In 2011, Indian social activist Anna Hazare hit the headlines when he went on a fast demanding a comprehensive and effective Citizen’s Ombudsman Bill, popularly known as the Jan Lokpal Bill. The 74-year-old Gandhian, who began his journey in 1975 promoting rural development, is now seen as a crusader against corruption. Hazare believes that the Jan Lokpal Bill will ensure that the money meant for development would reach the common man and not get diverted.
In a conversation with Knowledge at Wharton and Devesh Kapur, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India, Hazare talks about the inspiration behind his social activism, his philosophy and his vision for India. “If we manage to create social pressure, then we can agitate on any issue in the country,” he says.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows. (Video in Hindi available below.)
Knowedge@Wharton: What inspired you to become a crusader against corruption?
Anna Hazare: Very early in life, I was inspired by [Swami] Vivekananda [a 19th century Indian monk]. I used to wonder about the meaning of human life all the time. Everyone begins life empty handed and ends it empty handed. But throughout life, people keep running, hankering after things, desperately trying to have everything. That puzzled me. What is the meaning of this race? What is the purpose of all this? Why did God create this world at all? ….
One day, at the New Delhi railway station, I chanced upon a book by Vivekananda. It was a revelation. It shed light on my dilemma. It told me about the purpose of my life. Human life has been created for service. To serve others should be the aim of life. We call four walls a mandir (temple), a mosque or a gurudwara. So also, our nation is a temple. To serve this nation, to serve the people, is to serve God. This is what I understood after reading Vivekananda. And then, at the age of 26, I made a decision. I decided that my life [would] be dedicated to the service of the people [and] the nation.
In the beginning, [inspired by Mahatma Gandhi] I took up the work of development of villages. I created a model village. And then I discovered that this development work suffers from leaks caused by corruption. Unless these leaks are plugged, no development is possible. That is how I took up the issue of corruption and started a movement against it. Remember, my work on rural development started in 1975 and in 1990 I started the movement against corruption. Wherever I found instances of corruption, I agitated against them.
Knowledge at Wharton: You have been in public life since you were 26. What was the biggest challenge you encountered and how did you deal with it?
Hazare: When we start working at the grassroots, there is usually someone whose fortunes are bound to suffer due to our work. He feels threatened. He will oppose you. There [are] black-marketers, there are Patels or village chieftains, who control everything in the villages. They feel that if this movement succeeds and things start working according to rules they would become insignificant. There are opponents of this type we have to face. But since I had decided to dedicate my life to the service of the people, I was very sure about the correctness of my path. Nothing could deter me. I did not stop.
I have five principles that rule my life: Shuddh achar [clean conduct]; shuddh vichar [clean thoughts]; nishkalank jeevan [life without blemishes]; jeevan mein tyag [a life of sacrifice]; and strength to face insults without flinching. These five principles have helped me remain steadfast in the face of all adversities.
Knowledge at Wharton: What were your hopes or dreams when you started your movement? And how have your ideas and strategies changed as a result of your experience?
“When we start working at the grassroots, there is usually someone whose fortunes are bound to suffer due to our work.” –Anna Hazare
Hazare: As I told you, I decided very early in life that I have to serve the people. And that is why I decided that marriage and family was not for me. If I was a married man, my life would have been consumed earning bread and butter to sustain my [family]. I kept working without aspiring for any returns. Karmanye vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshu kada chana [Your duty is to act but be detached from the fruits of your actions.] With this in mind, I went on working. How does one get frustrated? Only when one has some expectations.
As I gained new experiences in my movement, I made changes, adopted new strategies. Initially, I was working at the level of the state (province). Then I felt that corruption [has] pervaded our entire nation. And the idea of Jan Lokpal (Citizen’s Ombudsman) emerged. We thought that we should put pressure on the government to enact a law for Jan Lokpal. This is how we brought a change in our movement. In the beginning, we got the Right to Information Act. Then the issue of Gram Sabha (local self- government) drew my attention. After that I saw that people have to run from one table to another to get their work done. So, I thought about a law to ensure that public services are delivered in time. Since I did not have any selfish interest to serve, all this could be done …. I got ideas from my lived experiences.
Devesh Kapur: In your opinion, what is the root cause of corruption?
Hazare: The root cause of corruption is selfishness; the selfish nature of human beings. They go to any lengths to pursue their self-interest …. Second, there is no deep thinking about the purpose of life. And since there is no purpose to life, we want to fill that void with commodities, things. You become an MLA (member of legislative assembly) and an MP (member of Parliament) and in a short period of two or three years, you become a billionaire. How? Do you really need so much? Since you keep increasing your needs, corruption increases.
“The root cause of corruption is selfishness; the selfish nature of human beings. They go to any lengths to pursue their self-interest ….” –Anna Hazare
Kapur: If self-interest is the root of corruption, then how do you think the new Jan Lokpal legislation is going to make a difference? Do we expect the Lokpal to control selfishness?
Hazare: Today, the common masses find it impossible to make both ends meet. Poor people cannot get their work done without dishing out money as bribes. How can they live then? Corruption leads to inflation in the prices of things. Due to corruption only 10% of the money raised for development reaches its target. I have given my life to serve the people. Their misery led me to think that Jan Lokpal could be a way of ensuring a just life for the masses. If the law for Jan Lokpal were enacted, the money meant for development would at least be used for it and would not be plundered. We would be able to develop our country. The poor would get justice. This thinking led me to fight for Jan Lokpal.
