Solutions aside, Anna Hazare has touched a nerve
On Monday last week, my morning tea was disrupted by loud chanting. A group of six college students were carrying a banner down our street and shouting slogans in support of Anna Hazare, the now famous champion of India's anti-corruption drive.
I remember thinking: "That's it?" Only six kids?
Actually, these were just the first trickle of the torrent of people amassing on the Indian capital.
Most people did not expect Mr Hazare's second fast to amount to much. His first, in April, had ended in acrimony. But while his methods and solutions for addressing India's crippling corruption might raise eyebrows, his power to galvanise is now unquestionable. He has the government's own missteps to thank.
Mr Hazare has sought to strong-arm the government into adopting his version of an anti-corruption bill called Jan Lokpal, or Citizen's Ombudsman bill. The government balked at including the president, prime minister and high court judges under the oversight of an independent watchdog, with good reason.
Mr Hazare would have had the country's Central Bureau of Investigation rolled into the Lokpal, creating a police service outside the control of the government. In theory, it would allow impartial investigations and prosecutions of corruption scandals like the recent ones which have cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of rupees.
But in actuality it would have sought to solve the problem of public accountability by creating yet another unaccountable body. One can only imagine the sort of potential chaos that could ensue should the head-of-state and the arbiters of the law be put under the eye of a super-empowered and unaccountable police service.
So the government is right on its stance on the Jan Lokpal.
But that has ceased to matter.
Less than 24 hours after those angry college students marched past my home in south-east Delhi, Anna Hazare was in jail and 5,000 of his supporters were detained in a disused stadium. The government has been in crisis mode ever since.
As news broke of Mr Hazare's early morning arrest, protests erupted across the country. In the capital people travelled hours from neighbouring states with the sole purpose of being arrested to "fill the jails" - a reference to a tactic used against the British in India's freedom struggle.
Mr Hazare himself has capitalised on this sentiment by calling his fast and multiple efforts to strong arm the government a "second freedom struggle". It isn't, but that is what those who support him believe and that is why the situation has spun out of control.
The government, it seems, has failed to realise the depth of the people's anger. Ordinary Indians, tired of being made to pay corrupt bureaucrats for every government service, do see corruption as the single greatest evil in their lives.
To the farmer, corruption is the reason he can't get electricity to power his machinery, or the bribes he must pay to claim government subsidies on grain. To the housewife, it is the reason she must pay several hundred rupees to get a food ration card to feed her family.
Mr Hazare is their champion. He has a largely unblemished record of fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, and is seen as one of the few upstanding public figures in India.
The government, meanwhile, has played into his hands. It first tried ignoring Mr Hazare by agreeing to consult with him following his first fast and then disregarding his suggestions. Then it tried bullying him with a smear campaign.
It was not until after his arrest and the country's explosion in outrage that it sought to debate Mr Hazare on the merits of his bill, something it should have done in the first place.
The fast of eccentric yogi Baba Ramdev in June should have been instructive. He too sought to force the government to agree to the Jan Lokpal. His fast attracted popular and global media attention. But he offered few real solutions (not to mention some questionable theories on cancer, yoga and AIDS). One plan for tackling corruption was to outlaw 500 and 1,000 rupee notes so it would be harder to pay bribes. In short, he talked himself out of a following.
Had the government opened the forum to Mr Hazare, many of his more harebrained schemes might have failed the sanity test as well. But it is too late for that now. The protests and the fast have ceased to be about the Jan Lokpal. This is now a referendum on the government and the Indian political establishment as a whole.
Ordinary Indians believe that every politician is corrupt and any truth spoken by a politician, no matter how it is couched, will be seen as a lie.
I remember a friend once relating a conversation he had with a member of a major political party. "How much is a Lok Sabha seat worth?" my friend asked. "If he does nothing?" the party member replied. "100 crore (Dh9 million)." That is how much a politician can be expected to earn over his five year term by virtue of his position.
In short, Indian politicians raid the public purse as a matter of routine and the people are tired of it. Mr Hazare merely provided the spark to ignite this powder keg.
The government has few avenues to escape this crisis, but it must immediately seek to halt the escalating anger, or risk implosion. The decision to allow him to return to his fast for 15 days is a start. But it must now bring Mr Hazare to the table and fully and openly engage with him on the Lokpal.
Only then will the protests cease to be directed against the government and actually become about tackling corruption.
Sean McLain is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi and a former feature writer for The National
Updated: August 21, 2011 04:00 AM