For more than 40 years, reformers and other agitators have tried in vain to cleanse India of corruption. They have staged demonstrations, candlelight vigils and protest marches for naught. In Parliament, efforts to create an independent anticorruption agency began in 1968. It still does not exist. Given this legacy of failure, an unexpected development is now stirring up the world’s largest and most raucous democracy: the agitators are on a hot streak. Government ministers are frantically trying to persuade one of India’s most popular gurus to call off a nationwide yoga rally against corruption — yes, a yoga protest — and a mass hunger strike, scheduled to begin Saturday. Already, the government has capitulated to the demands of another hunger-striking anticorruption crusader.
For an Indian public disgusted by worsening corruption, the hunger strikes and yoga sit-ins are spectacles of political theater embroidering what is actually a fight over how to fix the rusted gears of India’s democracy. Reformers want an anticorruption agency with sweeping powers, and the governing Congress Party has promised to propose legislation in the summer session of Parliament. “This is a real serious breakthrough,” said Sriram Panchu, a lawyer specializing in constitutional law. “There is a chance of something going through, provided the civil society groups handle it carefully.” Indeed, the reform camp, having shaken the government, is now finding itself under attack, in some instances by natural enemies, in others by natural allies. One issue is the cure itself; even some allies worry that the proposed anticorruption body could become an unchecked superagency. Another complaint is about tactics; critics have accused reformers of conducting “democracy by blackmail” — threatening more hunger strikes unless the government bends to their demands.
“If somebody thinks we blackmailed democracy with our fasting, we’ll keep on blackmailing for these things,” countered Anna Hazare, one of the leading figures in the anticorruption movement. “Democracy is not blackmailed. It is strengthened.” For months, the national coalition government, led by the Congress Party, has been reeling from high-profile corruption scandals, including cases involving the allocation of telecom licenses and the staging of the Commonwealth Games. Almost every day, the India news media is awash with new allegations of corruption, large and small, even as public cynicism is deepened by the failure of the system to hold the political class accountable.