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Anna Hazare breaks fast, renews faith in people power

After successfully forcing the Indian government to support sweeping anticorruption legislation, activist Anna Hazare broke a 12-day fast Sunday that expanded the space for citizen participation in the world’s largest democracy.

On a stage before tens of thousands, Mr. Hazare drank from a metal cup of coconut water and honey held by two children. The crowd at Delhi’s Ramlila grounds erupted in cheers, music played, and victory marches touched off across the country.

“This is your victory. This is the fruit of your work,” Hazare said.

Hazare agreed to eat food after Parliament passed a nonbinding “sense of the house” resolution Saturday night supporting his team’s three key demands. Lawmakers expressed their support by thumping their desks – not voting individually. A lot of wiggle room remains in the process of bringing this bill into law, which is why Hazare wants demonstrations to continue.

Citizen activists inspired

Regardless of the final outcome of the anticorruption law, Hazare has shown the tens of thousands of Indians who turned out to demonstrate peacefully that they can have a strong voice. Citizen participation in India’s democracy has heretofore been mostly limited to periodic voting and political party sloganeering.

“This has been the first time when people in such large numbers come out on the streets. Until now, if ever, only parties have been able to bring people out,” says Anil Bairwal with the Association for Democratic Reforms, an electoral reform group that also supported the anticorruption movement.

“We have to wait and see how many of these people will continue to be a part of this movement,” he adds.

Some of the demonstrators at Ramlila say they intend to stay involved.

A village medicine man named Ram Krishna Tripathi says he will go village to village to teach people about the pending anticorruption law.

How the ‘Lokpal’ bill could make a difference

The Lokpal (ombudsman) bill will set up an independent agency that can receive citizen complaints about corrupt officials.

“I will not only tell people in every village how to use the Lokpal [proposed independent ombudsman body] as a weapon against corruption, but I will also try to mobilize young people in village to help other register their complaints,” says Mr. Tripathi.

Such grassroots activism has been seen before after the passage of the Right to Information Act in 2005.

Activists have taught many ordinary citizens how to file applications to get information from officials. That uncovered much petty corruption, especially the pocketing of welfare money by officials.

But helplessness also crept in: Just having the information wasn’t enough to fix problems. The Lokpal would become an ombudsman agency to redress those wrongs.

A young farmer named Vinod Rathi is among the many pro-Hazare demonstrators who have never before joined a public protest. Now he’s got the bug.

“I would definitely like to protest for farmers’ rights and the way [officials] are taking over our lands and paying us what they want to – not the market value,” says Mr. Rathi.

He says there’s a local chapter of a farmers union near his village in Haryana state. He never joined, but he says he will now. “This is my right to protest,” he says.

A new land acquisition reform bill also sits before Parliament now and could become one of India’s next big issues. Most experts doubt another issue could unite such a cross-section of Indian society, however.

Stick with the issue at hand, say many

And for the medic Tripathi it’s too early to move on to other issues.

“I would like to follow the implementation of this anticorruption drive,” he says. The government “will try to make the Lokpal not work.”

Hazare won Parliament’s support for three key provisions: the inclusion of low-level bureaucrats under the lokpal, the creation of state-level Lokpal laws, and passage of citizen’s charters that would set time limits on the provision of government services.

Mr. Bairwal notes that the bill that gets passed could look different. And then the law must be notified, which is a process of writing up detailed rules. One law, the Benami Transactions Bill, passed two decades back but has yet to be notified, he says.

“Much depends on the follow up. If the people who have been attracted to Hazare’s efforts to clean up Indian politics continue to raise this issue and remain vigilant then it could have a salutary impact,” says Sumit Ganguly, coauthor of the forthcoming book “India Since 1980.”

He remains concerned that the Lokpal entity that emerges will depend on appointees being honest, not corrupt themselves.

“This is why I don’t like relying on personalities of goodwill,” adds Dr. Ganguly. “What happens when the people of goodwill are not there? I’d much rather rely on procedures and institutions, all of which exist in India, but which have all been allowed to go to hell.”

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