(This is part one of a four-part 'April' series that revisited significant historical events or policies and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here.)
India was gripped by a strange kind of schizophrenia eleven years ago in early April 2011. On 2 April, Indians were on top of the moon. A towering helicopter shot six by captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni had enabled India to defeat Sri Lanka in the cricket World Cup final. 3 April was a Sunday and almost the entire country was busy celebrating the famous victory.
Barely had the firecrackers stopped the next day on 5 April that the Gandhian anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare dropped a bombshell. He announced a fast unto death beginning on 5 April 2011 till a new law empowering a Lok Pal was cleared by the UPA regime and passed by the Parliament.
The same set of middle-class urban Indians who had been cheering and clapping for Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, and Yuvraj Singh started doing the same for Anna Hazare and his band of starry-eyed activists who had declared war against corruption. There is little doubt in the mind of numerous analysts including the authors that the short-lived fast unto death by Anna Hazare sounded the death knell of the UPA regime.
The “fast unto death” lasted just about five days and Hazare called it off on 9 April when the UPA government grudgingly conceded to his demands. But the reverberations were so loud that they played a big role in the once mighty Congress facing a humiliating rout in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections; reduced to just 44 seats. The party is yet to recover from that debacle.
Is Corruption Punished by Voters?
The Anna movement still raises some puzzling questions about India’s democracy. Do voters punish politicians who are perceived to be corrupt? Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar, the late Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu, and even BS Yediyurappa in Karnataka would disagree with this theory; and for good reasons.
Does the educated urban middle-class Indian influence voting behavior during elections? The jury is still out on this. Did the Congress lose electoral support because it was perceived to be corrupt or did it suffer because it was perceived to be anti-Hindu?
Most important, why has economic distress not triggered mass urban anger against the Narendra Modi-led NDA regime as it did with the UPA during its second term? Baffling and intriguing questions without clear-cut answers.
No one could have imagined all this in May 2009 when the UPA regime won a famous repeat mandate to rule India. The Congress Lok Sabha tally crossed 200 for the first time in 15 years. Every pundit worth their salt, pepper, and herbs appeared convinced that it was a matter of time before Dr Manmohan Singh gracefully made way for Rahul Gandhi as the Prime Minister of India. But this honeymoon was very short-lived.
Within a year, in 2009, the UPA regime was hit by allegations of widespread corruption in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. So widespread was public outrage over this “scam” that the head of the organising committee of the CWG and Congress leader Suresh Kalmadi was booed, heckled, and jeered by 60,000 spectators who had gathered to watch the inauguration ceremony of the event in early October 2010. Strangely, top functionaries of the UPA regime ignored the gathering storm over the issue in urban India.
How Anna Single-Handedly Dismembered the UPA
CWG was not the only scam to hit the UPA badly. Months before the inauguration of the CWG, the then Comptroller & Auditor General of India Vinod Rai had released a report that highlighted large-scale irregularities in the allocation of 2G telecom licenses during the first term of UPA when DMK leader Andimuthu Raja was the minister. In February 2011, the CBI arrested Raja and many others for the alleged telecom scam. And two days before Anna Hazare announced his fast unto death, the CBI filed its first charge sheet in a court specially set up to deliver justice in the 2G scam.
The “timing” could not have been better as urban anger against the UPA regime’s alleged corruption was reaching a boiling point. In the event, it was not surprising when citizens across major cities of India marched and rallied in support of Anna and his crusade against corruption.
Ordinary folks danced and celebrated at India Gate in Delhi when news broke that the government had conceded the demand to start the process of setting up an independent institution of Lok Pal. Hazare went on another fast in August 2011 as corruption allegations against the UPA grew louder and more persistent.
Within a year, the “Coal Gate” scam came to light with the CAG releasing yet another damning report highlighting irregularities in the allocation of coal mines to private sector players. Since all this is a history of relatively recent vintage, even young Indians are familiar with the massive impact that the Anna movement had; at least for a brief duration through most of 2011. There can be no doubt that this cranky old activist inflicted more damage on the UPA than opposition heavyweights like LK Advani could ever do.
Politics in a democracy is full of ironies. Some active participants and supporters of the Anna movement are now senior functionaries of the BJP. Most joined hands with the one-time Sancho Panza Arvind Kejriwal to the Don Quixote Anna Hazare to form a political party called the Aam Aadmi Party. The party now runs governments in Delhi and Punjab and its Supremo, Kejriwal, nurses ambitions of becoming the prime minister.
The core reason for the formation of the AAP was the war against corruption. Yet, two of the most senior leaders of the party, Manish Sisodia and Satyendra Jain, are now behind bars facing charges of corruption and money laundering. Many Congress supporters still wonder what the Anna movement was all about.
(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)