By Paul de Bendern
RALEGAN SIDDHI, India (Reuters) - Clad in white home-spun garments and living in a spartan room of his village's Hindu temple, Anna Hazare is an unlikely thorn in the side of the government hundreds of miles away in New Delhi.
And yet for millions of Indians, he is a 21st-century Mahatma Gandhi, inspiring a rare wave of protests against the spiraling corruption that has tarnished the up-and-coming image of Asia's third-largest economy.
Like Gandhi, who led India's independence movement through peaceful resistance, Hazare plans to go on a hunger strike -- unto death if necessary -- to press his cause. He says his fast from August 16 will continue until the government passes a tough anti-graft law that has already been decades in the making.
Hazare rose to fame for lifting Ralegan Siddhi, a once-obscure village nestled in the hills of the western state of Maharashtra, out of grinding poverty.
The question for many is whether his activism will grow from its humble beginnings across the fast-urbanizing nation of 1.2 billion people whose middle class is fed up with constant bribes, poor basic services and unaccountable leaders.
All the signs are that it will. Spontaneous protests have mushroomed across the country in recent months and, unusually, they have been driven by young and old, rich and poor.
Indians of all walks of life are tired of reading news reports of officials with meager salaries caught with bags full of cash or registered as owners of multi-million-dollar homes.
"When people exhaust their capacity for tolerance, then you should take it that it is a beginning of some kind of revolution," 73-year-old Hazare told Reuters in an interview from his village, shaking a raised index finger.
Hazare carried out a successful fast in April, striking a chord with millions of Indians and forcing the government to agree to create the country's first independent ombudsman who could investigate ministers and bureaucrats. The government is so far resisting the demand to include the prime minister and judges in the ombudsman's remit.
Then, this month, a yoga guru and thousands of his followers staged a mass hunger strike in New Delhi to demand reforms, including the death penalty for corrupt officials. Dozens were injured when the government sent a phalanx of police in with batons and tear gas to break up their peaceful protest.
The shambolic climax of guru Swami Ramdev's protest was the latest embarrassment for the Congress party-led government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, after allegations of kickbacks when New Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games and a mobile phone licenses scam that may have cost the state up to $39 billion (24.4 billion pounds) in revenues.
India ranked 87 in Transparency International's index on corruption in 2010 in which Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore came joint first.
Global consultancy firm KPMG said in a report in March that bribery and corruption were a growing menace that could stunt India's economic growth -- set to reach 8.5 percent in 2011/12 -- and its image to the world.
"FROM SILENT ANGER TO VOCAL REVOLUTION"
Ralegan Siddhi was once like so many Indian villages: dogged by poverty, illiteracy, water scarcity and illegal liquor dens preying on the poor and vulnerable.
After retiring from the army, Hazare returned home to change all that. Four decades later, the lush village is a model for sustainable development and government, illustrating what civil society can achieve and the failure of the state.
"Gandhi used to say if you have to reform the nation, you have to reform its villages," said Hazare.
Hazare's hefty social activism has already been felt well beyond Ralegan Siddhi, transforming other villages, putting corrupt officials behind bars or out of a job and catching the imagination of the masses. In private, politicians are starting to worry that his brand of activism could even spark an Indian version of the Arab Spring.
India has a long history of civil movements, topped by Gandhi's that lead to the end of British imperial rule. India's decentralized political system, which gives most powers to the 28 states, and diverse population separated by caste, religion and geography, have often limited movements from spreading.
Political activism has traditionally been aligned to political parties that pay people to protest on their behalf. Almost half of the country's population are farmers, many live on state subsidies and are reluctant to challenge local or federal governments over corruption.
"The common man was strangulated. Indian mentality was 'Goonda Raj', which meant 'rule by thuggery'. If you went on the street to protest you'd be beaten up by politicians' henchmen," said Vinita Deshmukh, a leading social activist and journalist.
"The Indian psyche has changed. From silent anger we now have a vocal, social revolution starting and Hazare has had a big influence here."
Singh and Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, current torch-bearer of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, have largely remained silent on the discontent. Congress has long won its support from rural India and is only now challenged by a more vocal middle class.
ASSERTIVE MIDDLE CLASS
That middle class will swell to 267 million people by 2016, from160 million today, and will account for almost 40 percent of the population after 15 years, according to a report by the National Council for Applied Economic Research.
"I support civil society speaking up, raising its voice," Home Minister P. Chidambaram said this month. "But I do not support elected representatives yielding their obligations and responsibilities to civil society representatives. Let's remember that the foundation of this country is parliamentary democracy."
But R.V. Krishnan, a businessman and president of the Professional Party of India, which was set up to promote good governance, welcomed the new activism as a necessary step to lift India out of the ranks of third-world nations.
"The Anna movement has taken us in the right direction because it is bringing people together through a cause," he said.
There are signs of activism like Hazare's in urban centers such as Pune, a vibrant city with a growing middle class on the western coast, with people taking on officials in the police and corporations and Maharashtra state's chief minister himself.
Lavasa, a multi-billion-dollar private hill city being developed near Pune and financial hub Mumbai, is a case in point. There, activists forced the state to halt building work over allegations that environmental laws had been violated.
Students are also more assertive.
"Look outside and you quickly see politicians are corrupt, and not doing their job. I want to improve things and if I can others will follow, like they follow Anna," said Vedant Naik, a law student at Pune University. "Awareness is there, now the next step is taking action."
(Additional reporting by Ketan Bondre in Ralegan Siddhi and Henry Foy in New Delhi; Editing by John Chalmers)