He believes, though, that the movement won't disappear.

"I think they live to fight another day," said Kesavan. "It will be interesting to see how they fight," he said, and whether Hazare's fasts remain the center of the campaign.

Certainly, corruption remains a deeply felt issue in India, where nearly everyone has been forced to pay a bribe at some point. Small bribes are often needed to get anything from a birth certificate to treatment in a government hospital. Political parties give and take bribes as part of the ever-shifting tides of India's parliamentary alliances. For businessmen, bundles of cash delivered to powerful officials are needed to secure many government contracts.

If the details of the corruption remain murky, the effects can be very open. India's most exclusive neighborhoods, with houses and apartments that can easily cost many millions of dollars, are often home to judges, retired civil servants, and politicians' relatives.

Hazare, a social activist from western India, emerged as a national figure last year, tapping into public anger over a series of immense corruption scandals, including $4 billion that disappeared during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and a cell phone licensing scandal that cost the government up to $36 billion in lost revenue.

Hazare was able to focus Indian anger over that corruption, insisting that the watchdog group he demands — a formidable body that would have almost unlimited investigative powers — would purge the country of corruption.

"The country is demanding a change of the politics of bribery and corruption" Hazare told cheering supporters during a rally last year. "The peoples' will shall prevail."

But trouble began chipping away at his movement after the spectacle of his 12-day August fast in New Delhi.

First, some of his advisers faced corruption allegations of their own, including a top aide accused of inflating expenses at a charity she runs.

Then Hazare appeared publicly with the leaders of India's Hindu nationalist political opposition, and began mounting increasingly strident criticisms of the Congress party, which heads the ruling alliance. That hurt him deeply, since part of his appeal was that he was seen as above India's often-corrupt political fray.

Still, many observers were surprised at how quickly the movement faded.

In early December, Hazare was promising an enormous rally later that month in Mumbai, with a three-day hunger strike and promises to fill Indian jails with supporters who would offer themselves up for arrest.

Instead, the rally was a flop. At times, only a few hundred supporters were at the park where Hazare was fasting, a park that can hold up to 60,000 people. Protests elsewhere by his backers saw gatherings as small as a dozen people.

The fast was soon canceled. The plan to fill India's jails was abandoned. The watchdog legislation — which Hazare has criticized as a watered-down version of what he really wants — passed Parliament's lower house, but got stuck in the upper house. The bill is in limbo until Parliament reconvenes in March.

And there's another reason things may have not gone well for Hazare in Mumbai.

A businessman out for a walk Thursday morning said he went to one of Hazare's New Delhi protests, but didn't expect much turnout for the Mumbai rally, which was held a couple days before New Year's Eve.

"There are a lot of parties that time of year. People are busy." said R. Sharma. "It's not really a good time to protest."