India faces risk of its own Arab Spring over anti-graft protests
World News: India faces risk of its own Arab Spring over anti-graft protests - thestar.com
NEW DELHI—An anti-corruption movement led by a feisty 74-year-old social activist is snowballing into one of the biggest challenges in decades for the ruling Congress party — and if not contained, it risks sparking India’s own version of an Arab Spring revolt.
While no one is expecting an Egypt-like overthrow in the world’s biggest democracy, a galvanized and frustrated middle class and the mushrooming of social networking sites combined with an aggressive private media may be transforming India’s political landscape.
Anna Hazare has quickly become a 21st-century Mahatma Gandhi inspiration for millions of Indians fed up with rampant corruption, red tape and inadequate services provided by the state despite the country posting near-double-digit economic growth for almost a decade.
“Democracy means no voice, however small, must go unheard,” Anand Mahindra, one of India’s leading businessmen and managing director of conglomerate Mahindra Group, wrote on Twitter. “The anti-corruption sentiment is not a whisper — it’s a scream. Grave error to ignore it.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sought to regain the initiative in a speech in parliament Wednesday. Singh, 78, has a reputation for integrity and honesty, although he has come under growing criticism for the many scandals on his watch and for a perception that he’s increasingly out of touch.
“I acknowledge that Anna Hazare may be inspired by high ideals,” Singh told lawmakers to opposition catcalls. But the activist’s approach, he added, is “totally misconceived.”
He maintained that anti-graft laws should be discussed and passed in parliament and not by activists in the streets.
Tens of thousands of Hazare’s supporters gathered in cities and towns across India, chanting, banging pots, waving flags and holding candlelight vigils in the latest development in a crisis that saw him arrested on Tuesday and then refuse to leave jail after the government ordered his release.
The arrest and sudden about-face to release him appeared to confirm a widespread feeling Singh’s government is cornered, clumsy and too riddled with corruption scandals to govern Asia’s third-largest economy effectively.
Hazare’s arrest, only hours ahead of a planned fast until death against graft, was the last straw and sparked spontaneous protest across the country of 1.2 billion people.
Singh, the Congress party of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty and the police stood isolated over the decision to arrest a man for planning a peaceful fast.
The young and old, rich and poor, without apparent political affiliations, took to the streets in a rare show of solidarity — a potentially lethal cocktail for any party in power in India.
India has been governed for most of the time since independence in 1947 by the same family dynasty. For decades Indians united under these leaders but this year has seen a seismic gap emerging between the old guard and a vibrant and younger population.
Politicians are increasingly being judged on governance rather than old caste and regional ties and the new social shift will push national parties to be more responsive to voters’ needs.
The Congress has for the past year reeled from mounting corruption scandals, including allegations of millions of dollars in kickbacks in the sale of mobile phone licences in what is emerging as India’s biggest-ever graft.
A former telecom minister, top corporate executives and senior Congress party officials are in jail awaiting trial.
But the anti-graft movement is different from those sweeping the Middle East in that Indians have routinely voted out governments.
The next election is due in 2014 and an opinion poll last week by India Today showed that if elections were held now, Congress would just about lose out to the main opposition party.
In a passionate speech in parliament Wednesday, 58-year-old opposition leader Arun Jaitley said protests witnessed over the past 24 hours, reaching even the remotest villages, were something he had not seen in his lifetime and must be a “wake-up call” for politicians to put their house in order.
Most people do not expect India to follow the example of North Africa and the Middle East. But one of five Indians go hungry and almost half the vast population is poor — causes for potential unrest.
“This has the ingredients of being India’s own non-violent Arab uprising,” said Savio Shetty, a stock market analyst in India’s financial hub Mumbai. “But the dish needs to be cooked and looked after.
“Tahrir Square was a rebellion against the government itself . . . of a 40-year tyrannical rule.
“Things are quite different here.”