In this age of globalization, when India thrives on foreign business, and celebrity culture dominates its news media, Anna Hazare evokes a bygone era of austerity, nationalism, and self-reliance. With his penchant for fasting and his traditional garb, Hazare evokes comparisons with Gandhi. But the irony is that Gandhi was fighting against a foreign power; Hazare is forcing his own government to be less corrupt and more honest.
Anna has clearly hit a nerve among the masses of India, who are fed up with bureaucracy, bribes, and red tape. But there is more to Hazare than meets the eye. While the world has focused only on his latest anti-corruption campaign, his lifelong achievements include the development of a model eco-village with its own grain bank built as a protection against droughts, a watershed of small dams, canals, and percolation tanks created with shramdan or volunteer labor, and improvements in techniques for milk production. In Ralegan Siddhi, Hazare’s village, untouchability has been eliminated and education levels, particularly among girls, have risen with the help of a charitable trust. The gram sabha, or village government, makes all the policy decisions. But Anna Hazare has not stopped there. He has recognized that social reform has to be accompanied by cultural change as well. So, with the help of a youth group, he has organized communal marriages, aimed at preventing peasants from going into debt over wedding expenses.
Of course Western media has almost entirely ignored all of these achievements, focusing only on one aspect of the story, namely, corruption in the Indian government. And why not? After all, the more Americans can point to corruption in other countries, the more smug they can feel about their own government.
The truth of course is quite different. Corruption in America surpasses corruption anywhere else in the world. It was in these pages that, nearly 20 years ago, I wrote an essay titled, “Corruption is not a Third World Disease.” I think the statement holds truer today than ever. The only difference is that corruption in India is often on a small scale and illegal; corruption in America is of astronomic proportions, but conducted entirely with the blessings of the law.
In India, policemen often take bribes. I still remember the night when a policeman stopped me for riding my cycle without a light. The city was under complete blackout then, whether for load shedding or for one of our numerous wars with Pakistan, I can’t remember. So the man gave me a ticket. When I came home, my baby brother asked, “Don’t you know you are supposed to give him a few rupees?” I did not. I guess I was like Anna Hazare. Not only did I not approve of bribes, but I did not even know how to give one. Looking back now, I can sympathize with that policeman. The poor man had such a small salary that he was forced to supplement it with the largesse of the population. The same goes for clerks issuing passports in India or peons handing out ration cards. Here, in America, on the other hand, policemen, who get much better salaries and benefits, who often drive around in their squad cars doing precious little for the citizenry (I am speaking from experience of the police force in my own city, which has repeatedly failed to protect me—a topic for another column), have little incentives to take bribes.
Corruption in American government occurs on a different scale and in a different arena all together. When an oil company buys the loyalty of a political hack like Rick Perry, is it not corruption? When the U.S. Supreme Court steals an election away from a guy who got more votes than the guy who eventually occupied the office, is that not corruption at the highest levels of government? When a company like Standard and Poor’s looks the other way while investment bankers plunder the country with their fancy derivatives, but gives the Obama administration a poor rating in order to oust it from office, is that not corruption on a monumental scale?
My father used to say that the British never did anything illegal; they always passed a law before perpetrating any act of violence. They passed the Rowlett Act, for example, before they committed the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
I wonder; where is our American Anna Hazare? Where is the outrage against our system of government? Why is no one conducting a satyagraha in front of the New York Stock Exchange to protest the control of our government by Wall Street hacks like Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, and Hank Paulson? Why is no one sitting down to fast until the Pentagon stops taking bread out of our children’s and seniors’ mouths?
The trouble is that American leaders like Noam Chomsky have only used words but have not set examples by their acts. Chomsky has a lot to say in critique of our government, but what has he actually done? The man cannot even suggest an alternative to the status quo, let alone lead us to where we can follow him.
I am grateful to Anna Hazare for reminding us of a different era, when idealism reigned, when the peasants of one of poorest countries of the planet were able to oust an imperialist power from its borders, when moral righteousness ruled.
It is heartening that the tradition of andolan—nonviolent resistance—lives on in India more than six decades after Independence. If the likes of Anna Hazare are speaking up against abusive governmental practices in India, leaders like Vandana Shiva are pointing out exploitation of tribal lands by industrialists like the Ambani brothers and protesting the destruction of our farms and farmers by foreign corporations like Archer Daniels Midland.
Not only does America lack the likes of Anna Hazare, the tragedy of American politics today is that its only grass roots movement, the Tea Party, was started by the billionaire Koch brothers whose only agenda is to reduce taxes for corporations and wealthy people. Only a poorly educated populace could be so foolish and ignorant as to organize against its self-interest.
This begs the question: should we invite Anna Hazare to America and ask him for tips on how we can wake up the American public and make it demand its rights?
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com