In just over a year, the anti-corruption “movement” led by Kisan Baburao Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal has lost energy, public support and momentum, finally splitting amid mutual recrimination. It is not that corruption has ceased to be an emotive public issue. Instead, it appears that the very methods of mobilisation that India Against Corruption (IAC) used to gain a vocal and visible following in India’s towns practically overnight have shown their limitations. The characteristics of the movement were, first, a disdain for politics while seeking political ends; and, second, a focus on personality and individual probity instead of systemic reform.
Mr Hazare and Mr Kejriwal’s final break came when the latter decided that participation in the political process was essential to achieve his policy goals — a Lok Pal Bill that had the imprimatur of IAC, as well as electoral reform of several kinds. Mr Hazare, who has repeatedly said that voters’ judgement is questionable because they are given “liquor and saris”, said in response that any new party should not use his image or his name. This will be a blow to Mr Kejriwal’s as-yet-unnamed political outfit, because Mr Hazare’s was unquestionably the face of the movement. Yet it is Mr Kejriwal whose decision should be applauded, for recognising eventually that in a democracy – even a flawed one like India – it is through the democratic process rather than pressure tactics that policy should and will get made. IAC’s original idea, that the moral blackmail of Mr Hazare’s fasts would be sufficient, has been shown up as being severely flawed. That the fasts were, however, what caused many people to flock temporarily to IAC’s banner could have given its leaders a vastly inaccurate sense of their true political strength. Now, the power of their ideas will be tested in the electoral battlefield instead.
It is also clear that a party without Mr Hazare will face an uphill struggle for recognition by voters, demonstrating the weakness of a strategy predicated on specific people rather than ideas. Mr Hazare, Mr Kejriwal and their other associates frequently implied that, as non-politicians, they were inherently more trustworthy than anyone in politics. Recent questions about what happens to the funds donated to IAC, a nominally non-political organisation, show that such attempts to create a holier-than-thou aura, too, are subject to being overtaken by events. Mr Kejriwal’s party, which is reportedly due to be launched on October 2, will likely participate in the Delhi Assembly elections next year. The scrutiny that he and his associates will face is likely to be even harsher than that faced by other participants in the political process. This is not necessarily a sign of media bias; it is a reflection of the fact that they themselves have chosen to make their personal and institutional probity central to their political platform. The UPA government, reeling from accusations of corruption, has tried and partially succeeded in changing the subject from personalities to economic reform. Single-issue crusaders like Mr Hazare’s erstwhile associates will find that more difficult.