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Justin Alvarez: A Crisis In India

August 23, 2011

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Writer Arundhati Roy blasts Anna Hazare’s hunger strike protesting the Indian government’s Lokpal Bill. However, she’s one against thousands of supporters.

By **Justin Alvarez**

Justin Alvarez_Large.jpgWhile Anna Hazare’s hunger strike has brought tens of thousands to the streets of India, he has one vocal critic: Arundhati Roy, who blasted the campaign yesterday in The Hindu newspaper. In a column titled “I’d Rather Not Be Anna,” the novelist, essayist, and rights activist condemned the core of Hazare’s protest of the anti-corruption Lokpal Bill proposed by the Indian government. “While his means may be Gandhian,” Roy writes, “Anna Hazare’s demands are certainly not.” Hazare, who has not eaten for almost eight days and took his fast public on Friday, has drawn huge crowds to the hunger strike theatrically on display in an open air venue in central Delhi that will last until the passing of the social activists’ proposed version of the bill, the Jan Lokpol Bill. “Who is he really, this new saint, this Voice of the People?” Roy asks. “Oddly enough we’ve heard him say nothing about things of urgent concern.” The writer criticizes Hazare’s focus on the weak anti-corruption Lokpal Bill, a bill Roy deems “so flawed that it was impossible to take seriously,” and his complete disregard for urgent issues such as “the farmer’s suicides in [Maharashtra, Hazare’s home state], or… about farmer’s agitations or… the Government’s plans to deploy the Indian Army in the forests of Central India.” The citizens’ ombudsman bill, as the activists’ proposal is sometimes referred to, would pave the way for a Jan Lokpal, an independent ombudsman body similar to the Election Commission, that would have the power to prosecute politicians and bureaucrats without government permission. However, a similar story has been told for over four decades when the proposed bill was first introduced (in 1968!) and has since failed to become law.

As day eight of Hazare’s fast arrives today, signs of concession in the stand-off have started to show within the Indian government, despite Roy’s pleas. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated yesterday that he was open for debate on the bill to set up an independent and powerful anti-graft watchdog, but Hazare insists he will only negotiate with Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, the PMO, or Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan. Both Roy and Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi are dismayed by Hazare’s apparent ultimatum that the activists’ version of the bill—which Roy warns “will function as an independent administration, meant to counter the bloated, unaccountable corrupt one that we already have. Two oligarchies instead of one”—should be passed by parliament by August 30th. Singhvi has insisted on a need for restraint from all sides. “Everything cannot be decided on the basis of deadlines. It is vital that every side shows restraint and discipline. It is important to show flexibility by moving away from timelines.”

However, as Hazare appears weaker by the day, “the props and the choreography, the aggressive nationalism,” seem to be winning the fight while capturing the imagination of Indians all over the country. Everyone is for removing the corruption, but can Hazare’s proposed bill actually succeed? Critics have called the bill naïve in its approach. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of the Center for Policy Research Delhi, wrote in The Indian Express that the bill “is premised on an institutional imagination that is at best naïve; at worst subversive of representative democracy.” Corruption is a two-way crime and politicians, governments, and the bureaucracies are not the only ones to blame. If Hazare were a true Gandhian, he would cooperate with the government in drafting the most effective bill. There is a reason for governance; policies aren’t just formulated on the streets.

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Justin Alvarez is a blog and new media editor at Guernica. Read more about him here.

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