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Indian crack down on corruption protests pushes country towards tipping point

The Indian government’s crackdown on an elderly and increasingly popular gentleman and his followers has taken supporters and opponents alike by surprise.


It could just have pushed the country towards a tipping point in the campaign against institutional corruption.

Indians have lived with growing corruption as a fact of life for decades. They expect to pay officials for driving licences, building permission, housing repairs or even to collect benefits they’re entitled to.

But the scale of corruption revealed in the last year in a series of exposes in magazines, newspapers and on television has brought public anger to a boil.

Alleged corruption in the preparations for last year’s Commonwealth Games not only wasted millions of pounds, it left Indians ashamed of the incompetence it revealed to the world when bridges collapsed and athletes arrived to squalid, unfinished apartments.

Graft in the award of mobile phone operators’ licences appears to have cost the government $39 billion in lost revenues while others are alleged to have pocketed millions in bribes. That breathtaking amounts were lost when the government cannot afford to guarantee school places for all or maintain public hospitals only stokes the anger.

Anna Hazare has become a symbol for that anger, said leading commentator M.J Akbar, and his campaign and the government’s heavy-handed reaction to it has exposed its weakness, arrogance and hypocrisy.

“He is a symbol of India’s rage against corruption. He has come from nowhere and that’s the point,” he said. He is regarded as a simple, common man, who is demanding only that all levels of government, including the judiciary and the prime minister’s office, come under the scrutiny of an anti-corruption ombudsman.

The government initially conceded his demands following his four day hunger strike earlier this year, but later changed its position and excluded the prime minister’s office and the judiciary from its scope.

The force of the government’s crackdown, including the arrest of a 74 year old man and 1300 of his supporters, pitches the prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh into a contest with the elderly Gandhian over whom the public trusts most.

Dr Singh has long been regarded as India’s most honest political leader, but trust in him has faded over successive corruption scandals. He may be honest, critics argue, but he has not acted decisively to stamp out corruption.

He has also presided over double standards. Rahul Gandhi, Congress General Secretary, has been allowed to stage protest rallies in Uttar Pradesh, but anti-corruption protests in New Delhi have been banned as a threat to the peace.

It is a popularity contest the prime minister could lose. Anna Hazare is regarded as a more simple man than the prime minister, with no powerful interests to protect.

According to M.J Akbar, his standing with the public is bad news for Dr Singh.

He is leading India on a “roller coaster ride and the direction is downhill for the government,” he said.

Filed in: World News

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