By Prerna Suri
(UPDATE: August 29, 2011) WHAT NEXT FOR INDIA?
"We the people of India ...." is how India's preamble reads. It's giving force and voice to a nation and not just a polity. But in recent decades this line by India's founding fathers has somehow lost its relevance. Instead of respecting one's lawmakers, Indians have had to put up with their political bickering, their personal quests for power and, yes, rampant corruption amongst them.
But the last 24 hours have changed this perception.
On August 28, 2011, Anna Hazare put an end to his hunger strike. Parliament accepted his demand for a strong new anti-corruption watchdog. This, after eight hours of some of the most scintillating speeches we've heard from MPs in a long time. And it took a 74-year-old man who refused to eat to come to this.
So, has the faith of the people been restored? It's not quite clear yet. Yes, Hazare and his team of associates have managed to push a piece of legislation, which has largely been in cold storage for the past four decades.
Yes, they've managed to mobilise tens of thousands of Indians, including the middle class, to come out on the streets against what they thought was a general way of life - corruption. And, yes, they've managed to bring popular dissent from the streets and into India's parliament. So, why does this victory suddenly feel hollow?
Perhaps because Indians who've been supporting Hazare's crusade against corruption will now ask: "What next?" India's parliament, while conceding to Hazare's three key demands - bringing the lower bureaucracy within the Lokpal Bill, having a citizens charter in every government institution and having separate state anti corruption watchdog - will still need to debate and pass a new law.
With the kind of scrutiny on India's lawmakers right now, it's unlikely this law will be pushed down among the many others. But for it to metamorphose into change will take a much longer time, perhaps even decades.
So, as the celebratory dust settles down, the real work now begins. Anna Hazare also concedes to that. After he is discharged from hospital, he's going to undertake a nationwide march against corrupt officials.
And then he'll tackle electoral reforms. He's guaranteed the support of many in this nation, but will he be able to deliver a strong law? It's hard to say.
For now, Indians know their voices can - and do - matter. That if they come together and stay united in the face of a hegemonic polity, they have the power to change their own destinies. The trick will be to ensure this momentum and wave of euphoria doesn't fade out anytime soon. Something which is more difficult to achieve.
As far as the eye can see, the streets are lined with rows of tricolored flags. They’re fluttering in whatever monsoon winds are left. A group of women students from New Delhi walk with construction workers from Bihar. Their voices rise in curious unison: "Long live the revolution".
The "India" of the elite, and the "Bharat" of the masses, seamlessly coming together in one eclectic moment.
It’s almost a carnivalesque atmosphere at Delhi's Ramlila grounds. One could be forgiven for thinking this is another one of India’s colourful festivals. But this time, the young, the old, men, women and even children are speaking in one voice, all for one 74-year-old man. And all against corruption. A bit much you'd think?
The Anna phenomenon
Not so for these Indians. Two words. Anna Hazare. It’s become a synonym for everything that's gone wrong with India - and everything that people now want to do to make it right. Hazare is a social activist who, at the time of this writing, is on his 6th day of a hunger strike, fighting for a strong anti-corruption law for Indians.
And his support is enormous. It seems this is no longer the India filled with an apathetic middle class. The India that sits by the sidelines and watches its corrupt leaders make money off its own people. It’s the beginning of something new, yet strangely nostalgic of a yesteryear struggle for freedom.
"From making an identity card to getting a drivers license, I've got to pay bribes to get my work done. This isn't the India I signed up for,” says Rajiv, who carries a miniature snail on his head, symbolic of the government’s pace to tackle corruption.
In another corner, a young student holds up a poster. It stars (surprise, surprise) superhero Anna Hazare fighting the evils of a corrupt India, freeing the country from all its shackles.
Why are they there?
But as the romanticism dies down, a deeper question arises. How many people actually know why they’re here? I ask nearly a dozen people at Ramlila whether they know about the Hazare version of the Lokpal (Ombudsman) bill, called the Janlokpal (peoples ombudsman). Whether they understand that only nine or 11 people will make up a committee to look after not just the prime minister’s deeds but also corrupt local officials at the village level. I have to admit, much to my own chagrin, more than half have no idea.
Yet, all these people have real convictions on corruption. Ravi travelled for two days to reach Delhi from his home district of Hardoi, Uttar Pradesh. It’s a state notorious for the levels of corruption of its public servants. He tells me he's here to have "darshan" (pay homage) of Anna Hazare, a privilege usually afforded for gods and goddesses. He’s fed up of having to pay off the policeman, the local bureaucrat and even the local district collector for his identity papers.
Such is the frustration of ordinary Indians at their system that any person who embodies a larger fight beyond the individual is instantly embraced with both arms.
While Anna's methods at rallying up public support are noteworthy, almost revolutionary as some would say, his means to achieve a strong anti corruption law are being questioned.
"Its undemocratic. You can't force one person's vision for a law that needs serious discussion in parliament,” says Aruna Roy, one of the architects of the revolutionary right to information act in the country. Activists say they fear a centralisation of Anna’s power. He’s demanding the government pass a law by August 30. He’s also demanding that one ombudsman committee looks after corruption at the highest and the lowest levels. Something that is not just unreasonable but impossible to achieve in this country.
On the ground though, it’s a different sentiment. I’ve been covering Anna’s movement since he began his first fast in favour of a strong anti-corruption law in April this year. Since then, the movement and the feelings have grown stronger. But I also realize there’s a bigger danger of ignorance. More people need to know about the Janlokpal bill - what its provisions are and how will it exactly tackle corruption.
Anna Hazare and his camp have united the country like never before. Their challenge will be to give this nation’s people, an anti-corruption law they think they’re fighting for.