The fireworks celebrating India’s Independence Day on August 15 illuminated shifting political terrain. Appropriating the motifs of the anti-colonial struggle against the British Raj, the anti-corruption movement that has been gathering momentum for months erupted in full force, staging the most widespread popular demonstrations in decades. The protests presented Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s seven-year-old government with its most serious crisis as well as exposed an acute leadership vacuum in the Congress Party, which was the nucleus of the nationalist movement and has governed the country for most of its post-independence era.
With Sonia Gandhi, the party’s president and India’s most powerful politician, away seeking medical treatment in the United States for an undisclosed ailment (though reports have emerged that she is suffering from cancer), the ground was set for her 41-year-old son, Rahul, to march to center stage. The scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has produced three legendary prime ministers, he is widely seen as the crown prince of Indian politics and a prime minister-in-waiting. He is the primus inter pares in a quartet of family loyalists designated by Sonia Gandhi to run party affairs in her absence. After spending a week at his mother’s side in New York, Rahul returned in time for the Independence Day festivities, ready, according to media reports, to assume a more prominent profile.
But the limelight that should have been Rahul’s was instead wrested away by Kiran Baburao Hazare, a social activist some three decades his senior who was largely unknown a year ago. Widely called “Anna” Hazare (the honorific for older brother), he has emerged as the leader of the burgeoning public outcry against the procession of corruption scandals that are consuming the Singh government. Dressed in homespun cotton and a white cap, the diminutive and bespectacled Hazare takes another Gandhi as his role model. His personal asceticism recalls the Mahatma’s lifestyle, and his widely-noted record of social uplift in his home village in Maharashtra evokes Gandhi-ji’s vision of rural self-development. Hazare’s methods of hunger fasts and mass demonstrations are reminiscent of the satyagraha (“civil resistance”) tactics employed against British colonial authorities. He has even availed the rhetoric of the independence movement by proclaiming in a YouTube video that “the second freedom struggle has started.”
For months, Hazare has been embroiled in a dispute with the Singh government over the details of a proposed anti-graft agency (called the Lokpal or “ombudsman”). He wants to endow the watchdog with greater authority than the government is willing to countenance, and to press his demands he had scheduled to a protest and fast in New Delhi for August 16, the day following the Independence Day celebrations. When Hazare refused to agree to police restrictions on the size and length of the protest, the police moved to preemptively detain him and some 2,600 of his followers. He ended up spending several nights in Tihar jail in central Delhi, which ironically is the current residence of a number of government officials and corporate executives implicated in the corruption scandals that so incense him.
The heavy-handed government response was redolent of the British crackdowns on the country’s founding fathers, as well as the emergency rule used by Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s to suppress domestic criticism. Adding to the latter comparison, the Congress Party’s spokesman even adopted Indira’s noxious practice of blaming the “foreign hand” for the tumult.
Predictably enough, Hazare’s arrest only fueled public anger. Large pro-Hazare rallies broke out throughout the country. His white cap or topi has become a fashion rage and even the famed dabbawallahs, or tiffin carriers, of Mumbai have gone on strike in solidarity. The government quickly reversed itself and Hazare triumphantly walked out of captivity, transformed as a noted newspaper columnist observed “from rural activist to a national hero.” He has now embarked on a 15-day fast at a vast public ground in the heart of New Delhi, sitting on a stage with a huge poster of the Mahatma to his back and tens of thousands of supporters in front of him. He has also upped the ante by demanding that Parliament pass the strong Lokpal bill by the end of the month or face an “unprecedented revolution.”
If Hazare is now in the catbird’s seat, Prime Minister Singh and Rahul Gandhi have been politically scarred. The latter has been conspicuously silent over the past week, choosing to remain quiet during parliament’s raucous debate over Hazare’s arrest. Far from leading from the front, he gave the impression that he was running for cover. Indeed, he even ducked out of New Delhi for what appeared to be an impromptu visit to a remote village in Maharashtra to console victims of a police shooting.
But there was no refuge to be found for Mr. Singh, who did himself no favors in this episode. His government’s actions were not only tone-deaf to the concerns of an increasingly angry electorate, but they allowed Hazare to shift the focus of the public debate. Singh is correct that Hazare’s tactics have veered toward the demagogic and the all-powerful anti-graft organization he demands is in conflict with the principle of accountability in a parliamentary democracy. Yet the merits of the government’s stand on the Lokpal bill were immediately eclipsed by what many Indians took as the government’s trampling upon the right of peaceful dissent.
With the government’s confrontational approach followed so quickly by its capitulation, Singh reinforced his reputation for ineffective governance. As one observer puts it, he increasingly looks like “yesterday’s prime minister.” Attempts to deflect blame onto the Delhi municipal police were believed by few, since the police force is responsible to Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who has taken an uncompromising line toward Hazare. The episode only added to the controversies that now besiege Singh. His undoubted personal rectitude is now besides the point. With charges multiplying that he was phlegmatic – or worse yet, willfully blind – to the egregious malfeasance of his own ministers, his capacity for leadership and political judgment is increasingly the question of the day.
Rocky to begin with, the road Singh will have to travel over the next year has suddenly become harder. A bandwagon is growing inside the Congress Party for Rahul Gandhi to assume the reins of government. Yet with Rahul focused on preparations for the important mid-2012 elections in Uttar Pradesh and Sonia Gandhi out of the picture for what may be a prolonged period, the party has little choice but to soldier on with Singh. The opposition parties also do not have the numbers in Parliament to oust him as prime minister.
Still, Singh’s performance last week will do nothing to check the incessant whisper campaign against him. And with new corruption allegations pouring forth – including accusations directed at Sheila Dikshit, the Congress Party’s chief minister of Delhi, in connection with the corruption scandal surrounding last year’s Commonwealth Games – his critics have plenty of ammunition to keep up a constant barrage. Given that opposition furor has all but paralyzed Parliament for the past nine months, Singh may now find it impossible to push through his version of the Lokpal bill, let alone key economic reforms like regulations governing the acquisition of farm land for industrial projects and the entry of foreign investment into the retail sector.
As an earlier post argued, Singh could even yet refurbish his legacy, as well as revitalize the Congress Party’s electoral prospects, with a bold program of governance reforms that eliminate the opportunities for high-level graft. The leadership vacuum revealed by last week’s events makes this scenario very unlikely, however.