The Wall Street Journal
The antics of an anticorruption guru flout the constitution.
Indian police prevented anticorruption activist Anna Hazare from holding a protest in New Delhi on Tuesday, arrested him and detained 2,600 of his followers for a few hours. He was released yesterdaym, after police let him begin a 15-day hunger strike. The uproar over Mr. Hazare has Indian elites tweeting that the country faces a constitutional crisis, but the real cause of this debacle is a lack of government will and direction.
Mr. Hazare’s supporters encourage comparisons to the emergency rule in 1975, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. But if anyone wants to undermine India’s constitution today, it is Mr. Hazare. He demands that parliament create the unelected post of ombudsman, chosen by a panel of worthies, with sweeping powers to haul up any public official on graft charges.
Other countries have benefited from special graft-busting bodies, but they are always politically accountable in some way. Mr. Hazare wants to bypass the hard work of institution-building and put ultimate power in one person’s hands. But India got into its corruption mess by vesting too much power in public officials in the first place. Who will guard the guardian who engages in politically motivated prosecutions?
India Today Group/Getty ImagesGovernment critic Anna Hazare.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could have avoided this confrontation had he acted forcefully when a spate of graft scandals, including an estimated loss of some $40 billion from the allegedly corrupt sale of telecom airwaves, made headlines last year. The public’s outrage was an invitation to push through economic and administrative reforms to curtail the power of politicians and bureaucrats. Instead, the government put a few ministers behind bars and went back to business as usual.
Self-anointed leaders of civil society have stepped into this vacuum—and led the debate astray. Amid much fanfare, Mr. Hazare, who says he is inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, went on a hunger strike in April to push for the national ombudsman. The government should have resisted this idea of an inquisitor in Gandhian clothing from the start, but it succumbed to Mr. Hazare’s blackmail. At least the government later had the sense to insist that the prime minister be exempt from the ombudsman’s purview.
Such compromises riled Mr. Hazare, who sought to protest in Delhi again. He was thwarted in the past month by police regulations. His NGO finally secured a permit but refused to accept police conditions on the size and duration of the protest. These rules may be too onerous, but that’s for the courts to decide.
Meantime, Prime Minister Singh has allowed his opponents to shift the debate to the right to protest. The real issue should be Mr. Hazare’s demagogic tactics. An open political system like India’s resolves differences through the ballot box, but Mr. Hazare is intent on forcing the issue by threatening to fast to the death. On Tuesday, a day after the country’s 64th anniversary of independence, he called for a “second freedom struggle.” He repeated that call yesterday, leading a procession in New Delhi after emerging from prison.
Democratically elected officials shouldn’t bow to Mr. Hazare’s antics, which are the kind that the architect of India’s constitution B.R. Ambedkar called in 1949 “nothing but the grammar of anarchy.” Whether or not Mr. Hazare desists, Mr. Singh can propose an agenda that combats corruption and abides by India’s constitution. That’s the best way to check the country’s slide into disorder.