NEW DELHI // Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets across India yesterday to protest about the wave of corruption scandals that has engulfed the country in recent weeks.
In central Delhi, as many as 10,000 people took part, with similar marches in Mumbai, Bangalore and dozens of other cities, making this the largest protest against corruption in India's history.
Swami Agnivesh, a well-known Hindu religious leader and activist who has been at the forefront of the "India Against Corruption" movement in recent weeks, said: "The people have declared a war against corruption today.
"This is the biggest issue facing our country right now. The people have lost faith in the present political system and are demanding action."
Corruption has rarely brought people to the streets in India, where much of the population has been wearily resigned to graft by officials.
But a slew of scandals has brought the issue to the top of the political agenda. The Commonwealth Games organising committee chairman, Suresh Kalmadi, was sacked last week as investigations continued into the alleged fixing of contracts for the event. Two other committee officials have been arrested.
Investigations are also ongoing into allegations that the former telecoms minister, Andimuthu Raja, undersold mobile phone licences, costing the goverment as much as US$40 billion (Dh147bn), in what is known as the "2G Scam".
In recent days, the issue of "black money" has dominated headlines after it emerged that the government failed to act against a list of 26 tax-evaders with secret foreign accounts that was handed over by German authorities. The Indian government's response, that its hands are tied by confidentiality agreements with Germany, has been widely ridiculed, and the Supreme Court this week demanded to know why no action was being taken. Many believe the government is afraid of what the investigations would reveal.
Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer and another key figure in the anti-corruption movement, said: "What we have in India is crony capitalism and crony democracy. But people have begun to realise that this is going to destroy the rule of law and civilisation in this country."
The protests coincided with Martyr's Day, which marks the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, and there were no signs of violence. The atmosphere in Delhi was largely good-natured and jovial.
"We don't want what is happening in Egypt," said Alok Agarwal, 25, an engineer who joined the march. "Everyone is emphasising a peaceful process, but people are angry and they are waking up to the fact that something needs to change."
One reason why the prostests drew large crowds, and were peaceful, was the organisers' decision to utilise religious groups in order to mobilise their followers. Famous Hindu leaders such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the head of the Art of Living Foundation, and yoga guru Baba Ramdev have lent their name to the movement, as have leading figures from all the major religions.
The protesters, many of them from middle-class backgrounds, also combined their anger at the recent scandals with a strong sense of optimism about India's general trajectory of recent years.
"Things have improved so much in recent years," said Anjali Sharma, 20, a management graduate from Delhi. "This is what is making people more conscious of their rights. If all this money was distributed properly, we could really transform this country."
Rather than seeking to subvert the political system, the India Against Corruption movement has set very specific goals to reform graft investigations. Its website features comprehensive proposals for new anti-corruption legislation which it wants the government to enact.
"We want a nine-member investigative body - not just the one or two people that currently decide these things," said Mr Bhushan, who helped draw up the proposals. "They must be selected in a broad-based and transparent manner, with the power to investigate and prosecute everyone."
The proposals have particular relevance given the political battles that erupted in December over the telecoms scandal investigation. Persistent opposition protests about the government's handling of the inquiry brought parliament to a standstill and made the winter session the least productive session on record. There are fears the deadlock could continue into the crucial budget session that starts next month.
With corruption so ingrained in political practice, and none of the major political parties exempt from allegations, it is unclear what impact the protests can have in the short term, but their scale suggests a shift in attitudes.
Swami Agnivesh said: "What has started today is a new political movement. And it will not stop until we have a system for dealing with corruption that respects the rights of the people."