By Abby Bellows
In April 2011, the Indian middle class started to wake up. Development activist Dr. R.Balasubramaniam (Balu) (HKS Mason Fellow, 2009-10) shared the story in a talk at the Hauser Center on October 31, 2011. India’s “dying democracy”, he explained, was revived by a convergence of factors – the Arab Spring uprisings suddenly made change possible, patriotism surged after India won the World Cup in cricket, and growth in the young middle class created a demographic with energy and money, restless for a noble cause.
That cause came in April when Dr. Balu and others, including their symbolic leader Anna Hazare, embarked on hunger strikes in opposition to corruption. Their immediate raison d’être was the superficiality of the feeble anti-corruption bill proposed by the ruling coalition, but the fight was one that Dr. Balu had pursued devotedly for decades. Since then, the movement has taken on a life of its own, with hundreds of thousands participating in anti-corruption protests across the country.
While the movement’s key demands are still pending in Parliament, the movement has faced two main critiques, addressed insightfully by Dr. Balu during his talk.
First, Indian activists and outside observers have raised concerns about the use of hunger striking as a tactic. Is it a form of moral blackmail? An attempt to bypass the process of parliamentary deliberation?
Dr. Balu, who fasted along with hundreds of others, responded by acknowledging that he is not a Gandhian, fasting for spiritual purification. Instead, he and the other leaders saw fasting as a tool to pressure the government to take urgent action on corruption. “We have been fighting corruption for 25 years” Dr. Balu explained. “When I get beaten up, nobody writes about it. So I did not have ethical dilemmas about fasting. It’s now or never.”
Still, Dr. Balu expressed concern about the “serious danger” of the hunger strike tool being misused or over applied in the future. What if Hindus hunger strike until a mosque is torn down, or Muslims threaten death until a temple is destroyed?
Furthermore, Dr. Balu admits that “fasting has lost its magic” now that dubious political figures are hunger striking against corruption. For instance, the former Chief Minister of the state of Karnataka expressed interest in fasting against corruption, but he is in jail right now along with many of his cabinet colleagues — on charges of corruption.
Thus Dr. Balu leaves us with valuable criteria for the appropriate use of hunger strikes: when other tactics have been exhausted, when the cause is grave, and when the strikers are acting with integrity. Perhaps most importantly, the intent of the hunger strike should not be to circumvent the legislative process but to spur it to action. On this front, Dr. Balu reports that “Democracy won”, illustrated by the surge in public engagement and the thoughtful parliamentary debate inspired by anti-corruption protests.
A second common critique is that the organizing committee has become corroded by its own corruption scandals and competing agendas among the leadership, episodes detailed on Dr. Balu’s blog. He expresses no sympathy for hypocritical or media-hungry leaders within the movement. “All social movements are burdened with human egos,” he reflected during his talk. When the goal transitions from fighting corruption to being seen fighting corruption, the movement has lost its moral center.
And if Team Anna strays too far? In that case, Dr. Balu says he will continue fighting corruption at the local level. Meanwhile, he is hoping the national movement can produce an effective anti-corruption bill in partnership with the government. India needs it. And the world could learn from it.
Note: Abby Bellows is a Masters in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University. This article has been reproduced from the Hauser Center blog.