Kapur: Forty years ago, [political leader] Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) had launched a mass movement. But that achieved little as regards corruption. In your view, what was his mistake?
Hazare: The JP Movement in itself was excellent, very powerful. For the first time in independent India we saw a real mass movement. The flip side was his decision to include political parties. He had no idea that these parties would use this movement to achieve their own partisan ends.
Knowledge at Wharton: JP had called for ‘Total Revolution.’ What should be the slogan for the youth of our times?
Hazare: I say that we need total transformation of the system. Total transformation of the system would require a lot more than the Jan Lokpal. If you want to eradicate corruption, you would need the Right to Reject [elected representatives] and the Right to Recall. Only a combination of these measures can put a brake on corruption. And after this we‘ll need to turn to the farmers. In India, farming is still the main occupation of the masses. What is the condition of the farmers? While talking about total systemic transformation, we have to keep the farmer in mind. He should get a real return for his investment in farming, he should be able to realize the real value of his work. Then there are the working masses. [The ruling elite] are sucking the blood of these laborers.
Nature and humanity are being plundered. This is not true development. So, the problems of farmers and labor have to be kept in mind when we speak about transforming the system. Then comes education, which is a very important area. We find that educational shops are mushrooming. It has been commercialized in a crass manner. We have to change that through a total transformation of the system.
Knowledge at Wharton: How would you bring about this total transformation? What is your strategy?
Hazare: First, we have to ensure that laws like Jan Lokpal are adopted. These laws would guarantee that the money which gets squandered or diverted due to corruption reaches its target. If it gets fully used for development, we’ll see its fruits. So, the first task is to remove corruption. Then comes the right to reject and recall. We have to see to it that the right kinds of people are sent to legislative bodies, the Parliament ….
Knowledge at Wharton: Thirty or forty years ago, people believed that the license-permit regime in India was the source of corruption. But 1991 saw the advent of liberalization. Liberal reforms meant deregulating the economy. How did things change after liberalization? Did corruption increase or decrease after liberalization?
Hazare: What we have seen is a phenomenal growth in corruption. It has not decreased at all. There could be many reasons for that. But the main reason, according to me, is increasing criminalization of politics. Political parties give tickets to criminal elements, rapists, corrupt people, and ensure that they are elected as people’s representatives. When such people reach Parliament what occupies their minds is not development. They are busy cornering money for themselves. And this leads to an increase in corruption.
Kapur: You are right about political parties giving tickets to criminals. But why do people elect them?
Hazare: I agree with you. People are at fault here. But this is because people do not know what our Constitution says. Nowhere in the Constitution do we find the political party system mentioned. What does it say? People should have independent candidates in place of candidates of political parties, and to elect persons with impeccable credentials. Deviation from this started in the first Parliamentary elections in 1952. In that general election political parties contested against one another. Contrary to constitutional provisions, they got elected and sat in power and destroyed our Constitution. Our democracy was destroyed by these political parties ….
“We keep beating the drum of democracy. Where is it, I ask? Democracy as we know it, for the people, by the people, of the people, where is it? What we have today is ‘party’cracy, ‘government’cracy. There is no democracy ….” –Anna Hazare
We keep beating the drum of democracy. Where is it, I ask? Democracy as we know it, for the people, by the people, of the people, where is it? What we have today is ‘party’cracy, ‘government’cracy. There is no democracy …. Today you see corruption everywhere. The party system is to blame for this. Money fetches power, power brings money. Read our Constitution, you will not find the party system there.
Kapur: You and (social activist) Arvind Kejriwal were together in the anti-corruption movement. Later, Kejriwal decided to start his political party. You did not agree with him. Why?
Hazare: I believe in my Constitution. India has to abide by it. Laws are made in accordance with the constitutional values and provisions. I still have faith in it. And therefore I cannot agree with the party system. I am busy in my awareness drive, trying to awaken people. If the voter is convinced that the political party system has to be done away with for real democracy, he can do it.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are your most significant achievements? What would you like to achieve in the future?
Hazare: The most significant achievement in my view is rural development. Mahatma Gandhi had said that we will have to transform our villages if we wanted to transform our nation. And we did it in practice …. First, we adopted some villages. Around 80% people living there were going hungry. They had nothing to eat, not a drop to drink. It was a drought-prone area.
We promoted rain harvesting and encouraged people to recharge the ground water. In a village where it was impossible to irrigate 350 acres of land to get a single crop, now we have enough water to ensure two crops for an area of 1,500 acres of land. The village economy there has been totally transformed. A village that could barely produce 400 liters of milk is now selling 5,500 liters. This was Mahatma Gandhi’s dream. We have to change our villages to change the country.
Secondly, if we want to change the nature of the economy of our country, we’ll have to change the economy of our villages. Unless we do it, the national economy would remain where it is now. What is important is to understand that a development based on the destruction of nature cannot sustain itself. It is not viable. We have adopted 50 villages, a very small number if you look at the size of our nation.
Knowledge at Wharton: What do you want to do next?
Hazare: First, to speed up rural development. Second, to get the laws on Jan Lokpal, Right to Reject, Right to Recall, enacted. I want to organize at least five crore (50 million) people, if not 120 crore. I am traveling extensively, trying to persuade people to join this movement. If we manage to create this social pressure, then we can agitate on any issue in the country. But that is in the future.