In the footsteps of Gandhi

Corruption in India is a way of life. But finally it is being challenged thanks to the resolve of an extraordinary 74-year-old
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In the past two weeks a beaky old man in a blinding white cap of homespun cotton has succeeded in putting the Indian government into a tailspin. Kisan Baburao Hazare, now known to all India simply as Anna-ji, has a bee in his Nehru cap about corruption. He wants the Indian government to pass a tough law creating a powerful, independent ombudsman with the job of tackling it, empowered to bring even the high and mighty, even MPs and ministers, to book. And he is willing to starve himself to death to make it happen.

We can blame the rudderlessness of an administration whose guiding light, Sonia Gandhi, is abroad recovering from an operation for an unspecified illness. But it is also clear that in Anna Hazare it has encountered a formidable foe, a folk hero who has emerged like a collective hallucination from the past.

Mahatma Gandhi, a London-trained barrister, spoke of India as a nation of a million villages, and in the process of identifying with the motherland he systematically deconstructed his elite identity, reinventing himself as a glorified peasant. Anna Hazare had to put himself through no such contortions: he was a real villager, born and raised in the poor village of Ralegan Siddhi in western Maharashtra, 60 miles from the city of Pune, a huddle of peasant huts dependent like thousands of other villages across the country on subsistence agriculture. Any boy of spirit would want to leave such a place, and for Hazare the goad was patriotic ardour: when India went to war with China over Kashmir in 1962, he signed up for the army, aged 23. For more than 15 years he worked as an army lorry driver along the narrow, vertiginous mountainous roads of the frozen north as well as on India's other borders.

But long before he left the army he had already made up his mind about his future path. On 12 November 1965, during India's war with Pakistan, an air raid on India's base at Khem Karan in the Punjab killed all Hazare's comrades, leaving only him alive. It was the turning point in his life: the fact that he had been spared meant his life had a purpose.

Inspired by the 19th-century sage Swami Vivekananda, who preached commitment to social improvement, he discovered that purpose on his own doorstep. Every year he spent his army leave with his family, but on every visit, conditions in the village were worse. Ralegan Siddhi is in the drought-prone area of Maharashtra. During the frequent droughts, villagers were dependent on government water tankers for drinking water. Farm production plummeted; many villagers walked miles every day to labouring jobs, using the wages to buy grain from better-provided villagers nearby. More enterprising villagers set up drinking dens serving home-distilled "country liquor". The quality of life in the village, never opulent, went from bad to worse.

Hazare resolved to turn the village around. He planned his moves carefully. He took a vow of celibacy, so the need to provide for a family would never distract him from his goal. He remained in the army for another dozen years to qualify for a pension, so he would never be in material want. Then finally in 1977 he returned home for good, and began the task of redeeming the village.

In the process he became one of the green pioneers of the Indian countryside, persuading his fellow villagers to dig wells to harvest rain water, to terrace their fields, to make small dams and weirs to prevent water wastage and to plant thousands of trees. The results were spectacular: the rise in the water table made irrigation available for 1,500 hectares of land instead of 300 hectares before. The village began to prosper. A school, a hostel and a new temple were built. Following Gandhi's example, Hazare cracked down on the liquor dens: one of the most popular stories about him is how he tied village drunks to trees and flogged them with his army belt. Instead of the villagers walking miles to find work, the village was now importing labour.

What was to stop the village's example being copied right across India? Hazare came to believe that the problem lay in corruption. In 1991 he set up an organisation known in English as "Public Movement Against Corruption", focusing on a case in which dozens of forest officers had cheated the state out of hundreds of millions of rupees. He presented the evidence to the government but no action was taken as one of those involved in the scam was a minister in the ruling party. In disgust Hazare returned the high awards he had received from the government, and launched a hunger strike, "unto death" as Gandhi used to put it – an action which, thanks to its frequent use by Gandhi against the British, has unique symbolism in India. The government caved in: six ministers implicated in the scandal were forced to resign and hundreds of corrupt forest workers were sacked.

Hazare's initiatives on behalf of public morality are thus neither new nor unfamiliar. Perhaps the greatest legacy of Gandhi is highly motivated individuals like him – another example is the social activist Aruna Roy, founder of the Workers and Peasants' Strength Union, and one of the forces alongside Hazare in getting India's Right to Information law on the statute book. But in the context of Incredible Shining India, galloping along at 8 per cent growth per year, such figures have looked increasingly quaint and irrelevant, relics of a past India was in a hurry to forget.

Suddenly, thanks to the simple commitment of a brave old man, the nation has awoken from its dreams of easy money. No wonder the politicians are squirming.

Life in brief

Born: 15 June 1937, Bhingar, Maharashtra, India.

Education: Studied in Mumbai. Left school and found work.

Family: His father, Baburao, worked in Ayurveda Ashram Pharmacy, but Hazare was largely raised by his aunt in Mumbai. He is unmarried.

Career: Fought in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War. He launched the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Aandolan (People's Movement against Corruption) in 1991. He led a movement to force the Maharashtra government to pass a Right to Information law in 2003.

He says: "As long as there is life in my body, I will keep protesting."

They say: "Hazare has become an icon of the desperation being felt by the people in India. However, there is an element of populism in the movement." Tushar Gandhi, Mahatma's great-grandson.