In Indian society, corruption has become a norm. According to Indian journalist Dipankar Gupta, “Fear stalks most homes for nobody is sure when the next bribe will have to be given and to whom and for what. You have to bribe to get a ration card; you have to bribe to ply your wares on a push cart; you have to bribe to get your child to school or your mother to hospital… They do this not to become rich or powerful, but just so they can be left in peace.”
A string of corruption scandals have been coming to light in the Indian media which have caused outrage across the nation. In February 2011, the telecommunications minister, Andimuthu Raja, was arrested for allegedly selling mobile phone frequency licenses for a fraction of their values, which cost around $40 billion in lost revenue. It was only a few months earlier that Ashok Chavan, the chief minister of Maharashtra, one of India’s most prosperous states, was forced to resign over his alleged role in a housing scam, where senior armed forces officials and politicians have been accused of allowing relatives to move into apartments meant for war widows. The 2010 Commonwealth Games in India were marred by financial irregularities and incompetence, and many officials were arrested on corruption charges.
On the 5th of April 2011, a prominent Gandhian activist named Anna Hazare went on a hunger strike in the Indian capital of New Delhi demanding stronger anti-corruption laws. Hazare’s fast was aimed towards the passage of the Jan Lokpal—or “Civilian Ombudsman”—Bill for the creation of an independent corruption watchdog, a piece of legislation which has been stalled in the Indian Parliament since 1969. He also demanded that a joint committee of civil activists and government representatives strengthen it further.
While thousands of Indians rallied with him in the capital, he was supported by the mainstream Indian media and millions across the nation through online social media campaigns. The national media told stories of people smarting under spiralling prices, being robbed of their hard-earned money by the political class, and of their resolve to teach them a lesson. The online India Against Corruption movement garnered 60,000 fans on Facebook and over 3,300 followers on Twitter in support for Hazare. After four days of sustained protest, the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government accepted Hazare’s joint committee demand and agreed to introduce the new bill in the monsoon session of Parliament in August 2011.
The political conditions were right for Hazare to initiate his hunger strike. The UPA government could not ignore that his campaign had the potential of alienating a significant voting bloc. With five states going to the polls, the Congress leadership felt that his campaign would have a deleterious impact on its prospects in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, West Bengal, and Puducherry. The Congress and its alliance partners have an important stake in each of these provinces. Acceding to the campaign’s demands was a pragmatic exit strategy by the central government.
Given Hazare’s reputation and lack of political connections, campaigns by the government to discredit him would have most probably backfired, especially with the extensive online and offline media support the protest was receiving. In fact, many recent corruption scandals came to light precisely because activists invoked the 2005 right-to-information law, championed by Hazare, which mandates that public authorities respond to citizen requests for government information in a timely manner.
Even with the modernisation of consumer and social culture in India, Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of ahimsa, or nonviolence, is still revered across the nation. It is taught in the Indian education system. Hunger strikes in particular were pivotal during the Indian independence movement. Gandhi, for instance, used the tactic in 1932 to successfully protest against colonial Britain’s attempt to legalize the caste system in India by providing separate representation to the “untouchable” class in provincial governments. In 1943, he used it again to protest against the political deadlock between Indian leaders and the British Viceroy in negotiations about the new Indian state.
Hunger strikes express a reality in which activists are forced to turn to their own embodiment as a political weapon. By symbolically internalising society’s desperation in the body, it wields a potent emotional influence through self-sacrifice. Not surprisingly, Hazare’s campaign against corruption was able to hit off an emotional chord with people smarting under a scam-a-day regime. The media portrayed him to be a person in the Gandhian mould—simple, honest, and Spartan, an ex-army man who remained immune to the lure of power and wealth, fighting for a cause in the national interest.
Corruption in India survives only due to the consent of civil society. The media, the internet, and the right to information act have equipped the Indian people with tools to hold government officials accountable, but Anna Hazare’s hunger strike was the wake-up call they required to realize their power and mobilize. His Satyagraha has shown a new generation of Indian people the power of strategic and peaceful protest.