Since I was passing through India on a reporting project, I decided to drop in on Anna Hazare, the anticorruption campaigner whose admirers speak of him as the reincarnation of Gandhi. Kisan Baburao Hazare (“Anna” is a Marathi honorific meaning “older brother”) has been a figure in provincial Indian affairs for decades, but he galvanized attention this year when his threat to fast to the death shamed the government into endorsing reforms. I wondered what Hazare, as an exemplar of a venerable style of civil pressure, made of Occupy Wall Street.
Back home, the Occupiers have been pandered to (“Love your energy!”); patronized (“Here, I’ve drafted you a list of demands …”); co-opted by unions, celebrities and activists for various causes; demonized by the right; arrested and tear-gassed in some cities; and taken lightly by the likes of me. They have been a combination national mood ring and political Rorschach test. Perhaps by consulting someone who is a serious candidate for the pantheon of protest, I thought, I could sharpen my own understanding of what the Occupy project means.
About the time I put in my request for an interview, Hazare, exhausted by his latest hunger strike and weary of the media melodramas that have bedeviled his team, announced that he had taken an indefinite “vow of silence.” This raised questions in my mind — Was he planning to continue his protest as a mime? — but of course I had little hope of getting answers from him because … well, you see the problem.
So I went to visit his associate, Kiran Bedi, who battled for reforms as India’s first policewoman before joining Hazare. Bedi speaks with the intense energy of a high-voltage circuit. No vow of silence for her. And it turned out the subject of Occupy Wall Street has been very much on the minds of Team Anna.
For those who haven’t been following the story, Hazare, 74, is a small landowner’s son with a seventh-grade education, a middle-class background by Indian standards of the time. He first gained some attention by using his army pension to help turn his ancestral village in Maharashtra into a model of rural development — building schools, organizing a dairy cooperative, fighting caste discrimination and alcoholism. One of his early successes as an organizer was a state law that required a vote on banning alcohol in a village if 25 percent of the women — the suffering wives of the indolent and abusive drunks — demanded it.
In his younger days he was given to vigilante tactics — smashing illegal stills, flogging drunks — but in his 60s he adopted the time-honored Indian pressure tactic of the indefinite fast, which, when it works, succeeds through a combination of public fascination and official shame. The political fast has a rich history in societies like India and Ireland that have some experience of starvation and an acute public sense of honor. I can’t imagine it catching on in America, especially if our national compassion is reflected in the likes of Ron (“Let Them Die on the Hospital Doorstep”) Paul and Herman (“If You’re Not Rich, It’s Your Own Fault”) Cain. But in India it is an effective form of coercion. One poll found 87 percent public support for Hazare’s 12-day August fast, and his hunger strikes almost always end in concessions.
Obviously, India is not America, but both countries were born in popular protest (against the same empire) and I found it instructive to examine my Occupying countrymen from this vantage point.
Like Occupy Wall Street, Hazare embodies a national frustration with broken democratic institutions. Indeed, India’s government makes our paralyzed Congress look nimble. Like Occupy, Hazare’s grand grievance is the wholesale diversion of wealth from the middle class and poor to the unworthy few — in India’s case through payoffs, patronage and thievery, in America’s through tax and regulatory policies that have expanded the gap between the richest few and everyone else.
In many telling respects, however, that’s where the similarities end.
“When we started the movement, it was like Occupy,” Bedi told me. “But we went beyond Occupy.”
For starters, while Occupy Wall Street is consensus-oriented and resolutely leaderless, Hazare is very much the center of attention. There was an anticorruption movement before Hazare, but it was fractious and weak until he supplied a core of moral authority. When he announces his intention to starve himself, he parks himself on an elevated platform in a public place, thousands gather, scores of others announce solidarity hunger strikes, and TV cameras congregate, hanging on his every word. Hazare and his entourage can seem self-important and high-handed, but he is a reminder that leadership matters.
Second, the Occupiers are a composite of idealistic causes, many of them vague. “End the Fed,” some placards demand. “End War.” “Get the money out of politics.” Much of the Occupy movement resides at the dreamy level of John Lennon lyrics. “Imagine no possessions. …”
Hazare, in contrast, is always very explicit about his objectives: fire this corrupt minister, repeal that law bought by a special interest, open public access to official records.
His current mission is the creation of a kind of national anticorruption czar, a powerful independent ombudsman. The measure is advancing, and Team Anna hovers over the Parliament at every step, paying close attention to detail, to make sure nobody pulls the teeth out of it. Instead of a placard, Bedi has a PowerPoint presentation.
Occupy Wall Street is scornful of both parties and generally disdainful of electoral politics. Team Anna (yes, they call themselves that) likewise avoids aligning itself with any party or candidate, but it uses Indian democracy shrewdly, to target obstructionists. Recently Hazare turned a special election for a vacant parliamentary seat into a referendum, urging followers to vote against any party that refused to endorse his anticorruption bill. Hazare has also called for an amendment to the election laws to require that voters always be offered the option of “None of the Above.” When it prevails, parties would have to come up with better candidates.
“What really changes them,” Bedi said of recalcitrant politicians, “is the threat of losing an election.”
The Occupation has at least a strong undercurrent of anticapitalism. Not in India. An attempt to spark an Indian offshoot of Occupy Wall Street — a Facebook campaign branded with pictures of Che Guevara — went pretty much nowhere. Capitalism is one thing most Indians believe in; indeed, as my colleagues in the Delhi bureau have been illustrating in a fascinating series of articles this year, the entire economy is a great capitalist workaround. Hazare’s aim is to stop a political class from usurping the fruits of capitalism.
“We’re not anticapitalism,” Bedi told me. “We’re pro-integrity.”
I UNDERSTAND that it is not the job of a protest to draft legislation, to elect candidates, to agree on a 10-point plan for fixing what ails us. But that does not mean the job of fixing what ails us is any less urgent or admirable. At some point you need the unglamorous business of government, which entails not consensus but hard choices and reasoned compromise. The job of protest is to mobilize a mood — but to mobilize it with purpose.
“Occupy has been, to my mind, an engaging movement, and it’s driving home the message, to the banks, to the Wall Street circles,” Bedi said. “That’s exactly the way Anna did it. But we had a destination. I’m not aware these people — what is their destination? It’s occupy for what?”
I’m prepared to celebrate when the Occupiers — like the lone hunger artist of India — accomplish something more than organizing their own campsite cleanup, demonstrating their tolerance for tear gas, and distracting the conversation a little from the Tea Party. So far, the main achievement of Occupy Wall Street is showing up.