Indian anti-graft crusader wanted for other causes

AP News
Posted: Sep 01, 2011 8:56 AM
Indian anti-graft crusader wanted for other causes

Fresh from a 12-day hunger strike that roiled public ire against graft, Indian anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare is in hot demand to promote other causes as activists seek to harness his acclaim and ability to seize 24-hour media attention.

The 74-year-old former army truck driver returned Thursday to a hero's welcome in his village outside Mumbai, after a New Delhi hospital said his health was good following his fast to demand creation of a powerful anti-corruption watchdog.

The hunger strike _ inspired by national freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi _ drew tens of thousands of adoring supporters and was praised for forcing a seemingly remote Parliament into confronting official graft.

Some complained that the nonstop breaking-news coverage was alarmist, excessive and gave a false impression of national unity.

But others coveting the same publicity for their own causes have started reaching out to Hazare for help.

Activist Irom Sharmila invited Hazare to northeast Manipur state, where she is on a decadelong fast against a law giving troops sweeping powers to shoot people with little provocation. She is kept alive by force-feeding through a nose drip _ a standard intervention for long-running hunger strikes in India, where suicide is illegal.

"If he comes, our movement against the draconian Act will receive a huge boost," she told reporters outside a court in the state capital of Imphal this week.

Kashmiri cleric and separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq asked Hazare to lend his moral authority to the protest against civilian killings in the disputed Himalayan region, where Indian officials recently acknowledged that the bullet-riddled bodies of hundreds of civilians were buried in mass graves.

"We hope and expect Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare and his team to start a campaign for unraveling the truth behind the unmarked graves in Kashmir," Farooq told Kashmiris celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid-ul Fitr on Wednesday in Srinagar.

Hazare will have little time for other causes, however, until he sees the anti-graft watchdog in force as he envisions. Beyond that, he plans to agitate for election reform and the right to recall lawmakers, said one of his aides, Manish Sisodia. "These are all priorities on our list, but we'll see how long it takes to deal with corruption."

Aside from pushing its agenda on the government, Hazare's campaign has also been lauded as a unique marketing success in India. For nearly two weeks, tens of thousands of people wearing his trademark white cap reading "I am Anna" surrounded the stage where he lay fasting before a giant photo of Gandhi.

Even days after his fast ended, the white-capped crusader was still dominating newspaper headlines.

Sisodia said the campaign's appeal came down to its engagement with a public long fed up with corruption but feeling little power to do anything about it.

"What to do, where to do it, when to do it, this was all strategically planned," Sisodia said. "But the chemistry of this campaign is based on communication with the masses. Action has to be taken by people, not by us."

Hazare and his aides gave daily speeches and used Twitter and Facebook to rally supporters and feed media updates in a way that left the government looking out of touch and slow to respond.

"They found an issue that cuts across all lines ... and hit the market of ideas at the right time" as recent economic growth has helped make Indians more self-respecting, said Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express newspaper. "They also did some clever things, using hyper-patriotism, the tricolor, the nationalist slogans like 'Glory to Mother India.'"

But Gupta and others expressed concern that the campaign's tactics have undermined healthy democratic debate by painting Hazare's critics as being "pro-corruption."

"Some of the language used, the metaphors, the hyperpatriotism, they are not Gandhian," Gupta said. "Gandhi would never have sat on a stage all day if people were just singing his praises."


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