The anti-corruption campaign led by Anna Hazare, a controversial and contradictory figure, has unleashed massive anger against the government.

There was a point when the embattled Congress government, already mired in a series of recent graft scandals involving several powerful politicians, could have prevented the corruption issue from sparking off genuine anger amongst millions of Indians across the country.

Instead, when Anna Hazare threatened a hunger strike last Tuesday, the 74-year-old Gandhian social activist and more than 2,500 of his supporters were arrested. Hundreds of rallies, demonstrations and candle-lit vigils broke out all over the country in support of his fight against corruption.

Other than Delhi, demonstrations have taken place in Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and in almost every other major city. Hundreds of thousands have participated.

Last April, when Hazare went on his first hunger strike against corruption he forced the government to propose the Jan Lokpal Bill, which would set up an ombudsman to investigate cases of corruption and mete out punishments. But it would only apply to 0.5 percent of politicians—senior judges and the prime minister himself would be exempt.

Hazare and millions of others rejected the bill. Now on the defensive, the government has allowed Hazare to stage a public 15-day hunger strike, going against its initial orders prohibiting a hunger strike for more than 3 days.

But this is not the Indian Summer, following on from the Arab Spring. Nor is it India’s ‘second war of independence’, which is how Hazare refers to it. Hazare takes his inspiration from Gandhi, is a strict Hindu and has a vision of India that is deeply conservative. He has described the notorious Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, as a model. After the Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002, Modi was accused of condoning anti-Muslim violence and of complicity in the riots.

The campaign is based more on morals than on politics, and the fact that it is supported by the right and the Hindu nationalist BJP is problematic. Anti-corruption sentiment has been deliberately conflated with a campaign against all forms of government financing, including social programmes. For the BJP and the middle classes who back Hazare, the ideal is a free market utopia with no government intervention whatsoever.

And there are concerns that the Jan Lokpal Bill would merely result in a non-elected governing elite monitoring the electorate, an attempt to concentrate power. The committee that would be responsible for investigations under the Lokpal would comprise virtually no elected officials and would therefore be effectively unaccountable.

Much of the left argues that without challenging the system in which corruption is embedded, the anti-corruption movement and the bill underpinning it will at best allow the government to apply cosmetic changes to a system that is inherently incapable of being fair and just. The focus on corruption as the disease and not a symptom obscures the need to address the injustice of socio-economic inequality. As an undemocratic, middle class campaign, it merely represents a strategy for economic growth of the most reactionary section of the elite.

Hazare does have strong middle class support, including many of those who have benefited from the new neoliberal India. But he is also supported by poor and working class people who have come out in their hundreds of thousands, who often experience the sharp end of the culture of corruption. Everyone knows that corruption is a real issue in India, as in so many places around the world. From mining company contracts, to the Commonwealth Games, to the scandal over the Radia tapes—successive governments have both facilitated and failed to address corruption, and this has touched a deep vein of resentment in India.

For the poor these are issues that point to the complete illegitimacy of the ruling elites in Delhi. And in that sense the anti-corruption movement has exposed the system. But the fact that the right has been able to articulate this anger should be a big warning to the left. It is not enough to critique the rightwing populism of Hazare, or to dismiss the whole affair as an argument amongst the elites. There is immense anger at the bottom of Indian society that the left needs to find ways of reflecting and shaping.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU