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Corruption in India has met its elderly match

The Indian government's arrest of Anna Hazare was a sign of confused desperation - and as the moral tide rises around unresponsive institutions, a real fight against corruption seems more likely.

India's government locked up a righteous and admired public figure this week because he was campaigning peacefully for justice.

This blatant affront to the memory of Mohandas Gandhi is a knee-jerk reaction and sign of desperation of Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, and his cabinet. The arrest is more likely to strengthen, rather than weaken, Anna Hazare's fight against corruption.

To be sure, the government had good reason to try to restrain the protest by tens of thousands of people led by Mr Hazare; his campaign is greatly embarrassing India's leaders. But the reaction was heavy handed and unproductive.

Mr Hazare, an Indian Army veteran of humble origins, worked most of his life in rural development, with remarkable success. But for the last two decades he has focused on fighting corruption, a formidable foe in India. By the nature of abuse of office it can have no reliable tally, but top Indian officials say one recent affair alone, the so-called 2G spectrum scandal, cost the treasury some US$40 billion (Dh147bn).

Mr Hazare's April hunger strike renewed his old demand for a lokpal or independent commission to investigate and prosecute official wrongdoing. The timing was good; India has wallowed in scandal recently and distrust of politicians runs deep among the 1.2 billion Indians.

The hunger strike won intense media coverage and vast public support, pushing the government to apparent capitulation. But the resulting bill was sadly emasculated: the new prosecutor would be merely a tightly-controlled servant of the cabinet and the parliament.

So Mr Hazare, a determined man, resumed his fast and took to the streets - and was jailed Tuesday. The depth of the miscalculation was revealed by the thousands of protesters at the jail, near-universal media condemnation, criticism from business and full-throated opposition denunciations. An editorial in The Hindu newspaper spoke for much of the country: "Corrupt, repressive and stupid."

Despite the opposition ranting in defence of Mr Hazare, no one party in India has had a monopoly on corruption. This is not a partisan struggle but one between the people and unresponsive leaders. In the world's biggest democracy, which has made great economic progress, this systemic failure is a grave disappointment.

To be sure, Mr Hazare's own lokpal bill is not perfect: it would give vast powers to one person or committee.

But something has to change in India's political culture. And because of the persistence, determination and moral clarity of one elderly man, change may now be much closer.

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