An unlikely hero battling India's corruption

A 74-year-old rural activist is uniting rich and poor against graft
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The Independent Online

It's just 7am, and Anna Hazare has barely had chance to affix his trademark starched white cotton "Gandhi cap". The social activist would never dare liken himself to the "great soul" who helped to secure India's independence from Britain. But in recent months, the names of Mr Hazare and Gandhi have found themselves intertwined in the same paragraphs of newspaper reports as the 74-year-old has sought to use the tools of peaceful mass protest and hunger strike to secure his aims. Whereas Gandhi wanted an India free from Britain, Mr Hazare's wish is for an India free from corruption, and his target is the Indian government itself. He has termed it the country's second struggle for independence.

"Nowadays, whether people are poor or rich, they are all very angry and have had enough of corruption," Mr Hazare tells The Independent on Sunday, in his first interview with the international media. "That is why they have supported our campaign."

Perhaps like the man whose principles he seeks to follow, Mr Hazare is something of an unlikely hero for the countless millions of Indians whose lives are soured every day by corruption, whether that means being forced to pay bribes to obtain basic services or to observe the scandals that surrounded last year's Commonwealth Games or the kleptocratic nature of many politicians. His solution is the establishment of an official ombudsman, or Lokpal, with the power to investigate not just the alleged misbehaviour of low-ranking officials, but senior bureaucrats and politicians up to the Prime Minister.

When, earlier this year, Mr Hazare's campaign saw thousands of people pour on to the streets, the government agreed to establish such an office. Since then, it has been arguing about the breadth of powers the ombudsman should have. Mr Hazare has also seen a campaign to undermine him, both openly by government ministers and in media reports.

The activist has said that if the government fails to proceed with the ombudsman, he will start another mass fast on 16 August, the day after the holiday that marks India's independence. A senior member of the ruling Congress party, Digvijay Singh, responded by saying Mr Hazare would be treated the same way as supporters of the holy man Swami Ramdev, who were forced from their anti-corruption protest site in Delhi three weeks ago at midnight by club-wielding police: "If Anna goes on a fast in New Delhi, he will also be meted out the treatment," he said.

In the simple government guesthouse in the capital where he is staying, amid meetings with ministers before returning to his home in Maharashtra, Mr Hazare acknowledges India already has several bodies designed to tackle corruption. But he says none is truly independent. "The problem arises because they are under the government. If they try to do something against the government, they have to deal with government officials," he explains. "Not once in 62 years has the Central Bureau of Investigation been able to put any minister behind bars."

As for the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, a man who has largely managed to retain his image as an incorruptible figure, the activist says: "He may be an honest person, but what about the prime ministers in the future? This is a defence for the future."

It is time for Mr Hazare to head for the airport. We are invited to go with him. Assumptions that he might have been given the use of an official car are quickly dispelled when we squeeze – five in all – into a small Maruti Alto, owned by one of his supporters and without air-conditioning. Everyone tries to ignore the growing humidity as we head off so the activist can make his 9am flight to Pune.

It was in the village of Ralegan Siddhi, around 60 miles from Pune, that Mr Hazare, a former military truck driver, burnished his reputation as an activist. From 1975 onwards, he began turning his village into a model community, developing rainwater harvesting, agricultural improvements and collective programmes. The sale of alcohol and tobacco were banned – though Mr Hazare denies he insisted upon this – and self-reliance and anti-corruption were encouraged. In 1992, the activist, who is unmarried, has few possessions and occupies a spartan room attached to the village temple, was given the Padma Bhushan, India's third-highest civilian award.

The car comes to a halt at traffic lights. We are just a few hundred yards from both the government offices on Raisina Hill and the parliament building. Mr Hazare says he believes many of the allegations that have appeared against him – that he is authoritarian, that he supports cutting off the hands of corrupt officials – originated within the nearby political establishment. "There are reports in the media they are preparing for us what they did for Baba Ramdev. We are ready for them, whether it's batons or bullets. If you want to do something for the welfare of the people, then you have to be prepared."

Mr Hazare's campaign has triggered a wave of reflection in India about corruption. Despite an economy that grows at 8 per cent a year, corruption continues to hold back millions of people from achieving more. The most recent ranking by Transparency International placed India 87th out of 180 countries. Both the circumstances surrounding the Commonwealth Games and the arrest of the then telecommunications minister, A Raja, amid allegations that he had undersold the wireless spectrum by $40bn, have forced people to consider the issue as never before. The difficulty is finding an approach that can tackle a problem so vast. Many commentators question whether an ombudsman could tackle such a vast problem.

Among other criticisms that have been levelled at Mr Hazare and his fellow campaigners is that, unlike politicians, they are unelected. To supporters such as Arvind Kerijwal, another activist who is squeezed into the car with us, such remarks ignore the role of civil society in a democracy, as well as the example set by Gandhi.

Sitting in the front seat, Mr Hazare says: "The population of this country is 1.2 billion. If you want to speak for yourself, does that mean you have to stand for election? On 26 January 1950, India was declared a constitutional republic. All those MPs and [state politicians] we see were elected by the people, to serve the people. People have every right to see what they are doing and how they are performing."

Approaching the newly constructed airport, we pass new infrastructure and roads. Nearby are a series of malls, with shops filled with designer goods. In its headlong pursuit of economic growth, Mr Hazare said, India may have lost its bearings. "If the idea of [personal] peace has become shopping malls and mobile phones, then India has actually lost its way," he says. "India is trying to follow the West. The West is looking at India. There is a mismatch."

He does not believe his campaign can be entirely successful. "It's not possible that 100 per cent of corruption can be defeated, but we think 85 per cent can be," he says, as we clamber out of the car. "Our duty is to keep on talking so that people know about it. Then it will be successful." With that, Anna Hazare, India's unlikely hero, picks up his suitcase and heads off to catch his plane.

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