The street looked like a sanctuary for angry Indians. Near the ancient Jantar Mantar observatory built by the Mughal Empire in central New Delhi, protesters held sit-ins and rallies each day, yelling slogans such as, “Don’t kill the sacred cow,” and “Further rights to the Dalit caste.”
Following the start of the fifth anti-corruption fast by Team Anna, led by Indian social activist Anna Hazare, many people poured onto the street from late July through early August.
Hazare, who is in his 70s, comes from a farming village in western state of Maharashtra.
He is a former Indian army soldier-turned-activist.
According to Hazare's official website, he was moved to become a social activist after surviving an air attack, in which all his fellow soldiers in his unit were killed, in the second India-Pakistan War in 1965.
Believing that he survived the attack because he had a mission to achieve in life, Hazare decided to devote his life to serving people.
He has worked for rural development in Maharashtra since he retired from the army in the late 1970s and has never married so he could stay clear of worrying about his own self-interests and devote his life to helping others.
He became a national celebrity only recently even though he had been active in information disclosure and anti-corruption campaigns in Maharashtra since the 1990s.
Hazare started a campaign to set up a corruption-monitoring organization, amid emerging cases of suspected corruption in the administration of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
He attracted media attention with a hunger strike in April 2011 at the Jantar Mantar. To end his strike, he forced the government to promise to establish a watchdog body to deal with public corruption concerning sales of cellphone bandwidths and an international athletic meet.
Citizens hail Hazare as a “modern Gandhi” for his desire to follow in the footsteps of his hero Mahatma Gandhi, father of India’s independence, known for his nonviolent civil disobedient protests.
In August 2011, Hazare went on another hunger strike after being arrested.
After fasting for 13 days, he forced parliament to promise to take anti-corruption measures, which raised "Anna fever" among his supporters to a climax.
Hazare launched “a fast unto death” for the first time this year on July 29, prior to the opening of the parliament session in August, demanding early enactment of a bill to empower ombudsman functions to check corruption. The bill passed the Lower House but was virtually shelved in the Upper House.
The road was barricaded by security authorities and packed with crowds when I visited the site.
When Hazare and members of Team Anna, who were on a hunger strike, spoke on stage, supporters who had packed the site cheered enthusiastically, shaking their fists.
Asked why he supported Hazare, Surendra Kumar, an interpreter from New Delhi, replied, “I have been implicitly asked for a bribe by a government official.”
He added it is not uncommon in India for public officials to demand bribes in varying degrees.
“The issue is that (Indian) bureaucrats from the top to the bottom take it for granted. So no one tries to listen to complaints,” Kumar, 28, said. “This is why an independent watchdog body is needed.”
The frantic support for Hazare does not come only from anger against politicians and bureaucrats.
People are excited over Hazare's charisma and clean image of being free of corruption and other motives. Amit Kumar, 26, a systems engineer, who came from the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, 1,200 kilometers from the capital, said, “Mr. Hazare cares only about others. He would not gain anything through such campaigns personally. Everything he does is for our sake.”
Male supporters expressed their solidarity for Hazare, wearing white hats with the logo “I am Anna.”
A free canteen for supporters was set up near the hall, where Hazare and other activists were on a hunger strike. Many visitors left after eating, satisfied with getting at least one look at the charismatic activist.
The government and the parliament, which hastily accepted protesters’ requests last year, have been ignoring them this year.
An official reason was that the corruption investigation bill was being thoroughly discussed and considered in parliament.
In an unofficial reason, the number of anti-corruption crusaders dwindled to several thousand this time, down from some 50,000 last year.
As to why the movement had waned, the local media offered such opinions as, “It lost public support since it did not lead to passage of the bill” and “Strenuous demands to the Singh administration, including investigation of corruption for 15 ministers (including Singh himself), affected impartiality of the movement.”
A hunger strike cannot achieve its aim if it is not taken seriously by the government or parliament. However, it would have been difficult for Hazare to quickly give in after declaring he would go on fasting “indefinitely” until his demands are accepted.
So Hazare and other activists asked supporters’ opinions about their hunger strike via cellphone text. Many said they wanted the hunger strike to be halted.
Hazare ended the six-day strike on Aug. 3, followed by an announcement of the disbanding of his Team Anna three days later.
The citizens’ movement that had sprung forth across the nation during the past year came to an end.
Surendra Kumar was one of those who sought closure of the hunger strike.
“India became corrupted when it lost Gandhi at its independence,” he said. “We do not want Anna Hazare to die.”
“He should get into politics," Amit Kumar said of Hazare. "Unless you go into the system, you cannot change the system.”
In response, Hazare announced that he would form a political party, but said that he would not be a candidate himself.
He plans to select candidates for the general election, which will be held within two years.
Hazare told supporters before ending his fast: “For the next year and a half year, I will travel through the country and awaken the people of this nation.”
Indeed, India’s ruling National Congress Party and the largest opposition Bharatiya Janata Party are losing public support.
It is not known how many ballots the new party can garner in an election by campaigning solely on “eradication of corruption.”
But Indians are watching with great interest to see if this “modern Gandhi” can create another big movement.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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