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Thu 18 Aug 2011 10:59 AM

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India faces risk of its own Arab Spring

Anti-corruption movement gathering steam, posing threat to Indian government

India faces risk of its own Arab Spring
Anna Hazare has quickly become a 21st century Mahatma Gandhi inspiration for millions of Indians

An anti-corruption movement led by a feisty 74-year-old
social activist is snowballing into one of the biggest challenges in decades
for the ruling Congress party and if not contained risks sparking India's own
version of an Arab Spring revolt.

While no one is expecting an Egypt-like overthrow in the
world's biggest democracy, a galvanised and frustrated middle class and the
mushrooming of social networking sites combined with an aggressive private
media may be transforming India's political landscape.

Anna Hazare has quickly become a 21st century Mahatma Gandhi
inspiration for millions of Indians fed up with rampant corruption, red tape
and inadequate services provided by the state despite the country posting
near-double digit economic growth for almost a decade.

"Democracy means no voice, however small, must go
unheard. The anti-corruption sentiment is not a whisper-it's a scream. Grave
error to ignore it," Anand Mahindra, one of India's leading businessmen
and managing director of conglomerate Mahindra Group, wrote on Twitter.

Hazare's arrest on Tuesday, only hours ahead of a planned
fast until death against graft was the last straw and sparked spontaneous
protest across the country of 1.2 billion people.

The young and old, rich and poor, without apparent political
affiliations, took to the streets in a rare voice of solidarity - a potential
lethal cocktail for any party in power in India.

Politicians are increasingly being judged on governance
rather than old caste and regional ties - as has already happened in states
like Bihar - and the new social shift will push national parties to be more
responsive to voters' needs.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Congress party of the
Gandhi-Nehru dynasty and the police stood isolated over the decision to arrest
a man for planning a peaceful fast.

The Congress has for the past year reeled from mounting
corruption scandals, including allegations of millions of dollars in kickbacks
in the sale of mobile phone licences in what is emerging as India's
biggest-ever graft.

A former telecoms minister, top corporate executives and
senior Congress party officials are in jail awaiting trial.

Indians have routinely voted out governments and in that
sense the anti-graft movement is different from those sweeping the Middle East.

The next election is due in 2014 and an opinion poll last
week by India Today showed that if elections were held today, Congress would
just about lose out to the main opposition party.

In a passionate speech in parliament, 58-year-old opposition
leader Arun Jaitley said protests witnessed over the past 24 hours, reaching
even the remotest villages, were something he had not seen in his lifetime and
must be a "wake-up call" for politicians to put their house in order.

Students, lawyers, teachers, and business executives have
taken to social networks like Twitter and Facebook to spread the message and
vent frustration against corruption.

"These protests are part of a global phenomenon, thanks
to technology and a more proactive media," said N. Bhaskara Rao, social
researcher and chairman of independent think-tank Centre for Media Studies.

Article continues on next page...

Most people do not expect India to follow the example of
North Africa and the Middle East. But one of five Indians go hungry and almost
half the vast population is poor - causes for potential unrest.

India has been governed for most of the time since
Independence in 1947 by the same family dynasty. For decades Indians united
under these leaders but this year has seen a seismic gap emerging between the
old guard and a vibrant and younger population.

"This has the ingredients of being India's own
non-violent Arab uprising," said Savio Shetty, a stock market analyst in
India's financial hub Mumbai.

"But the dish needs to be cooked and looked after!
Tahrir square was a rebellion against the government itself ... of a 40-year
tyrannical rule ... things are quite different here."

Singh remained defiant in parliament over the arrest of
Hazare, maintaining that anti-graft laws should be discussed and passed in
parliament and not by activists in the streets.

"When people exhaust their capacity for tolerance, then
you should take it that it is a beginning of some kind of revolution. Now it
has gone above people's tolerance level," Hazare said in a recent
interview in his home village.

India ranked 87 in Transparency International's index on
corruption in 2010, behind rival China and polls show corruption vies with the
high cost of living as the number one voter issue.

What is also apparent is that the anti-corruption protests
have shown the limited influence of opposition parties, largely sidelined. They
will need to reform to win over an increasingly disenfranchised population.

The bulk of India's political activism has been those
aligned to political parties or paid to protest on their behalf.

But in recent years a growing and more prosperous middle
class has given up its traditional distaste for politics and is seeking ways to
exert greater influence.

"The new corporate middle class has little patience with
the politics of dignity and identity that are - for better or worse - central
to Indian politics," wrote Vinay Sitapati in the Indian Express newspaper.

Almost half of India's 1.2 billion population are farmers,
many live on government subsidies and are reluctant to challenge local and
national governments over endemic graft.

But with costs of living rising fast and daily news reports
of state officials with meagre salaries caught with bags of cash and
kilogrammes of gold, or registered as owners of multi-million-dollar homes,
patience seems to have been snapped.

"Now citizens want to play a more participatory role in
governance," said Rao. "This will bring in a sea change in Indian
politics."

CSS 8 years ago

Its about Time corruption and Corrupt politicians and all other corrupt people were routed out. There is no other way. Enough is enough. At the same time, it would be a good idea to include real estate developers who have not kept their committments and absconded with the publics money. They should not be spared either.

AP 8 years ago

Though the 'revolution' or 'uprising' by the poor and the middle class is led by the white clothed, of Gandhian looks, Anna Hazare, this article renders great disservice to him by showing a picture of saffron clad Baba Ramdev (another activist whose bid to protest was also wrongfully thwarted by police a few weeks ago).
Anyway, a few points that could have been added were:
1. Apathy of the government agencies to complete projects to the complete satisfaction, meeting all norms (Eg: CommonWealth Games mishap)
2. Projects are taken up knowing fairly well that there is a lot of money to be made (again example of CWG for a country who does not even have 5 individual medals at Olympics for the last 64 years since 1947)
3. Politicians are allowed to take other positions from where they can benefit wrongly.
4. Law making politicians are the biggest accused in all of the graft issues - so they have been reluctant to draft good laws against corruption - e.g. govt's own Lokpal bill draft)